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Silent letters in English

Silent letters

It is certainly not impossible to learn English, but our language has certain quirks that often pose problems for learners ; this is true for native speakers when they begin to speak English, as well as those studying it as a foreign language. A young native speaker of English may well mispronounce a word the first time they see it written form, and often this is a result of a silent letter i.e. the letter appears in the written word, but it should not be voiced.

What are common silent letters in English?

How many silent letters are there in the English language ? The letters b, c, g, h, k, l, p,t, and w all make an unvoiced appearance in English vocabulary. Let’s take a quick look at where they appear and the reasons why.

B – is not pronounced at the end of these words : bomb, climb, comb, crumb, lamb, limb. In fact, it is even quite difficult to include the “b” sound. So why is it there ? Well, the word “bomb” came from the Italian “bomba“, where we can clearly hear the b sound. As the word began to be adapted into English , the letter b survived in the written form of the word “bomb”, whilst in the spoken form, we have eliminated its sound. This is the often the reason for those silent b’s at the end of a word.The lexeme originated from a different language and was shortened in its spoken form, although the written form conserved an extra unspoken letter.

B and C– That rogue letter b also appears in debt, doubt and subtle, but we do not include the b sound when we say these words. However, the reason for this is that they were, in fact, added to the original spelling in the Middle Ages. At this time, scholars began to examine Latin texts and the etymology of language. The three words in question are rooted in Old French, without a letter b in sight, but these academics realised that the origin of these words were debitum , dubitare and subtilis, respectively, and therefore thought that the Latin root should be recognised within the spelling. This is also the case with the letter c in the words indict and scissors.

G – There are words such as gnash, gnat, gnome, where the letter g is never pronounced. These are often archaic spellings from the time when the letter g was actually pronounced at the beginning of the word. What is more, if an English word ends in a combination of gn, then the letter g is silent. This includes sign, design, foreign, reign, sovereign. Silent g also occurs in words like bought, light, night, right, thought. There is an explanation for this, as in Old English, the letter h was pronounced even when it was placed halfway through a word. In Middle English, this h was spelt as a gh when it came before a vowel, and although the h sound is no longer voiced, the spelling with its redundant unvoiced letters has survived.

Kknee. knickers, knife, knowledge and more. Why is the letter k there ? Similar to silent g at the beginning of a word, the letter k was actually pronounced in Old and Middle English but has evolved into a silent letter in the English we speak nowadays.

L – for example, could, should, would, half, salmon, talk, yolk . Non-native English language students, particularly those whose maternal language is phonetic, often mispronounce these words by including an l sound. However, in English the letter l can be silent after the vowels a, o and u. But definitely not a rule you can apply across the board.

P – When the letter p is silent, it is what we call a dummy letter. Similar to silent g and k at the beginning of a word, vocabulary items with a silent p at the start are generally cognates, that is to say, words that have been borrowed from other languages and often reflect the original spelling in the other language, even though we do not actually pronounce the English version of the word in exactly the same way. The p sometimes can be towards the end of the word .Examples include corps, coup, phlebitis, psychotic – the first two from French , the third from Latin and the fourth from Greek. And to complicate matters further, the word receipt has a silent p due to those literary scholars of the past who added the p back into the spelling to show its Latin roots.

T – some spellings consistently produce a silent T in English. The endings – ften , sten, stle generally have a silent t – think about soften, soften, listen , moisten, castle, whistle. And words borrowed from French ending in t imitate French pronunciation – ballet. gourmet, ricochet – and thus the letter t does not sound at the end.

W – why is the w not pronounced in answer or sword and why is it there at all in words like write, wrong, or wrinkle ? Answer and sword are another case of spellings not keeping up with pronunciation. The w was originally vocalised in Old English but was dropped over time, whilst persisting in the written word. The family of words begining with wr has its roots in Old German, and the w stopped being pronounced from 1450 onwards.

This is just a brief look at some of the issues with silent letters in English. It is by no means comprehensive and unfortunately the rule is that there are no rules when it comes to English pronunciation. Modern English is basically a hotch-potch of words from all those different regions who invaded the British Isles in the past, plus lexicology from the now defunct Anglo-Saxon language. This wide range of influences has without doubt, supplied the English language with a rich and immense vocabulary, and a fair sprinkling of silent letters from archaic spellings, which often mislead those learning to speak English.

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Wordpower

Scratchiti

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An example of “scratchiti”

Words for our time

As discussed earler in this blog, ( see “English is Alive”, posted Sep 2nd 2019 ) new words come about because a need arises for humans to be able to label a new object or concept. Earlier this month, on a trip to New York, a sign on the subway from the MTA (New York’s public transport company) caught my eye. It prohibited graffiti and scratchiti. To date, scratchiti is not officially a word, meaning that it cannot be found in the recognised leading dictionaries of the English language. But do you instantly understand the meaning of scratchiti ? Of course you do.

