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Thursday 22 May, 2008

Turdus merula


Early Irish poetry

Here is a tiny Old Irish poem I have just found.  It dates from the 8th century.  I found this surprising, as it is almost haiku-like, if you see what I mean.  I was amazed to find that, along with the epic heroic poetry, a lot of other stuff has survived and this is much more lyrical, or comic or even downright risqu.  There is a poem by a monk complaining that his poor hand is tired of writing.  Another poem is a major grumpy fit about the onset of winter.  And one poem, by a woman writer called Iseabail N Mheic Cailin around 1500, called Listen, People of this House. This is a very explicit hymn of praise to part of the household priest!

Anyway, here is the little poem in a nice font.  The graphic, transcription and translation are mine. The photo is from Wikimedia  The title is Modern Irish. I must admit that the transcription is a little tentative in places.  The orthography of Old Irish is stupendously weird.


ən ɫon dʊv


int eːn beɟ
ro leːɟ fetʲ
do rind ɡubʲ

focer fɑiːʲ
oːs ɫox ɫɑiːʝ
ɫon do xrɑiːβʲ




The Blackbird


The small bird
has given a whistle
from the point of a beak
bright yellow

it sends a call
above Belfast Lough
a blackbird from a branch
laden with yellow

Friday 16 May, 2008




Scholars of Old Irish use the symbol [μ] to represent a nasalised voiced bilabial fricative [β̃].  See, for example, Quin, E. G. (1975) Old-Irish Workbook. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy or Stifter, David (2006) Sendgoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. I am sure I have seen somewhere a claim that this sound survived into Modern Irish in some dialects, where it was spelled <mh>, but has now been replaced by [v]. Unfortunately, I can't relocate the reference at the moment.  Interestingly, I have heard at least one speaker from Ireland, or rather a singer, who frequently uses [ṽ] when singing English.  If you can find it, listen to the song The Last Rose of Summer sung by Mire N Bhraonin of the group Clannad.

If the Celticists have got it right, and as yet I haven't looked at the evidence, the existence of this sound in OI is remarkable.  It is the only example I know of a nasalised fricative in contrast with its non-nasalised counterpart.  OI also had [β] which could occur in exactly the same environments. Here is a minimal pair:  mo ben [mo βen] "my woman/wife" vs mo men [mo β̃en]  "my flour".


Wednesday 14 May, 2008




Provinces of Ireland

I have just been on a wikigooglewander looking at the names of the traditional provinces of Ireland: Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster.  As usual on these occasions, I found something that I hadn't even thought of asking myself about.  Why the -ster ending for three of them?  One possible answer appears to be that the s is the Norse genitive marker - the Vikings dominated large chunks of Ireland between 800-1000 AD - and the -ter bit derives from Irish tr  meaning "country."  Another possibility is that the -ster bit derives from Old Norse star, meaning  "place/territory". The derivation of the four names is:

  1. Leinster: Laigin (the name of the dominant tribe in ancient times) + s + tr / + star

  2. Munster: Muma (the name of a Celtic goddess) + s + tr / + star

  3. Connacht: (the land of) the people of Conn

  4. Ulster:  Ulaidh (the name of the ancient local tribe) + s + tr / + star

Rather surprisingly, the provinces are called Cige, which means "a fifth part".  This is because originally there were five of them.  The fifth, Meath, occupied the northern and western parts of what is now Leinster and merged with Leinster in the eleventh century.

In the present County Meath lies the Hill of Tara, Teamhair na R in Irish, meaning "Hill of the King".  This, supposedly, was the seat of the High King of All Ireland, although exactly what that title meant is apparently a matter of dispute.  It seems likely that the High King's influence reached only the northern half of the island, rather than the whole country.  More on the provinces in a later post.

Teamhair na R

Sunday 11 May, 2008




The mysteries of alveolar plosive elision

If you have ever studied the phonetics of English, or followed classes in English pronunciation, it's a good bet that you have come across the phenomenon of elision.  Various sorts of segment may be elided, but for the moment I am going to concentrate on the two English alveolar plosives [t] and [d]. Let's start off with a couple of examples.  The phrase last week may be pronounced either [lɑːst wiːk] or [lɑːs wiːk]. Old man may be either [əʊld mn] or [əʊl mn].  This is exactly what we mean by the phenomenon called alveolar plosive elision: the option to leave out a [t] or [d] when we pronounce a word or phrase.  Notice that I say option.  Elision is never obligatory. 

