I’m still reading The Last Jews in Baghdad, and I just came across this paragraph on page 59, which combines an interesting fact about Iraqi dialects with a highly amusing anecdote, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of linguistic prescriptivism:

Of the Jewish teachers at Madrasat Ras el-Qarya I remember Salih Afandi, who taught arithmetic and used to insist on addressing us in the colloquial Arabic Muslims spoke, unlike his colleagues who managed to make do with a strange combination of classical Arabic and the Arabic spoken by Jews. Especially pompous was a young teacher by the name of Nyazi—an uncommon name among the Jews of Iraq—who taught us English in the fourth form. I remember him telling us that the correct pronunciation of the word bicycle was to rhyme with “behind” and “besides,” the accepted pronunciation being completely wrong. He insisted on our doing it correctly and it was only some years later that I found out how nonsensical the correction was.


  1. Linguistic prescriptivism? I’m sure terrible language teaching preceded linguistic prescriptivism, and absent the Star Trek universal translator (hah!), I’m also sure it’ll outlive it.

  2. I presume he meant [bi’saikl,] rhyming (richly) with “recycle”. In order to actually make “bicycle” rhyme with “behind”; it would have to be pronounced something like [bi’saind] or [bisa’klaind], and similarly for “besides”.
    Does this tell us something about Arabic rhyme?

  3. I think it just tells us that, like many people, the author has only a fuzzy idea of what “rhyme” means. I don’t think Arabic rhymes rely solely on vowel assonance.

  4. I at first imagined the final ‘e’ in your phonetic rendering to be pronounced, as in Emily Howard’s “testiclés”

  5. Does Arabic have a real concept of rhymes? It’s a concept mostly foreign to Hebrew, and I’ve always ascribed this lack to the root-and-pattern nature of Hebrew word construction (which Arabic shares).

  6. I’ve got no problem with linguistic prescriptivism when it makes sense, but when it comes from a non-native speaker with his own ideas and misconceptions, it’s a formula for disaster.

  7. Gee, I can’t figure out how to say bicycle the way the teacher prescribes at all..
    But the book sounds great. After I read the previous posts about Out of Egypt, I ordered the book (how did I miss this?) and just love it. Wonderful prose! So yet another book to order!

  8. I can’t figure out how to say bicycle the way the teacher prescribes at all.
    I’m reasonably sure he meant it should start /bi-‘sai-/ (like besides), thus /bi-‘sai-kl/ (which is what I was trying to indicate with my post title).

  9. Would you anti-prescriptionists accept with the usage I saw on a local church this morning;
    “We fellowship with Ichthus”
    It makes my skin crawl …
    (FYI: Ichthus being a Christian organisation here in the UK, with links abroad).

  10. Sorry, it should have said …agree with the usage …

  11. “Does Arabic have a real concept of rhymes?”
    Most definitely. Offhand, it’s hard to think of a non-rhyming poem in Arabic before the 20th century; and even prose is occasionally rhymed. Rhyming titles are particularly popular: Masaalik al-‘Abṣaar fii Mamaalik al-‘Amṣaar; Nuzhat al-Mushtaaq fī Ikhtiraaq il-‘Aafaaq; Nafaḥ aṭ-Ṭiib fii Ghuṣni ‘Andalus ir-Raṭiib…

  12. Ummm… “fellowship” as a verb is of long, long standing. I suppose it’s jargon.

  13. fellowship” as a verb is of long, long standing.
    Very long indeed, judge by yourself:
    3. To admit to fellowship, enter into fellowship with. Now only in religious use.
    c1440 Gesta Rom. xxxiv. 135 (Harl. MS.) Then pes seynge hir sistris alle in acorde..she turnid ayene..then pes was felashipid among hem.
    4. intr. To join in fellowship; to associate with. Now only in religious use, and chiefly U.S.
    c1410 LOVE Bonavent. Mirr. lvi. (Gibbs MS.) Oure lorde Jesu came..and felischippede with hem.

  14. As a churchman, I’ve heard “fellowship” as a verb countless times. It seems to be mostly among the more historically inclined churches…possibly because many young folk these days would have trouble writing such a lengthy word. The most common example usage would be as such:
    A: “Oh, Ted, I heard you’re leaving town. Where will you be fellowshipping?”
    B: “That’s right, Bill. I have some brothers in a church there. I’ll fellowship with them.”
    And yes, I can’t remember hearing the verbal form anywhere except Protestant Christian circles.

  15. What is it about “fellowship” as a verb that makes it worse than “worship” as a verb?
    What is it about “transition” as a verb that makes it worse than “function” (or “position” or “sanction” or any of many others) as a verb?

