Monday 5 November 2012

Glis glis

An unusual rodent pest found in a part of Hertfordshire is the edible or fat dormouse. Its scientific name is Glis glis. It is the only living member of the genus Glis. This is perhaps why, unusually for biological nomenclature, it has a specific name identical with its generic name. The only other such cases I can think of offhand are the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and the Eurasian wren, Troglodytes troglodytes.

The usual stress pattern for two-word names is double stressing (main stress on the second word), as in ˌHenry ˈSmith, ˌMerton ˈPark, ˌLyme ˈRegis. This also applies to the Latin names of plants and animals: ˌQuercus ˈrobur, Diˌcentra specˈtabilis, ˌEquus ˈzebra, ˌPasser doˈmesticus.

But in cases such as Vulpes vulpes, Troglodytes troglodytes and Glis glis this usual pattern collides with the deep-seated Germanic principle of deaccenting repeated material. So do we keep double stressing, or do we deaccent the specific and shift the main stress onto the generic?

In the case of the edible dormouse, discussants on a recent television programme went for the single stressing, pronouncing it furthermore as if it were a single word, a common noun, a ˈɡlɪsɡlɪs. Furthermore they treated this word as invariant for number, like sheep (see screenshot above). —Well, you’d hardly expect them to know that the Latin plural of glīs is glīrēs. That’s strictly for us classicist showoffs.

What do we do when referring to people whose forename is identical with their surname? What stress pattern do we use for someone called Morris Morris or Graham Graham? Do we find such names awkward? No, I think we cope and give them the usual double stressing. Same with New York, New York. So why is Glis glis different?

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In a few days I shall be leaving for a visit to Japan and China. So this blog will be suspended now for the rest of November. Next posting: 3 Dec.

Friday 2 November 2012

spell it out (cont.)

So, what is to be done? As David Crosbie indicated in his comment on the previous posting, Crystal has an upbeat message. Teachers of literacy must concentrate on the regularities, not on the anomalies.
  • Above all, they should not set students the dispiriting task of learning the spellings of lists of difficult words presented out of context.
  • The “short word rule” for content words accounts for the doubled consonants of inn, egg, add, odd, ill and the final e of eye, owe and bye. Compare function (non-content) words such as in, up, to, if, as, by.
  • Pay attention to stress, which explains the doubling of the consonants in preferring, preferred but not in proffering, proffered.
  • Be aware of the morphology (or that of the Latin origin), so as to understand, for example, the single b of aberrant (ab + errant) as against the doubling in abbreviate (ab+brev-). This even explains accommodate (ad (ac) + con (com) + mod-).

I would add the mnemonic value of related words, as when definition reminds us that definite is not *definate, while substantial and residential remind us how to spell the endings of substance and residence.

As far as reforming the system is concerned, Crystal declares baldly that “there can never be a simple solution to the problem of English spelling”. On the other hand he twice refers to the fact that Google shows the non-standard spelling rubarb to be increasingly common online. “If it carries on like this, rubarb will overtake rhubarb as the commonest online spelling in the next five years.” Then dictionary makers will “eventually have to recognise that a change has taken place” (as they already have in the case of miniscule replacing minuscule).

By this logic, dictionaries of the coming decade will also have to recognize seperate, tounge, accomodation and so on ("misspellings" very frequently encountered online), and abandon such distinctions as lose — loose, rein — reign, sight — site, to — too, your — you’re, its — it’s (all often confused on the web). Or perhaps ever more intelligent spell checkers and speech-to-text technology will prevent this from happening after all.

I think it’s important to recognize that planned, systematic reform is not truly impossible. Consider the case of the chemical element sulphur. That’s how it was standardly spelt, at least in the UK, until twenty years ago. But in 1990 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decided to adopt the spelling sulfur, and two years later the Nomenclature Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry followed suit. In 1992 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for England and Wales recommended the f spelling, which is accordingly now found in textbooks and GCSE exams. I think it’s better for everyone to have an official change like this, so that we know where we are, rather than unofficial and chaotic rubarb-style changes.

Another similar example is the immunosuppressant drug of which the British Approved Name was formerly cyclosporin but is now ciclosporin. What used to be the correct spelling is now considered a mistake; what used to be a mistake is now correct. It might be better simply to allow both versions.

Unofficial changes do sometimes succeed, too, as with today, tomorrow, tonight, which have replaced the hyphenated to-day, to-morrow, to-night of my schooldays.

We could consider, for example, getting the QCA to make an official decision that all words with rh may alternatively be spelt without the h, just as we allow likeable alongside likable and (in Britain) organise alongside organize. That would take care not only of rhubarb but also of rheumatism, rhythm and rhino.