It's clear that alveolar plosive elision has been going on in English for a good long time.  Consider the words listen, castle, Christmas, soften, handsome. Although these words contain the letter <t> or <d>, which suggests at one time they could be pronounced with the relevant consonant, few, if any, native speakers of English would produce alveolar plosives in these words, and others like them, no matter how carefully they were speaking.  The alveolar plosives have disappeared from the pronunciation of these words, but the letters remain in the spelling.

The question then arises: when exactly can you elide an alveolar plosive?  At first sight, this seems fairly straightforward.  Here are the conditions which must be met before an alveolar plosive is in danger of disappearing. 

  1. The alveolar plosive must be surrounded by consonants.

  2. The alveolar plosive must be in the coda, not the onset, of a syllable.

  3. The following consonant must not be [h].

  4. The preceding consonant must be of the same voicing as the alveolar plosive.

If the textbook you are reading is a good one, it should tell you also that the contracted negative n't is an exception.  The [t] may be elided in words like can't, shouldn't, hasn't even if a vowel or [h] follows and even though the consonant preceding the [t] is voiced and the [t] itself is voiceless. I should add that some, but not all, speakers seem not to like eliding alveolar plosives before the consonants [w], [r] and [j]

Easy, huh?  Wellllll....

Consider the words handle and postal.  The alveolar plosives in these should be zappable, shoudn't they?  Well, they're not!  Certainly not in my speech anyway.  Consider the words hurtle and certain.  If you speak with an accent in which the [r], is pronounced, you should be able to elide the alveolar plosive, shouldn't you?  Well, you can't.  So there!

Watch this space.

Friday 9 May, 2008

The Klallam lift the log





This is the result of a Google-wander.  I can't remember what I was looking for, but I ended up finding Klallam.  This is a Salishan language spoken on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and across the the Straits of Juan de Fuca on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island.  The name Klallam, according to the legend, is the result of a large tribal gathering at which a trial of strength was proposed.  This consisted of trying to lift a very large log.  Various tribes tried and failed and then someone in the Klallam tribe had an attack of the smarts.  They floated the log in the river and their strongest men got in and hoisted it on their shoulders, then carried it out and lifted it on top of the log house.  All the other tribes shouted "Klallam, Klallam!", which means "strong people".  It seems then that Klallam may be an exonym, especially as the consonants [k] and [l] are reported to be rare in the language of the tribe. The language is also generally called Klallam, but the tribe's name for it is [nəxʷstʃʼajʔəˈmutsən]. So there!

In common with other Salishan languages, Klallam has a pretty impressive array of rare-(ish) consonants.  Here is the consonant inventory:

  bilabial alveolar palato-alveolar palatal velar labialised velar uvular labialised uvular glottal
plosive p t     k kʷ q qʷ ʔ
affricate   ts            
fricative   s ʃ   x xʷ χ χʷ h
ejective stop pʼ tʼ     kʼ kʷʼ qʼ qʷʼ  
ejective affricate   tsʼ              
lateral fricative   ɬ              
ejective lateral affricate   ʼ              
nasal m n         ɴ    
approximant (w)     j (w)      
lateral   l              
glottalised nasal         ɴʔ    
glottalised approximant (wʔ)     (wʔ)        

I have never been quite sure why native American languages are said to have glottalised sonorants as unitary segments rather than as sequences.  Maybe someone can enlighten me.  From the examples I have heard it sounds as if the glottal stop follows the sonorant with some concomitant creaky voice during the sonorant itself.

The vowel system is simple, but defective, as it lacks a mid back vowel to pair with [e].  However, [e] is rare in the language and, I suppose, could have been introduced by borrowings from a neighbour language.

  front central back
close i   u
mid e ə  
open   a  

Again like many other Salishan languages, Klallam allows some wondrously complex consonant clusters. How about the word for floor [ˈsxʷɬχatʃən], or dancer's belt  [ˈsxʷqʼqʼikʷən]?  Aren't they real doozies? BTW, I am not at all sure where to put the stress mark in stuff like that! Maybe this is a good case for using the US method of marking stress by putting an acute accent over the stressed vowel.

