Tag Archives: English

A Prepositional Tale


December 16, 2012

Once upon a time, we used the preposition “upon”. Alas, its days are numbered.

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales this month, which is inspiration enough to look at the changing nature of prepositions.

Those little words have an important function, usually locating us in time and space. As the way we relate to time and space changes, we reduce our use of words like upon, add others, and modify meanings. Because prepositions morph so much, they can seem confusing.

Robert Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language, says it comes down to how these words evolved.

“For example, behind has a hint of the old word “hind quarter” – the hind – so it was something near your rear end, essentially,” says Greene. “So they start very literal [and] they become pretty concrete but still spatially literal. Like behind is a location in space, and then you can say I’m behind in my work and that’s a more abstract meaning.”

So they can be grounded in the physical or the abstract.

But often, the prepositions we use don’t make the most sense. We say in debt, when under debt might be more appropriate. We open up a store in the morning, and close it up at night. An alarm goes off by going on. Even varieties of English differ; we say on the weekend where Britons say at.

“Whether a single preposition is correct isn’t established by a logic; it’s usually just by convention,” says Greene. “We dream about something in English. You say soñar con in Spanish: to dream with something. The speech community itself gets to establish what random preposition out of the bag might go with certain phrases or certain expressions.”

Since preposition use isn’t obvious or even logical, it can be challenging when we have a new spatial relationship. Like moving from physical, to digital.

“Do you say on or in a website?” Greene asks. “For example, Slate calls itself a magazine; it’s a news and commentary website. But people will tend to say on Slate, or in Slate. In some cases, the correct preposition takes a while to shake out [but] usually it will. People say on Twitter, not in Twitter.”

And with research studies proliferating in the news, the media have taken to saying a study out of such and such university, versus by particular researchers.

Over the past half century, we’ve actually added a number of new prepositions, according to Brett Reynolds, an English professor at Humber College. One of them is post, as in: How is the water, post Walkerton? I used it myself the other day: Post vacation, I always feel a little blue (but then I quickly bounce back!).


 So, if we’re continually adopting new ways to use prepositions, why do we cling to the old idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?

We avoid it. Or we do it, but quickly cover up. Or we try to avoid it, and do it anyway.

The idea of preposition “stranding” dates back to the 1600s to poet and essayist John Dryden. He liked to compose his writing in Latin then translate into English – more sophisticated, apparently. And in Latin, a preposition must precede its object. The idea was condoned in an influential grammar book in the 1700s, and stays with us today.

“One linguist I know calls it a zombie rule,” says Greene. “It’s dead and everyone knows it’s dead and yet it keeps on coming at you.”

But in fact, it’s often more natural to end with a preposition. As in: She likes being fussed over; He relishes the project he’s taking on; Who are you talking to?!

If we just moved on from that old-fashioned rule, we would all live happily ever after.

 Listen here:

Lost in simultaneous translation


Feb. 25, 2011

If you’ve been watching or listening to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, you’ve likely heard an Arabic interpreter. They’re everywhere. And they can have different takes on the same message.

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s recent “angry and rambling” speech did sound rather angry on Libyan state TV, but downright tepid via the CNN interpreter.

Then there was Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s now famous announcement that President Hosni Mubarak would be stepping down.

The Egyptian state television interpreter said Mubarak had decided to waive the office of the president, rather than relinquish, as others translated it.

Meanwhile, the CNN interpreter said the country would be run by the higher council of the armed forces rather than the Supreme Council, its proper name.

What’s more, the CNN interpreter repeated the president’s name three times, so caught up in his own excitement that he forgot the rule about trying to mirror the speaker’s emotions.

A word is like a bullet

Nit picking? Maybe. But don’t get me wrong. Simultaneous interpreters have an astonishing ability to process the words streaming into their ears in one language and instantly spew them out in another — but this highlights an interesting problem.

As the Arab world’s prominence in global affairs rises, so too does the need for Arabic interpreters.

