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Philip Roe
909336.  Mon May 14, 2012 9:44 am Reply with quote

We all know the chestnut: “Name four substitutes for caret u,” which was allegedly asked in an eleven-plus examination or a US sixth grade test, depending which urban myth you hear.

There is a grain of truth in it. English-speaking children used to be taught to be aware of the sounds of the English language and teachers used phonetic symbols to represent them. Caret u (i.e. û, which, no doubt, could not be typed on the exam paper) was at the time the phonetic symbol for the vowel heard in, well, “heard”. A “substitute” is a letter or sequence of letters used in ordinary writing. The symbol “û” has six: “ear” as in learn, “er” as in certain, “ir” as in firm, “or” as in work, “ur” as in curtain and “yr” as in myrrh. The fact that children were asked for just four shows that dumbing-down is not new.

(These vowels are pronounced alike in most English dialects, including standard received pronunciation, which used to be encouraged. They differ in some dialects, for example Scots. The modern symbol is ε written backwards followed by a colon, because it is a “long” vowel, and maybe an upside down r in brackets to accommodate people who pronounce the r.)

How many substitutes can you find for “i:”? (This is the modern phonetic symbol for the vowel found in “sheep”.)

In many languages “i:” is a long version of the short “i” in “pin”. Recent borrowings into English – hacienda, say, or elite follow that. But the vowel shift which changed the long i to the diphthong in “pine” took the long version of “e” as in “met” to “e” as in “mete” and we often spell it that way: cede, cedar etc. More often we duplicate the e: “queen”, “sheep” or use an “a”: speak, heat.

Two other duplicates use a digraph with “i” and “e”. Experience shows that it is quite easy to remember which words do this: no-one writes “size” or “sees” or “seas” when they mean “seize”; the commonest solecism is “sieze”. To avoid that, we can use the rule “I before E except after C”. “Seize” is an exception but the rule works pretty well.

On one QI, endlessly repeated on commercial channels, we are told that modern educationalists no longer use this rule because they think that die, diet, hacienda and reign are exceptions.

Perhaps it is too much to expect “educationalists” to read and write but it would be nice if they could talk. No-one who speaks English, or any other language, hears hacienda as three syllables or reign as a rhyme for queen.

Modern educationalists should have no role on QI except as butts of ridicule.

909341.  Mon May 14, 2012 9:58 am Reply with quote

I have to say, as one who took the eleven plus in 1961, that I had never heard this 'chestnut', so it can't be that chestnutty! Nor was I ever taught phonetic symbols at school in a way that might have incorporated û.

But then, I ended up with a first in English and an MA, so it evidently didn't do my education too much harm.

909343.  Mon May 14, 2012 10:04 am Reply with quote

It's entirely possible to pronounce hacienda as three syllables: hass-yen-da. As distinct from hass-ee-en-da.

Philip Roe
909346.  Mon May 14, 2012 10:08 am Reply with quote

Pronouning hacienda as hassyenda does not make "ie" a substitute for "i:"

Of course IPA which made caret u obsolete came in well before 1961: in fact well before the 11+ so the urban myth I quoted is untrue.

909353.  Mon May 14, 2012 10:27 am Reply with quote

You've lost me. Nobody hears hacienda as three syllables, you said, but they can and they do.

909388.  Mon May 14, 2012 11:44 am Reply with quote

exnihilo wrote:
It's entirely possible to pronounce hacienda as three syllables: hass-yen-da.

Or, indeed, "ath-yen-da", which is how I would probably pronounce it. This says more about me than anything else, I dare say ...

IPA has been going since 1888, so there was no real reason for any school in the UK to teach alternative phonetic alphabets. ITA had its day, although in fact the instructions for ITA managed to miss out the vowel sound under discussion; it is unclear how that vowel was supposed to be represented.

Philip Roe
910357.  Sat May 19, 2012 6:40 pm Reply with quote

The pronunciation of hacienda is quite interesting but has nothing to do with my point: the sequence ie which happens to occur in it is not a substitute for (IPA) "i:", that is, it does not represent the vowel heard in "frieze" or in the first syllable of "ceiling" so it is not an exception to the useful rule "I before E except after C". Fry and his chums attacked this rule because they pretended not to understand it. They pretended that it meant that the sequences "cie" and "xie" (where x<>c) cannot occur, which is absurd

910501.  Sun May 20, 2012 2:16 pm Reply with quote

There is a fair amount of absurdity related to things the panellists say, to be fair, and some of what Stephen says is unrelated to things he has on the notes the elves give him.

922006.  Thu Jul 05, 2012 6:58 pm Reply with quote

Doesn't that just add to the whole silly atmosphere?


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