There is quite a lot of stuff online about Klallam, including sound files and a few video clips.  Unfortunately, not all the sounds play.  And be warned that the transcriptions used are not pure IPA.  Here are a couple of links:

University of North Texas
Language Geek

Saturday 3 May, 2008









A question of stranding

Hctor Ortiz writes again from Chile:

In a sentence like
Who is she younger than?
I feel THAN is stranded and takes a strong form. Why?
1. Is it functioning as a preposition? My grammar colleagues say it isnt.
2. Is it a conjunction which becomes strong by analogy with a prep?
3. Is it the only conj. which can undergo this process?

My reply:

You are right in thinking that THAN is stranded in your sentence.  According to all the dictionaries I have looked at THAN is classed as a conjunction.  I guess it's pretty rare for a conj. to be stranded.  The only other example I can think of at the moment is very similar to your sentence:
Who is she as old as?
The second AS is stranded and must be strong.

Thursday 24 April, 2008

Bugh Worm




Celtic flip-flops

Many of you probably know that all modern Celtic languages have initial consonant mutations.  These affect mainly the manner of articulation and the voicing of some word-initial consonants in the language, mostly, but not exclusively the stop consonants. The mutations are not simply a phonetic phenomenon and mostly the trigger for the mutations is lexical or syntactic.  For instance the word a [ə] in Irish can mean either his or her. When it means his it causes a mutation in the initial consonant of the following noun.  For instance, mac [mɒk] ("son"), but a mhac [ə wɒk] ("his son").  When a  means her no mutation takes place.  So "her son" is a mac [ə mɒk].

In the two Celtic languages with which I am most familiar, namely Irish and Cornish, there is a curious and somewhat perverse phenomenon involving mutations, whereby what happens with masculine nouns is exactly the opposite (well nearly) of what happens with feminine nouns.  Take for example the situation with the singular definite article in Irish.  The table shows the forms for masc. and fem. singular def. art for the "common" case (nominative, accusative and dative) and also for the genitive case.

  Common Genitive
Masculine an an
Feminine an na

The forms in red cause mutation, the ones in blue do not.

I have just (re-)discovered the fact that a very similar thing goes on in Cornish, but this time with adjectives following a noun.  A singular feminine noun triggers a mutation in a following adjective: gorm [gorm] ("dun"), but bugh worm [byx worm] ("dun cow").  Singular masculine nouns do not trigger a mutation: tarow gorm [ˈtarɔʊ ɡorm] ("dun bull").  In the plural the situation is that feminine nouns do NOT trigger a mutation, but masculine nouns referring to persons do. So:  bughes gorm [ˈbyxez gorm] ("dun cows"), teweri gorm [ˈterewi ɡorm] ("dun bulls"), but, if there be such things, tiogyon worm [tiˈoɡjon worm] ("dun farmers").

This phenomenon also seems to extend to the second elements of compound nouns. So: kador (f) vregh [ˈkador ˈvrex] ("armchair"), but kadoryow bregh [ˈkadorjɔʊ ˈbrex] ("armchairs").

Wednesday 23 April, 2008

Memorial to Michael Joseph & Thomas Flamank
St Keverne Church




An Gof

Yesterday was largely devoted to a trip to St Keverne, a small village on the Lizard Peninsula, not far from Goonhilly Down Satellite Earth Station and about 25 miles from Penzance.  These days St Keverne is well-known for Roskilly's icecream, which is manufactured on a large dairy farm called Tregellast Barton on the outskirts of the village.

The plaque set into the wall of the churchyard is evidence of St Keverne's other great claim to fame.  The translation is as follows:

In memory of
Michael Joseph
the smith
Thomas Flamank
leaders of the Cornish host
which marched to London
and suffered vengeance there
June 1497
"They shall have names
perpetual and fame permanent
and immortal"
Erected by Mebyon Kernow

The rebellion was sparked by Henry VII's imposition of heavy taxes to fund a campaign against the Scots.  The Cornish, especially the tinners, were incensed.  They did not see why they should pay for the English to fight the Scots, the more so because the Cornish Stannary Parliament had been granted rights by Edward I exempting them from such taxes.

Joseph and Flamank, a lawyer from Bodmin, gathered an army 15,000 strong and marched on London.  They eventually made their final camp on Blackheath, but, after giving stiff resistance to the royal forces, were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge on June 17.  An Gof escaped, but was soon recaptured at Greenwich.  Flamank was captured on the battlefield.  Both were executed at Tyburn on June 27.  The quote on the plaque is an adaptation of what were reputedly An Gof's words before his execution.

