Saturday, 9 January 2010


My year hasn’t started tremendously auspiciously. After spending two weeks in the UK, on the way back across the North Sea, I must have picked up an ear infection which has rendered me temporarily hearing-impaired. I’ve never worn a diving helmet before, but I’m slowly beginning to realise what it might be like to don one: the voices I hear just seem to reverberate unintelligibly off an invisible shield around my head. So last week, there seemed little point giving my normal English lessons at the Volksuniversiteit and having students’ questions literally fall on deaf ears. The next morning there was an envelope jammed in the letterbox addressed personally to me. The heading on the photocopy it contained said ‘Pleurisy’. Oh dear I thought, not another illness I’d been diagnosed with. But reading on, I found the following:

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of mouse should never be meese,
You may find a lone mouse or a whole nest of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But a bow if repeated is never called bine,

And the plural of vow is vows, never vine.
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
And I give you a boot would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular’s this and the plural is these,
Should the plural of kiss ever be nicknamed keese?
Then one may be that and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren,
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim,
So the English, I think, you all will agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.

The note had been sent by a concerned colleague, who had signed off with a Get Better Soon. And even though it didn’t manage to clear up my aural orifices, it did cheer me up. A kind gesture indeed!
So, if and when I’m able to doff my imaginary diving helmet, I will at least have something in store for my students next time …

For more information click here

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Belgian travel games

To alleviate the boredom of a long car journey in the nineteen-sixties, my brother and I would be encouraged to play games in the back of the car, supposedly to stop us quarrelling. One popular way of passing the time was the inn-sign game, where for each pub the car passed - depending on the number of legs in the name - points could be scored. So, the Red Lion would give you 4 points and the Horse & Jockey 6 points, but the Royal Oak would provide you with none. My brother would take the right-hand side of the road and I the left. The winner at the end of the journey was the one with the highest number of points (or legs). The four-hour journey from home to Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast, where we sometimes spent our holidays, went through Manchester city-centre, Oldham, Huddersfield, Leeds and York, so it was rewarding territory. Of course, in the intervening years, these towns and cities have all been by-passed by motorways and dual-carriageways and it is unlikely that any pubs will appear along the roadsides these days.

Nowadays, (motorway) travel can be quite mind-numbing and I have to admit that car-driving and I are not natural bedfellows. So I have to think of other ways of breaking the monotony on a long drive. A fortnight ago, I was driving to the port of Zeebrugge on a stretch of road that I quite often travel for North Sea crossings and I was reminded of why travelling in Belgium (even on its motorways) can be such fun. 
You could, for example, try spotting French place-names when circumventing Brussels - one of the largest Francophone metropolises in the world - on the northern section of its outer ring road (R0). Well, guess what? There aren’t any. The R0 doesn’t actually enter bi-lingual Greater Brussels, so if you don’t know the Flemish names for Liège and Mons, you’d better check up on them beforehand.

Jodoigne: now you see it, now you don’t. Driving the Belgian motorways can be a baffling experience. If you travel the E40 from Liège to Brussels, keep your wits about you if you have an appointment in French-speaking Jodoigne. One minute you’re in Wallonia, the next you’re in Flanders, so don’t miss exit 25 for Geldenaken (that’s French for Jodoigne – as if they even look or sound the same!)
When you peel off E40 onto the E314 just west of Leuven and see signs to Aken (followed by the German name Aachen), you might be forgiven for thinking that the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities would show some fraternity when it came to providing road signs in two languages, at least on their national routes where place names differ, but – apart from in Brussels and local authorities with so-called language facilities - this is taboo.

However, my favourite game on Belgian motorways, like the inn-sign game, is beer-related and is called Spot-the-Brewery: on my recent drive to the Belgian coast, I passed junctions signposting Hoegaarden, Grimbergen, Affligem and Brugge (and if you take the southern route through Wallonia to Calais, there are motorway exits to Jupille, Floreffe and (possibly) Watou). Now if that doesn’t work up an appetite, I don’t know what will.