meta/phr(eɪ) Weekly Digest – Easter Monday Edition!

Anche per questa settimana meta/phr(eɪ) ha selezionato per voi alcune letture interessanti.
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And now, enjoy the Weekly Digest!

Found in translation… when misquoting someone is the best way to be fair and accurate

“I want to take physical exercise with the guitar” – this phrase is what, my uncle informed me through much mirth, I was saying when I was fighting over said instrument (well, a toy version of it) with my cousin in India one childhood summer.

The confusion, and subsequent hilarity, was the result of my English-first speaking brain, translating the wordplay into a context that has no existence in Bengali. Play as in “I will play a game” (khelbo) simply cannot be used in the way we say “I will play the xylophone” (bajabo), and certainly not any others: “I will play a part” (hobo) in a, well, play (natok).

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Is the letter Y a vowel or a consonant?

The letter Y can be regarded as both a vowel and a consonant. In terms of sound, a vowel is ‘a speech sound which is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction…’, while a consonant is ‘a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed’. The letter Y can be used to represent different sounds in different words, and can therefore fit either definition. In myth or hymn it’s clearly a vowel, and also in words such as my, where it stands for a diphthong (a combination of two vowel sounds). On the other hand, in a word like beyond there is an obstacle to the breath which can be heard between two vowels, and the same sound begins words like young and yes.

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Do You Ever Say Probly Instead of Probably? Here’s Why

We’ve all done it one time or another. Rather than enunciating the syllables in “probably,” a slurred “probly” comes out instead. Why does this happen?

It’s really a question of efficiency. English words tend to have one or two syllables that are stressed. In this case, we say PRO-bab-ly, not pro-BAB-ly or pro-bab-LY. This naturally also means that the stressed syllables are more interesting and important to your production and understanding of the word than the unstressed ones.

Over time, and especially in rapid speech, people tend to reduce the contrast of the vowels in the unstressed syllables. It takes a little bit of extra effort to enunciate each syllable as clearly and distinctly as possible, and in many cases it’s not worth the trouble if your listener is likely to know what you mean regardless. If you say “probably” slowly and carefully, you’ll end up with something like “pro-bab-lee.” But if you say it faster, that middle, unstressed vowel will start to get less distinct: “pro-buh-blee.” No point in being extra careful: it’s not like there are lots of other words that start with “praw” and end in “blee.”

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14 words you’ve been using incorrectly this whole time

We’ve all had it – that moment when someone uses a word incorrectly and you mercilessly ridicule them for being a silly goose. I bet that you laugh in their face or even crack out a solemn impression of Inigo Montoya. No? Just me then.
If you happen to be an obnoxious pedant (like me) then you may need to take a hard look in the mirror, for you could well be a silly goose too.
Now and then a word will sneak into everyday language that just shouldn’t be there. Here are 14 words I’ve seen lately that are just plain wrong.

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It’s time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English
Why do we persist in thinking that standard English is right, when it is spoken by only 15% of the British population? Linguistics-loving Harry Ritchie blames Noam Chomsky

Did you see that great documentary on linguistics the other night? What about that terrific series on Radio 4 about the Indo-European language family tree? Or that news report on language extinction? It is strange that none of those programmes happened, or has ever happened: it’s not as if language is an arcane subject. Just as puzzling is the conspicuous lack of a properly informed book about language – either our own or language in general.

There is, of course, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – a bestseller that seems to have ticked the box for publishers and public alike as the book on linguistics. But The Language Instinct has a very specific agenda – to support Noam Chomsky’s theories about our language skills being innate; other areas of linguistics are glimpsed, if at all, fuzzily in the background.

I’m not blaming Pinker. He ultimately failed to justify his title, but he did reach a keen, large audience with a well-written book fizzing with ideas and examples. I’m blaming someone else, the person who, inexplicably, doesn’t exist – who should have written the book revealing how Pinker was so wrong and had a ding-dong with him on Newsnight; the ambitious, good-looking academic, who possibly had a spell in an indie band, with his or her own 13-part series about language on BBC2.

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What is the origin of the dollar sign ($)?

Many suggestions have been made about the origin of the dollar symbol $, one of the commonest being that it derives from the figure 8, representing the Spanish ‘piece of eight’. However, it actually comes from a handwritten ‘ps’, an abbreviation for ‘peso’ in old Spanish-American books. The $ symbol first occurs in the 1770s, in manuscript documents of English-Americans who had business dealings with Spanish-Americans, and it starts to appear in print after 1800.

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There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you

There’s a number of reasons this sentence could be right. But do you think it is?

It’s not uncommon; the set of words “there’s a number of reasons” gets almost 3 million hits on Google. But the phrase “there are a number of reasons” returns more than 63 million results. And perhaps the least natural-sounding possibility, “there is a number of reasons,” gets even more hits: About 73 million.

So there’s a division of opinions. But this division is a strange one. The people who prefer “there’s a number of reasons” are likely to be either very sloppy or very fussy, while the great middle ground is occupied by those who prefer “there are a number of reasons.” The reason for this is that there are two different things at issue, and they are at cross-purposes.

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