Recently in Languages in Bath Category

Good English: spelling

Spelling English words correctly is the bane of many people's lives. I once read that a Frenchman said he would rather spend six months doing hard labour than try to learn how to spell in English.  German looks to be difficult to the untutored eye because the words can be so long. But, in fact, what you say is what you write. There are no silent letters such as in 'knife' or 'gnat' or confusions with pronunciation caused by words that look similar such as 'laughter' and 'daughter'.

There was an article in the Guardian recently discussing the length of German words and how practical they are - until you come across such gems as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz which almost made me laugh when I was once confronted with it. Long as it is, it is easy to spell as every letter is pronounced:  Rindfleisch etikettierungs überwachungs aufgaben übertragungs gesetz.

As part of Topping's Autumn Book Festival in Bath, David Crystal, the well-known linguist, academic and author, will be speaking about spelling. On a journey from sixth century monks to the language of text messaging, he will explain why certain words are spelled the way they are and, with a bit of luck, help us with remembering how to spell the words that catch us all out.

The event will take place on 26 November.

Good English. Using the apostrophe

I have been asked to write a few words on the correct use of the apostrophe. I am only too pleased to do so!

The apostrophe seems to cause endless problems for many people. So much so, that one type of incorrect usage has even acquired its own nickname: the greengrocer's apostrophe.

The apostrophe is used to denote possession, amongst other functions.  We could say, 'the dog of my sister is brown' or 'the dog belonging to my sister is brown'. It is very common to say 'my sister's dog is brown'. Here we use an apostrophe to show the possessive. In languages such as German, Latin, Russian it is known as the 'genitive case'.

If I had two sisters who both owned the same dog, how would this be expressed? Answer: 'My sisters' dog is brown'. By putting the apostrophe after the plural of 'sister', we can see that the dog belongs to both sisters. In speech this idea is not clear because the two sentences ('my sister's dog is brown' and 'my sisters' dog is brown') sound the same.

Correct usage is vital when documents are to be translated. It might not be very important to know how many sisters own the dog (apart from to the sisters themselves) but consider the implications for the following sentences:  'the sum of the company director's bonus is £10,000' and 'the sum of the company directors' bonus is £10,000'. A misplaced apostrophe could be considered to be crucial!

Correct English grammar is vital to your company's image. If you would like further information about apostrophes (including why greengrocers have one of their own) or you would prefer me to do your proofreading, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. Lessons can be provided in Bath or via Skype.

If there is an area of English grammar that you find confusing, let me know via the comments section and I'll consider writing a blog post about it.

Next time, find out why less is more...

Good English grammar: when to use 'they're'

English has a number of homophones. The word comes from two Greek words: 'homo' meaning 'the same' and 'phone' meaning 'sound'.

Examples of homophones are 'there', 'their' and 'they're'. What is the difference? They all have a different function in the sentence. When speaking, we understand from the context which one is meant but if they are incorrectly used in a written text they can impede comprehension.

'They're going there with their children' is an example of a sentence that uses all three versions of this particular homophone. How do we know which one to write? 'They're' is simply a contraction of 'they are'. Therefore by writing the words out in full, fewer mistakes will be made. It is considered better to put 'they are' in formal writing, so the problem is solved!

It is essential to the image of your business to ensure that your documents and presentations are written in correct English. If you would like to learn about when to use 'their' and 'there' and some tricks for remembering which is which, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. Lessons can be provided in Bath or via Skype. Alternatively, I will be happy to proofread your documents for you.

The next post has been requested by a reader of my blog and is on the subject of apostrophes.


Good English grammar: when to use 'I' and 'me'

English grammar appears not to be widely taught in British schools these days. Just because one grows up speaking a language it does not necessarily follow that one grows up speaking it correctly.  It seems to me that the confusion with when to use 'I' and 'me' may stem from a very early age and the confusion is not ironed out at school.

There is a convention in polite society that when talking about oneself and a friend, the friend should be mentioned first. Children often say sentences such as, "Mum, can me and Tommy go swimming?"  Mother then corrects the child to say "Can Tommy and I go swimming?" So far, so good (well, almost. There is another issue here... but let's tackle one thing at a time!). This is correct because if Tommy were not there the child would say "Can I go swimming?" The problem arises when the child, who has had the "Tommy and I" construction drilled into him, needs to use the word 'me'.

In Romance languages, grammatically speaking, 'me' is often referred to as the object of a sentence; in Latin, Greek, German and Russian it is known as the accusative. It's the same thing with a different name.

Here is an example I heard on the radio the other day. A solicitor, so one assumes reasonably well educated, said, "And the insurance broker asked my wife and I about our finances...."


The correct way of expressing this idea would be "And the insurance broker asked my wife and me about our finances..."

You would not say "The insurance broker asked I about my finances". Therefore, irrespective of how many other people are involved, it should be correctly expressed as  "the insurance broker asked me ...." When politely mentioning everyone else first it then becomes "the insurance broker asked John, Susan, Rebecca, Simon, my wife and me about our finances".

