John Maidment's Blog

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Tuesday 8 April, 2008


Bits and pieces

  • According to the news, last night was the lowest recorded April temperature, and it was recorded here in balmy Penzance.

  • After a disastrous bread-making experience a couple of days ago, when the element in the main oven blew half way through the baking, I have now made my second loaf (in the smaller oven), and, just to show I ain't gonna be beat, I made a soda bread loaf too.

  • Quote of the day: I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer. (Douglas Adams).

  • Doing this blog has involved some picture manipulation, and I found that I enjoyed that.  So I have started a new career as a cartoonist.  Just kidding.  But here is a series of cartoons I have put together:  Enid and Norman.  I hope some of my devoted readers enjoy them.

Thursday 3 April, 2008

Gwennap Pit




St Day & Gwennap Pit

A beautiful spring day here, so out for the afternoon, partly for business (the gates to the courtyard here are crumbling away, so one stop was at a place to arrange for new ones to be made) and mostly for pleasure.  Lunch was had, and pretty good it was too and in the open air!  Then a visit to St Day, once a very important centre of the mining industry in Cornwall, and the earliest too, mining copper and not tin.  The industry went into a sharp decline in about 1870 and a huge proportion of the population of St Day emigrated to the colonies, and to North and South America.  In many instances, it was just the men who went, leaving their wives behind to keep the family going.  In some cases, the men eventually returned, if they had survived the sometimes very hard conditions under which they worked, and in other cases the wives and families would eventually join them and leave Cornwall for good.  The emigrant miners were known as "Cousin Jacks". St Day has been undergoing something of a rebirth recently and now has an excellent "town trail" and an information centre housed in the old (and roofless) church.

Not far from St Day is Gwennap Pit, which is built on the site of an old mine.  It is a large circular pit, with stepped sides, as you can see in the picture. It was used, from the mid 18th century as an open air preaching pit.  Its most famous user was John Wesley, who preached there 18 times between 1776 and 1789. Approximately 6000 people can be accommodated (standing).  However, John Wesley, who was occasionally prone to exaggeration, recorded that one of his congregations was 32,000 strong!


I do not wish to trow my own blumpet, but the bread I made yesterday is really good. Yum!

Wednesday 2 April, 2008

My first loaf




Making bread etc.

Spring is here!  Well, some of the time, anyway.  Gardening is beginning.  Dwarf runner beans, mini tomatoes, basil, Anaheim chili peppers, are all (I hope) happily germinating in their little pots.

One thing I have always had a fancy for is making bread.  I have tried a number of times in the past, but without much success.  This time I hope will be better.  The first loaf I made (today) certainly looks pretty handsome.  I hope it tastes as good as it looks.  I am trying a new method this time.  It involves no kneading at all, but takes 12-18 hours to prove.  Here is the recipe for those of you who might want to try:

Ingredients: 3 cups plain flour
1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 3/4 tsp. salt
Cornmeal or flour for dusting

-In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, and salt,. Add 1 5/8 cups water and stir until blended; the dough will be shaggy and very sticky. ------Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at warm room temperature (about 70F) until the surface is dotted with bubbles, 12 to 18 hours.
-Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and fold the dough over onto itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
-Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. ----Generously coat a cotton towel, preferably a flour sack towel (not terry cloth), with cornmeal. Put the dough, seam side down, on the towel and dust with more flour or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise until the dough is more than double in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger, about 2 hours.
-At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, put a 2 3/4-quart cast-iron pot in the oven and preheat the oven to 450F.
-Carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over, seam side up, into the pot; it may look like a mess, but that is OK. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the loaf is browned, 15 to 30 minutes more.
-Transfer the pot to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn the pot on its side and gently turn the bread; it will release easily. Makes one 1 1/2-lb. loaf.


Wednesday 26 March, 2008




Rant responses

It is gratifying to know that one's scribblings sometimes strike a chord.  Here are two responses to my most recent, somewhat immoderate, posting:

Catherine Sangster of the BBC Pronunciation Unit writes:

Sorry to read about "Das Boot" being pronounced as footwear... the Pronunciation Unit maintains an in-house database which the announcers should be able to check online at any time, and I'll see if I can use your blog post to remind them.

