23 June 2012

Bad Smells in the Stairwell

There’s something quietly rotting in the fridge today – and suddenly my mind is transported back to the college where I used to work.

I’m not suggesting that the illustrious establishment which once gave me employment smelt anything other than pleasant, most of the time.  Indeed, so heavenly were the aromas emanating from the catering department as students baked doughnuts, breads and Danish pastries that it was pure torture to wander anywhere in the vicinity on an empty stomach.  And even the tang of fresh-paint and sweat hanging about the new Sports Hall, coupled with the peppery scent of overwork pervading the staffroom, formed a familiar and welcoming backdrop.

But there was that one autumn of the weird stench in the principal’s stairwell.  The stairwell in question was a critical entrance for the tutors in my department.  It provided an essential shortcut on mornings when the A3 had meted out horrible vengeance on drivers, and left teachers with one minute spare to race to their desks, rummage for a lesson plan and take thirty copies of textual material from the moody photocopier.

But it was also lethally steep, each step rising from the next at a dizzying gradient, each tread not much wider than a goat’s hoof. 

And thus began the suspicions and murmurings.  How exactly to explain the nasty whiff that offended your nostrils on the lower steps?  At first it was hard to define but, if you stuck with it, there was the unmistakable pong of Munster cheese with hints of festering cabbage.  Then coming through were clear tones of railway-station urinal.  And finally an unmissable top note of decomposing meat.  Who had sprinted too unathletically up the stairs or, more probably, had miscalculated the treads while making a bid for escape at the end of the teaching day?  Who had got buried under paperwork, forgotten the time and got locked in?  Who had camped - hungrily, thirstily and finally fatally - on the bottom step during the long vacation?

The stairwell, worthy of assault course training, is still there, though I’m told the smell is gone…

…which thought leaves me no recourse but to break from these musings and take swift remedial action on the contents of the fridge before the health inspectors come calling.

16 June 2012

Irregularity - Where Do You Stand?

I invite you to conduct your own mini survey into the delicate subject of irregularity.

No, not the affliction arising from our western diet, interesting and prevalent though that may be.  But irregularity as it concerns verbs – and one in particular: text.

You sent a text message on your mobile phone last night.  You want to tell someone.  Would you say: “I texted Maximilian last night”?  Or “I text Maximilian last night”?

Easy.  Texted, say English language purists.  After all, the way to form a simple past tense is just to add an edText, long in use as a noun, is a relatively new coinage as a verb and as such it is likely to follow the rules.  But my contention is this: those purists might write “texted”, but they are likely to say “text”.  When caught red-handed and challenged, they’ll explain it’s simply a matter of having swallowed the ending because they were speaking quickly, and that the ed was there.  Honest. 

And yet, no such swallowing tends to occur when we say tested or suggested.  It’s likely the extra effort in pronouncing the x just before the t in text creates the difficulty, a sound that does not slide out of the mouth as easily as the st in test.  (Take care when trying this unaided at home.)  We hesitate over that xt sound, and possibly then can’t be bothered to expend the extra energy required to articulate an ed as well.  

Over time, the tendency of the language is to regularise verbs, e.g. strive strove striven to increasing uses of strive strived strived, or dream dreamt dreamt to dream dreamed dreamed.  But text appears to be bucking that trend, and is an aspiring bedfellow in the sub-group of verbs that do not change their past tense or past participle and whose endings already have a past tense feel, verbs such as cast, cost and burst (the st endings) or put, set, hit (the t endings) or bid, rid, spread (the d endings).  Text may therefore one day find itself in grammar books nestled alphabetically amongst all the irregular elite:

         …teach              taught             taught
tear                 tore                 torn
tell                   told                 told
text                text                text
think               thought          thought…

For my money, irregular verbs are part of the music of our language, the pleasing sound change that gives us sleep slept slept rather than sleep sleeped sleeped.  That leads North Americans to say dive dove dove, rather than the ho-hum British dive dived dived.   That entices any creative person to choose sneak snuck snuck over the less juicy sneak sneaked sneaked.  Such words behave according to their Germanic bloodlines (send a postcard if you want the complete lecture on the Ablaut, the Rückumlaut and the Great Vowel Shift) demonstrated in the delightful sound alterations occurring in modern-day German cousins, such as blasen bläst blies geblasen (to blow) or fliegen fliegt flog geflogen (to fly).       

So listen hard next time your friends are speaking and need to use the verb text in the past tense.  My bet is that they’ll thumb their nose at conformity.  My bet is that they’ll sign up for irregularity.  My bet is that they won’t stick on an ed.

 No irregular verbs were harmed in the writing of this blog.