Category Archives: Phonology

Language Acquisition

I’m sat at home as I type this with a little girl cuddling on my lap. She’ll be two in July. She is mine, I hasten to add… I didn’t kidnap her for the sake of a blog post!

We’re still waiting for her to talk which is the point of this post. She relies almost entirely on /m/ sounds. Now, in fairness, there is a wide range of expression in her /m/s and we can tell the difference between an angry /m/ and a happy /m/ and a naughty /m/ and an asking /m/. Mmmmmm and Mmm? and MMMMmmmmm and mmmmmmmmmm… And she can laugh both spontaneously and with somewhat dramatised /ha/ /ha/ /ha/ sounds. 

She is capable of producing other sounds: we’ve had /d/ sounds which seems lmore like a Simpsons’ “D’oh” rather than anything meaning “dad” but we have had /æ/ sounds, generally in the context of singing Row Row Row Your Boat.  Or, as here, in reenacting scenes from Hammer Horror’s Dracula. 

I have had arguments with both my other daughter and health visitor as to whether these noises constitute ‘words’ or ‘speaking’. Personally, without any sense of consistent semantics, I think they are just noises, experimentation and play. 


Shades of Meaning: Lay and Lie


There are so many times when I have had to explain that these are actually different words with different meanings and different morphologies.

Obviously, there is a shared etymology here from Middle English leyen and Old English lecgan but, in the eight hundred years since the thirteenth century, this single root has diverged. To lay is transitive and requires an object to have been put down; to lie is intransitive and has no need for an object.

And, it goes without saying that the homophonous (and also intransitive) verb to lie meaning to deceive and dissemble is from a different root altogether: the Old English lēogan. Phonologically equivalent but etymologically and semantically totally distinct.

Who says the English language is easy?

Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

20131231-104057.jpg and the ghul.

I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!



I’m not sure how the middle of this altercation went but…

it started with a seagull swooping downwards from the sky aiming towards a Costa outdoors table…

and ended with a small boy going “Oi!”

A world of hurt, outrage and indignation were conveyed by that one utterance, those two vowels, that diphthong!



I’m not sure how the middle of this altercation went but…

it started with a seagull swooping downwards from the sky aiming towards a Costa outdoors table…

and ended with a small boy going “Oi!”

A world of hurt, outrage and indignation were conveyed by that one utterance, those two vowels, that diphthong!


Word Of The Week, Bear


Please bare with us while we undergo renovations

read the sign in the shop window. Imagine my disappointment when, entering the shop and slowly stripping off, no-one joined in!

And the police were called.

And cautions given.

Apparently, according to the judge, the sign should not have been read as either invitation, request or instruction

Not a true story!

But when the lovely Mrs P. asks how to spell “bear” as in “bear with me”, it is an image that flashes through my mind!

And it is a totally understandable confusion: bear is so strongly linked with its homonym of bear the animal, the ursidae in their Latin name


that it just doesn’t feel right to use it in other contexts.

And it’s use as a verb, transitive and intransitive, to mean to endure or to carry something is a tad archaic now. Even though the most fundamental and primal human experience of being born is the past participle of this verb, do we even refer to a pregnant woman as bearing a child? Even though I remember my grandmother complaining that my uncle had married a woman

past child-bearing age

it sounds rather Victorian and squeamish and euphemistic. Nowadays, don’t we just have children rather than bear them? The intransitive connotations of the word – suggesting to endure or to suffer hardships and trials – are also rather archaic in the contexts: are children a trauma to be borne with fortitude; or a blessing to be celebrated?

Perhaps women have a different attitude. I mean, as a guy, I accept that we have it easy!

And that this is dangerous territory!

Let us move to another use which still persists: particularly in America perhaps, the right to bear arms is a cherished right. But, once again, it is a right enshrined in the Second Amendment of The Constitution in 1791 and therefore has the power of history, and is used almost ritualistically, almost fetishistically, amongst some people. But once more I fear I may be treading on dangerous ground.

And it may say an awful lot about me that I’m more afraid of the wrath of pregnant women!

To have said that the word bear is a tad archaic is literally true: the word derives from the Middle English beren and Old English beran with kinship to the same word, beran in Old High German and, with the shift between the unvoiced /f/ phonemes to the voiced /b/ over time, the Latin ferre and Greek phérein.

It is therefore – fittingly with its universal and primal sense of our being born – an ancient word whose use goes back literally beyond the rise of English as a language.

Word Of The Week, Mote

A mote.

A mote plays havoc with my autocorrect here. If, my dear iPhone, I had meant ‘more’, ‘moat’, ‘mots’, ‘motte’ or ‘mite’, please be assured that I would have written that! I am a man with a brain; you are a piece of plastic connected to the Internet. Therefore in all things, I am right and you are wrong!!

But is it my phone’s fault that it does not recognise the word mote? Let us consider: my iPhone is 6 months old, give or take; the word we’re looking at is perhaps over a thousand years old. I will have trouble next week putting names to faces of classes I’ve not seen for six weeks, let alone a thousand years!

Because mote evolved – I was going to say coined but I’m assuming that evolved is a better word: the deliberate coining on neologisms to describe new inventions or concepts feels very modern and industrialised; evolution feels more traditional, natural and organic. But these are just feelings and my prejudices with absolutely no evidence – around 1000-1200 AD. It seems to have come from Old English into Middle English.

And it means a speck, a particle, a tiny thing. A nubbin. Which is a glorious word itself: nubbin.

Anyway, I am being distracted!

Back to mote.

Phonologically, it is pronounced to be a homophone for moat.

On an aside and returning to the frustrations of autocorrect functions: when writing homophone the iPhone autocorrects it to homophobe. What a sad indictment of the universe we live in that we might be more likely to be discussing the prejudiced and abhorrent world of homophobes before the world of language and phonology.

Anyway, digressing again Mr P!

Phonologically, we open with the long sensuous /m/ rolling around inside our mouths, our lips pressed together. This /m/ could last for as long as we wanted it to. We could savour it, linger over it, prolong it.

Until, that is the short vowel /əʊ/ and precise /t/ cut it off short.

It is almost as if the tiny precise /t/ phoneme is the speck, hidden in the vast and rolling world encapsulated by the /m/.

And the word mote has a poetic and lyrical depth to it for such a tiny word.

The word is used biblically to describe hypocrisy:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

This at least is the King James translation of Matthew 7:3. More recent translations have tended to go for speck, speck of sawdust or even the – in my opinion very ungainly – chip. I understand why: speck of sawdust has a more direct comparison with beam or – even more ungainly – plank. And these are translation of the Greek word Καρφος meaning splinter – which is itself a translation from the Hebrew. But mote is just so much more resonant!

And the second massively familiar quote is from Carl Sagan who describes our own planet – our green and pleasant land – our terraqueous globe – as

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Who says scientists can’t be lyrical?! What a beautiful phrase to encapsulate the beauty, preciousness, miraculousness and perhaps insignificance and fragility of our daily squabbles.


This is the photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 which inspired Sagan. Beneath is a more recent and spectacularly beautiful photo that shows again the mote on which we live, love, hope, dream and die.

This picture was found here and has been scaled for effect.