And while interpreters hired by the news media may be very fine, they’re often not professionals, and experts say there may well be a need for quality control to ensure accuracy in message and tone.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens to the translation of a speech on his headphones at a UN conference in May 2009. (Reuters)

So I turned to the pros to find out how it’s done.

At the UN, interpreters learn to do two things no matter how intense the pressure: to faithfully render the message and, also, the emotion of the speaker.

The UN’s Arabic section chief Rasha Ajalyaqeen says interpreters adhere to the idea that a word is like a bullet: once it’s out, it cannot be retrieved or replaced.

Ajalyaqeen has worked for 27 years as an interpreter and says her heart still pounds going into the General Assembly or the Security Council. Her job is not only to be quick and accurate but to be on top of the issues.

From the moment she clicks on the news in the morning, her brain starts storing information she might need during the day.

Avoid duplicity

The last thing an interpreter wants is to be caught speechless. But sometimes a delegate can quote from an unknown or unseen document.

Ajalyaqeen says in the event of a disaster or high-profile death, someone is almost certain to quote from the Koran. To be prepared, she scribbles down verses to have on standby such as: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return.”

Interpreters also like to have on hand the Isaiah quotation: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

A good interpreter can move seamlessly between the syntax of Arabic and English, which is tricky because they’re so different.

Ajalyaqeen says preposition placement is important and so is verb, noun and adjective collocation — the first thing to go, she says, when you’re under stress.

Sentences in Arabic are also extremely long, so they need to be broken into more manageable components; Ajalyaqeen stresses that while you need to follow the rhythm of a speaker, you also need to remember the audience.

And, of course, you need the right words. Ajalyaqeen was in the Security Council during the first Gulf war when instead of saying “avoid duplication“, she said “avoid duplicity.”


Stress levels

To faithfully render a speaker’s message, simultaneous interpreters need to be on their toes.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi during his first ever address to the UN General Assembly in September 2009. He was supposed to speak for 15 minutes but went on for 96. (Reuters)

That means an hour of rest after 30 consecutive minutes of work. Less than that and quality suffers.

That rule was demonstrated in the fall of 2009 when Libya’s Gadhafi insisted on bringing his own interpreter to the General Assembly.

About 75 minutes into a meandering speech, observers noticed the interpreter was getting more and more stressed, and the interpretation was suffering.

Then he reportedly blurted into the live microphone: “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Ajalyaqeen heard it and sprinted the two blocks to the General Assembly to interpret the final 20 minutes of the speech. Talk about being on your toes.

Content and tone

The other element to good interpretation is accurately rendering the emotion of the speaker.

That means that if someone is outraged, you need to be outraged. If that person is disappointed, same goes for you.

If the speaker is passionately warning of dangerous civil unrest and you sound like a monotonic Tibetan monk, well, your credibility drops.

“No matter what your personal beliefs are, you’re supposed to be invisible,” says Ajalyaqeen. “You need to melt into the voice of the speaker. When they hear you as an interpreter, that’s when you fail.”

So if you’re translating for Gadhafi, you might need to bite your tongue. The potency of the message should override any subjectivity in the interpretation.

Speaking in more tongues

Today, interpretation may be more important than ever. The number of items at the UN requiring interpretation has skyrocketed, and more delegates are speaking Arabic.

Ajalyaqeen says that in the diplomatic world, it’s long been a matter of pride for delegates to speak other languages. But now, using one’s own language has that cachet.

More often than not, Arab delegates know a second or third language, but choose to speak Arabic, confident that their message will not be compromised.

Obviously, much of what interpreters at the UN deal with doesn’t affect those interpreters who work only in broadcasting. But the principles of staying true to content and tone remain the same.

As the number of issues affecting the Arab world increases, as activists try to use Egypt’s success to pull the rug out from long-sitting autocrats in the Middle East, and as satellite media expands, we’ll be hearing more and more interpretation.

Already, the voices of the interpreters on Al Jazeera are quite recognizable.

