The Sounds-Write Podcast

2: Nuggets of Language Nerdiness

October 23, 2023 Sounds-Write
Show Notes Transcript


Hello and welcome to The Sounds-Write Podcast. I’m the host, Laura, and this is episode 2 of the series Nuggets of Language Nerdiness, where I share with you 3 lovely snippets that will help you understand the English language better.
Sounds-Write is a speech to print approach to teaching phonics based on decades of research on the science of reading and learning. For twenty years, we’ve been delivering our quality teacher training programs. You can find a whole host of information and free resources on our website linked in the show notes. On with the episode!

Place names:
Have you ever wondered about the etymology and history of place names in English-speaking countries? Many town and city names have similar endings, and each one points to their history and founding.
As we know, the Roman occupation of Britain from 43 AD until the early 5th century had a profound influence on the English language. One word that stuck and has developed into a number of different words is the Latin word 'castrum', meaning fort. It came into Old English as the word 'ceaster' and from there came to develop into the word castle. The word's much more far-reaching influence, though, was on the suffixes of place names. Former Roman forts have retained this link to 'castrum' even today in the form of suffixes like 'chester', 'caster', and 'cester'. There are so many examples of this, like Manchester, Leicester and Lancaster, which were all used by the Romans as military forts. This suffix was taken over by British colonists to Australia and appears in towns like Gloucester, NSW, Grandchester, QLD. And to the US in places such as Rochester, Minnesota, and Eastchester in New York. Though, of course, these were not the sites of old Roman forts.
We can learn lots of other things about place names just by understanding their suffixes. The suffix 'mouth' comes from the Old English word 'mutha', meaning the mouth of a river. Places like Plymouth, Yarmouth and Portsmouth in the UK, are all cities founded at the mouths of rivers.
And many settlements were named after people. The English town Ashby-de-la-Zouch, for example, was owned by the la Zuche family, while Wolverhampton was named after Lady Wulfruna, who founded the town in 985 AD. The same goes for many Australian towns and cities that were named after colonists. Rubibi in Western Australia, was given the name Broome in 1883 after the Governor of Western Australia Sir Frederick Broome. Another example was the city of Brisbane, re-named after the Brisbane River, which in turn was named after the governor of NSW Thomas Brisbane.
It's worth looking up the etymology of your home town. The town I grew up in, Buckingham, means 'the home belonging to Bucca'.


US English spelling
There are some key differences between US English and other varieties of English, but one of the first that comes to mind is the difference in spelling. For example, the < ise > ending of words like realise, specialise and organise are spelt < ize > in US English. Another example is the < our > spelling of the last sound in words like neighbour, colour and flavour is spelt just < or > in US English. And the < re > spelling in words like centre, metre and litre and spelt < er > in the US. But where did these differences come from?


As politics manages to weave its way into most things, so it did here too. The political thought surrounding US independence from Britain was a key factor in this divergence from British spelling. I’m sure you will have heard of Noah Webster, who was really the key figure in cementing these spelling differences. For Webster, the newly formed USA provided an opportunity for spelling reform. He felt that the English writing system had become riddled with an excessive number of superfluous letters and spellings. He also saw it as an opportunity to deviate from British cultural influence and establish a national language that would, in turn, bring together a national culture. Of course, this didn’t happen and the US is one of the few countries in the world with no national language.


However, Webster’s influence on spelling was significant and his dictionaries were largely responsible for standardising these US spellings of works such as colour, centre and realise.


Polysemous words vs homonyms
Finally, I'd like to tell you about the difference between polysemous words and homonyms. Polysemous words are spelt and sound the same, but have multiple related meanings. So for example, the word 'dish' has multiple related meanings. It could refer to a plate, 'Put the dish in the sink' or it could refer to a meal 'I ordered a dish I hadn't tried before'. They have slightly different meanings depending on the context, but come from the same root word. Incidentally, that root word is discus from Latin.


Polysemous words are not to be confused with homonyms, which are words that are spelt and sound the same, but their definitions are not related to each other and they have different origins or roots. The word 'bat' is a homonym. It has two completely unrelated meanings: a winged mammal or a bat for playing sports. Bat as in the mammal comes from Middle English ‘bakke’, coming from Old Swedish, Norse and Danish. The type of bat we use in sports comes from French and before that the Proto-Indo-European word 'bhat', meaning to strike.


So, what’s the difference between the two terms? Both terms describe words that are spelt or sound the same, but homonyms have unrelated meanings and polysemous words have related meanings and come from the same root. 


It can sometimes be tricky to work out which words are polysemous and which are homonyms because it can require knowing what the root of the words is. Here are a few examples of homonyms and polysemy. I’ll give you a second after each one to try and figure it out before telling you the answer.


Is the word ‘down’ polysemous or a homonym in these two examples? I went down the slide. I have a down jacket for winter. It’s a homonym. 
How about paper in these examples? The paper got wet in the rain. I read a paper about a new discovery. ‘Paper’ is polysemous.
The word to listen out for in these next two sentences is ‘served’. He served a three-year sentence in prison. He served lunch at a homeless shelter. ‘Served’ is polysemous.
And finally, is ‘bark’ polysemous or a homonym? The tree bark was dark brown. The dog may bark if you come close. ‘Bark’ is a homonym. 
I’ll provide links for those in case you're unclear on the answers. You’ll also be able to find links to the sources I’ve used for this whole episode in the show notes. 


Thank you so much for listening and I hope you’ve enjoyed the episode! Bye for now!