Monthly Archives: October 2008

A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? Thoughts on the story of English.

That puzzling headline is taken from a fascinating review article on “A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? How best to talk about English in English.”

… But it’s hard to resist the urge to pick a particular kind of animal as the perfect emblem for English. McWhorter says it’s a dolphin among deer. He calls German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, and other close English relatives antelopes, springbok, and kudu. English has evolved so far away from the basic language body plan, he says, that it swims underwater and echolocates. McWhorter himself strays far from English-language dogma, which says that, first, our language is special because of its openness to new words and, second, that the displaced Celts had little to no impact on English. He argues that English grammar, thanks to the pre-English inhabitants of Britain, is what really makes it unique. Welsh and English are two of very few languages in the world that use something like -ing as a habitual way of marking present tense, not to mention a fairly unusual use of do, as in "Why does English use do in questions?" It can be no coincidence, says McWhorter, that these two languages coexisted for hundreds of years in England and both have these highly unusual features.

Abley says English is a mallard because the common duck’s indiscriminate interbreeding threatens indigenous duck breeds all over the world. In the same way, modern English infiltrates diverse languages everywhere. Today, English is spoken by billions of people all over the globe. Mandarin may have more native speakers, and Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have about the same number, but English claims a special distinction: It is so popular among language learners that there are more speakers of English as a second language than there are native speakers. English is now the language of urbanization and globalization.

You could as easily call English a whale for its size. Hitchings says there were about 50,000 English words 1,000 years ago. Now there are at least three-quarters of a million. Though the inflation began when English was spoken only in England, it continued apace when English began its migration across the world. It occurred via trade and during the Crusades, when words from Arabic like dragoman, algebra, crimson, and cotton entered the language. It continued in an extraordinary period of linguistic plasticity following the Renaissance: Between 1500 and 1600, approximately 39 of every 100 words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary entered the language. English expanded symbiotically with the British Empire, which, at its height, covered more than one-quarter of the planet’s surface. The slave trade left its mark, too. Hitchings says that honkie, hip, and possibly OK come from Wolof, which was originally spoken in Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia. English ballooned again by at least 90,000 words in the 20th century, a period characterized by many scientific advancements and not coincidentally turning up words like robot, from the Czech noun robota, meaning forced labor…

If this makes you curious about language and general and English in particular, good! English teachers – here is an area that I have found is fascinating to students, even ESL students who haven’t been speaking the language for all that long. In fact, they are, I find, often even more curious about such things than native speakers, I guess because the language is still a wonderful and challenging thing for them and not something to be taken for granted. Do consider exploring such things with your students.


Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein” — and “Blade Runner”

Henry Fuseli "Dream of Belinda"

Henry Fuseli: Dream of Belinda

There is no lack of material on the Internet about this famous novel. Those of you doing the 2009-2012 HSC in NSW must compare it with Scott Ridley’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, which you will also find on this site. You must attend especially to the context in which each work emerged, issues of genre, and issues of language and technique, as well as of course forming ideas about the great themes each work embodies.

Look at this essay: Frankenstein as Lucy (PDF).


Here is a beautiful site to look at: Nature, Beauty, and Power: The Romantics (Pitt State University). Another US university, Washington State, offers a plain no-nonsense introduction to Romanticism.

There is also Romanticism: an Overview on The Victorian Web. See especially Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) — A Summary of Modern Criticism.

Two YouTube videos follow; if you are at school these may just be blank spaces! Try at home.

Kenneth Branagh 1994

Opening of Blade Runner

See also Studying the Gothic, or Emily Bronte?.


  1. The course material for this unit prepared by Melpomene Dixon for the English Teachers’ Association NSW is really excellent!
  2. I have since done a follow-up post.

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October 08 best ever! Thanks to you.

Already, according to Sitemeter, this is the best month ever on my English/ESL site, both here and previously on Tripod, since counting started in November 2002: 9,200+ visits to today for October, and 11,900+ page views. WordPress stats credit March 2008 with 12,167 views, best so far, and give 11,230 views so far this month — so even by their counting averaging around 500 a day this month October will exceed that best.

Naturally the HSC has had a part, especially the poet Peter S! The day before Paper 1 in the NSW HSC there were 1,497 views, the best day ever. What pleases me from the feedback is how many students seem to have genuinely enjoyed Peter S. That, I hope, may translate into pleasure in poetry for much longer than the HSC itself.

I have been pretty quiet on this blog recently, but will address the new HSC texts, or some of them, in the near future. Some material is in fact already here, and I am about to tag that material 2009 to 2012 HSC. Not all at once, mind, but over the next week or two.


I’ve noticed a number of visitors coming here from the ESL site: for example, see Prepositions?! where this site is listed at the top of “Related Blogs”. 🙂

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Posted by on October 22, 2008 in site news


Congratulations SHS

am 0301 That is, to Sydney Boys Highs School and Sydney Girls High School, side by side since 1927-8, and this year celebrating 150 years service to education in NSW. Yes, I have a stake, as I went to Sydney High — there’s the evidence on the left — and indeed saw the 75th anniversary! I have also taught in both schools, though mainly at SBHS.

mine 009


See also My English teachers 1.

I should also mention that in another life this site was the Sydney Boys High School English and ESL Site. That does not mean the school endorses everything on it, of course, but I did begin this to support the English/ESL students I worked with from 2001 to 2005. I taught (on and off) at SBHS from 1985 to 2005.

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Posted by on October 20, 2008 in 1950s, boys education, nostalgia, reminiscences