Sunday, 14 September 2014


The Slightly Interested Person's Guide to Language: Part One

My Purpose

I was asked to create a short course on language for ordinary people. I didn't know what to call it. I couldn't say "Beginners" because you're not. You've been talking and writing for years. And every alternative I came up with didn't work either, so that's what it's called. So, this is not a proper academic course. It won't be academic at all, come to think of it. It's meant for the layperson, it's the Discovery channel version. If you have studied linguistics at any level it's not going to enthuse you (although you may wish to correct me if I err, just remember that most of this arose to help a Grade 7 student). I shall simply try to cover those things they glossed over in school, or you weren't paying attention to (!), or didn't understand. My aim is to give you "Aha!" moments. I'll try to make it as entertaining as possible.

When my son James was in Grade 7, I got a call from his teacher to say he was struggling with phonemic awareness, and she was sending home some exercises to help him. I had no idea what a phoneme was and her explanation didn't help, so I looked it up online, and fell down a rabbit hole. What I found was the linguistics websites of several universities, and instead of just getting a better definition of "phoneme" I discovered a whole new world.

Language had always been my "thing". But understanding what goes on to make it happen, I found to be utterly fascinating. Not everyone does. It bores some people silly. But ever since then I've waffled on about it anyway, and one thing I learned is that many people share James's "poor phonemic awareness". That is to say, explaining this stuff is one thing, but can they actually hear it? Not always. So I've spent a long time finding ways to explain it better.

So, WTF is a phoneme anyway?

It's a single sound, used in speech, which we can represent by writing a letter or two. As a simple example I want you hiss like a snake. Go on, do it. This is a "join in" sort of course. Scare the dog. Hiss. That is a phoneme, and we write S to represent it. Does that mean S always sound like a snake? Well, no. That's the biggest problem we face. Since the invention of alphabets, a long, long time ago (the Bronze Age, actually) they have faced all sorts of variations and changes. The alphabet we use, commonly called the Roman alphabet, has had enough twists and turns of its own, is used in many languages, which in turn have changed over time.

So, today, in German, as an example, if you see the letter S, and it comes before the letter T, it is pronounced "sh" instead. Like Sean Connery impersonating a snake. (BTW if you hadn't noticed Sean's way of pronouncing the letter S, then you may have poor phonemic awareness.)

The point I'm labouring here is that a letter and a phoneme are not necessarily the same thing. This is sometimes true of just about any phoneme, there are few (if any? EXPERT PLEASE) that are always represented by the same letter. No, not even M, have a look at Gaelic. Or don't. Stay away from Gaelic, it'll mess with your head! For now PLEASE AVOID GAELIC. 

But that's the problem. Letters of the alphabet represent whatever the language in question deem they represent, no matter how strange it seems to those who are not familiar with said language. And don't think English is "normal" in any way.

Remember how to spell fish?


That is a perfectly logical spelling of fish according to English spelling.

George Bernard Shaw (writer, and great wit, 1856-1950), pointed out that you can spell fish as ghoti. How? Like this:

GH as in ROUGH
O as in WOMEN

(GH, O, and TI there all represent phonemes. Get it now? Good.)

Shaw actually wanted to change English spelling because of weirdness like this, and he wasn't the only one. Noah Webster (yes, he who created that dictionary) actually did change the spelling of some English words, at least in the United States. He objected to words like "colour" and put his own version into his dictionary, single-handedly manipulating the language of an entire nation. 

So, why DON'T we change the spelling to represent the way words are pronounced, make it phonetic? 

Because you can't. Oh, you could tweak it a bit, here and there. But people don't all talk the same. Not even within a small country. Just because people speak the same language doesn't mean they pronounce words the same way. What's more, there's no right or wrong involved. So you can't insist on any given pronunciation. Why? Because people have different accents.

What's an accent?

I still, regularly, run into people who don't understand what an accent is. Read this carefully:

An accent is the group of phonemes an individual uses in order to speak.

This is why the idea of "having no accent" is silly. If you don't have an accent you can't speak. 

What people really mean, when they say "I don't have an accent" is "I talk like everyone around me". Yes, you all have the same accent. If you travel elsewhere, your accent is now different to those around you. It's wrong to say "they" have an accent. Everyone does, they just vary.

This is also why you can't "lose" an accent, despite the frequency you hear this being said. You can change your accent, either deliberately, or over time simply by being exposed to a different one. You can learn accents, and be able to copy them. You can try very hard to speak a different language without an English accent. But no matter what you do, you cannot speak without some sort of accent. 

Although accents affect all phonemes to a certain extent, they have the most impact on vowels. 

Part Two will be about vowels. 

Friday, 12 September 2014


I want you to look at these words:

Judgment. Bigotry. Prejudice. Discrimination. Chauvisim. Antipathy.

