School rule broken

The new Government publication Support for Spelling is now telling primary schools that the age-old 'i before e except after c' rule should no longer be taught since it is, apparently, irrelevant and confusing.


Posted @ 15:58:23 on 24 June 2009  back to top
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Slips of the French tongue

It's only just over a month now until our family holiday in France, and already I'm starting to tense up about the inevitable problems with the language.

It's not that I can't speak French; I read it at Cambridge, after all.  The problems stem from frustration that I've allowed my French to fall into such a state of rusty disrepair.  I find it almost impossible to understand what's being said on the TV and radio - though I generally find that my ears begin to become attuned just as it's time to return home.  Even if I manage to follow the beginning of a news report, a word or phrase will inevitably come up which I realise I used to know but can't now recall.  By the time I've finally remembered it or (more likely) looked it up, the programme has moved on to another item.

It's hard to see at present when I might ever have the time or opportunity to regain any sort of fluency.  Though even if I had the time, I fear that my brain has now lost the adhesive qualities it once had.  It's a sign of age which I find much more alarming than any physical deterioration; words simply don't stick as they used to.

It's not just French.  I've had a 'Learn Spanish' course for some time - the fact that it comes with cassette tapes should give you an idea of just how long - but I just can't retain any vocabulary or grammar beyond the end of any session.  And there are a number of English words whose meanings I've looked up countless times, only to forget them almost immediately.  Venal and venial, for example.  And all sorts of grammatical terms such as synecdoche and metonymy.

On a more positive note, I can at least be reasonably confident that in France I won't make any howlers as bad as those described in this article on the BBC website.

There are some good (though possibly apocryphal) anecdotes in there.  I particularly like the story about the man wandering around looking for the rail station, asking: 'Où est la guerre?'

My favourite such story isn't included.  It concerns an Englishman lighting a cigarette in a French train carriage back in the days when this was allowed.  Thinking it only polite to offer one to the one other occupant of the compartment, he leans forward and says: 'Pardon, monsieur.  Êtes-vous un fumier?'

'Un fumier', in case you didn't know, means 'a dungheap'.

Posted @ 11:07:28 on 18 June 2009  back to top
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Do the WHAT??!!

This week's top three slips of the tongue from the children:

3)  Emily (5): 'My hair keeps sticking up, it's all ecstatic'.

2)  Me (48):  'What sort of ice cream would you like, Harry?'

     Harry: 'Umm... manila'.

1)  Emily again: 'Dad, what's the Fucky Chicken?'

     Me (after spitting tea all over the floor): 'It's Funky Chicken, Emily.  F-u-n-k-y.  Don't say that other word, it's very rude.'

Emily: 'Oh.  (pause)  What's 'fucky', then?'

Posted @ 11:36:36 on 05 June 2009  back to top
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To all in tents

My wife's sister and her family stayed with us last night.  They're on their way to France for a brief camping holiday, and broke up their long journey by stopping here.

I've never fancied camping myself - and by coincidence, I came across a beautiful description of the unpleasant aspects of it in the Guardian today.  The words were spoken by the late Matthew Crosby, a boy with Down's syndrome who is the subject of a new memoir by his mother Anne:

"Nasty peeing by tree, eated smoke, plates muddy, sitted on grass, no television, both socks wetted all time."


Posted @ 23:50:25 on 23 May 2009  back to top
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It was the Eurovision Song Contest last night (or last week, if you include the semi-finals they have now).  For the first time in ages, the UK finished in the top five - not, I think, because the song was an improvement on previous years (it wasn't), but because the voting system was changed to reduce political and regional voting.

In previous years, it's been clear that we have few friends in the rest of Europe prepared to direct any points in our direction.  Yet, somewhat paradoxically, most of the other countries' entries sing in English.  Why do they do this?  Because English is seen as the international language of pop?  Or because the acts see the contest as their big chance of breaking through in the English-speaking countries of the world, especially the US?  I don't know; I'm just suggesting possibilities.

Last year, there was huge controversy in France over the fact that Sébastien Tellier's entry Divine was almost entirely in English.  ('When one has the honour of being selected to represent France, one sings in French,' a government minister complained.)  If Tellier's intention was to speak to the English market, the bizarre lyrics undermined it.  A brief sample:

          Oh oh oh
          I… I'm alone in life to say
          I love the Chivers anyway
          'Cause Chivers look divine
          Look away
          They try to find the Milky Way
          They love to drink it every day

No, I've no idea who or what the Chivers might be.

The use of English lyrics often sounds a little odd in other countries' entries.  You can't help feeling it would have been a good idea to get a native speaker to give them the once over before they were finalised.  Here's an extract from I Wanna, the Latvian winner from 2002:

          Today you think you are the winner
          Today you think you are the king
          You make me sweat in my emotions

I've been sweaty in lots of places in my time, but never in my emotions.

