Archive | May, 2012

Homophones and homonyms

28 May

Driving home from the airport yesterday afternoon I was half-listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the difficulty of teaching children to read, and spell, English. After a bit of background reading this morning, the problem appears to be that we are trying to teach more than 40 different phonemes (sounds to you and me) with an alphabet that has only 26 letters, with the result that two letters are often used together to represent a distinct sound (for example, gh, th and sh). This is compounded by English not using diacritics (accents, cedillas, umlauts, etc) that make a change of sound obvious.

The result is that English contains a lot of homophones – words that are spelled differently, and mean different things, but sound the same – for example, bow and bough, bred and bread, place and plaice, strait and straight, threw and through, waste and waist;  and homonyms – words that are spelled the same, but mean different things –  for example, bat (something to play a game with and a flying rodent), bow again (as in bow tie and bow and arrow), bustle (to hurry and padding worn by Victorian women), curry (to groom a horse and something to eat), organ (a part of your body and something to play music on) – or that are spelled the same, but sound differently – and now we are back to bow again (a decorative knot in a ribbon, or to bend from the waist).

There seemed to be a great deal of discussion on the programme about the  benefits of teaching phonics compared with those of teaching synthetic phonics (but, since there seems to be a crisis over childrens’ reading, it might be fair to say that neither is working). It’s a long time since I was taught to read – though clearly it worked – but I do remember that I could read by the time I went to school (at four), probably  because my mother used to sit to read a book with (not to) me. Perhaps that worked because I am visually-orientated (I still say that if I’ve seen a word written I can remember how to spell it), but I believe that children who learn to read and spell quickly do that through reading at home, not at school. This, of course, creates problems for children whose parents don’t read with them, because they don’t read themselves, or can’t read with them, because they can’t read English themselves.

Should we revert to the “cat sat on the mat” style of learning to read: a picture, written words, accompanied by spoken words? Or is that just too easy?

Today’s picture

I have been to Majorca in May before, but have never seen oranges on the trees. Are they early or late?

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More on the brilliant Robert Jay QC

14 May

The Leveson inquiry continues – and the Guardian‘s reports supply, me at least, with a great deal of fascinating reading. Robert Jay appears to have an excellent command of the English language. In a short piece in the Guardian one day last week, Maev Kennedy wrote: “The QC’s style has led Jay to be hailed as the star of the inquiry…Condign as in ‘errors must be corrected and in a condign [fitting] manner’ enchanted several followers, like Thursday’s propinquity (‘the state of being close to something’).”

It’s such a pleasure to read of someone using words that one has to think about (or, even, look up). English – the world’s richest language – becomes more impoverished each day because people don’t read enough and are lazy about finding synonyms rather than continually using the same words. The argument for imprecision – synonyms: sloppiness, inaccuracy – is always, “English is a living language and is constantly changing”. True, but accepting new words into the language doesn’t mean that we have to discard those that are already there and that are often more descriptive and precise.

Today’s picture

Two days of sunshine encouraged my Rosa Banksia Lutea to begin to flower. One plant – a present some years age from fellow blogger northoneartist – has spread along one side of my garden. The photograph I took on Saturday has the added interest of a bug!

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Buzz words and synonyms

8 May

I’ve been too busy – editing copy – to blog for the past few days (and I think I’ve grown roots into my chair). I work a lot for technology companies, which is quite funny because I’m not at all technology oriented. While I don’t, of course, expect the prose of the CEOs, FDs, etc, of these companies to rival William Boyd or Martin Amis, it would good if they could at least learn to use the Thesaurus or, as they would probably say, “think outside the box” of their apparently limited vocabularies.

Each year new buzz words come into fashion and are used continuously. This year things are being  transitioned, rather than changed, moved or developed; and embedded, rather than implanted, placed or fixed. This is in addition to the old faithfuls of moving forward; key, instead of major, important, vital; and my all-time hate word, enhance, which originally meant to increase the clarity of an image and is now used as a synonym for improve, increase, augment – or anything similar.

I shouldn’t, of course, criticise. If all these people could write wonderful prose, they wouldn’t need to pay me to make it readable! But after five solid days, I needed to come up for air, and a moan. The next job has just arrived by email, so there will probably be another big gap in my blog.

Today’s picture

I was hoping to be able to include a picture of my Rosa Banksia something-or-other, but it’s only just coming into flower, very late this year. Instead, here is a beautiful tulip.Image