Do you think they all mean roughly the same thing? Well, they don't.

I've seen these words used interchangably many times and it annoys me, because two of them can have a positive effect, used carefully.

Let's go back in time. I grew up in a very judgmental culture. I've never quite figured out what made it that way, but for some reason the time/place/social group I found myself in was very keen on summing people up quickly, criticizing them, and seeing nothing wrong with it.

I was fortunate to have a mother who was less judgmental in many ways, but she was not innocent. In some ways she was a snob. Not that she'd ever have caused anyone any harm, in word or deed, she kept her thoughts mostly to herself. But every so often she'd share them with me, so on the one hand she taught me to be respectful and tolerant, but now and again, I'd see her own limits. It was awfully confusing, as a matter of fact.

When I became a mother myself I tried to copy her good points and avoid her bad ones. I think a lot of us do that as parents. I tried hard to be non-judgmental at least within earshot of my children, to give everyone a chance, as it were, and I tried not to confuse them on the matter. I kept it simple - be kind to everyone, but don't be a doormat.

I don't like everyone, of course I don't. I don't approve of everyone's lifestyle. But I work hard on minding my own business. It seems to have worked. My kids, on the whole, are pretty broad-minded people.

But it was a process. I would say that as a teenager I was quite judgmental. I had good influences, and bad. I consider myself very lucky that I had loyal, brave friends who called me out on it when I uttered opinions that were not well-considered. I was also lucky enough to have been given the germ of an idea, at home, that one should be ashamed of any hint of bigotry. And probably being "bright" helped, too.

If I could change anything in my life, I wish I had been taught far more just how important tolerance was, and at a young age. All my regrets are on unkindnesses I have done others, maybe not to their faces, but in my harsh opinions from lack of empathy.

Perhaps it takes maturity to learn empathy, but it just seemed to take me longer than it has taken my own children. Well, at least I achieved that.

I don't think it works very well to "preach" tolerance. I think this is where a lot of churches get it wrong, but we won't go there right now. I think it has to be taught gently, continuously, and as far as possible by example. I don't believe that "don't do as I do, do as I tell you" works at all well.

I think it also has to be understood that there are limits.

So, those words again.

Bigotry has no excuses at all. It is illogical, cruel, and dangerous.
Chauvinism isn't far behind it, no matter how noble its basis.
Antipathy may be visceral, based on bad experiences, or teachings, but an intelligent person should be able to get past it.
Prejudice is just stupid. We are all guilty of it, and the sooner we accept that the better, it takes effort to avoid. But it has to go.


Discrimination is simply selection, and it can be a good thing. It only becomes a problem when connected to those words above. Discrimation based on bigotry is probably the darkest aspect of human history and society.

Judgment is useful, and can save your life. It's not necessarily a bad thing at all, until it becomes self-righteous, and therefore self-serving. It's a matter of using it well.

So, when we share our opinions, whatever they are, what is the purpose?

If there is no useful, constructive purpose, it's better not to share them, and quietly work on them alone.

But this post is all my opinion, why am I sharing it? Am I trying to convince you that I'm right? Many of you will agree with me, at least in the broadest way, so you'll just nod and move on. But maybe, just maybe, somebody reading this will say to themselves "Yes, she has a point. I need to work on that." and this is a good thing.

Because I'm glad it was pointed out to me, before it was too late. Before I became bitter and critical.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

So, As I Was Saying

This week's top 5 bungles, and why.


Many people seem to have a problem remembering the difference between then and than. These are very basic elements of our language, so let's have a look at them.

Then is a word we use to describe sequence. I put on my coat, then I went out.
Than is a word used to compare. I'd rather have ice cream than cheesecake.

If you get this muddled it actually changes the meaning of the sentence.

I'd rather be outside then inside. (OK, we'll get you a catflap.)


When we speak, we often run words together, so we can't hear two consonants one after the other, but that doesn't mean they're not there.

When you write "I use to" it doesn't actually make any sense. The correct version is "I used to". The same applies to "I was suppose to". Write "I was supposed to." Yes, they sound the same in rapid, casual speech, but then so does penis and peanuts.


Many of you are still confusing to and too. Now come on. You learned these in Kindergarten.

To is a direction. I went to the zoo.
Too is an emphatic. I work too hard.

ESL writers never get these wrong, because this basic English. Try harder.


Could of, should of, would of.

No. That is very, very poor English. I don't care if they sound like could've, should've, and would've (actually they don't, not really, if you listen carefully). Get this right. It makes you look dumb.


Stop using apostrophes to form plurals, or I may have to get violent.

On Better English

I've picked up a reputation somewhere along the way as a grammar nazi. It's quite funny really because I've never actually corrected anyone other than my kids in my entire life. But apparently because I am a fan of correct English, I'm a soulless pedant. OK.