Petr Rsel of the University of Mainz writes:

"where ignorance is bliss..." I'm tempted to write. Similar things happen on German TV. There are two big public channels, ARD and ZDF. The ARD has a pronunciation unit hosted by the Hessische Rundfunk in Frankfurt; whether the ZDF maintains a similar institution I do not know. Quite frequently does one hear the word <introduction> being pronounced with a t-sound in the final consonant cluster: /-daktʃən/. A lot of my students of English use the same pronunciation and they are flabbergasted when I tell them that there should be no t-sound in that cluster.

Ah, the announcer's lot is not a happy one!  Tough!

Sunday 23 March, 2008




Putting the boot in

Yesterday evening, after a relaxing dinner (for the curious: cauliflower cheese), I watched a couple of programmes on BBC2.  After the second of these, the voice of continuity announcer came on to announce the next programme and to tell us all that at eleven o'clock there would be a tense wartime drama -- the film Das Boot, which she pronounced:

[das buːt] 

I suppose I should be grateful she didn't say [buːʔ], but it quite spoiled my evening! What are we to expect next?  Radio 3 announcers introducing music by [btʃ], or [tʃɒpɪn]?

I got to thinking why that irritated me so much.  I suppose the real reason (apart from it being wrong!) is that here is a young woman, who is presumably being paid a good salary for a job which, at least it did last evening, entails reading a few sentences from a script every 30 minutes or so.  And she cocks it up.  The BBC has a pronunciation unit.  If it was not feasible to consult the folk there, surely there must be someone around who knows a little German.  I didn't expect a perfect pronunciation -- [bəʊt] would have done.  Does no-one care about accuracy?

Tonight's dinner is vegetarian Thai curry and rice.

Saturday 22 March, 2008

Asterix, Obelix
and Dogmatix (aka Idfix)




Gaulish (Part 1)

The Romans never conquered Britain as completely as they did Gaul, which was approximately co-extensive with modern France and Belgium, but included parts of what is now northern Italy, together with the western parts of Switzerland, part of the Netherlands and Germany to the west of the Rhine.  After the defeat of a Gaulish federation at the Battle of Alesia in 55 BCE, the Romans pursued a policy which today would be called genocide. The Celtic language(s) spoken by the inhabitants of Britain at the time of the Roman invasions had a chance to develop into the modern Celtic languages we know today as Welsh and Breton, and of course Cornish.  Gaulish, on the other hand, died out completely, leaving no successor.

What we know of the Gauls has come to us almost entirely through the writings of Roman or Greek authors, such as Strabo, Didorus Siculus, and of course Julius Caesar.  What we know of their language, or languages, has been gleaned from names in the works of these authors: of people, such as Vercingetorix (possibly "Great Warrior King"), and deities such as Epona ("Great Mare"), Belenos (probably "Shining One") and Taranis ("Thunderer"), together with scattered inscriptions and graffiti.

What seems clear is that Gaulish belonged the same branch of the Celtic languages as British Celtic (so-called P-Celtic), and only more distantly related to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx (Q-Celtic).  In the P-Celtic languages reconstructed Indo-European labial-velar consonants developed in to labials, whereas in the Q-Celtic they became velars, giving us correspondences such as: Welsh pen ("head") = Irish ceann, Welsh pump ("five") = Irish cuig.

However, it seems that Gaulish had considerable differences from even quite early forms of the British languages, as we shall see in a later instalment.


By the way, for those of you who do not know of Asterix & Co, I can recommend the books.  They are cartoon stories by two French writers, Goscinny and Uderzo, and concern a small village in Armorica in Gaul, which is the last bastion of Gaulish resistance to the Romans.  Asterix, the hero, fortified by a magic potion brewed by the village druid, always defeats the Romans.  His friend Obelix (the big one in the picture) doesn't need potion, because he fell into a cauldron of it when he was a baby, so is always supernaturally strong.  The authors have done their homework well, and the cartoons are full of convincing little details.  The original French versions are the best, I think, though some of the puns are pretty taxing to non-native speakers.  The English versions are very good too, especially the names.  My favourites are the village bard, who cannot sing to save himself: Cacophonix, and the potion-brewing druid: Getafix.

