Season’s Greetings!

Do you say merry or happy Christmas or both? Are you comfortable with Xmas or do you prefer ‘holiday’? As we approach the festive season, here are some explanations for these differences, some of which are, I’m afraid, political.

First to merry or happy: you’ll note that both are used on this Christmas card, the very first, designed by John Horsley and sent out by Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper at the UK’s Public Record Office, in 1843.

clever animation from Mental Floss suggests that ‘merry’ is more about behaviours (imbibing in particular), while ‘happy’ is a feeling.  It also thinks ‘merry’ more American, and ‘happy’ more English, though Dickens used ‘merry’ in A Christmas Carol and so do many Brits today.

As for Xmas, do you know where the ‘x’ comes from? In Greek, the word Christos  begins with the letter ‘X’ or chi. Here’s what it looks like: Χριστός. This is where the politics start: Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, has said the abbreviation is ‘taking Christ out of Christmas’.   The etymology suggests otherwise.

And President Trump has claimed to have brought ‘Merry Christmas’ back to the White House this year. Trump doesn’t like ‘happy holidays’,  seeing the term as a war on Christmas. But, as The Atlantic Monthly pointed out last year, ‘ironically, it’s a Christian-friendly greeting at its root; “holiday” stems from the Old English for “holy day”’.

My advice: put the semantics aside and embrace the best of the festive season but don’t forget that pesky apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Season’s Greetings!

 

Teaching + research = tertiary education

In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. In other words, inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. This is precisely the time not to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars.

This is a quotation from Francesca’s response to the Productivity Commission’s five-year review, Shifting the Dial.  Read the full article in Pearls and Irritations

What does MBS stand for?

The world loves acronyms – abbreviations from the initial letter or sometimes syllables in phrase or a word. How much easier to text three letters than spell out three words? But will the reader know what MBS stands for? Melbourne Business School, Mind Body Spirit? It depends on the context, of course.

In this case, it is neither. MBS is the nickname of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman. I prefer MbS, following the use of upper and lower case in the spelt-out name (‘bin’ meaning ‘son of’) but the Style Manual says  initialisms, which are not pronounced as a word as are acronyms (for example, OPEC*), should be all capitals. That said, I don’t think they had Arabic names in mind when they made this ruling.

So what does The Crown Prince stand for? To read more on this go to Peter Rodgers’ blog post Mohammad bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s reformer or wrecker? in Pearls and Irritations.

*Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (note the ‘z’ in organisation: in proper nouns following the preferred spelling of the entity or person)

Evolution

Are the cicadas deafening you this spring? Where we live they are out in force, causing people to talk. Some mention ‘si-KAH-da’, other say ‘si-KAY-da’. Why the difference, I wondered. And here, in an extract from the Boston Globe, is the explanation. It’s all about evolution, not of the species but of the English language.

In classical Latin, “cicada” was pronounced as “ki-KAH-da,” with hard c’s. The first “c” changed to a “ts” sound around the fifth century A.D., and the consonant further softened to “s” in Old French. When English speakers began importing Latin words, they looked to the French model, so words beginning with “ci-” like “circle,” “civil,” and “cicada” all took on the initial “s” sound.

But why would the second syllable of “cicada” be pronounced like “kay”? For that we can blame the Great Vowel Shift that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Words with the stressed “a” sound, including borrowings from Latin, shifted from “ah” to “ay,” which you can hear in countless words like “table,” “radio,” and “stadium.”

For centuries, the “ay” pronunciation ruled for stressed “a” words regardless of their source. It even applied to words brought in from Spanish like “armada,” originally pronounced in English as “ar-MAY-da.” But eventually, “armada” fell prey to what the British phonetician John C. Wells calls “continental vowelism”: “Ar-MAH-da” displaced the older pronunciation because English speakers thought the “ah” sound was more appropriate for a Spanish import.

… By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.

 

Tone matters

Last month (May 2017) the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of his management duties (he remains the bank’s chief economist) after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly.

Romer wanted his staff to write succinct, direct emails, presentations and reports, using the active voice and avoiding too many ‘and’s’. Good advice, delivered poorly. Staff found Romer curt and abrasive.

Quoted in Bloomberg Romer  said, ‘I was in the position of being the bearer of bad news…It’s possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.’

Indeed. Writing is an expression of personality. Just think of how long it took you to refine your signature, still a common way to prove your identity. Criticism of the words you put on paper can hurt. Furthermore, writing according to an organisation’s style or a boss’s preferences takes guidance and practice. That’s something the supervisors of writing need to understand: to get the best out of writers demands clarity of tasking; consistent style rules; plus more coaxing than red pen or sharp tongue.

 

Fact check: turn to the dictionary

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate.