  16. I’m pretty sure that MDs and post-docs use the verb “fellowship”.

  17. 1. “What is it about “fellowship” as a verb that makes it worse than “worship” as a verb?”
    2. ” intr. To join in fellowship; to associate with. Now only in religious use, and chiefly U.S.”
    [How DO you do italics in the post pop-up?]
    1. I suppose what makes it worse is the unfamiliarity. It is the first time I have ever seen fellowship as a verb.
    I concede that – in theory – it is “no worse than worship”, and that it has a long history, though you could find countless words current in the 1440s that are no longer apt.
    It is probably because (see 2.) I am neither in religious circles nor in the US, and I think the latter is particularly important in this context. With many of my UK English-speaking friends, a totally unscientific straw poll tells me, I find many US usages such “who will you fellowship with?” strange.
    Please, hold your fire … I said it was strange to us, previously unheard – not bad, wrong, ungrammatical, un-Fowler or whatever. Which is why I posted on it.
    Or it could just be the blind prejudice of a prescriptivist !

  18. mollymooly says

    re “fellowship”: suffix -ship forms nouns. It seems to me, as a default, that a new verbal sense should be formed from a root word rather than a derived noun; in this case the verb would be “fellow”. But derived words, once coined, can drift away in new semantic directions and cease to be regarded as slaves of their root: hence, serve>service>servicing; give>gift>gifting; fellow>fellowship>fellowshipping. [Or is it fellowshiping?]

  19. Please, not “fellowshiping”! People who don’t double the “p” (on a syllable with at least secondary stress) should be kidnaped and horsewhiped.

  20. The Mongol language freely uses suffixes to convert verbs into verbal nouns, and nouns into denominal verbs. You can end up with pretty long strings of transformations noun–>verb–>noun.
    Another example in English is “orientate” from “orientation”. I don’t even know if it’s accepted; I expect not, but I often hear the word.

  21. mollymooly says

    similarly “commentate”, “obligate”.

  22. Orientate is (per the OED) “More commonly used in British English than orient, while the latter is the more freq. of the two in American English. Orientate is commonly regarded as an incorrect usage in American English.” It is first attested from 1848.

  23. marie-lucie says

    In technical linguistic terms, words like orientate and commentate are not “conversions” from nouns into verbs but “back-formations”, since they start from a longer word and chop off what seems to be an affix (prefix or, in this case, suffix) in order to make a new word. “Conversion” refers to using the same, intact word as a different part of speech, as in (a) blend (noun) converted from (to) blend (verb).

  24. marie-lucie says

    bicycle as [bisaikl]: the spelling “be-sigh-cle” reminds me of the old French word besicles “eyeglasses”, originally the old-fashioned kind with round lenses. This word is still used, but in a humorous context.

  25. I just remembered the scene in Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (as translated by Scott Moncrieff), about halfway through this section, where the narrator’s friend Bloch talks about the “lighft” in the hotel at the seaside resort Balbec:
    And it was Robert who used to blush as though it had been he that was to blame, for instance on the day when Bloch, after promising to come and see him at the hotel, went on:
    “As I cannot endure to be kept waiting among all the false splendour of these great caravanserais, and the Hungarian band would make me ill, you must tell the ‘lighft-boy’ to make them shut up, and to let you know at once.”…
    At his use of the word ‘lighft’ I had all the less reason to be surprised in that, a few days before, Bloch having asked me why I had come to Balbec (although it seemed to him perfectly natural that he himself should be there) and whether it had been “in the hope of making grand friends,” when I had explained to him that this visit was a fulfilment of one of my earliest longings, though one not so deep as my longing to see Venice, he had replied: “Yes, of course, to sip iced drinks with the pretty ladies, while you pretend to be reading the Stones of Venighce, by Lord John Ruskin, a dreary shaver, in fact one of the most garrulous old barbers that you could find.” So that Bloch evidently thought that in England not only were all the inhabitants of the male sex called ‘Lord,’ but the letter ‘i’ was invariably pronounced ‘igh.’
    The French has “laïft”: “Pour ce qui est de “laïft”, cela avait d’autant moins lieu de me surprendre que. quelques jours auparavant,…” (You can read the passage in French here (warning: contains entire text of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur), but you may have to change your character encoding to see the quotes and diacritics properly.

  26. Cryptic Ned says

    I thought maybe he could have pronounced “bicycle” with an actual D sound, if he had at an early age convinced himself that the “cl” was a “d”. Perhaps aided by a poorly laid out or poorly translated reference work that contained the word “bicyde”.

  27. A Catholic friend of mine met a rural Mexican priest who had taught himself English entirely from books. He pronounced most of the silent letters.
    The silent letters in Mongol are so linguistically interesting that I want to pronounce them. The actual spoken language is just a language, but the written language has amazingly cool agglutination.

  28. Cryptic Ned says

    A Catholic friend of mine met a rural Mexican priest who had taught himself English entirely from books. He pronounced most of the silent letters.
    Paul Erdos was famous for having done that. I read that on his first trip among the English-speaking peoples, he was surprised to see that he could not communicate at all, pronouncing English words in the Hungarian orthography. The example I remember was pronouncing “ice cubes” as “eetseh tsubesh”.

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