Mind you, it remains to be seen whether media interpreters, like those at the UN, can manage to stay invisible.

I luv phonetics


March 5, 2010

Learning to pronounce English words isn’t easy. Vow doesn’t sound anything like show, despite how they look, and trough is different from though, as is book from boot. And don’t get me started on split-personality words such as (to) close and (too) close.

When I was teaching, my students asked me why there was no consistency in how English words are sounded out and I said that’s just the way it is, silently cursing the minions who came up with these arcane rules for pronunciation (or pronounciation as some people incorrectly say).

When D'oh is not a deer. (Reuters)When D’oh is not a deer.

And that silent curse was just a native English speaker’s perspective. It made me want to know how one of the fastest-growing populations of non-native English speakers, the Chinese, feel about this tricky pronunciation.

In Toronto’s Chinatown where sidewalks are crammed with vendors and shoppers loading up on the week’s fruits and vegetables, shop worker Rin Song says she often stumbles on unfamiliar English words.

“Sometimes I think this word may be pronounced like this, but actually what I hear is different. I have to listen many times. If you give me the paper, I know the meaning. But when I hear it, I don’t know.”

When I ask Song to pronounce the word latex on the package of gloves she’s hanging on the wall, she uses the short a, as in latter, instead of the long a. She’s never heard the word before, so she’s taking a flying leap into its pronunciation.

Say what you see

I’ve long wondered why we don’t have a more effective way of teaching this language of ours — so that what you see is actually what you say.

It turns out that a local teacher named Judy Thompson has come up with one, laid out in her aptly titled book, English is Stupid.

Thompson is an ESL and English teacher at Sheridan College, just outside Toronto. She says we have to start with the premise that writing and speaking are different languages with different rules.

“When you teach a set of rules for one skill, and you expect a result in another, well, you don’t get it,” Thompson says. Indeed, the road from reading words to speaking them like a native is filled with potholes.

According to Thompson, the biggest problem in teaching English pronunciation is that the traditional way of using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) simply doesn’t work.

You remember those nonsensical hieroglyphics beside a word in the dictionary. Think hard: Have they ever helped you?

The IPA was actually developed in France so that any language could represent its sounds by drawing from a standard set of symbols. Good idea, but très compliqué.

“I had a terrible time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet,” says Thompson. “And I thought if I can’t learn it, how can you learn it if English isn’t your first language?”

Those darn vowels

Thompson found the hardest sounds for foreigners to lift off the page are vowels. So she created her own system — a vowel colour chart.

“It was just kind of a freak coincidence that the colours in English, besides being the first thing people tend to learn in a language, have a vowel sound embedded in each of the names of the colours.

“So the long a sound is in the colour gray. And the short vowel a is in the colour black. And the long e is in the colour green. And on and on and on.”

So the words cat, mask, apple, laugh and plaid are all black. Thompson says it takes students less than an hour to learn the 16 sounds in the chart.

“So when they come up to a word and they don’t know, for example, busy and they want to say bussy, then you say ‘it’s pink’ and they say busy. And then you just keep going. It’s really expedient.”

Thompson says she’s getting great feedback from her students as well as other teachers.

Keep listening

Alas, new words can always trip you up. When the first Harry Potter book came out, oh so many years ago, the whole time I was reading it, I thought the name Hermione was pronounced hermee-own, like anglophone.

But it’s actually her-MY-o-nee, like anemone. D’oh! It was only by chance that I overheard someone more in the know and learned the error of my ways.

So it seems a big part of learning how to pronounce words is to keep listening.

But here’s a thought. Maybe written English will gradually come to resemble spoken English as foreigners slowly take the language over from native speakers.

There are now more than a billion non-native English speakers in the world and most conversations in English happen between two people speaking it as a second language.

A standardized “global English” is spawning new vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, spread by the media, internet and all forms of technology.

Texting alone is gradually killing off vowels. Why say “I love you” when you can say “I luv u”? They say it means the same thing. And it actually looks like it sounds.