Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Afrikaans spelling

I've been quiet for a long, long time now! As I mentioned in my last post (goodness, that sounds like some sort of death knell!) on December 29th, 2011, I was planning to take a break from these articles because I had some other things I wanted to work on. Well, I am pleased to say that one of those projects has come to fruition ... A book in English explaining the most important spelling rules of Afrikaans. It's titled Diacs and quirks in a nutshell – Afrikaans spelling explained, and has the most delightful little creature on the front cover, with most of its facial features made up of the diacritic signs used in Afrikaans writing.

Details about the book (including where and how you can buy copies of it – both printed and e-versions) can be found at

Many people may wonder why I've written this little book. It's very simple: 
the definitive reference work on Afrikaans spelling, Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls (AWS), is written in fairly academic Afrikaans, and therefore assumes a readership made up of people
who are – at the very least – quite proficient in the language. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of non-mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans, both in South Africa and abroad, who cannot read and comprehend Afrikaans at that level, but who either need to know, or want to know, how the rules work. My book is aimed at “opening up” the rules – and also the AWS itself – to them. And, of course, being able to spell better contributes greatly to being able to communicate more clearly. So to use the modern (hopelessly overworked) buzzword, one might say it’s all about empowerment! I’m frankly astounded, I must add, that a book like this wasn’t written a long time ago – long before my own first (not very good) attempt in 2000.

My next project is to translate it (with some minor adaptations) into Afrikaans.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

More on coo-girls, folk etymology and back-formations

Last week’s article ended like this: “Coo-girl from kugel is a good modern example of a folk-etymological (re)construction. Would it be a fair guess that the student who wrote coo-girl, not knowing it was the incorrect spelling, did so because in her mind a lady who (stereotypically) fitted that description spoke in a way that could be described as cooing?”

You may have spotted the fact that that paragraph itself illustrates folk etymology twice over! First we had the student spelling something according to her speculative interpretation or reconstruction of the word kugel which she had heard somewhere, and then there was my wholly speculative suggestion about what might have been going through her mind as she decided to write it that way.

And this is precisely the stuff folk etymology is made of: unfounded “conclusions” drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from unresearched and unconfirmed “data” about the possible origin of a word or phrase.

Now something more about back-formations.

In “Kudos, pease and thanks” (15 December) we saw that pea was a so-called back-formation resulting from an erroneous supposition that pease was a plural form and that pea was its corresponding singular forms I wrote about back-formations in the context of folk etymology because essentially the same process is at work here as in the case of words like coo-girl, namely the mis(re)construction, out of ignorance, of a word or phrase not well known to the language user(s) concerned.

The writer I quoted last week from talks about some other back-formations. Regarding emote, for example, he explains that it was “mistakenly assumed to be the root of emotion, which is logical enough since -tion is a common suffix in English. But in this case, the word dropped whole from French (émotion) into English, so that derivation is erroneous.” He then also mentions a few other words in English that were “mistakenly created by back-formation”: liaise, enthuse, laze and evanesce.

Some back-formations may be relatively easy to spot once one is aware of the phenomenon. (Or let me rather put that another way: some words may be relatively easy to suspect of being back-formations, subject to confirmation after the initial conjecture!) Other back-formations are far less transparent, and we might be surprised to discover that some words which we’ve simply taken for granted as always having “been there” as basic forms are, in fact, back-formations. A quick little exercise for you in this regard: consider and look up the words sculpt and predate in relation to sculptor and predator respectively and see what you come up with. Language is so interesting!

* This will be the last article in the “Write thinking” series until further notice, not because I have run out of things to write about (not by a long chalk!), but simply because of a need to reprioritise projects in the next few weeks or months. I will definitely be back with more sometime. In the meantime, thank you very much to many of you who have indicated your appreciation of my notes on language over the past few months – I do not take your responses for granted. May I wish everyone a productive, prosperous and highly satisfying 2012.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A coo-girl, a napron and folk etymology

What is happening, linguistically speaking, when someone writes kugel as coo-girl or construes kudos as a plural? (See “Kugel and kwaito”, 27/10/2011) and “Kudos, pease and thanks”, 15/12/2011.)

The answer is that a phenomenon or process called folk etymology – also known as popular etymology – is at work.

What is folk etymology?

Let’s first consider etymology proper. Etymology is a science involving careful research which ultimately gives “an account of the origins and the developments in the meaning of a word” (Oxford). According to Wikipedia etymology can be defined as “the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time”. For languages with a long written history, continues Wikipedia, “etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during earlier periods of their history and when they entered the languages in question.” 

Folk etymology, by contrast, is not research-based. Folk etymology is what comes into play when the speakers of a particular language hear a word or phrase that is unfamiliar to them and then interpret and reconstruct that word or phrase in terms that are familiar to them. While this usually happens with words from another language, it can also happen with words from one’s own language, as we’ll see below.

