or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


If you live in an officially bilingual province, you will find typographical errors in two official languages.

I saw a do-it-yourself sign yesterday that read, on one side, CONGRATULATION TO ALL GRADUATES: not perfect, since we'd say "congratulations", but passable. The other side read, "FELICITATIONS A TOUS FINNISANTS". If your French is rusty, that last word is the noun form of the verb "finir", "to finish or complete", and ought to be spelled "finissants".

But there are similar errors to be found in English, too. A restaurant attached to a motel here in town has a sign that's clearly been in place for some years which reads, "LICENSED DINNING ROOM". I wonder how many customers have mentioned that it ought to be "dining": there must have been at least a few over the years.

"Dinning", of course, would have to be pronounced with a short "-i-", a direct consequence of one of the few truly reliable rules in English--that a consonant-vowel-consonant word always has a short vowel, and if you can add an "-e" to the end, it always makes that vowel long. Din? Short. Dine? Long. When we alter the tense of a verb by adding "-ed" or "-ing", we retain the vowel sound by doubling the final consonant to indicate a short vowel or leaving it single for a long vowel. Ratting? Short vowel. Rating? Long vowel. Very simple (thank goodness).

The interesting thing about that French misspelling is that in English, you'd instantly know (if you sounded it out) that it was wrong, but that isn't true of French. English places stresses within words, and some doubled letters act as signals for that stress. If those were viable English words, we would expect to pronounce the first as "FIN-uh-sants" and the second as "fuh-NISS-uhnts". French, however, doesn't place stresses within individual words as a consequence of their spelling; both of those words--if they were both words--would be pronounced the same.


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