Back to this year's contest, though, because there was one entry where you could see exactly why the contestants had elected to sing in English.  The Georgian song was called We Don't Wanna Put In - a thinly veiled attack on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  The chorus goes:

          We don't wanna put in the negative move
          It's killing the groove
          I'm trying to shoot in some disco tonight
          Boogie with you

The words 'I'm trying to shoot in' sound very much like 'I'm trying to shoot him' - and the female singers accompany them by miming a gunshot to the head in the song's video.

However, Eurovision organisers ruled that the song infringed the contest's rules against making political statements - and rather than amend the lyrics, Georgia decided to withdraw.

It was probably a wise move; singing about wanting to shoot Putin when the contest was held in Moscow would not have been advisable.

Posted @ 10:31:45 on 17 May 2009  back to top
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Wight words - wrong words

Oh, I do like a good bit of gobbledegook now and then - not least because it serves as reassurance that there'll always be a need for copywriters who can write clearly.

Last week, the Isle of Wight council published a document on its adult learning programme, intended to help people improve their powers of communication.  Unfortunately, the document serves only to prove that those who produced it are in dire need of such help themselves.

For example, the council's Train to Gain programme is said to have been "well received within the Isle of Wight council with recent pilot with leisure staff leading to the future expectation of this would be to have this project open to all departments of the council and have people directly referred through self-referral and the PDR cycle".

There's also the news that the quality improvement plan has been revised "to focus and cross referenced to the new Framework For Excellence so we are working towards meeting future expectation enabling a more workable and live document which has met with the approval of the LLSC".

'PDR' and 'LLSC' are just two of the baffling acronyms used in the document - others include CAF, CFL, CPD, FLLN, FLIF, IAG, JISC, NCFE, NIACE, NLDC, NOCN, OCN, PCDL, QIP, SMT and WFL.  (None of them is even as memorable as SPLINK.)

Apparently a rewrite is already under way.

Posted @ 22:53:36 on 11 May 2009  back to top
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Snap, crackle and... ugh!

It's not quite a spoonerism, but our son Harry (aged 2) asked for a surprising spoonful this morning.

Me:      Harry, what do you want for breakfast?

Harry: Umm... Christ Pispies, please.

Now there's a name for a cereal.  Wonder if that's what the photographer Andres Serrano has in his bowl every day?

Posted @ 21:42:31 on 25 April 2009  back to top
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Ooh, let me think, I've seen it somewhere...

Not sure whether this is an illustration of the imprecise nature of language or just another example of me being a bit thick, but anyway...

My five-year-old daughter Emily asked me a question a couple of days ago.

Emily:  Dad, where's Madagascar?

Me:  It's a large island off the east coast of southern Africa.

Emily:  (rolling eyes) No, I mean the DVD...

Posted @ 22:12:55 on 14 April 2009  back to top
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A fish by any other name...

It's been reported that Sainsbury's has given a new name to the fish pollack after research showed that customers were too embarrassed to ask for it.

Who on earth did they talk to when they carried out their survey?  Are there really people out there who blush at saying 'pollack', presumably because it sounds a bit like 'bollock'?  I don't suppose the respondents ask for calamari at the fish counter either, since 'tentacles' sounds a bit like 'testicles'.

But what new name has Sainsbury's given to the fish?


This is supposed to be pronounced in the French style (i.e. 'co-lan' rather than 'co-lynn'), but it's still going to look as though the staff have started giving the produce pet names.

Wonder if they'll call the monkfish Harry next...

Posted @ 19:56:05 on 08 April 2009  back to top
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At least sticks and stones are straightforward

As a parent of two young children, I'm obviously aware that the language you use with them is hugely important in shaping their development; not just for their self-expression, but for their self-confidence.  However, I was completely taken aback by a revelation in this week's fascinating edition of Horizon on BBC1.

In the programme, David Baddiel went in search of the best way to maximise his children's potential for both success and happiness.  He interviewed Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University, whose research has shown that parents can often ruin their children's chances by using three little words.

The words?  'You''

'Stupid?' I thought.  No.  'Clever'.

She explained it thus:

'Our research shows that it makes children think, "Oh, I have to be intelligent all the time.  That's what they value me for".  They stop taking on challenges, they hide their mistakes - so many people think we're building confidence, we're showing our regard for them when we praise their intelligence, but I have found it's just the opposite.'

This parenting lark really is a minefield. 

Posted @ 21:20:59 on 21 March 2009  back to top
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Addenda and miscellanea

First, a few follow-ups to some topics we've already covered.


Last September, we considered the pleasure of writing - or rather, the lack of it.  Last week, the Manchester Review carried an interview with novelist Colm Toíbín in which he candidly admits that he doesn't enjoy the process at all:

"Oh, there's no pleasure. Except that I don't have to work for anyone who bullies me... I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it." 