Mebyon Kernow means "Sons of Cornwall" and is the name of the Cornish Nationalist political party.

Tuesday 16 April, 2008

A painting of Richard Trevithick
by John Linnell





It seems that Cornwall has caught festival fever.  Here in Penzance we have the mid-summer festival - Golowan - and the mid-winter festival - Montol.  In St Just there is Lafrowda in July and of course there is the Helston Furry Dance on May 8.  Now, on April 26 we have Trevithick Day in Camborne, celebrating the town's most famous son, Richard Trevithick, who was born in 1771 (not on April 26, but April 13) at Tregajorran near Illogan, not far from Camborne.  He was the son of a "captain" at the nearby Dolcoath Mine, and was a great sportsman and wrestler in his youth.

Trevithick is best known for his invention of the high-pressure steam engine, which was a considerable advance on the low-pressure variety developed by James Watt in 1769.  Trevithick worked on his engine in the 1790s and on Christmas Eve 1801 demonstrated his steam-powered "road engine", called the The Puffing Devil, by transporting several men up Camborne Hill.  Three days later, the engine was tested again, but it broke down and was left while the operators repaired to a nearby inn for a meal.  The water boiled off and the whole machine was burnt out.

In 1808 Trevithick publicised his locomotive building expertise by designing a steam engine called "Catch Me Who Can" and exhibiting this in a "steam circus" just south of Euston Station.  The site of this has now been identified. It is currently occupied by the Chadwick Building at UCL.  Unfortunately, the locomotive proved too heavy for the tracks it ran on and the exhibition was not a great success.  Richard built no more locomotives.

Trevithick's invention was much more important for the mining industry, however.  It proved much more efficient a method of pumping water out of the mines than its fore-runners and was also used to power mills to crush ore.  Trevithick was a restless and adventurous man.  In 1816, just after the birth of his sixth child, he swanned off to South America, where he acted as a mining consultant in Peru.  Amongst other adventures he served in the army of Simon Bolivar, was nearly drowned twice, was nearly eaten by an alligator and also crossed the Nicaraguan isthmus on foot.

When he arrived back in Cornwall in 1827, he was penniless.  The only reason that he got back at all was that he was lucky enough to meet Robert Stephenson, the railway pioneer, in Cartegena.  Stephenson gave Trevithick 50 to aid his passage home.  He didn't stick around for long.  In the early 1830s he once gain left his long-suffering wife, Jane, and went to London to work for an engineering firm called J E Hall.  He worked there for about a year, but he fell ill and died in 1833 in Dartford, Kent.  He was destitute again and his funeral expenses were paid for by a collection by his colleagues at Hall's works.  He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Wednesday 9 April, 2008



Picking my brains

Hctor Ortiz writes, saying he wants to pick my brains.  This is very foolhardy of him, I think, because he'll have to find them first.  Anyway, here goes.... He writes:

What is it that makes was a strong form in
as opposed to a weak form in
I know was is stranded in the first sentence. Why? What has moved where? Is it because it derives from I didnt have any money was the problem? Does that in the 2nd make all the difference? Instinctively, I feel there are 2 intonation groups in 1 and only 1 in 2. Can a strong form for was be used in 2?
Gracias por tu ayuda.

I replied as follows:

The problem is that there are quite a few possibilities and combinations of weak/strong form, one or two IPS and various nucleus placements.  In what follows I use underlining for nucleus placement, | for IP boundary and red for a strong form.  Here are some of the possibilities:

1.  The problem was | I didn't have any money.
2.  The problem was | that I didn't have any money.
3.  The problem was | I didn't have any money.
4.  The problem was | that I didn't have any money.
5.  The problem was | I didn't have any money.
6.  The problem was | that I didn't have any money.
7.  The problem was  I didn't have any money.
8.  The problem was that  I didn't have any money.
9.  The problem was I didn't have any money.
10. The problem was that I didn't have any money.

Of course, for (1) and (2) was must be strong.  For these, cf The thing is, The question is, etc.  As far as I am concerned none of these ten versions is impossible.  I don't think it is a matter of stranding for any of them.  I can't see that there has been any movement or deletion of anything.  So my answer really is that the presence or absence of that makes no difference.
De nada!

What do others think?