Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Extra syllables and lengthening of words

In contrast to lengthening words and making abbreviations, some speakers have made a habit of throwing in extra syllables to words. See the table below for some examples.

Notice the words in column 2 have an extra, often unnecessary syllable added to it.

1 2
preventive preventative
oriented orientated
interpret interpretate

While the entries in the 2nd column have still made their way into the dictionary, it really isn't the preferred way of saying the word. I've found these over-syllabified words are often used by those who are in the marketing business and will speak them to sound more technical (I'm really tired of hearing "object orientated language"!).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Syllables and Stress, part 2

As mentioned in the previous post on stress, syllable stress can present a difficulty when learning a new language.

Is there an easy rule for determining which syllables are stressed in English? Some languages have predictable stress rules. For instance, in Polish, stress is always on the penultimate (second to the last) syllable. In English, stress and syllable accent is unpredictable. When one learns a new English word, the stress patterns that the word has must be memorized in addition to the definition of the word, rhyming with horizon.

Product naming and pronunciation

In product naming and branding, this is a blessing and a curse: Would you know the correct pronunciation of a name you haven't encountered yet? The intuitive thing to do would be to look for names that are similar to it, but even this technique can throw you for a loop.

Here's an example:
If you never saw the name Verizon before, how do you think it would be pronounced? You would probably look for a similar word. But is it more like Amazon or horizon? In both cases the stressed syllables are different! A few years ago, I've met some people that would pronounce Verizon (VER-iz-on) with the accent on the first syllable (like the first syllable in the word "very") so that it would rhyme with Amazon. You would eventually find out (through commercials or whatnot) that the proper pronunciation is (ver-EYE-zin) with the accent on the second syllable.

Stress variation and homographs

A word's meaning can vary depending on which syllable is stressed, these fall into the category of homographs. This was discussed here: homophones/homographs/homonyms.

There are also words that can be pronounced in different ways, with each of them being acceptable (different stressed syllables).


These are not considered homographs since the words have the same meaning no matter which way you say them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Syllables and Stress, part 1

Syllables that are stressed can present another complication when trying to learn a language. Not all languages use stress like English does. In French there is no stress for individual words, although there is intonation (changing the tone of voice) when you are asking a question, which is a different topic altogether.

The rules for assigning stress in English are quite complex. Stress in English is lexical, that is, it comes with a word and usually has to be memorized. Similar words often have similar stress patterns, but this is not always true.

Words that appear to be similar can have completely different stress rules. This can really confuse people that are just learning English language.


Take the following two words:

Notice that these 2 words are very similar (same root word) and will even appear in the dictionary as one entry. The stressed syllable is different in each case. For photograph, stress the 1st syllable. For photographer, the 2nd syllable is stressed. Even if you stress the wrong syllable (or stress no syllables at all), most English speakers will still know what you mean, although the word may sound a bit unusual. There are a lot of other English words like this which change their stress patterns completely even though a simple suffix (such as "-er") is added.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Foreign expressions misinterpreted?

When English borrows certain expressions or phrases from other languages, we are sometimes not used to those expressions and have some trouble spelling or pronouncing them.

Here are some examples of expressions that originated in French that are now used in English:

tout de suite: "Right away" or "at once". Often misinterpreted as "toot sweet" (shown in the above picture), it refers to something that must be done right away.

Example: You need to be at the meeting tout de suite.

faux pas: Means "false step" in French. Refers to a blunder, error, or foolish mistake.

Example: If you add fake information to your portfolio, you've committed a faux pas.

voilà: Means "look there!" or "behold!" It is pronounced "vwala" but you shouldn't write it that way! Often used as an attention grabber and also indicates that something is finally done.

Example: Just finish mixing all the ingredients, and voilà!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Multiple Meanings: Homonymy vs Polysemy

In a previous post, polysemy (the multiple meanings of words) was discussed. How does this differ from homonyms, which are words that are spelled the same and have different meanings?

There are also words which have the same spelling but are pronounced differently. These are called homographs. The reverse case can be true, with words having different written forms and same pronunciation. These are known as homophones.


homograph: same spelling, different pronunciation

dove: a kind of bird
dove: past tense of dive

homophone: different spelling, same pronunciation

two, too, to

homonym: same spelling, same pronunciation, and the words have different meanings

bank: a financial institution
bank: a slope bordering a river

You may have noticed that homonymy and polysemy are very similar. How does one distinguish these two concepts? It is often useful to look into the etymology of the word, i.e., its historical origin. Another way to examine this concept would be to analyze the commonality of the different possible meanings of the word.

Here is an example that can show you how to differentiate homonyms and polysemic words:

plain = polysemic (can be thought of "simple" as in plain English or "devoid of complexity" plain shirt)

bank = homonym (no relation to each other; a river bank has nothing to do with a financial institution)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Translation Trouble: Polysemy

Do you sometimes wonder why certain materials are badly translated? This is due to polysemy: the many meanings that a single word can take.

For example, In English, the word plain can take on the following meanings:

  • ordinary / undecorated: a plain white shirt

  • easy / simple to understand: plain English

  • a level area of land: great plains

It gets more complicated when translating English into other languages.

For example, there are over 20 ways of saying "to get" in French. This is because there are multiple meanings of "get" that are used in English, but the French must use a different word for each of those meanings. It isn't that obvious, but this can give translators some trouble.

At elementary levels of French, most are taught the verb obtenir ("to get"). But which sense of the word "get" is really used here? Obtenir is used when something is acquired (it looks like the English word obtain). A different word must be used if you want "get" to take on a different meaning.

In each of the following sentences "get" takes a different meaning:

  • I need to get some bread. (buy)

  • I get the idea. (understand)

  • We need to get home. (arrive)

This is just one word out of many which can cause translation difficulty. One must study the context carefully and do not try to translate word for word, or even worse, rely on an automated translator.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Depreciate or deprecate

These two words are very similar in spelling and meanings, but they are often confused with each other.

Here is a quick rundown of their definitions:

Depreciate is used to denote objects whose values have dropped in price over a period of time after you have bought them. This is often applied to houses, cars, computers, etc.

Deprecate is a term for items that should no longer be in use. Common uses are in computer software versions, in which an older version is said to be no longer supported. A related term is self-deprecating humor, which is the term for comedians who make jokes about themselves.

Notice the similarity in spelling between the two words. The latter is missing an i and has one less syllable. Most English speakers haven't encountered deprecate that much, it is usually seen in written form rather than spoken. This is probably the cause of the confusion over the words, and that is why depreciate is often used in place of either of those words.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Misplaced accent mark alert!

In a recent issue of Parade magazine, there was a headline titled Ç'est Magnifique. Look carefully though; notice anything wrong with it?

If you are not familiar with French, there is an unnecessary accent mark (diacritic) underneath the C in C'est. It looks like a hook, or a "5" (which we used to call it in elementary French classes!). The proper term for it is cedilla.
In French c'est is a contraction of ce est which means "this is". There is no need for the C to take a cedilla. It was probably put there by some unknowing editor just to make the phrase look "more French".

The purpose of the cedilla in French is to make sure certain words with a C in it take an S sound, rather than a K sound. For instance, reçu ("received"), requires the cedilla to make the C have an S sound, otherwise the K sound would be assumed since the C precedes a U. The infinitive form of the verb is recevoir, which needs no cedilla since the C is assumed to have the S sound if it precedes an E.