He continues:  "After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it's never fun or anything. With a few of the books, especially The Heather Blazing and The Master and the new novel Brooklyn, there has been a real problem... I don't want to go on about this too much, but there is a passage in each of those books which I found almost impossible to write and then harder and harder to re-write. I hope never to have to look at those passages again."

The best thing about being a writer, in his view: money.

The Guardian followed this up by asking a number of other well-known writers whether they enjoy writing.  The responses were split down the middle.


In January, I made passing mention of the peculiar jargon used in the teaching profession.  One of these days, I'll find the time to write a fuller entry on this, but there have been a couple of classic examples this week.

First, my wife came home still giggling after a meeting at school where the concept of 'learner-centred learning' had been discussed at some length.  It sounds more effective and useful than 'caretaker-centred learning' or 'lollipop lady-centred learning', I suppose.

Then she showed me an extract from a document produced by another school, describing its achievements and progress (I've changed the name of the school to save its embarrassment):

"Building upon the collaborative action research project titled 'Imagine Hillview' held four years ago, 'Imagine Healthy Hillview' is our latest action research project that brings these student groups together in order to enable our community to discover the stories of what is taking place when learning is at its best and creates well-being and from these stories to dream how a future will look when these conditions are the norm.  From these dreams, a design of the future will be strategically planned and finally the planning will be implemented or delivered.  The entire project is collaborative using a positive change form of action research and will form an important aspect of our self-evaluation of our effectiveness at delivering the agenda for Every Child Matters and enabling community cohesion."

The underlining isn't mine, by the way; it seems to be a deliberate attempt by the school to suggest that they have clearly delineated goals and a sense of direction, though it has to be said that the result comes across as a bit desperate.

I know that most professions have their own jargon which can seem odd to outsiders.  But I'm constantly astonished that people in education - who you would think would value the clear communication of information - so often resort to language which is baffling.


Also in January, I expressed the view that bad language can be funny when used properly.  While the language is mild, there was a line in David Mitchell's excellent column in last Sunday's Observer which I think proves the point:

"One of the fastest growing areas in our economy in the years leading up to the crunch was the selling of crap to twats."

You had to see it in context really, but it makes me smile every time I think of it.


Our daughter Emily has her first ballet exam this weekend.  Actually, here's the exact time, as given in the letter from the dance school:

"Your Childs Ballet exam is on Sunday 15th March 09 at 12:15 noon."

A smart appearance is very important, apparently.  We'll probably be up washing and ironing Em's outfit at 1:30 midnight.


Harry, meanwhile, continues to surprise us with phrases he's picked up.  The other day, when In The Night Garden came on TV yet again, he came out with: "Flippin' 'eck, not this again".

He must have heard that from his mother.  After all, it's not the expression I use when the programme comes on... 

Posted @ 14:16:11 on 13 March 2009  back to top
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Lost for words

It was while researching Bald that I first came across the Livonian language.  Specifically, I discovered this Livonian proverb: 'The bald pate speaks most of hair'.

Now it turns out that Livonian is all but dead.  This week, Unesco published a list of the world's endangered languages - all 2,500 of them.  500 of these are 'critically endangered'; 199 have fewer than ten native speakers.  And Livonian, which was the mother tongue of thousands until the Nazi occupation of the eastern Baltic and subsequent Soviet annexation, is now the mother tongue of just one person.  He or she has no one else who grew up with the language to converse with.

The demise of a language is just as regrettable as the disappearance of an animal species.  As Christopher Moseley, editor-in-chief of the Unesco survey, put it:

'...each language is a uniquely structured world of thought, with its own associations, metaphors, ways of thinking, vocabulary, sound system and grammar - all working together in a marvellous architectural structure which is so fragile that it could easily be lost forever.'

It seems there are a variety of reasons for the dwindling and disappearance of languages.  Most often, it is the large-scale movement of people from the country to the city, leaving their regional tongue behind.  It can also be the impact of what have been termed 'killer' languages such as English or Spanish; major languages which simply steamroller the smaller ones.

In both of these cases, there is a failure to recognise the value of these small languages.  And I think I may have been guilty of this myself.

When the proverb mentioned above appeared in Bald, I gave the origin as 'Latvia' rather than mentioning Livonian.  Now it's true that the language was spoken in a region of Latvia.  And I'm certainly not taking full responsibility for its death.  But all the same, I'm feeling a bit bad today that I wasn't more specific about the source.

Posted @ 21:32:03 on 24 February 2009  back to top
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Adult language, infant language

A couple of things this week.

On Monday evening, an edition of Panorama on BBC1 presented by (slightly surprisingly) Frank Skinner looked at the issue of swearing on television.  According to a poll conducted for the programme, 55% of the public believe that it is currently at an 'unacceptable' level.