The American Heritage Online Dictionary says folk etymology has to do with a “change in the form of a word or phrase resulting from a mistaken assumption about its composition or meaning” and gives the following as examples: shamefaced from the earlier shamfast, which meant “bound by shame”, and cutlet from the French côtelette, meaning “little rib”.

In a short piece about folk etymology on we read:

English has many examples of folk etymology. Cockroach comes from the Spanish word cucaracha … the Spanish word was transformed into English by substituting similar-sounding (words): cock (as in rooster) and roach (which at that time was simply the name of a type of fish). There wasn’t anything about a cockroach that suggested “rooster” or “fish”, of course; it’s simply a matter of the sounds fitting … English speakers also mistook a napron for an apron, and even an ewt for a newt.

We also know that a nickname was first a neke name, based on a misdivision of an eke name.

Coo-girl from kugel is a good modern example of a folk-etymological (re)construction. Would it be a fair guess that the student who wrote coo-girl, not knowing it was the incorrect spelling, did so because in her mind a lady who (stereotypically) fitted that description spoke in a way that could be described as cooing? 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Kudos, pease and thanks

“I don’t mind if someone else eventually gets the kudus for the success of the project I launched,” remarked the person across the desk from me. Despite appearances, the statement had nothing to do with a willingness for the buck to be passed! Rather, as readers of this column would undoubtedly know, the speaker was simply mispronouncing kudos (“kew-doss”), meaning “accolades” or “praise”.

As anyone would soon discover from a good dictionary, kudos came into English as a singular noun from Greek. However, many speakers who are not aware of the word’s etymology treat it as a plural, pronounce it accordingly (something like “kew-doze”) and create a supposed corresponding singular form kudo (pronounced “kew-dough”) from it. (This mistaken thinking and practice can be traced as far back as the early 1900s.)

Kudos, being a singular noun, requires a singular verb, as in “Kudos is due to her for her pioneering work” , not a plural form as in  “Kudos are due to her.”. Also incorrect, therefore, is many kudos; it should be much kudos.

It is not uncommon to find the supposed plural form (often quite incorrectly written with an apostrophe!) on blog sites and other (usually) informal websites. Cf., for example, “A big warm thank you and kudo's to the three lovely leaders …” and “Kudo's to everyone on you [sic] staff …”

Less common appears to be the use of the supposed singular kudo. That examples may be rare could perhaps be inferred from the fact that the sentence “Children's book author Virginia Hamilton added another kudo to her prize-laden career” (Calvin Reid, Publisher's Weekly, June 26, 1995) is quoted in more than one source.

When a singular form like kudo is created from a perceived plural form like kudos, we refer to it as a back-formation. The same process took place in the case of the 17th-century word pease: it was perceived to be a plural and the back-formation we know today as pea was created from it. Similarly, when the Old Northern French word cherise came into Middle English, it was perceived to be plural and was “singularised” to what we know as cherry today.

These back-formations got me wondering about the expression “Many thanks”. Many eggs makes sense because we have the singular noun form egg, but modern English doesn’t have a singular noun thank for many thanks to make any grammatical sense – there’s no such thing as "One thank" to suggest that you may be less grateful than if you were to say "Many thanks"! 

Thursday, 8 December 2011


"How was my weekend? Meh. The mehness of it is indescribable. Just one big, fat meh. If you are an old-media kind of reader, meh won't mean a whole lot to you. The word has appeared in the national press three times in the past year. If you gain new vocabulary from conversation, it is probably unfamiliar. If you can't be torn from the web, however, you will almost certainly know it, and its meaning. Meh means rubbish. It means boring. It means not worth the effort, who cares, so-so, whatever. It is the all-purpose dismissive shrug of the blogger and messageboarder. And it is ubiquitous. On the 'I Love Music' messageboard, for example, 4 010 separate discussion threads feature the use of meh." (From: "Meh – the word that's sweeping the internet" by Michael Hann, The Guardian, March 5th, 2007 at,,2026533,00.html.)

While meh is usually associated with the TV series The Simpsons, says Hann, some have suggested it has its origins in Yiddish, pointing to a 1936 song in which it is said to have been used.

Two of more than 170 entries for meh on the Urban Dictionary site ( I looked at some time ago told me this:

·         Meh is an interjection used to imply indifference towards a subject; a verbal shrug. This particular interjection has somehow become quite popular among teens. The reason for this popularity is a mystery. Other popular interjections are bleh, dah, and mih. Usually pronounced shortly, without eye contact or body movement.

      "You wanna go to the mall?"

      "Meh, I have nothing to do for the rest of the day ..." etc.

·         Meh is used to describe any and every word possible, including yes; no; maybe; kind of; never; always; ok; alright; no thank you; yes please; whatever; shut up; i dont want to really; no honestly, i dont care – as in:
"you wanna come round mine?"


"whats that mean"

[person mentions all of the definitions above]

"so which one? yes or no?"


"that a yes?"


"a no??"


"a maybe???"