In a different situation the solicitor would be perfectly correct in saying "My wife and I are going on holiday to Cornwall this year." Why? Because "my wife is going on holiday to Cornwall" is correct and "I am going on holiday to Cornwall" is also correct. The two together, "my wife and I" is therefore correct. Nobody above the age of three says "Me is going on holiday" !

If in doubt, first construct the sentence in your head without friends and wives, etc. and decide if it should be 'I' or 'me' , then add the others. That way, you should get it right.

I hope this short explanation helps but if you are still unsure about aspects of English grammar, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. If you would like your documents proofread, I will be happy to provide this service. Alternatively, I can give lessons to meet your personal needs either in Bath or via Skype.

The next post looks at 'there'... or is it 'their' or 'they're'?

Good English grammar: an introduction

In the final New Testament Greek class, Claire let us loose on translating verses from the Bible. In pairs, we puzzled out all the elements of grammar she had taught us; tenses, genders, cases, exceptions to the rules and so we creaked our way through the actual text rather than the practice sentences that had been used to demonstrate the point we had been learning.

Grammar provides the scaffolding for building sentences. English grammar has its pitfalls - and because I hear so many mistakes made in the British media these days - I am going to write a series of short posts on correct usage. Shockingly, basic mistakes are not only made in speech when one might be forgiven for speaking quickly or forgetting what one has said at the beginning of a long sentence, I see these mistakes in print, too.

The first post to be published shortly will be on when to use 'I' and 'me'.

If you require personal tuition or help in the area of English grammar, please do not hesitate to contact me through my contact page on the website. I will be pleased to discuss your requirements with you. Lessons can be provided in Bath or via Skype.

Bath German Society on the web

Bath German Society now has a Facebook page!

Please "like" it (who decided that the word "like" would be a good way of showing one's approval? It is so inelegant....) and keep up to date with the Society's programme.  Announcements of events concerning German/Austrian/Swiss culture taking place in Bath will also be posted there.

Click here for the link.

The Society's website is here.

Bath German Society's first meeting of the season takes place tomorrow, 20 September. Film licensing laws do not permit advertising so I'm not allowed to divulge the name of the film - but it is in German by a German director with German actors and deals with facing the end of life. I think it is more upbeat than I have made it sound!

The minefield that is language

Anyone who has attempted to learn a foreign language will be at once fascinated and daunted. Fascinated - by the new vistas, culture and ways of thinking that open up and daunted by the cultural pitfalls, faux pas and general misunderstandings that can ensue.

Even those who have a solid grip on a foreign language or two can be tripped up by unspoken cultural norms lurking in the background of the simplest of greetings.  I have been reminded of this by this article recently published by the BBC.

Most European languages - English of course being the exception - have an informal and formal version of the word 'you'. Informal usage is restricted to family, children, animals and very close friends. The formal usage is for everyone else - neighbours, colleagues, strangers, and so on. For example, informal versions are "tu" (French) "Du" (German), "tu" (Spanish) and formal versions are "vous", "Sie" and "usted".

At one time, the conventions were very clear and there was not any confusion about when to use the different versions. Nowadays, society has become more relaxed and the lines have become blurred. Some people do not mind a bit of informality and others do - so quite a lot of second-guessing is required.

Some years ago, when I worked for a German company, we simply followed the adage "when in Rome...". In Germany, I would address my colleagues as Herr X and Frau Y and use the 'Sie' form of the verb. When they visited the British office, the same people would be addressed by their first names and addressed as "you". All very clear. Some people may think it odd that we would start a conversation off in one language and end up speaking in the other. We would move from informality to formality (and perhaps back again) in the space of five minutes but it felt entirely natural.

If in doubt, I tend to err on the side of caution and use the formal version which in German is the same as the infinitive so there is the added advantage of less conjugating being required.

In English, the conventions can be more difficult to navigate as a foreign speaker may think that if he is addressing a colleague by his first name, then the tone and register can be relaxed as well. For colleagues who know each other well and are friends outside of work, this is often the case. But for those who interact solely in a work environment there may be a level of formality that is conveyed in other ways. This is where one has to be culturally aware as well as linguistically aware. Even native speakers can sometimes misread a situation and misinterpret it. The topic of the BBC article discusses the issues of people communicating using Twitter where informality is perhaps expected in such short messages but even so offence can easily be caused if these unwritten conventions are contravened.

Language is wonderful but it can also be a minefield!

Learning languages

The summer season is here - even if the weather associated with it is not - and so many evening activities have ceased before re-starting in the autumn. It is an ideal time to think about doing something different and taking a class in a summer school. I have taken the opportunity to learn some New Testament Greek taught by an enterprising Oxford University Theology undergraduate during her long vacation.