Scratchiti and graffiti

This got me thinking about why people feel the need to make their mark by the use of scratchiti. After all, scratchiti is not limited to the twenty-first century. In both schools and jails, scratchiti has always been commonplace. Why ? Undoubtedly, boredom plays a huge role, and possibly the need to reassert a sense of personal identity in institutions where individuality is generally repressed, for example. prisons and schools. Vandalism can never be condoned, but understanding the reasons behind it can be useful .

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An example of graffiti

And what about graffiti ?

There are multiple motivations for graffiti, scratchiti’s etymological big brother. Again, boredom is obviously one of the causes, although it has been suggested that some graffiti artists are addicted to the adrenalin rush from running the risk of being caught in an illegal activity. Graffiti can also be motivated by anger, or the wish to promote awareness, especially in the case of social and political issues. Sadly, graffiti is sometimes the product of bullying and harassment. And on other occasions, it can be the outlet to showcase artistic ability in a public location, sometimes, (but not always) providing beauty and colour where there was none before. And graffiti is no longer anonymous, as it generally was in the past. Contemporary graffiti artists often tag their works, in other words, their artwork has a type of graffiti signature attached in the same way that traditional artists would sign their artwork. There are even a handful of famous graffiti artists whose works have fetched enormous sums of money.

In conclusion, this post is not an encouragement to damage property or any other type of illegal activity. But it is fascinating how human beings are drawn to express themselves in these ways, within or outside of the law, don’t you agree ?

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Wordpower

What are contranyms ?

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Contradictions

Words or expressions that have two contradictory meanings are known as contranyms, or contronyms, antagonyms,  autoantonyms  or Janus words (Janus being a Roman god who is depicted with two faces). Generally the context provides us with the intended meaning of the word ; however, these contradictions  give us plenty of opportunities for word play.

Examples

A selection of contranym verbs :

To bolt: to secure /to flee

 She bolted the door and then she bolted.

To buckle: to fasten/to bend and break

He buckled his belt, even though it was buckling under the strain.

To clip: to connect /to separate

She clipped the papers together and then went to the garden to clip the overgrown plants.

To dust : to remove dust/ to add dust

He dusted the kitchen while his sister dusted the cake with icing sugar.

To execute: to begin/to kill

He had executed a plan which would result in his being executed.

To hold up: to support/ to delay

The nurse had to physically hold up the patient while the doctor was held up in traffic.

To trim: to decorate/ to remove any excess

After trimming the Christmas tree, he trimmed his beard.

To wind up : to start/to finish

She wound up the old clock and decided to wind up her business.

How do contranyms come about?

These contradictory meanings can happen for various reasons. Sometimes they are literally two different words with a separate etymology, which purely by chance, are spelt in the same way. Or a contranym could owe its double meaning to polysemy, that is, when a word actually does have different meanings. The verb “to bolt” originates from a crossbow bolt (i.e.  an arrow) which can both move quickly and immobilize someone. As a result, we use it for both ideas of running away speedily and securing an object, such as a door. Nouns such as dust can become verbs for either adding or removing the said noun.  There are probably other reasons for contranyms due to the ongoing evolution of language – for example, the difference between British and American English. All in all, there are many strands to the complexity of the English language.

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Wordpower

What are the oldest words in English?

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Earliest known words

The earliest words in English cover the same concepts as old words in other languages and logically, relate to basic needs of communication. The University of Reading conducted a study in 2013 that came up with words that have remained unchanged for at least 900 and possibly up to 15,000 years. It is, of course, practically impossible to pinpoint the first word in English with 100% accuracy, but here are are some of the contenders that are deeply rooted in the origins of the English language.

I, we and this

It is clear that humans need pronouns to refer to themselves and objects when communicating. Therefore, hardly surprising that these words are on the list.

Mother

A little bit of girl power here, as the word “mother” is quite a bit older than “father”, and was clearly recognised as the vital starting point of the life cycle.

Black

In prehistoric times, it was necessary to have a word that indicated “no light at all.” Interestingly, the word “white” took a significantly longer time to appear in our vocabulary.

Fire and ashes

Fire was a basic element of prehistoric daily life, not only because it provided warmth. light and security but was also a cooking tool. It is a no-brainer then, for both “fire” and “ashes” to be on the list.

Old

So funnily enough, “old” is an old word. Older people in these times were generally revered for their wisdom and experience. Not always the case today…..

Hear

The word “hear” has been around for longer than the verb ” speak”. Of course, being able to hear was another basic survival skill, necessary for hunting or fleeing from wild animals, along with listening for sounds of danger or cries for help. Speaking was not as highly-rated as the ability to hear….maybe there is a lesson to learn here ?

