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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Ties Teens and Sells

Emptying the household waste baskets, I interrupted my son’s video call. He continues to work at home most days. He had put on a smart shirt and tie, and was talking to some important-looking blokes in suits. 

“Sorry,” I apologised when I went back later.

“We were in conference with coun-sel,” he explained. That’s how he said it: “coun-sel,” with too much emphasis on the ‘e’ of the second syllable.

He could see I was looking to mock him. “Just emptying the bas-kets,” I was about to say.

“I know it sounds pretentious,” he said. “I thought I would never say it like that, but we have to avoid confusing coun-sel with coun-cil. It wouldn’t do to be asked to phone the council and to phone the counsel instead, not at the rates they charge.”

“It’s like when I started work,” I said, dredging up a memory from the distant past as usual.  

I told him about two people checking over a set of accounts to make sure they had been typed correctly. The one reading out loud from the handwritten draft kept saying things like “thir-tie” and “for-tie” instead of thirty and forty. I thought it sounded silly until it was pointed out that if the typist had typed thirteen in place of thirty, or the other way round, it might be misheard and wrongly passed as correct. Soon, I was pronouncing all my -ties and -teens too. Some you didn’t really need to change, such as twenty because it would never be confused with twelve, but we changed it anyway: “Twen-tie pounds, fif-teen shillings and eleven pence.”

“That would be so easy to carry through into everyday life,” he said. “You don’t usually talk about barristers outside work, but we’re always talking numbers. You could end up saying it without thinking. We deal with about thir-tie or for-tie coun-sel and thirt-tie or for-tie coun-cils.”

“It’s so powerful,” I said, “that even when you tell someone about it, they start doing it themselves, even after fifty years.”

“Fif-tie,” he corrected me.

28 comments:

  1. LOL. I like it. I'm always torn between pronouncing something correctly/naturally and doing it unambiguously

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    1. A wrong word in a legal document could cost someone a very large amount of money, so I can see why they have to go to such lengths to avoid ambiguity, as it was during my few years in accountancy.

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  2. Here's a solution -- call the counsel "lawyers" instead! No confusing that with "council."

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    1. I don't think we have sufficient influence to alter traditions of the legal profession going back decades.

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  3. I suspect that the longer we are forced to work from home the greater the lasting effect on our language will be. Interesting thought.

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    1. I guess there is a greater likelihood of mishearing things during video conferencing, but lawyers have been using sel/cil pronunciation for years.

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  4. Do you not mean tee rather than tie or do you say it different in Yorkshire?

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    1. 'tee' could be misheard as 'teen'. It was 'tie' as rhymes with 'pie', 'high' and 'my'. That's why I thought it sounded silly.

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    2. Until you send the wrong numbers to in Tax Inspector.

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  5. That can not easily happen in German, because our words for numbers are of course different. But we have our own traps or false friends. Two and three are Zwei and Drei in German and are easily misheard, which is why some people (including myself) say "Zwo" for Zwei when on the phone.

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    1. It's the same kind of thing. Do you have a phonetic alphabet for letters, e.g. Mike - Echo - India - Kilo - Echo ?

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    2. Yes of course we do, and I am very familiar with it, last but not least because my late husband was a radio amateur.

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  6. I have never heard of this technique before. As I speak English very clearly, I do not think that I shall be adopting it any time soon. Your son was wearing a collar and tie on his top half but what was he wearing on his bottom half? Lacy French knickers like his father?

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    1. Such a poor accountancy assistant. What could happen if your interlocutor had impaired hearing? You would not have passed your Inter course.

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    2. I note that you did not deny the lacy knickers.

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    3. I chose to turn a blind eye to your debauched imagination. For how long have you been troubled by these intrusive thoughts?

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  7. Oh my, too much for me to bother with. Down here in Brighton Sussex I am told we have a cockney accent.
    Briony
    x

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    1. That would be one way to avoid ambiguity: bottle of glue, garden gate, two little ducks ...

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  8. How funny! It seems like it could be hard to get used to changing your pronunciation of certain words but I do understand how there could be a need for it. I am accustomed to the phonetic alphabet as Tom has always used it quite a bit, especially before he retired.

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    1. I don't remember any difficulties when checking typed documents, but I probably did sometimes say -tie outside work and get mocked for it. It is all now in the past though because documents are rarely drafted and typed like they used to be.

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  9. I like to tell my friends that my grand daughter is a fully trained barrister. In fact she can make a really good coffee using an espresso (not expresso) machine.

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    1. Does she wear a suit during video conferencing?

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  10. Haha! It's the same in German: Fünfzehn (15) vs. Fünfzig (50). Get it wrong, and you could be in trouble!

    In standard German, '2' and '3' rhyme, so over the phone many folk pronounce '2' as 'zwo' instead of 'zwei'. If you want a call back, then you learn to do this. :)

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    1. Meike (Librarian, above) who is German also mentions 'zwo' but she seems not to have the -zehn -zig problem. I think with phone numbers we tend to say them as a sequence of single digits so the -teen -ty problem doesn't arise, unless you had one like 501550 and said it as fifty fifteen fifty.

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  11. Oddly I, too, am used to emphasising the the difference between Counsel and Council. Doing a lot of legal work when working for a Council where, in my junior days, there was lots of proof reading to do we developed many such ways of ensuring that words were not misheard or misunderstood. I can recall the Chief Clerk in Liverppol City Council's Town Clerk's Department in the '60s giving me a right public b******ing when, despite me being senior to him, I let an error escape. Those were the days.

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    1. I wonder whether businesses and organisations still carry out two-handed proof reading. They probably don't have enough staff now.

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