Archive for April, 2009

Spelling Bee

Posted on April 30th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Spelling, Words | Leave a Comment »

Spelling BeeI’m a stickler for correct spellings, so I’m pleased to see that in the UK, one of the major newspapers is running a spelling bee.

Although I’m still recovering from losing a spelling contest at school after missing an ‘s’ out of Mississippi, I can now confidently spell the word correctly at all times. Spelling is an important part of communicating, and whilst sometimes it’s a frustrating part of learning the English language (or any other language for that matter!), correct spelling is the standard for business communications.

The term “spelling bee” is an American one, and spelling competitions apparently are only regularly used in the English-speaking world. There’s a great documentary about spelling bees in the US, Spellbound , which throws up some amazing words I’d never even heard of (although could still possibly spell).

Sadly it appears that The Times spelling bee is only open to schools at the moment, but I’m sure it can’t be too long until a TV producer picks up on the idea and turns it in to a show for adults! Until then, you can play along online.

Apostrophes made easy. Well, easier.

Posted on April 28th, 2009by Michelle
In Grammar, Hints and Tips | 1 Comment »

ApostropheI am happy to admit that I am occasionally confused by apostrophes, something I attribute to spending my formative years at schools where calligraphy with the headteacher was sometimes more important than grammar.

Anyway, now that I’m all grown up and like to see writing that is grammatically correct, I’ve been working hard to make sure I always put the apostrophe in the right place. Apostrophes have two uses, and one of them I am fine with: showing the omission of letters (e.g. “it’s”/”it is”). It’s the other that I, and probably most others, stumble over.

The other use of the apostrophe is to show possession (“the girl’s pen”). The most useful (although a little childlike!) way I have found for remembering the correct grammar is thinking of the tail of the apostrophe pointing to whoever has ownership. So:

The pen of the girl = the girl’s pen. There is only one girl, so the apostrophe is pointing to the word ‘girl’.
The pen of the girls (more than one girl) = the girls’ pen. There is more than one girl, so the apostrophe is pointing to the plural of girl, ‘girls’.

Try testing your apostrophe knowledge here.

Ya flamin’ galah!

Posted on April 25th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Idioms, UK vs US English | Leave a Comment »

Aussie Genteleman
I found this postcard in a souvenir shop in Australia recently, and it greatly amused me (click for legible full size).

Australians have come up with some excellent phrases that (sadly) have not made it into general use in British or American English. “Ya flamin’ galah” is perhaps my personal favourite, and will be familiar to anyone who watches Australian soaps. It basically means “you fool” and is best delivered in a broad Australian accent.

Whilst most of the slang on this postcard you’re unlikely to hear in the major urban areas of Australia, I can’t wait to get to the outback (or “the bush”) to see if someone really will call me a drongo and give me an earbashing for having a barney!
For more Aussie slang, see here.

“What language do they speak in the UK?”

Posted on April 22nd, 2009by Michelle
In Education | 4 Comments »

Language map of the UK

At work the other day I was told by a confused colleague that he had heard that some parts of the UK don’t speak English as their primary language. He was puzzled by this as he had always thought that the UK was an English-speaking country.

First up, I set him straight on the meaning of the UK. A lot of people (including UK citizens!) get confused by this – the UK is an acronym for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales.

Once we’d got that straight, I explained to him that yes, England is where the English language originates and it has spread to the neighbouring countries becoming the de facto official language of all the UK, as it is spoken by 90% of the population as their only language. However, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own languages also. Here’s a quick overview:

The 2001 Census revealed that about 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh (shown in green on the map), although the actual figure is less certain. The Welsh language is protected by law, and is now commonly taught in schools in Wales, after a long period when it was repressed by policies of the British Government. Welsh can look very confusing to English speakers, especially with place names such as Ystradgynlais (it’s pronounced Us-trad-gone-lice).

Scottish Gaelic (sometimes referred to as Scottish, blue on the map) is a Celtic language with approximately 60,000 speakers (2001 Census). Like Welsh, it has been suppressed in the past but with devolution the Scottish Government has moved to protect and promote the language. Scottish Gaelic has an 18 letter alphabet, compared to the 26 of English.

In Northern Ireland, Irish is recognised as a minority language, and the dialect spoken is called Ulster Irish (shown in yellow on the map). The 2001 Census showed that about 10% of the population spoke some Irish. Ulster Irish is from a similar Celtic family to Scots Gaelic.


So, now you know if you’re in certain corners of the UK and you hear a language that isn’t English, there’s no need to be confused!

In addition to these main languages, there are also some other minority languages spoken, such as Cornish. To learn more about languages spoken in the UK, check out BBC languages.

We don’t need ‘u’!

Posted on April 17th, 2009by Michelle
In UK vs US English | Leave a Comment »

As someone who grew up in England and thus speaks British English, I have never really understood why or how Americans felt the need to change our wonderfully obtuse spellings by removing various letters from random words. How much extra time does it really take to write that extra ‘u’ in ‘colour’ anyway?