Friday 21 March, 2008

A turnip called Sven



A turnipological minefield

Before we moved here permanently, we used to have a small holiday cottage in the area.  It was next door to a farm, and the farmer was a good neighbour and became a friend.  Periodically, we would find a couple of vegetables on the doorstep, usually of the sort you see to the left.  The first time this happened, I thanked him for the swedes.  He looked at me quizzically for a few moments, and then said: "Oh, the turneps!" (sic).

Now to me turnips are small things with white flesh and these were huge with yellow flesh.  I find that they are both the swollen roots of  brassicas: Brassica rapa for what I call turnip, and Brassica rutabaga for what I call swede.  In the USA, swedes are called rutabagas, and in Scotland possibly both varieties are called neeps.

If I remember rightly, the conversation with the farmer neighbour passed on to what I was going to do with the turneps (sic). I told him I would make soup out of them, and he asked me how.  I told him:  soften some onion in butter, add some spices or herbs (wry look from farmer), add chunks of swede, add stock, simmer until the swede is soft, drain off liquid and retain, whizz up the solids in a food processor, recombine, reheat, add a little milk.

Stunned silence.  "Milk? In soup?  Ah, you up-country folk'll eat anythin'!"

Wednesday 19 March, 2008

Albert Schweitzer



The patience of a saint

"The Great Doctor wasn't looking and Leonie [the tame young antelope] reached her lovely long neck up until her head rested on the edge of the doctor's table. There in front of her was a stack of crinkly, crumply papers. Very gently Leonie opened her mouth and she crinkled the papers and she crumpled them and she chewed them all up. She didn't know, of course, that she was eating a chapter of the Great Doctor's famous book, The Philosophy of Civilization. When the Great Doctor discovered what had happened, he shook his head and he smiled. 'Ah, Leonie,' he said, 'I see you have a taste for literature.' And he wrote his chapter again. After that he kept his work on a shelf too high for Leonie to reach and from time to time he brought Leonie a supply of manioc leaves to chew."

An interesting book about Schweitzer is Animals, Nature & Albert Schweitzer. Edited with commentary by Ann Cottrell Free.  You can read the whole book online here.

Sunday 16 March, 2008


Stay calm




MSC close unrounded vowels

And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the blog....

This post is prompted by an objection that Nigel Greenwood has about some of my last thing on the MSC alveolopalatals.  He writes:

You say that: "As we saw, Gwoyeu Romatzyh treats the alveolopalatals and the retroflexes as allophones of the same phonemes." That's putting it a bit strongly, isn't it?  Unless you mean in a formal sense (GR uses j/ch/sh for both series).   Clearly the difference between the 2 series is phonemic: eg shi vs shy (Pinyin xi vs shi), chi vs chy (qi vs chi), etc etc.  Obviously you know this, but the way you put it could mislead anyone who doesn't know Mandarin.

Well, I certainly don't wish to mislead anyone, so at the risk of boring you all britchesless, here goes!  Don't worry.  The close unrounded vowels \are /relevant, nay \crucial, to this problem.

MSC has four close(-ish) unrounded vowel qualities.  They are set out in the table below, together with the transliteration of them all in Pinyin, Wade-Giles, GR and Yale.

  1 2 3 4  

Note:  The GR representation is correct for Tone 1.  The other tones would have the same vowel letter followed by another letter indicating the tone: r for Tone 2, and h for Tone 4, or, in the case of Tone 3, a doubling of the vowel letter. (I hope)

There is a problem with the phonetic representation of vowels 3 and 4.  Both of these vowels are often (but not always) fricative and could well be represented as [zɨ] and [ʐɯ] respectively



[i] [ɨ] [ɯʵ]  


i i i i  
W-G i i ih  
GR i i y y  
Yale i i z r  

The matter of vowel 1 can be swiftly dealt with, I think.  It always occurs before [n].  None of the other vowels in the table appears in this context. The consonants which may precede it are the same as those which are found before vowel 2, namely (using Pinyin notation): p b m t d n l y and the alveolopalatals: j q x.  Vowel 3 is only ever preceded by the alveolar frictionals and cannot occur in syllables closed by [n] or [ŋ]. Vowel 4 must preceded by a retroflex consonant, and this too cannot occur in a syllable closed by a nasal.  I shall neatly side-step the matter of what happens when an r suffix (the only other possible coda consonant in MSC) is added after any of these vowels other than to say: fireworks.

