Tuesday 28 September 2010

prusiking around

Today’s entry is not so much about pronunciation as about spelling. There are several English verbs that we can spell confidently in their base form, but which may throw us into uncertainty when we want to write the 3sg, the past tense, or the present participle.

Take to rendezvous ˈrɒnd(e)ɪvuː. What’s the 3rd person singular? Clearly, it’s pronounced ˈrɒnd(e)ɪvuːz. The Concise Oxford wants us to spell it when he rendezvouses with us, but I cannot be the only one who feels very awkward with this. But then it would also be awkward to write when he rendezvous with us. The other two inflected forms, rendezvoused ˈrɒnd(e)ɪvuːd and rendezvousing ˈrɒnd(e)ɪvuːɪŋ, are not quite so bad.

Then there’s to ricochet, another French word. On the assumption that we pronounce it ˈrɪkəʃeɪ or ˌrɪkəˈʃeɪ, it would feel quite wrong to double the t when adding -ed or -ing. I certainly prefer ricocheted, ricocheting.

A former Russian correspondent got very excited about the verb to prusik, a technical term in mountaineering. When forming the present participle, he wanted to know, is it correct or not to double the k? He was disappointed when I declined to deliver an authoritative answer. I still don’t know: in comparison I can only adduce to frolic, frolicking, which doesn’t really help. Americans, who write worshiping, may be confident with a single k in prusiking. But what about us Brits, who write worshipping?

What stimulated all this was catching myself writing stymieing, only be struck by doubts whether it should not perhaps be stymying. (The COD gives both possibilities.) The word stymie ˈstaɪmi originated as a technical term in golfing, though I imagine most non-golfers know only its general meaning ‘thwart, obstruct’.


  1. Polish and Russian have interesting solutions to this problem.

    The Polish genitive of Harry Potter is spelled Harry'ego Pottera. The surname spelling is OK by Polish conventions, but the first name would look like rendezvoused without the apostrophe separating the Polish suffix from the English stem.

    When I was working in Moscow twenty years ago, some of the press were representing loanwords in Roman script with inflection in Cyrillic. I don't have any examples to hand, alas. I rather think that that one was futuresы — though this hybrid is now spelled фьючерсы.

    The Polish solution seems to be mainstream, but the Russian evidently isn't. Perhaps the mixed alphabet device was a passing fad.

  2. Well, in general I would say it's remarkable that most of the time there isn't a problem. At least within the Indo-European family (or whatever you want to call it), borrowings don't have too hard a time adapting to both the pronunciation and spelling of the receiving language, even though the common "Latin script" is in fact many different language-specific scripts -- so problems of this kind should be the default expectation while in fact they aren't that numerous...

    Since Polish has been mentioned: Most of the time, we do just fine, in spite of all the crazy Slavic inflexion. And if there are problems, they are usually spelling problems, rather than pronunciation problems, similar to what John shows for English.

    The apostrophe (David Crosbie above) is one such problem. The rule is, if the word ends in a "silent vowel letter" or -y, add the apostrophe (and then the required suffix). Otherwise, add the suffix in the normal way. Thus, Mike > Mike'a (Gen. Sing.), Harry > Harry'ego but Obama > Obamy and Barack > Baracka. But most people don't know about this, and always use the apostrophe (at least for cases like Baracka, which becomes Barack'a). It's one of my pet peeves in Polish, but you tend to see this even in relatively respectable publications.

    Then, there is the case of final "silent consonant letters", as in Sarah or Rabelais. Frankly, I don't even know what rules there are. I'd have to check in a reference book that isn't at hand at the moment. But again, the pronunciation would not be a problem: /sarɨ/ for the Gen. of Sarah, and Rabelais would probably end up uninflected.

    There's also a little catch for "c" pronounced as /k/ and "x". In inflected forms, these should be changed to "k" and "ks": Benfica > Benfiki, Rebecca > Rebekki [sic!] and Max > Maksa. But again, people tend not to be aware of this, and write e.g. Rebecci, which looks terrible... And again, the pronunciation would be obvious.

    Sorry for such a long comment.

  3. Wow, the capcha was again reading my comment, and asked to enter "palin" as the password.

    Which brings me to an almost-off-topic additional comment: While Slavic languages (at least Polish, Czech and Russian -- I'm sure about these) are rather well known for their strange habit of inflecting foreign surnames, it seems to me there's an ongoing change in modern Polish, and people tend to do that less and less. So, while common given names will still be inflected as expected, less obvious surnames will not, resulting in e.g. Johna McCain (Gen. Sing.) for Johna McCaina. (Palin connection no. 1.)

    This may have to do with the fact that foreign surnames are not in fact inflected for females (as opposed to Czech, if I understand correctly), so Palin will not take case endings for Sarah... (Palin connection no. 2.)

    Due to this (but mainly due to what I said in the previous comment), Sarah Palin herself was a huge problem ;) in Polish news. While Sarah was happily inflected in speech, people didn't know what to do in writing, ending up with Sarah Palin for all cases, which I found quite jarring. (Palin connection no. 3.)

    And totally off-topic, in speech, she was /sara pejlin/ for the more enlightened speakers, but of course /sara palin/ for the others. No question of any other vowels in Sarah, naturally. (Palin connection no. 4.)

    Can't wait for the captcha for this one...

    (Prof. Wells -- if this is too wildly off-topic, please delete the comment.)

  4. "He rendezvouses" looks very wrong to me. The only occasions when, on suffixing -s to a word, you insert an "e" are when the suffix adds a syllable, as in "misses". The plural of "corps" is "corps".