Hand

A vital body part which may have been in constant danger in a prehistoric world, with predators, fire and other dangers from the natural world.

Spit

At first sight, this may look like a surprising entry, but spitting was another survival technique – someone had to taste those foul tasting or poisonous plants first, so we know not to eat them, right ?

Worm

Very possibly related to the need for a word to spit. And evidence that these creatures have been around for a long, long time.

Love and give

Satisying human interaction involves loving and giving, together with the fact that cooperation and teamwork were also key in the struggle for survival.

Conclusion

A common theme in this blog is that our vocabulary relates to our human circumstances. This fact is evident once more, in the words used by our prehistoric ancestors. Whilst fire, ashes, worm and spit are concepts that may have lost urgency in the modern world due to our more comfortable surroundings , several of the words in this list are still considered as basic human necessities of life itself.

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Wordpower

Do you know these new words?

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10 new words in English

In one of my previous posts, namely English is Alive, we looked a little at the evolution of vocabulary and the way that words can survive, drift in meaning or die out. With this in mind, here are 10 new words which might make it to the mainsteam English dictionaries of the future or may just fade into oblivion…..

Badassery – I love this one where a noun has been created to describe the behaviour of a badass, in other words, someone with rebellious ways.

Bromance/ Brogrammer – The first relates to a strong male non-sexual friendship. A brogrammer, in contrast to a geek, works in technology, but takes pride in his masculinity at the same time.

Buzzworthy/Buzzkill – two antonyms to express something creating excitement amongst the masses (buzzworthy) and its opposite, advising that the buzz of excitement has been killed off.

Cyberchrondriac – a person who thinks they are ill after reading their about their symptoms on Internet.

Frankenfood – used to describe food created by artificial or scientific means

Humblebrag – to talk about yout achievements , attempting to show modesty, but bragging all the same.

Locavore – a person who sources food locally

Trashion – fashionable items made from old or recycled clothing.

Some of this vocabulary might just be a passing fad. Other words could still be around in the next hundred years. Which of these words do you think have staying power ?

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Wordpower

Origins of the word “hipster”

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A twenty-first century hipster

1920-1940’s

The term “hipster” was first heard in the 1920’s and according to the Merriam- Webster dictionary defines “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion)”. In the early days of jazz music, there were two prefixies -“hep” and “hip” which meant non-mainstream and/or “in-the-know”. However , the use of “hep” declined whilst “hip” survived.

The 50’s until present day

Towards, the end of the 50’s the word “hipster” may have drifted to become the word “hippie”, the famous youth movement that began in San Francisco and which became popular as an alternative lifestyle at the end of the 60’s. But the word “hipster” never really went away and in the 21st century has become a word for a young trendsetter, often with creative facial hair. Its meaning still focuses very much on a way of dressing, although a typical facet of a “hipster” nowadays is also being a fan of indie music. So there you have it – the word “hipster” is actually much older than you might think.

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The origin of the expression “red tape”

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Graduate holding their official cerificate

    I currently live in Spain, an incredibly diverse country with a great quality of life. But one of the downfalls of living here is the amount of red tape you need to deal with at times. What does this mean? Dealing with red tape means going through a lot of (often perceived as unnecessary and finicky) bureaucracy. Everyone who lives in Spain knows how much time you can spend in a government office with regards to a bureaucratic procedure, such as applying for residency, or completing a tax return, or ……the list is long.

Why do we call it red tape? Well, if you think about historical films that depict, say, the Middle Ages, important official documents are either sealed with red wax, or yes, you guessed it, tied with a red ribbon or tape. And from this idea, administrative paperwork in the 21st century has come to be known as red tape. We still sometimes use the tradition of red tape when handing out certificates ( see photo above.).

For me, the benefits of living in Spain definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but that frustrating red tape is definitely part of the price you need to pay.

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Wordpower

Does formal English matter anymore?

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Formal English – do we still need it ?

Different registers in language

When we communicate, we use different registers of language, which, to simplify matters, in the English teaching world, we class into formal, neutral and informal. Most English words are, in fact, neutral.But if we are writing or speaking to people we know well, we are most likely using contractions, slang and informal expressions as well. Formal English is for more serious communication, such as a writing a letter of application. In these cases, we generally use longer sentences and ((hopefully) correct grammar. A lot of our communication may not fit perfectly into these formal/informal pigeonholes, but we have do an idea of the register when we look at how the writing is formulated.

Formal versus informal

For non-native speakers of English, the difference between these two registers can be sometimes difficult to understand. Students have often asked me the past if a word is “formal” or “informal” when it is a neutral word that belongs in neither category. Generally it is the words and expressions around these neutral words that lend your correspondence a formal or informal style. A good English language teacher will always tell you if vocabulary is very formal, and therefore probably old-fashioned and/or used in very specific situations, or on the other hand, very informal, and therefore has no place in formal writing. Besides, a formal register uses grammatically correct sentences, and therefore tends to have longer sentences, and unlike an informal email, has no contractions, no text language like “C u l8ter”, and definitely no emoticons.

