Sunday, 16 September 2012

le banana split

On my recent trip to France, a particular menu item, in a menu entirely in French, was “Le banana split”. This caused great hilarity among the Brits present. We also quizzed out French colleagues, “why ‘le’”? They professed ignorance, particularly due to the fact that it is, au contraire, “la banane”. Is it that all foreign introductions are assigned masculine gender? They didn’t know.

This then segued off into a discussion of gendered languages, with the French asking the Brits, “so, if you were to give the sun, or a table, a gender, what would it be?” and the Brits responding with baffled incomprehension. The question makes about as much sense as, or possibly even less sense than, the party game “if you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?”

Another aspect of the discussion caught my attention. The menu item is pronounced by the French something like (to my English-tuned ears) /lʊ  bæ'næ'næ  spliːt/ (“le ban-ann-ah spleet” *): all three “a”s the same, and a long “i”. In contrast, banana in (my dialect of) English is pronounced /bə'nɑːnə/ (“buh-nah-nuh”) , or even /bə'nɑːnəː/ (“buh-nah-ner”), with three different pronunciations of “a”.

And that led me to recall the peculiar sentence (there are different variants of it, but this is the one I know):
The thoughtful rough-necked dough-faced ploughman strode, coughing and hiccoughing, through the streets of Scarborough
If you are a native English speaker, you will have read that with no trouble (except, possibly, for hiccough). If not, you may possibly have groaned at the eight oughs there, each with a different pronunciation. Let’s enumerate them:
  1. ough can be pronounced /ɔː/ (“awe”); thought is pronounced /θɔːt/. Other words ending in /ɔːt/ include aught, bought, brought, caught, court, daughter, fraught, fort, fought, haughty, naught, nought, nautical, ought, port, quart, snort, sort, sought, taught, taut, tort, wart, and wrought.
  2. ough can be pronounced /ʌf/ (“uff”); rough is pronounced /rʌf/. Other words ending in /ʌf/ include bluff, buff, chough, cuff, duff, fluff, gruff, huff, muff, enough, puff, ruff, scuff, slough, stuff, and tough.
  3. ough can be pronounced /əʊ/ (“oh”); dough is pronounced /dəʊ/. Other words ending in /əʊ/ include blow, bow, crow, doe, foe, Flo, flow, go, glow, grow, hoe, Joe, low, mow, no, oh, roe, row, sew, show, sloe, slow, snow, so, though, throw, toe, and tow.
  4. ough can be pronounced /aʊ/ (“ow”); plough is pronounced /plaʊ/. Other words ending in /aʊ/ include bough, bow, brow, cow, dhow, how, now, ow, pow, prow, proud, row, scowl, Slough (the place), sow, tao, vow, and wow.   And drought has the same ough sound.
  5. ough can be pronounced /ɒf/ (“off”); cough is pronounced /kɒf/. Other words with /ɒf/ include coffee, doff, off, quaff, slough, soft, toffee, trough, and waft.
  6. ough can, in one word only, be pronounced /ʌp/ (“up”); hiccough is pronounced /'hɪkʌp/. Other word ending in /ʌp/ include the much more prosaic cup, pup, sup, up. Hiccough is a somewhat archaic spelling, and is more likely to be written hiccup today. 
  7. ough can be pronounced /uː/ (“oo”); through is pronounced /θruː/. Other words ending in /uː/ include blew, blue, boo, chew, clue, coo, do, due, dew, flew, flu, flue, goo, grew, grue, hew, Hugh, Jew, lieu, loo, moo, new, poo, queue, (kanga)roo, rue, shoe, shoo, shrew, slew, slough, sue, too, threw, true, view, who, woo, zoo 
  8. ough can be pronounced /ə/ (“uh”), the unstressed schwa sound; Scarborough is pronounced /'skɑːbərə/, or even /'skɑːbrə/. Other words ending in /ə/ are legion, and include anger, author, cellar, colour, comma, sofa, thorough
Presumably the strode is in there to try to trick you into writing something like stroughed. And why not?

Then there is the town of Loughborough, with two ough occurrences, each pronounced differently: /'lʌfb(ə)rə/ (“Luff-bruh”). Variant pronunciations don’t end with ough, of course. The examples above show that each vowel sound has several possible spellings; in particular, both bow and sow can be pronounced to rhyme with either plough or with dough. The other way round, slough must hold the record, with the same word having three different meanings, each with its own different pronunciation of ough: /slʌf/ (“sluff”, to shed), /sluː/ (“slew”, a swamp), and /slaʊ/ (the town of Slough, and, confusingly, the Slough of Despond, or swamp of despair).

Why? Why so many vowel sounds with the same spelling? And why such a weird spelling at that? Well, it’s actually one vowel sound and following consonant, that has meandered off in many directions over the years. The clue is in yet another pronunciation of ough, as /ɒx/. That’s a sound that is no longer in English, except in the word loch (as in Loch Ness), also spelled lough for Irish lakes, for example Lough Neagh, and some lakes in the north of England. Even this sound is fading, as many people pronounce loch as /lɒk/ “lock”. Computer scientists will also know this /x/ sound, as the final sound in Knuth’s TeX (but not necessarily LaTeX).

More detail (as ever) on ough can be found on wikipedia.

This disappearance of original sounds explains some (but by no means all!) of the weirdness of English spelling. Take, for example, bright, light and night, pronounced /brʌɪt/ (“brite”) /lʌɪt/ (“lite”), and /nʌɪt/ (“nite”) respectively. Aargh! It’s that silent gh again! And for the same reason: it did used to be pronounced. It is still be heard in some Scots dialets.  Consider:
It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht.
(It’s a grand bright moonlit night tonight.)
Here the gh, morphed to ch, can still be heard, pronounced /x/.

At the front end of some English words is that other weird silent letter, k, as in knife (/nʌɪf/, “nife”), knee (/niː/, “nee”), and, just to combine the pain, knight (/nʌɪt/, “nite”). As you can guess, the k was originally pronounced. These words all derive from Old English words beginning cn. But that’s also not a sound that has survived into modern English. Where the initial k is still pronounced, the English form has added a vowel: good old King Canute of wave fame is actually Cnut.

So, knight was once probably pronounced something like /knɪxt/ (“k-nicht”); now we’re (somewhat) in Monty Python territory, and back to French!

And after writing this, I was so thoroughly fraught that I thought I’d forgotten how to spell. If I just tough it out, though, I’ll get through it.

* pronunciations like /kʌp/ are written using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as given by the online Oxford Dictionaries.  I also append my attempt at transliterating these (“cup”), but this is, of course, ambiguous, precisely because English spelling is not phonetic

The IPA is explained on wikipedia, including some variant transcriptions.


  1. I was in a discussion over gender assignment of borrowings recently. One suggestion was that the French pick the gender of the nearest native-translation, but that doesn't seem to fit this case. It could also be arbitrary, as many things in natural language are.

    Something I've wanted to do is get some data on noun genders from lots of Indo-European languages to see how much overlap there is. These languages inherit their gendered nouns from a common source, so perhaps they agree on some things (mind you, how much agreement could be put down to chance?).

    You might have read this:

    On another note, I had no idea you were so interested in language!


  2. In portuguese we also say "o banana split" with the masculine article even though banana is female (but you won't find it with an article on a menu... I guess only the French write menus with "the steak with fries", "the chicken in wine sauce", etc.)

    In such cases, the word typically inherits the gender of its "superclass", e.g. banana split is male because ice cream is male ("o sorvete"), BBC is female because company is female ("a companhia").