Had a little chat yesterday with a few people where I mentioned the fact that everyone has a limit as to how much they allow language to stray from standard. I stand by that. I don't care how high your horse is when you you are pulling that sour face because I have mentioned (in passing, not TO anyone, or ABOUT anyone) something you know you get wrong yourself, you have a limit too.

During this chat it was pointed out that it's rude to correct someone, which of course it is. But I have to be honest, I've never witnessed that. I've seen many people wince, squirm, bite their tongues etc, but never actually correct anyone. I can't believe anyone is that bold, actually.

So, as I said, it's quite amusing that people assume I do this. No, I was brought up to be polite. Actually. So, chill. ("Chill" is what I'm constantly told to do. I'm very chill, ACTUALLY.) I really hate assumptions.

Still, I'm just about to make one. Hot buttons. Yes, that's what does it.

When I write a little piece, usually with plenty of humour included, about the errors people make, instead of reading and saying

a) Oh, I'll be careful not to do that. Didn't realise it was wrong. (MY CHOICE)
b) Do I do that? Maybe I do. I'll watch for it.
c) Yes, I do that, but I don't care (WHICH IS FINE)
d) Tsk, yes, I know what you mean.
e) તમે મારા ભાષા શીખવા, હું તમારામાં સાથે સખત પ્રયાસ કરીશું.
f) I don't do that. (Yes, you do.)
g) etc

some people immediately go on the defensive.

Go for it. Not my problem. Just know that I have been thanked many times for explaining points of grammar by people who struggled with them in school and find my version much easier to understand.

Know also that your limit may be just as pedantic to some people as mine is to yours.

Or, if you prefer, just grunt and point. Nobody gets offended that way.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


Sit yourself down comfortably while I tell you a bedtime story. It's the story of some little ants that lived in a garden. They scurried around doing ant things, as ant are wont to do, for a long time, not really bothering anyone much. One day some gardeners decided these ants were responsible for the damage to the trees. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't, but there was a simple solution. Get rid of the ants.

Getting rid of ants is not easy, but as every gardener knows, the best way is to get some nasty poison into the nest. So that was what they did. And they killed the Queen ant. The rest of the ants scurried about very confused for a while and the gardeners killed a few here and there and tried to get them under control, but after a while they more or less gave up with that, and dumped poison in random places instead.

Some other, bigger ants had been hanging around, causing a bit of a nuisance, but while the Queen was there they weren't too big a deal. And although they caused some problems, damaging the lawn a bit and biting the gardeners they were a bit scattered and not very well organized, and then the gardeners killed their Queen too.

Which was the perfect opportunity for the fire ants to move in. They came out of nowhere and swarmed across the lawn killing other ants and all the other insects too, as they went. Fearless and apparently crazy, with no sign of their Queen, they seemed to want nothing more than to take over the entire garden.

The gardeners realised they had a much bigger problem on their hands now, and began to wish they'd never interfered in the first place. If they'd left the original ants alone this would never have happened. Now all the ants were upset with the gardeners and biting them every chance they got.

Of course, something had to be done about the fire ants, but what?

Thursday, 4 September 2014


In an ideal world it should be possible for me to take photos of myself naked and leave them on my own computer without fear of somebody hacking it to obtain and share them.

In an ideal world it should be possible for me to leave my phone on a bar while I went to the washroom and still find it there when I got back.

We do not live in an ideal world. Our world is full of people who will take the opportunity to steal things from us at every chance they get. So, we don't leave our valuables lying around, because that's careless and stupid. The question then, seems to be what the definition of careless is, and how far we are expected to go to keep things secure.

In the recent discussions about such things as the above, and the date rape nail polish (which doesn't work, so don't get too excited) there have been those who say we shouldn't need to go to these lengths to stay safe. That people shouldn't hack or rape. Quite so. Alas, they do.

How much responsibility falls to the "victim" to prevent these crimes?

There can never be a hard and fast rule here. Situations vary.

And, it is no secret that I vehemently oppose the suggestion that a woman wearing little clothing, being alone with a man she doesn't know well, or is drunk, somehow makes her partially responsible for rape, for example. No. Why? Because women in sweatsuits get raped by relatives when stone cold sober, that's why. And far more often. Actually.

And nobody is saying that it is wrong to have naked photos of oneself stored anywhere.

However, if you go down dark alleys at night, alone, then no amount of protesting that you SHOULD be able to do that safely is going to save you from harm. Do you understand the difference? There is something called common sense.

We cannot carry on our lives as if constantly under siege. And, while it would be madness to leave the front door unlocked at night (and possibly even during the day) in the centre of a city, it would be somewhat paranoid to lock it where I live. Each decision we make with regard to personal safety and the security of our valuables must be made individually, based on where we are, and when too. That alley is fine in the middle of the day when being used constantly by other people.

