or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Okay. Last night I'm seized with the desire to watch the striking Kylie Minogue video for "Come Into My World": it's an awe-inspiring bit of technological wizardry in which the camera glides in a tight racetrack-shaped oval through a small part of a street in a business district as the songbird leaves a shop and walks around the street singing her song. All around her are people going about their daily business: pedestrians, shopkeepers, drivers, shoppers. But after she makes a complete loop, another copy of herself pops out of the same shop, and we realize (if we're paying attention) that now, along with two of her, we can see two of every other kind of person, too: two jilted girls throwing their boyfriends' belongings from apartment windows, two cyclists, two poster-hangers. After the second circuit of the two copies of the singer strolling and singing (and interacting with one another), a third Kylie leaves the shop, and there are suddenly three of everyone; three boys on scooters, three pairs of meter maids. Another trip round, another singer, and the streets are getting crowded with duplicates, four (or eight) of everyone. As a fifth Kylie leaves the shop and the song fades, it's clear that this can go on forever (and what are we going to do with all those Kylie Minogues?).

This has nothing to do with anything. I just like the video. On the same DVD--it's the music videos of Michel Gondry--is the (very cool) video for The White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button", and listening to it I was struck by the sheer severity of the lead singer's glottal stops on the word "button".

A glottal stop is not quite a sound; it's the temporary absence of sound, followed by its forceful return, caused by the brief slamming-shut of the glottis, the opening to the vocal cords. If the glottal stop isn't ordinarily part of your speech, you might not instinctively know how to make it; it's the sound at the end of the first syllable of "uh-oh!"

When I was a mere tad, an unnecessarily unkind (or perhaps just unthinking) aunt made considerable fun of me for the way I pronounced "bottle"; with the full-bore glottal stop. Perhaps it sounded provincial to her: she lived in Nova Scotia, whereas I grew up in Newfoundland. I still retain the stop, but tamed: it's made with a nearly closed mouth, unlike Jack White's big, flinty, open-mouthed stops. (Of course, he has the excuse that he's singing, which changes some sounds. But still: he's got a heck of a stop.)

I don't plan to make fun of anyone else's speech patterns, but I have to say that I prefer the sound of the glottal stop to the relatively prevalent "-dd-" sound which stands in for "-tt-" in such words as "button" and "bottle": "buddon", "boddul". The "-dd-" just sounds a little sloppy or lazy to me; but then, the glottal stop probably sounds odd to people who didn't grow up with it.


"Arrêt" is the French word for "stop". The little roof over the "-ê-" is called a circumflex, and interestingly, it generally denotes a place where the letter "-s-" used to be but was dropped. "Arrêt", therefore, is exactly parallel with our "arrest"; the French language lost the "-s-" and acquired the circumflex after we'd taken the word from them. Even if you don't know any French, perhaps you can still figure out what these words mean based on their relationship to English, Latin and/or Italian (they get harder as they go):


The first one is a snap: "hospital", obviously. The second one is, in fact, "paste": it's the French for "pasta", which is the Italian word for "paste", since pasta is made out of a paste of flour and eggs. (In French, "pâte" is also used in the expression "pâte à modeler", "modelling clay"; the meat-paste "pâté" has that extra accent over the "-e", meaning the vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable.) The third word may be familiar from the expression "bête noire"; it's not "best" but "beast", since there was a change in the vowel sound from long to short in about the twelfth century. "Tête" may likewise be familiar from the expression "tête-à-tête", which means "conversation", literally "head to head", as "tête" means "head", from the Latin "testum"; it didn't survive in English, but it remains in Italian as "testa". (There are still traces of "testum" in English, though: "testy" means "irritable", but its earliest meaning was "headstrong".) And finally, "naître" may be recognizable, with the "-s-" reinserted and the verb's ending stripped away, as the root of "renaissance": it means "to be born", and "renaissance" means "rebirth".


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