At first, I was surprised by how high this figure was; can so many really be so easily offended?  Two such people were interviewed - a senior writer on the Daily Telegraph and the director of Mediawatch (the organisation originally started by Mary Whitehouse) - but they hardly seemed representative of the general population.  They were the sort of middle-aged types whom one cannot imagine ever having been younger - and in the case of the latter gentleman, it is effectively his job to look for things to be offended by.

It would have been useful to know the exact wording of the question used in the poll.  Could it be that people are simply bored with 'bad' language rather than outraged by it, and think there's too much of it for that reason?  I often find swearing on TV tiresome - for example, when it's used in a conscious attempt to be 'edgy' or is so frequent that it becomes an irritating verbal tic - but I'm not offended by it.

Swearing can be powerful and expressive; the English language is blessed with some wonderfully meaty Anglo-Saxon words.  It can be very, very funny.  But it has to be used judiciously or it loses its power and effect.

It's rarely said, but this is the real reason why children should be told off for swearing and why adults shouldn't swear in front of them.  It's not because the words are intrinsically bad, but because getting into the habit of swearing all the time is likely to reduce their powers of expression.  They don't have the experience to know how and when to use them, and the overused and wrongly used words lose their power.

Not that this issue came up at the language-related talk at my daughter's primary school which I attended on Wednesday evening.  It was a presentation on phonics - the relatively new technique being used by the school to teach the children how to read and write - and the purpose was to give parents advice on how to give help and support at home.

Some of the advice was rather surprising.  For example, we were told that we shouldn't:

-  use letter names.  We should only refer to their sounds to avoid causing confusion;

-  mention vowels.  The children won't understand what they are;

-  say 'puh', 'tuh', 'muh' and 'nuh' for p, t, m and h.  The sounds are 'ppp', 'ttt', 'mmm' and 'nnn';

-  refer to 'curly /k/' and 'kicking /k/' for c and k.  They are simply different ways of writing the /k/ sound;

-  talk about the 'magic e' which modifies the sound of the preceding vowel when it comes at the end of a word (e.g. cub/cube).  This isn't taught any more.

I certainly don't disapprove of these new guidelines, you understand; the school is apparently enjoying great success with the phonics method already.  But these new tricks will take a bit of getting used to by this old dog.

During the question and answer session at the end of the talk, I was tempted to ask whether it's still acceptable to correct a child's mistakes with a sharp rap over the knuckles with a stick, but I'm afraid my nerve failed me...

Posted @ 10:14:28 on 31 January 2009  back to top
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Red wally, yerrollowarry...

It occurs to me that I haven't given an update on our two-year-old son's developing use of language since... well, this one.

All of the words in that list have now (slightly sadly) been replaced by the proper ones - except for one.  For some reason, Harry still can't say 'lorry'.  He doesn't say 'lolly' any more, though; his latest attempt comes out as 'wally', which caused some embarrassment recently.

I was pushing him in his buggy past a supermarket in Teddington, outside which a delivery lorry was parked.  The very large and very burly driver was standing next to it on the pavement, having a quick fag - and as we passed him, Harry pointed up and said loudly: 'Look!  Big wally!'

We moved on with markedly increased speed...

Posted @ 21:27:14 on 20 January 2009  back to top
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School's out

With my wife being a teacher, I have some knowledge of the often peculiar terminology used in education today.  Pay scales are called 'spines'.  Teachers have to cross 'thresholds' of achievement.  And recently my attention was drawn to the commitment of one particular school to 'celebrate stuckness'.  (Apparently this means that when a child says they don't understand something, the teacher should see this as a great opportunity to help and make progress - though I can't shake the vision of balloons and streamers falling from the ceiling and a marching band trooping through the classroom whenever a blank-looking pupil says, 'I don't get it, miss'.)

At the same time, I've worked in advertising long enough to be more than familiar with the idea of rebranding.  (The biggest rebranding exercise going on at the moment is the insurance giant Norwich Union changing its name to Aviva.  One press ad announcing the change has the headline: 'From a small corner of England to the 4 corners of the world'.  Norwich a small corner indeed.  Bloody cheek.)

Anyway... even though I'm aware of both of these things, I was still taken aback by the news that a primary school in Sheffield doesn't want to call itself a school any more as its governors feel that the word has 'negative connotations'.  Instead, it will be called 'a place for learning'.

Yes, that should help - just as changing Windscale's name to Sellafield and referring to civilian casualties of war as 'collateral damage' made everyone feel much more positive about them.

Anyway, you'll have to excuse me now as I've got to pop out to the supermarket in the car to get some sausages for tea.  Or - given that cars, supermarkets and sausages have negative connotations for (respectively) causing pollution, damaging the trade of local shops and adding to the nation's obesity problem - perhaps I should say that I'm going to take the box for travelling to the big building for buying to get some oinktubes for frying.

Posted @ 12:03:10 on 08 January 2009  back to top
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