Thursday, 10 June 2010

How Buffalo Can You Go?

Ok, so we're right in the middle of the exam period. The bad news is that this means there'll not be many posts for a while. The good news is that I've come up with something to take your mind off of revision for a few minutes!

What I have for you today is a sentence. There's nothing particularly special about it, because it's grammatically correct, yet unpunctuated. Normally, a sentence which just works is nothing to fuss over. Then again, most sentences don't read like this...

"Buffalo buffulo Buffalo buffalo bufflo buffalo Buffalo buffalo"

Yes, ladies and gents, this sentence actually works. Once you get into the nitty gritty, it's not hard to see why, either. So, without waiting around, let's nit and grit our way to an explanation.

What we have here is a simple trick using homonyms. Essentially, a homonym is a word with various unrelated meanings attached, each spelt and pronounced in exactly the same way. For example, "fluke" can mean part of an anchor, the fins of a whale, or a stroke of luck. They don't have to have the same origins in meaning (although I suspect the whale fins and anchor do - both are nautical terms and look similar, so it makes sense), the important thing is the identical end result.

The word "buffalo", then, has more meanings than we might have thought at a first glance. The first thing most of us think of is the big, bison-like creature found predominantly in America. That's one of the main uses here, true, but it's not the only one. There's hundreds of towns called "Buffalo" all over America, too, and that's a meaning in our sentence. It's also a colloquial alternative to "bully". That means we have a noun, proper noun, and verb with the same spelling - everything we need for our homonym sentence!

The parse tree to the right (yes, I'm using pictures now!) sets this out pretty clearly, or at least as clearly as anyone can, and shows how everything fits together to make a complete sentence - "S". But we might still be in the dark as to what the sentence actually means! Allow me to try and deconstruct...

"Buffalo (the animal) from the town of Buffalo, who other buffalo (the animal) from the town of Buffalo bully (or "buffalo"), also bullies buffalo from the town of buffalo."

I'll give you a minute or two to get your head around that one? Got it? Good. It's a bit tricky, but the meaning isn't the most important bit, really. All this does is give us a nice little exercise in how coincidental language development gives us such strange formulae as this. I doubt you'll ever need to worry about coming across one in the real world, mind, unless your the sort who feels like picking on huge horned animals. If you are, I doubt you'll live to tell anyone you buffaloed a buffalo from Buffalo...

TTFN, and good luck with the exams!

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Wordy Wookie's Election Special!

I know, yes, I'm joining in! It might be a little behind, but let me present my belatedly bloated Election Special of an update! It's been impossible to hide from it for the past month, and it's certainly not finished yet. When it comes to politics, it seems that I've been pipped to the post in responding to all the major issues. Nonetheless, I'll keep digging to answer the question that's really been playing on everyone's minds...

Think about it: where does the word "Tory" come from?

I'll use "Tory" today, and I'll be talking about the Conservatives, the big blue party who came out on top of the election (just). It's a nickname they always seem to have had, but have you ever stopped to think about where it came from? To help understand the roots properly and dramatically, I say we work backwards on this one.

Carry yourself to the 17th century, where the interesting bit of etymology kicks off. In fact, it was the name of the party at that time. In 1689, the "Tories" came into being as a party, upholding the traditional authority of church and state, and called themselves as such until 1886, when they became the Conservatives. To call them the "Tories", then, is almost to mock their willingness to cling to older ideals - the idea that their policies haven't changed since 1689.

On becoming the name of a party, the word "Tory" spread in use, but that's not to say it wasn't already there. In 1679, James, the Duke of York, was excluded from succession to the throne, on account of being a Roman Catholic. Those who came to his defence, suggesting that he should still be allowed to become king, were known as "Tories". Should we pursue this thought any longer, we'll find ourselves wrapped up in the complicated world of who should have really been king or queen at any given time, and did it matter at all. Forget that, it's a transitional phase for "Tory". Instead, think more about the roots of the word. It certainly didn't come from nowhere, and we haven't quite gotten to the bottom of it all yet.