"look please tell me"

"meh" …

[edited – and censored!].
Has meh caught on in South Africa? I read it in a DVD review today (an Afrikaans one, at that!), but can’t recall ever having seen or heard it elsewhere locally before that. 

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Oppress, suppress, repress: What’s the difference?

Dear Philippa

You've asked me about the difference between oppress, repress and suppress.  

My instinct is always to reach for the dictionary to confirm my understanding or hunches before I start knock together an article on the difference between the meaning and use of similar/confusable words. This time I decided to commit my understanding to paper first and then go to the dictionary to see how right or wrong I was – just for fun!

Interestingly (but hardly surprisingly), mother-tongue speakers are normally better at thinking of examples or situations in which words are generally used rather than trying to figure out dictionary-type definitions of them. It was no different with me in this case. These were my instinctive responses:

Meanings according to Pietermaritzburg me

Oppress is usually used in a broadly (socio-) political sense; e.g. a ruling party, or majority race, or dominant socio-economic group may oppress other groups, i.e. keep them “down”, deny them certain privileges, prevent their advancement, or maybe even deliberately and systematically subject them to more or less severe hardships.

Repress is something I associate with something in the psychological sphere: it’s not what someone else does to me, but what I do to myself, like repressing feelings, emotions, responses.

Suppress … Mmm, I can also suppress feelings, etc., so what’s the difference between repress and suppress? … My conclusion is that repression is more severe or intense than suppression. I could conceivably turn suppression of my emotions on and off at will, as it were, but if I don’t turn them off, then prolonged or repeated suppression can become repression, which is a condition, then, rather than an action arising from choice. Suppression can also relate to physical things, like suppressing a sneeze or a laugh or an exclamation, whereas repression is purely mental/emotional/psychological.

I’ve just written this off the cuff, in a few minutes, and will not review the content, even though I’m tempted to – I often miss some important fact or nuance the first time.

Now to the dictionary definitions. To keep it simple and brief, I’ll start with the 2008 Concise Oxford on my bookshelf and go to others only if I feel I need to.

Meanings according to the Oxford lexicographers

Oppress: 1 keep in subjection and hardship. 2 make distressed or anxious. (…) Oppressive: 1 harsh or authoritarian. 2 weighing heavily on the mind or spirits. 3 (of weather) close or sultry.

Repress: 1 subdue by force. 2 restrain, prevent or inhibit. > suppress (a thought, feeling or desire) in oneself so that it becomes or remains unconscious. 3 (Biology) prevent the transcription of (a gene).

Suppress: 1 forcibly put an end to. 2 prevent from being expressed or published. > (Psychoanalysis) consciously avoid thinking of (an unpleasant idea or memory). 3 prevent or inhibit (a process or phenomenon).

So … clearly a few meanings I missed there in my off-the-cuff response; maybe I would have thought of some of them if I’d given myself a bit more time, but I doubt whether some of the others (especially the more specialised or technical ones) would ever have occurred to me. Then, of course, there’s the way I expressed my definitions; some of the dictionary meanings are there in my descriptions, but one almost has to read between the lines to see that I was sometimes trying to say the same thing as was said by that far more erudite, articulate and accurate Oxfordian collective!

Anyway, Philippa, thanks for the question. I hope this little exercise has helped. It certainly taught me a few lessons!


Really now ...

 In answer to a question shared on my Facebook page yesterday regarding whether "really" is an adverb in the sentence "Peter is really tired":

In “Peter is really tired” the word “tired” is undoubtedly an adjective. A simple test is to see whether words which we know without a doubt to be adjectives can be put in its place – which they can, e.g. Peter is handsome; Peter is sick. Placing “really” before “tired” doesn’t alter what part of speech “tired” is.

Where could the idea come from that “tired” may be a verb (since it wouldn’t intuitively be taken to be one)? The answer is that there are many instances where the so-called past participle of a verb (but NB: only when it occurs in a passive voice sentence) can function as, or be confused with, an adjective. E.g. the sentence “Peter was puzzled” could be understood as an abbreviated passive voice version of, say, “Peter was puzzled by the sudden change in weather”, of which the active voice version would be “The sudden change in weather puzzled Peter.” A passive voice interpretation of “Peter was puzzled” would be rare in normal, everyday speech, though. Our natural interpretation of “puzzled” in “Peter was puzzled” would be to understand it as an adjective. Ditto, then for “tired” in “Peter is tired.”  

So is “really” an adverb? Traditionally an adverb is a part of speech that is said to “modify” a verb (i.e. “tell us more about” the action named by a verb), or another adverb, or an adjective. Since “tired” is an adjective, “really” is an adverb in this case. Again, the substitution test can help us confirm this: “very” and “quite” are two words whose adverbial status is traditionally taken for granted, and since both of them can replace “really” here (cf.  Peter is quite tired; Peter is very tired) we can assume that “really” is an adverb. Add to this the fact that the suffix “-ly” is usually indicative of an adverb, and there can be little doubt about the adverbial status of “really” in "Peter is really tired."