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Emoticons – save them for your private messages

Latin influence

In English, a lot of the words that originated from Latin tend to be classed as more formal, which is useful for English language students whose first language is of Roman origin, as the word they need in English is frequently similar to the word they use in their own language, for example, ” I received your email.” and not ” I got your email “. When words began to be documented, the official language used was Latin, and its influence is still present today, even if we have anglicised the word.

The business world

The process of business writing has changed immensely since we started using email and the Internet for correspondence in the workplace. Whereas in previous centuries, formality was highly regarded, today the crucial issue is having the skills in order to express ideas clearly in a comprehensible way. Time is of the essence. But few people would disagree that a well-written business proposal looks much more trustworthy than one with grammatical mistakes. In the workplace, your emails and other written documents are an advertisement of your professional image. . This is key with clients and people you do not know well. In the business world, no-one is expecting you to be Charles Dickens or write an academic essay – in fact, this is not what they want at all. They need concise and easy to understand information.

Which register should I use ?

And if you are in doubt how to respond to an email, follow the style of the person who wrote to you. . If they say “speak to ya later ” then it is certain they are using an informal tone. This register is generally much easier to recognise and reproduce because it’s similar to the way we speak. If the writer says ” I look forward to seeing you at the meeting”, this should point you towards a more formal reply. If you are unsure about formal writing, there are tons of examples of formal letter writing on the net. Emails haven’t been around long enough to have the same amount of etiquette attached as letter writing, but on the whole, professional business emails should be written in a neutral tone, and grammar and spelling mistakes should be avoided. Save the emoticons and textspeak for your private messages.

Relevance today

So is formal writing still relevant ? Well, I would say that if you are thinking about old-fashioned expressions, such as ” I remain yours faithfully”, well, it is exactly that, an old-fashioned expression which is nowadays out of touch with the modern world. But there are certain circumstances when you may need to write very politely to someone in a superior position and/or you want to make the best impression. Formal writing, by which I mean, accurate grammar and spelling and the correct tone and format, is always going to create a positive impression.

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Wordpower

Order of adjectives in English

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Adjectives follow a specific order

Have you ever wondered why we say “a lucky black cat ” and not a “black lucky cat” ? Or why it sounds wrong to say a “green square big” object ?

If you are a native English speaker, this is something you have probably never studied, but you automatically know which order adjectives should be placed in, because they sound really strange if not, right ?.For non-native speakers of English, there is a grammatical rule which you can learn to make sure you always have your adjectives under control.

What you need to know

1) Opinion e.g. attractive, fascinating, silly, disgusting, foolish, beautiful

2) Size e.g. massive, huge, tall, tiny, minuscule

3) Dimension e.g. heavy, weighty, round, rectangular, lengthy, tall

4) Age e.g. old, ancient, antique

5) Colour e.g. pink, black, greenish, pearly white

6) Pattern e.g. striped, spotty, flowery, splotchy

7) Origin e.g.African, Irish, Mediterranean, Roman

8) Material: e.g.wooden, linen, metal, silicone

And then we add the noun – the object/person/situation we are describing.

It is unlikely we are ever going to use 8 adjectives in a sentence. The amazing, tiny, weightless, ancient, grey, spotty, French paper doll doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But we often use two, and sometimes three……beautiful, blue sky, or big, round, yellow, spotted ball. And the words in any other order are going to sound extremely weird. So welcome to this incredible, new, red-hot working week !

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Wordpower

Origins of the expressions “flying colours” and “show true colours”

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Ship flying colourful flags

To pass with flying colours

We usually use “to pass with flying colours” in conjunction with some type of test or exam to express the idea that the candidate has achieved high marks.  

“ My son passed his exam with flying colours”. “ Oh really, that’s wonderful!”

But where does this phrase come from? Like other expressions still in common use today, this has its origins in nautical history and refers to the colourful flags flying from a masthead of a ship. In the past, before the use of the widespread communication channels of today, a ship’s appearance was the key to how they had fared on their voyage.  If a ship had been defeated in battle, flags were not flown. But when a ship returned to port victorious from a mission, all their flags would be on display to show their achievement and to communicate this from afar, before the ship docked.

And….

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A ship destroyed by pirates

To show your true colours

In a similar way, “to show your true colours” also has its roots in naval history. Sometimes pirate ships would use the tactic of a friendly flag in order to deceive their prey and gain proximity. Once they had secured access to the ship, the pirate flag would be shown and they would attack in search of treasure. Of course, nowadays we use this expression to denote that someone has shown their real (usually unpleasant) feelings or personality after a period of initial friendliness.