You could, I suppose, wear body armour and never leave the house without an armed guard. And then if you were shot from a helicopter we could say you were careless not to think about overhead threats. No. We can all assess what overkill is, if we use our brains. We just like to argue on what is and isn't too much or too little caution, and that will never end, of course. There is a balance, and we have to find it for ourselves and then constantly adjust it.

Some security measures are too expensive or too oppressive. We weigh up safety against comfort and convenience, always. This is why we argue about the worth of the intrusive checks at airports. This is we don't have 5 point harnesses for adults in cars (yet). There is no person alive who does not take risks because the safety measures they could potentially be taking are considered to be "too much". And there is no person alive who does not exercise caution in some area of his life that is seen as "too much" by others. This is all to do with attitude, experience, phobias, rumours, and so on. It will never be cut and dried.

But some of us do have half an ounce of nous, and we can tell you this much:

Nothing stored or transmitted electronically is secure.

If you understand that simple fact, perhaps you will get the balance right.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Going on from what I said yesterday, and taking a slightly different tack, due to a couple of comments that arose in discussions in various venues, including privately, I'd like you to read this:

Depending on your perspective, you may or may not agree with Sam. I disagree with him on several key points there, but it's a worthy read, if nothing else than it spells out very well, I think, one side of the argument.

Sam Harris is an interesting and erudite man, and although I almost always disagree with him in some way, I always enjoy listening to him. That, I think is the mark of a great speaker or writer. That you can enjoy them even if you don't agree with them. I think I would be able to sit across a table and debate anything with him, we could disagree and shake hands afterwards.

I think he has made some assumptions there, based on his hostility towards Islam, which he makes no secret of. I do not share those assumptions or that hostility and this is where I usually find myself in disagreement with others on the topic.

Oh no, I don't like Islam. By which I mean, I don't share their beliefs, and I would never be willing to follow them. Above all I don't like the patriarchal aspect of it, and no assertions by Muslim feminists will ever convince me that women are protected by Shariah.

And I find Muslim extremists to be very frightening and dangerous people, because they cannot be reasoned with, and their objectives are not rational.

I even agree with Bridgitte Gabriel that in debates about the dangers of Islamism, that the moderates are not part of the equation, although I think she could have chosen her words better than calling millions of people irrelevant.

But I don't see Islam as some great evil. That is to say I don't see it any differently to any other religion. Yes, I have read the Quran, thank you. I've read almost every holy book out there, and I find them equivalent. They all talk about peace, they all end up at war. They can all be powers for good, and they can all be destructive. They are what people use them to be.

So, my position is very simple. All extremists, especially religious ones, have the potential to be dangerous, by definition - it matters not which religion it is. Because of history, because of economics, and also because of western attitudes, right now the danger just happens to come from Muslim extremists.

In other words, while Hamas is a dangerous, Muslim extremist organization, and no doubt about it, that's not the central issue here. And while Hamas probably do have in their own minds the desire to kill all Jews, that's not the central issue here either. Just as Harris points out that if Israel had wanted to obliterate Gaza it could easily have done so, if the Muslim world had wanted to obliterate all Jews, trust me, it would have happened by now.

So, while he put it very well, I don't accept his argument that it's correct to side with Israel here. I personally believe in taking the side of peace, and of civilians. What I see are two groups of people being badly led by leaders with agendas roughly equivalent.

So, there's that.

But what I do agree with Sam Harris on, is that the modern state of Israel should never have been created in the first place, including all the reasons he gives, but there are others. I believe the real problem here is Zionism, and always was. There are groups among Jews, even within Israel, who oppose Zionism and all that it leads to. Perhaps that is the real hope for the future. We have to have hope. But I am not hopeful for any solution any time soon, Zionism is not suddenly going to go away. It has been tolerated and pampered and enabled.........and it's all too late now, we cannot change history. Israel exists, is home to millions of people, and to reverse that would be as great an injustice as any other.

I do wish people could remember that. That what is done is done, and all we can ever do is move forward. Yes, we must learn from history, but to keep churning it over and over is just picking at a scab and wondering why it won't heal. Explaining things due to history? YES. Vital. Tearing our clothes over what has already happened? No.

And there's the problem. That's not what humans do, is it? Humans don't sigh and move on. That's what's different about us. Our ability to remember everything, and indeed record it, which allows us to be so amazing, also allows us to get bogged down in grudges and vendettas. It's hard to blame anyone wanting revenge, too. It's understandable. But that is what is holding us back from improving our lot as a species. With all our skills and technology, we always end up killing one another because of history.

Gah. I'm going gardening.