Sooooo....they are all in complementary distribution with all the others.  It seems that Pinyin takes this into account and, to judge by it symbolisation, reckons they all belong to one and the same phoneme.  None of the other three systems agrees with this.  Now the question arises: what is it that signals the phonemic contrasts that Nigel refers to.  For Pinyin it is clear that the burden falls on the consonants.  For the other three, it is the different vowel qualities that are the signals.  The trouble is that with all this multiple complementation going on, even if we disregard the EFEO wrinkle, we are left with some pretty arbitrary decisions.

I hate to tell you this, but there is another dimension to this  -- that of MSC syllable structure.  The decision one makes on what the components of an MSC syllable are can throw the whole thing up in the air again.  But that will have to wait till another day.


John Wells has pointed out to me some more info about Nivkh, which I will deal with soon, but I think I fancy a fluffier topic for my next effort.

Thursday 13 March, 2008




I have decided it's time I learned a bit more about some of the languages about which I have only tiny snippets of knowledge.  I don't suppose I shall be very systematic about this, but here goes anyway.

Nivkh is a language currently spoken by only about 200 people (a generous estimate), mainly in two or three villages on Sakhalin Island (see map) and in the Amur  It is a language isolate.  Nivkh is what the people call themselves (the word means "people", an eminently sensible thing to call oneself), but they (and their language) are also known as Gilyak, which is what the neighbouring Manchu called them.

As far as I can ascertain from the somewhat conflicting reports which Google threw up, the phonological system is as shown below:

Consonants bilabial labiodental alveolar palato-alv. palatal velar uvular glottal

p pʰ

  t tʰ   c k kʰ q qʰ  
nasal m   n   ɲ ŋ    
fricative   f s z     x ɣ χ ʁ h
trill     r̥ r          
approximant  (w) ʋ l   j (w)    
Vowels Front Back
Close i u
Mid   o ɤ
Open a  

As one can see, the consonant inventory is quite large and has oral stops at six places of articulation.  Voicing is contrastive for some places of articulation for fricatives and also for the alveolar trill.  The affricate is reported by some sources to be aspirated, but there seems to be no +asp/-asp contrast. It appears from the account in Languages of the Soviet Union (Comrie B., 1981, Cambridge University Press) that the Amur dialect of Nivkh has an even more complex consonant system with voiced versions of all of the fricatives (except [h]) and voiced versions of all of the plosives.  What is not clear is whether these "extra" voiced sounds are all derived, in the sense that they do not appear in citation forms, but only as a result of the operation of phonological processes

The vowel system is a little odd.  There is a gap in the front mid region.  However, the language does have one diphthong [ie], which sort of fills the gap.

The most interesting thing I know about Nivkh is that it has initial consonant mutations (ICM) like modern-day Celtic languages (Aside: apparently Gaulish did not have ICM, but more of that at a later date perhaps).  The information I have on Nivkh ICM comes from Comrie.  The system is pretty complex and subject to all sorts of syntactic constraints.  Here is an example:

[tɤf] (house)  [ɤtɤk rɤf] (father's house)  [tʰu] (dog sled) [ɤtɤk r̥u] (father's dog sled)

This process generalises to all plosives giving the following mutationsː



Notice that Comrie reckons that this dialect has +asp and -asp palatal plosives. At first sight this looks pretty unremarkable and could be called a form of lenition, accompanied by a little place of articulation shifting here and there.  From the example above, where the mutation appears to be triggered by a plosive at the end of the preceding word, it could even be viewed as some sort of dissimilation.  However, it appears that the mutation also occurs when the preceding word ends in a vowel or [j].

This is not the only type of mutation in Nivkh.  Some of the others appear to affect only verbs, while yet others apply only to nouns.

One word of warning:  Comrie does not use IPA symbols, unfortunately.

Sound files of Nivkh are available on a site mainained by Hidetoshi Shiraishi at Sapporo Gakuin. He also has some nice photos, though I don't think I would go overboard about Nivkh cuisine.

t r  
c z  
k ɣ  
q ʁ