The process of learning a new language is a challenge. Many non-linguists seem to think that acquiring a new language is something you "pick up". Indeed, arguably, babies do "pick up" a language because they hear it spoken and they imitate the sounds and use the individual words most pertinent to their situation such as "drink", "more", "no".  The more sophisticated the command of our first language, the more structured our learning process of another language has to be. Everyone has to apply themselves to a bit of homework - in this case, initially learning a new alphabet and then the rules of grammar.

For linguists, the nuts and bolts of a new language, such as the terminology of grammar (nouns, verbs, genitive case, gerund, etc), are familiar, but the challenge comes in remembering where the rules differ. A verb may be weak in one language and strong in another, a noun may be feminine in one language and masculine in another, and prepositions were invented to catch us all out!

The whole process is fascinating, I think, and so far I am enjoying spelling out words in the as-yet unfamiliar alphabet and finding links with my native language (Claire, our tutor, is letting us in gently, I think!) but I am reminded that learning a new language requires application and dedication. It is thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, too!

Unlike New Testament Greek, which is a dead language, and cannot be practised in conversation, members of the Weston French Connection group are reminded that we will continue to meet throughout the summer on the fourth Thursday of the month in the Old Crown to ensure our French conversation skills have an occasional airing!

Two German events

Last minute notice about two German-related events in Bath!

Tonight (19 April), Bath German Society is hosting a talk on Brecht als Lyriker. The speaker is Dr Hartmut Logemann, professor of Mathematics at Bath University. The venue is Manvers St Baptist Church Hall.  Doors open at 7.30 p.m. for coffee and German conversation, the lecture will start at 8.15 p.m.

My colleague, Cherry Shelton-Mills, has organised an event at the Bath Royal Scientific and Institution (BRSLI). It is open to professional translators working with German as one of their languages. More information and contact details are available here.

Translating Tolstoy

Last week, my review of Bath Literature Festival's Translating Tolstoy event was published in the Bath Chronicle.  The editor restricted me to a mere 150 words, so for those who like a bit more meat on their bones, here is the piece in full written for a non-specialist readership.


Native speakers of English often forget just how spoiled they are. As speakers of one of the world's major languages we do not always appreciate just how much has been translated for our benefit. And it is rare that we ever consider how complex a task this might be.

Rosamund Bartlett, who has been commissioned by Oxford World Classics to produce a new translation of Anna Karenina, demonstrated some of the challenges she faces as she tries to convey the life, mind and culture of one of Russia's greatest 19th century writers.

Ms Bartlett began her presentation by explaining that having started the translation of Anna Karenina she then broke off to write a biography of Tolstoy. This experience revealed to her the many styles and registers that Tolstoy commands and has allowed her to return to her earlier drafts of her translation to rewrite passages now that she feels she knows the author so much more thoroughly.

Tolstoy's use of the Russian language is very simple but his sentences are very complex. Ivan Bunin said of him that he has a "complete lack of belletristic decoration, of trite devices and conventions". However, he does have a habit of making up words which are very difficult to translate concisely and another trick is to repeat the same adjective up to four times in a short paragraph.  This poses the question of how literal should a translator be? Should she retain and reflect the Russian syntax and grammar or write in idiomatic English and choose a variety of adjectives? Ms Bartlett takes the view that it is important to adhere to the original style. Russian uses one word to convey a range of emotions whereas English has lots of words with subtle nuances. The nuances in Russian are conveyed by the context of the piece and it is the translator's job to interpret this for the foreign reader.

What is Bartlett trying to achieve that is different from the many previous translations of Tolstoy's work? Her aim is to find language that is timeless. Previous translations need updating but it is not enough to make the translation contemporary for this, too, in time will date.  One considerable challenge is conveying Russian dialect. The translator has to bear in mind that the work is not going to be read only by British readers but also by readers of other variants of our language. It would therefore not be appropriate, for example, to have peasants speaking with a rendition of a British dialect so Bartlett's aim is to keep the language in these situations clean, neutral and simple.

The internet is a huge help to Bartlett as she demonstrated in a passage of the text concerning 19th century bee-keeping practices. Previous translators had struggled to convey a couple of words accurately and in one or two cases the words had been entirely lost in translation as they crumbled in the face of the task before them. With vast resources at her disposal Bartlett is able to research the necessary specialist glossaries to find the precise (and highly obscure) terminology required.  Such research can involve huge swathes of time and may sometimes mean that rather than translating a chapter in a day her output is reduced to a couple of paragraphs.

Rosamund Bartlett, clearly an expert in her field, conveyed a sense of humility about her work. She confessed unashamedly to drawing on other translations of Tolstoy's work and acknowledged the huge debt she owes to them. In having studied Tolstoy so carefully in writing about him as a man and translating his work, she was aware that she was still learning and still trying to understand him. We, the readers of Tolstoy, can only be grateful that she has devoted so much of her life to this task as most of us will not have the ability or time to achieve a standard of Russian to read his work in the original.