Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

A nice-sounding Italian called Dr Augusto Odello, of Turin, writes to make an `attentive and long thoughtout reply', he says, to my remarks on his short pamphlet Trentatre vs Ninety-Nine (Spectator, 22 May). Both words are used in identical medical circumstances, when a doctor wants to palpate a fremitus vocalis tactilis (to feel the vibration of a vocal sound, in the chest). Last May, Dr Odello's assertion was that the literal translations of ninety-nine and trentatre are different but their `semantic area' is identical. This didn't seem to me to mean much, and anyway I suggested that, in the medical context, trentatre and ninety-nine aren't really words at all.

I can't say that Dr Odello's reply gets us much further. He mentions that trentatre and ninety-nine are 'phonologically miles apart' and illustrates the point with little graphs that look like print-outs of seismographs. Fair enough, but he goes too far when he reiterates that they are `authentic words with an identical meaning'.

My idea of their function is that they are not used as words, merely as physical tools to produce a tangible vibration. The same effect could be produced by a groan, or even by an unconscious patient breathing stertorously. The closest these two apparent words get to being real words is by way of the convention of doctors' eliciting them. …

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