After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted:

A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer (noun: dictionary editor) Kory Stamper told CNN at the time:

We’re not going to change the meaning of the word ‘fact’ just because of the way one person uses it…We’re trained to pull words out of a jar and just tell the truth about what they mean. So we’ll keep doing what we do.

Stamper’s book, Word by Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published by Penguin Random House in March 2017. The blurb tell us that ‘Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language’.

Australian readers take note: it’s the Macquarie Dictionary (the seventh edition was published in March 2017) that holds sway down under. It too has a website, blog and podcast, and readers can vote for the Word of the Year. In 2016, the word (well phrase) was halal snack pack with an honourable mention going to, yes, fake news.

Latin-isms

Here’s an article from The Spectator about the plural of ‘referendum’ being ‘referendums’. I agree.

We didn’t adopt Latin grammar ‘holus bolus’ (that’s an archaic term from North America), so shouldn’t be imposing rules that apply to Latin but sound silly in English. The split infinitive is a case in point. The rule works for Latin verbs but is not necessary for English. If ‘to boldly go’ sounds better than ‘to go boldly’, split that infinitive (‘to go’). Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary people have to say on the matter.

Back to referendums: in this case, Dot Wordsworth in The Specator argues that even according to Latin rules there can be no referenda.

The Oxford Comma: usage in Australia

oxford comma

In my classes, I am quite often asked about the Oxford comma. When the question comes, others ask what on earth is that? The Oxford comma, because it was traditionally used at Oxford University Press, is also known as the serial comma and comes before the penultimate item in a list:

The wombat eats shoots, roots, and leaves.

I don’t think you need this comma. It might even cause some confusion, suggesting that the word ‘leaves’ is a verb rather than another item the wombat eats.

In Australia, most of us were taught NEVER use a comma before ‘and’; in other words, don’t use the Oxford comma. But what if the wombat eats shoots and roots, and also eats a different category of foods like bananas and mangoes? Then a comma might help:

In captivity, the wombat eats shoots and roots, and bananas and mangoes.

In the United States the Oxford comma is alive and well. Nearly every list I saw on a six-week trip across the continent contained a comma before the ‘and’ at the end of a list. This prevalence surprised me, for in so many other ways – take spelling and pronunciation – the Americans do not emulate Oxford English. A poll conducted in 2014 asked 1,129 Americans which sentence they thought was grammatically correct:

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.

or

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.

Fifty-seven per cent were for the Oxford comma. As the authors of the poll reported the split in the result probably originates at school where grammar was taught as a set of incontrovertible rules: don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’; never use a comma before ‘and’, etc..

For me there’s only one rule: use punctuation to aid clarity. So when the Oxford comma helps, go ahead and use it, and when it doesn’t, save yourself a keystroke.

 

 

Multilingualism matters

Welcome_multilingual_Guernsey_tourismOn 27 April 2016 I attended a public hearing of the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Education and Employment. It was part of the committee’s inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy . When I introduced myself as, inter alia, a former diplomat, I was greeted with a German ‘sehr gut’ and Russian ‘здравствуйте’! That was heartening though unfortunately we didn’t get to talking about languages, which I argue are part of the skills our workforce needs. Without them, monolingual Australians will be less competitive in the global market place.

As the Economist noted in 2014: ‘Oil economies aside, the top 10 [richest economies] includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones, where English knowledge is excellent.’  The article quotes a  Cardiff Business School study, which estimated the lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy £48 billion  or 3.5% of GDP each year.

In a more recent column in the same publication Johnson (a must-read for anyone interested in language) shows that those who negotiate in a foreign language gain added advantages because they think in a more utilitarian, less emotional way. They can also confer privately in their own language. Moreover, using another language is reminder that we don’t all see the world the same way, no bad thing when you are wanting to close a deal.

Cultural diversity and understanding  are becoming valued as an important part of any organisational structure, not just in businesses working in the international arena. In Australia, 16.7 per cent of Australian workers identify as Asian. Yet, according to the Diversity Council of Australia, only 17 per cent of people with Asian backgrounds strongly agree that their organisation uses their Asia capabilities very well.

So an easy step toward  increasing our ability to engage with Asia is to take much more advantage of the talent we have among those with Asian heritage. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for native English speakers to rest on their laurels. Yet, when it comes to Chinese language that certainly seems to be what’s happening. Dr Jane Orton writes that the current number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia of non-Chinese background is estimated to be 130 at most; and half of those are already over 55 years of age. In 2015 there were just 400 year 12 students of Chinese as a second language. (See also Orton’s  Building Chinese Language Capacity in Australia just published by the Australia-China Relations Institute.)

Goodness knows how we are going to greet the two million visitors the government hopes will come to Australia during the 2017 Australia-China Year of Tourism!

Oh, and if the economics of this don’t matter so much to you, remember: learning a language is good for brain function too.