According to the MSN Encarta, it’s mostly due to the work of one man – Noah Webster (of Merriam-Webster), who around the time of the American Civil War decided that Americans needed their own dictionary. And their own spellings. His books, “An American Dictionary of the English Language” (1828) and “The American Spelling Book” (1783) were widely used and promoted “the use of an American language that intentionally differed from British English”.

So out with the old, and in with the new – Webster had most success with removing those ‘u’s (“colour” to “color”, “honour” to “honor”) as well as changing suffixes such as ‘que’ (e.g. “cheque” became “check”).

Other words such as “program” (in British English it is “programme”) have developed and changed in the intervening years through immigration and its further cultural influences. With American English being adopted by more English language learners because of America’s continued cultural and business success overseas, we’re sure to see more American spellings in every day life.

Give us a ‘z’! Or is it an ‘s’?

Posted on April 13th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Hints and Tips, UK vs US English | 1 Comment »

Prioritise. Prioritize. Apologise. Apologize.

Same word, one letter different. People often get confused with the “z” and the “s” in words like these. One way is generally favoured by American English, the other by British English. Which is which?

The answer is slightly complex. The use of ‘z’ was popularised in American English when it was standardised in the 19th Century, whilst ‘s’ has become more widely used in British English, perhaps as a backlash against the American use of ‘z’. However, British spelling has always recognised the use of the suffix ‘ize’, with the Oxford English Dictionary generally favouring it.

There are some American spellings using ‘z’ though that are not acceptable in British English, ‘analyze’ being one.
Most importantly though, it’s best to be consistent. So if you start off by “organizing”, you should continue by “prioritizing”.

French to English

Posted on April 12th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, French | Leave a Comment »

French to EnglishThe evolving dominance of English as the international language of business is being felt now in Rwanda. The former Belgian colony has decided to change its entire education system from French to English in an attempt to become part of the mostly English speaking East African Community.

Most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, one of three official languages along with English and French. Whilst English has been an official language in Rwanda since 1994, it was only an option at school along with French until now.

Rwanda has also applied for membership to the Commonwealth of Nations, which is also English speaking. The change also has a historical basis: 

underpinning the move is a long and bitter dispute with France born of its support for the Hutu regime that oversaw the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis, which has seen the French ambassador expelled and the closure of the French cultural centre, international school and radio station.

With fewer than 5% of the current population speaking English, however, it will be interesting to see how this policy affects the Rwandan people.

What motivates you?

Posted on April 8th, 2009by Michelle
In Education | Leave a Comment »

I’ve attempted learning many different languages over the years, for a number of different reasons. At high school, we learned French and German. For fun, I tried to pick up Esperanto. To learn more about the culture whilst I lived in New Zealand, I took classes in Maori. In addition to these, I’ve picked up a few words of various languages through friends and travel.

Whilst I often wonder why none of these languages have ever really stuck, I mostly put it down to laziness on my part. Becoming proficient in any language requires a degree of dedication that I appear not to have (at the moment at least). The prevalence of English and the countries I’ve lived in (all of which have been predominantly English-speaking) have all contributed to this laziness.

So I’m really in awe of people who dedicate their time to practising and really getting to grips with all aspects of their chosen tongue. The main thing these people seem to have in common is a real reason for wanting to speak the language, whether it be family connections, an upcoming holiday or a move overseas.

What’s your motivation for learning?

Déjà what?

Posted on April 4th, 2009by Michelle
In English, French, Idioms | Leave a Comment »

Deja sentiWe commonly use the term “déjà vu” in English to describe the sensation that a current situation has happened to us before (current research suggests there’s a rational theory). For example, we may walk in to a friend’s house for the first time and feel like we have been there previously.

The French, however, have a range of terms to describe the different feelings that in English we may all describe as déjà vu. Déjà is the French word for “already”, and vu means “seen”. There’s also déjà senti (already felt), déjà vecu (already experienced) and déjà visite (already visited).

The example I provided above then, would more accurately be described as déjà visite. Next time you get that odd feeling of having previously experienced a situation, think about it a bit more – it may not be déjà vu!

When a Swede’s not a swede

Posted on April 3rd, 2009by Michelle
In UK vs US English | Leave a Comment »

SwedesswedesRecently I went to the supermarket with a Swedish friend. In the fresh produce section, she was surprised to find a vegetable called a ‘swede’. I was equally surprised to find she didn’t know it as a swede!

This led to us pointing out different produce and comparing names. An ‘aubergine’ to me was an ‘eggplant’ to her; ‘courgette’ a ‘zucchini’ (I like both exotic sounding names for this cucumber-esque fruit).

This duality of names is not limited to vegetables – in English (as, I’m sure, in many other languages), we name a lot of things twice, if not more. ‘Mummy’, ‘Mum’, ‘Mama’, and ‘Ma’ are all common alternatives for one person – your mother (‘Mother’ is also a common, if somewhat more formal term).

So, how do you decide which term to use? It really depends on who you’re talking to. The main point of language is to be understood, so a person with American English will understand ‘zucchini’ but not ‘courgette’, and vice versa for someone who speaks British English. As for a Swede? Who knows…