Tuesday, 18 October 2011

abseiling

My uncle Gilbert was not only a marathoner but also a climber, and I suppose it is from him that I must have learnt the verb to abseil (OED: “to descend a rock face or other near-vertical surface using a rope fixed at a higher point and coiled round the body or passed through a descendeur, the speed of descent being controlled by the rope's friction. Also with down and in extended use. Cf. rappel.)

He pronounced it ˈæbseɪl; so do I, and so do most of the people I have heard use the term. It stopped being a mountaineers’ technical term and entered general usage when people started abseiling not only down mountains but also down the outside of buildings, for charity, for fun, or in protest.

The etymology of the word is straightforwardly German: the neuter noun Seil means ‘rope’ or ‘cable’, and its derivative abseilen means ‘to lower (something, or oneself) on a rope’, hence ‘to abseil (down)’, and also, figuratively, ‘to skedaddle’. No doubt it was borrowed into English by the early pioneers of mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps.

The German pronunciation is zail, ˈapzailən (though neither of my two German pronunciation dictionaries includes the verb). The German spelling ei regularly corresponds to the sound ai (or however you choose to write this diphthong).

So why, despite this, does our prevailing pronunciation have ? It could easily be accounted for as a spelling pronunciation — compare eight, rein, veil, vein etc. On the other hand in native English words the spelling ei can correspond not only to but also to (eider, height, kaleidoscope) and (ceiling, deceive, Keith, seize). As we all know, either and neither can go either way.

All other German loanwords with ei, as far as I can see, have English , as Eiger, eigenvalue, Einstein, Freiburg, Geiger, gneiss, Holbein, Leipzig, Weimar, Zeiss, zeitgeist. What is special about abseil?

I think the explanation must be contamination from sail, even though abseiling has nothing to do with sails.

According to LDOCE, abseil is BrE only, the AmE equivalent being rappel ræˈpel, rə-. The OED, on the other hand, defines the two terms slightly differently, rappelling involving a doubled rope but abseiling just ‘a rope’.

Both my pictures (found on the web) are captioned as abseiling. One has one rope, one has two.

As an afternote: on the melodeon discussion forum there is currently some speculation about the origin of the model name Double Ray for certain Hohner melodeons from the 1930’s onwards. One plausible suggestion is that it is from the German doppelreihig ‘double-rowed’, since these melodeons had two rows of treble buttons at a time when most had only one. This model was commissioned by a Scottish accordion dealer from Hohner, which is a German company. If true, this would be another case of German ei ai being mapped onto English .

26 comments:

  1. I think it must be an quasi-eggcorn: it kind of looks like "ab-sailing", and sailing and abseiling are both kinds of movement involving special rope-related tools, the connection is kind of natural.

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  2. Those English mountaineers obviously knew the northern dialect word sale 'rope for tying up cattle', cognate with the German seil.

    ;-)

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  3. Googling for forms with absail- and absale-, excluding forms with abseil- gives you nearly 2 million results.

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  4. Never mind that number; -sail- points to a contamination from sail, but it may as well be ai.

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  5. Are German diphthongs ai or and or ɑu? I think Longman uses ɑu, but most standard German dictionaries ?

    I keep hearing ˈɪzraɪel, almost never the correct form I know ˈɪzreɪl, and ˈræfaɪel.

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  6. The German pronunciation is zail, ˈapzailən (though neither of my two German pronunciation dictionaries includes the verb).

    If it did, Krech–Firschfeld–Anders would probably give ˈapz̥aɛ̯ln, with devoiced z and apparently non-syllabic n (based on their entries for abseifen and seilen).

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  7. For 'Firschfeld' read 'Hirschfeld'!

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  8. Yes, John, ai seems a curious choice, even though you do say "however you choose to write this diphthong".

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  9. All other German loanwords with ei, as far as I can see, have English aɪ, as Eiger, eigenvalue, Einstein, Freiburg, Geiger, gneiss, Holbein, Leipzig, Weimar, Zeiss, zeitgeist. What is special about abseil?

    Could it be that it had a history as a 'private' word spoken and — and also written — exclusively among climbers before it was adopted by mainstream lexis?

    In the mainstream, the default value assigned to ei in unfamiliar words is , except for words with cei — in contrast to a small number of words that we learn to spell early in life. The list of words above is not learned in early years, but the words are recognised as 'foreign' and by many of us as specifically German.

    The sound value in Britain of Afrikaans apartheid seems to be a choice between a spelling pronunciation with default ei and an attempt to read it as a German word. (Listening to a native speaker doesn't help.) The association with apart hate may well have reinforced the pronunciation with ei, but it wouldn't be an obvious cause of that pronunciation.