Calling James, Duke of York, a complete baddie purely for his religion would be wrong nowadays, but it's important to know that he liked the Irish. For most people, it doesn't make a lot of difference either way, but it really does here. At the time, it was highly unpopular to disagree with his exclusion, so the politicians of the time bandied around with all sorts of Irish-based insults to call his followers. Their lowest point in the whole affair was "bogtrotters", but they eventually came to "Tory". How?

Them being the root of all the namecalling, "Tory" comes from the Irish. It's actually the anglicised version of "t├│raidhe", but much easier to spell. To our English eyes, it doesn't look like much of an insult, but in Gaelic it means "the pursued" or "pursuer", both of which are to be used with contextually hostile intent. Thus, we arrive at the common translation of the time: "outlaw". It would have been quite the Gaelic insult for the "Tories" of the time, but they don't seem to have paid much attention.

"Tories" have been on the run for nearly 400 years, it seems! I hope that's been a little insightful for you. The Conservative nickname certainly does have quite the history, and it's a good reminder as to why you should always know a little about etymology before you accept any nickname. It could well stick as well as this one. Only one question remains - will you be calling them "Conservatives" or "Tories" now? For the sake of editorial neutrality, I'm saying nothing.

On a purely unprofessional note, read the first word of every paragraph...


Wednesday, 28 April 2010

That? Which? We Can Never Understand

I grovel at your feet! I apologise most 'umbly for my absence! Such is the nature of college that we can be buried under an avalanche within an instant. There was no time to cry for help, simply to dig through a mountain with that felt like a spoon. I'm here now, though, and that's what counts. Hope you haven't missed me too much (!).

Since I've been gone, I've had one little grammar rule bugging me in the back of my mind. It doesn't make much of a difference in terms of clarity on communication, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Namely, should I be using "that" or "which"? I know it's just a petty niggling, but it's very hard to get out of your head once it's in there. I'll give you an example...

"The money that he gave me was fake!"

"The money which he gave me was fake!"

Which of these is right? Maybe dealing with a forger isn't the best time to worry about details, but it's nice to know. To sort this out, let's start with "that". "That" is restricting, meaning that we'd use it to narrow down the things we're talking about. If we were talking about lots of money, some of which had been given to me by one man, then the first sentence works. "That" eliminates all talk of the rest of the money, and only focuses us on that particular pile.

"Which" is used to add meaning to something, and give a little more meaning to the sentence. To give it its proper name, it's a subordinating subjunctive, which basically means it starts a new clause. If we go back to the fake money example, imagine that these forgeries are the only money I could be talking about. Saying that they were given to me by a particular man is unnecessary, but it adds a little more information. It's the sort of thing a writer might use in a novel, just to add some extra subtle character. Let's reiterate this with some more examples...

"The tiger stood watching." - Basic sentence

"The tiger that had spots was actually a leopard." - Singling out an individual

"The tiger, which had been an outcast from birth, was actually a leopard." - There could only be one tiger/leopard to talk about in the first place, but the clause (in brackets) tells us more about it.

Think we're done? Wrong. As with every "rule" ever to exist, there's an exception. If "that" comes straight after a preposition ("on", "under", "within", etc.), then it becomes "which". Not that this is anything to fret over in everyday usage, because we all do it naturally by now. Still, I'm having fun with examples, so let's have another...

"The ice that he was stuck under was melting." - Works as a sentence, because it limits the ice we're talking about.

"The ice under which he was stuck was melting." - Also works, but because the preposition's in a different place we swap "that" for "which".

Got all that? Good, I expect a full essay by the end of the week. In all honesty, I doubt it'll ever matter if you slip up. After all, if you didn't know you were going wrong, who else will? All blog posts that are finished should be read and promptly ignored. This blog post, which has been finished by both writer and reader, is just one amongst many.

I'll leave it to you to work out if those last two sentences were accurate...