    Whether the base form is "stymie" or "stymy", then "stymied", "stymying", like "tie", "tied", "tying" or like "hurry", "hurried", "hurrying". That's no problem. The problem starts when you get a verb like "tuilyie". "Tuilyieing" is the lesser of two evils, I think.

    As for your former Russian correspondent, "prusiked" and "prusiking" with a single k, definitely. Chambers takes the trouble to give these forms (implying that it recognises no others). What's more, the last syllable of "prusik" is unstressed, so the last consonant doesn't double. Yes, BrE has exceptions in -l and, for some, in -s, for example reveled and biased, but not -k.

    "Worshipping" is an interesting case. I'm used to seeing it with a double p, and the single p looks wrong to me. Why do some people double the p? Do they give the second syllable secondary stress, as in "combatting"? I'm inclined to think that I do, which I don't in "gossiping". Perhaps it's the long vowel in the first syllable.

  5. I only found out two weeks ago that "benefitting" is American whereas "benefiting" is British. Was I alone in not knowing this?

  6. German has similar difficulties with some loanwords - for example, I believe it's properly "ich recycle, er recycelt, er hat recycelt" (like "ich segle, er segelt, er ist gesegelt"), but the -ce- combination makes me want to pronounce it with a "soft c" (either /s/ or /ts/, depending on how nativised the word feels).

    (I just looked it up in canoo.net, and it gives both "recyclen/recyceln" for the infinitive, and similarly "er recyclet/recycelt" and "er hat recyclet/recycelt". And, surprisingly to me, "ich recycele/recycle" - the -e- usually gets thrown out before a -le, I would say. But then, it also lists "ich segele/segle".)

    That's even before you enter the fun territory of loanwords which look as if they have separable prefixes: is the past participle of "updaten" "upgedated"? "upgedatet"? "geupdatet"? ...probably "aktualisiert", though I heard the calque "aufdatiert" in my previous office. Similarly with ?"downgeloade(d/t)/gedownloade(d/t)".

    (Canoo.net has "ich update" but "upgedatet"; for "downloaden" it has two separate profiles: separable ["ich loade down; ich habe downgeloadet"] and inseparable ["ich downloade; ich habe gedownloadet"].)

  7. American fact check here. I write worshipping, benefiting, but what do I know? Let's look at a few AmE dictionaries. There are three big ones: American Heritage (AHD4), Random House (RHD2), and Merriam-Webster's New International (NID3). RHD2 isn't available online, and I don't feel like wrestling my copy of RHD1 off the shelf, so I'll go with AHD4, NID3, and m-w.com, which is from the same folks as NID3 and is smaller, but is being updated, unlike any of the others.

    All three agree on rendezvouses and rendezvoused. No issue there, though it is counterintuitive.

    AHD4 lists only ricocheted. NID3 and m-w.com, though, prefers ricocheted but lists ricochetted as an alternative, and also gives an alternative pronunciation ending in /t/.

    None of them list prusik, and only NID3 even lists Prusik knot.

    NID3 and AHD4 prefer worshiped to worshipped (and tag the latter "chiefly Brit."), but m-w.com (which is being updated, remember) is the other way about. So perhaps worshiped is going out. (Firefox's spelling checker, probably based on public-domain sources, prefers worshiped too.)

    All three list stymieing as the preferred form, with AHD4 the only one to even list stymying as an alternative.

    All three again agree on preferring benefited to benefitted (which to my eye looks like a too-close analogy with fit, fitted).

    But to my mind, worse than any of these is the audiophile use of mic 'outfit with a microphone'. The cool kids write miced, micing, and I wince whenever I see it. What was wrong with the older mike (noun and verb), miked, miking?

  8. If you can have "trek/trekking/trekked" then why not "prusikking/prusikked"?

  9. The online OED (DRAFT REVISION Sept. 2007) lists prusiking as a derived noun.

    Two of the three quoters for the verb (dated 1972 and 1993) include prusiked up. The earliest quote (1959) uses to 'Prusik' himself.

    (The listing for the noun (DRAFT REVISION Sept. 2010) has capitalised Prusik in its earliest (1937) quotes.)

    Prusik does appear to be the spelling of the name of the inventor of the thing. So we can't plausibly change the spelling to prusic or prusick— and yet prussik appears to be common.

  10. I always want to make 'rendezvous' agree with the person... Let's have a rendons-nous! But this doesn't help with the 3rd person... He rended himself?

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  12. This is unrelated to the post topic. I have a pet phonetic question I haven't been able to find an answer for:

    Are there any ideas about why we find velaric suction sounds (albeit infrequent) but no velaric egressives have been attested?

  13. In Dutch foreign verbs inflect like Dutch verbs, e.g. "recyclen", "recyclet", "gerecycled", which doesn't normally lead to strange spellings (other than that many people add a superfluous "e" and sometimes wrong "d" in the past participle because they are used seeing the word in English, e.g. "gestacked" instead of "gestackt"). However, when the English verb ends in -te it all goes wrong, with the most prevalent example "to delete". Infinitive "deleten", but "deletet" in 3sg (since that gets +t) even though it is pronounced [di'li:t], past participle "gedeletet" (/x@di'li:t/). One of the rules of Dutch spelling that needs to be changed (especially since otherwise the spelling follows the rule "the sound is important, not the foreign spelling").

  14. @John Cowan: Permit me to join you in tilting at the windmill of "mic".

    I have a colleague with the last name Ledoux (silent x). He's married and has children. Maybe someday I'll visit the Ledouxs. Um...


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