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  10. This is what Merriam-Webster Online offers as pronunciations: /ˈab-ˌsāl, -ˌsī(-ə)l/. The /ā/ corresponds to /eɪ/, the /ī/ stands for /aɪ/ in IPA.

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  11. @ Duchesse de Guermantes: from my time in Germany, I would have said [ɑʊ] for the Bauhaus vowel. I expect that dictionaries keep the first element as a just to simplify things.

    I have seen the ei/ey/ai/ay diphthong written as both ai and as well. I think that this vowel varies more than /ɑʊ/ across German dialects.

    I think that "abseilen" would be said as [abzi:lən] in Swiss German, but am not 100% sure.

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  12. Seilbahn seems to have made it into English with a more accurate pronunciation.

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  13. [ɑb̥z̥iːlə] in Swiss German.

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  14. Ed, keep in mind in German contexts [a] usually refers to the central vowel, not the one in English trap.

    "Swiss German" is a group of very different dialects, some of which have MHG /ei/ -> /ei/ and some /ai/, but rather not /i:/. Not sure if there are hypercorrect forms -si:l-. Certainly no voiced /z/. The -n has been lost in all but some Highest Alemmanic dialects.

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  15. Thank you, Ed.

    Since you and Lipman have mentioned differences between a (in German and now as symbol present in some Oxford dictionaries, e.g.) and ɑ, I'd have a question. Which one of these two is used in Turkish? The vowel chart on Wikipedia says it's the centred vowel, but I think in Longman, the vowel is a back vowel. And it sounds like a back vowel to me.

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  16. Central, even a bit more front than German /a/, I think.

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  17. In 2007 "abseil" was considered rare and/or hard enough to be used in the final the the US national spelling bee. The linked blogpost suggests the tester's pronunciation had /p/ rather than /b/; this (and /eɪ/ rather than /aɪ/) is preferred by AHD. I think "rappel" is more common in the US than "abseil".

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  18. @ Lukas: thanks for that! Are you a native speaker? It's interesting that the final N disappears. The same thing happens in Dutch.

    @ Lipman: You are right about the German [a]. You are also right that Swiss German is remarkably diverse, but there are some dialects that use [i:] for ei/ey/ai/ay. It is mentioned here at the bottom for ei.

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  19. there are some dialects that use [i:] for ei/ey/ai/ay

    MHG /i:/ and /ei/ merged in today's Standard German, but not in dialects. Some kept /i:/, but 'rope' is MHG seil.

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  20. I understand the logic of writing TRAP with a and DRESS with e (in the absence of a contrast, find something to use the basic Latin letters for), but it makes me twitch every time I see it just the same.

    Speaking of which, the distinction between my TRAP and DRESS vowels is only secondarily one of openness: fundamentally I can open my jaw as far as I like, and DRESS will still come out. The primary distinction is one of advanced tongue root in TRAP, retracted in DRESS.

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  21. ^ (and /eɪ/ rather than /aɪ/) -- strike that, reverse it, carry on.

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  22. Cool... If I had to guess the pronunciation of this word without knowing its meaning or etymology, I would've said /əb'saɪlɪŋ/. Don't ask me why...

    @ everyone: again, it would be nice if IPA had a symbol for the central open vowel, because the use [a] for it in some otherwise narrow transcription makes me wonder “do they mean the front vowel, or the central one?” whenever I see it. Among the proposed solutions I've seen, the one I like best is redefining [æ] to be “nominally” Cardinal 4 and [a] to be halfway between Cardinals 4 and 5 (I don't think there's any situation where you really can't just use ɛ, æ, a, ɑ, except in very narrow transcriptions for which you can just use diacritics), but that would break backwards compatibility too badly. Or maybe redefining ɐ to be fully open: I don't think ɘ, ə, ɜ, ɐ are ever actually not enough for all mid-or-lower central unrounded vowels you need to distinguish.

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  23. Small-capital a is sometimes used.

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  24. I'm a semi-native speaker (got family in St. Gallen at the Austrian border but not speaking regularly) so take anything I say with a grain of salt. I was fairly confident Seil takes [i:] but I'll defer to the resident MHG expert (and to the Swiss German Wikipedia, which does indeed have Seil not Sîl).

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  25. Highest Alemannic Sense German, ie Seislertütsch in the Canton of Fribourg, is a dialect (the only one?) that has MHG /ei/ -> /iː/, so StG Seil should be /siː̯ʊ̯/.

    If, as opposed to me, you're familiar with the dialect of St. Gallen, does /saːl/ sound reasonable?

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  26. I'm not familiar with the dialect of St. Gallen proper. In the Rhine valley, it would be more like /sʌal/.

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