Category Archives: Literacy

“A” is for Apple®: Phonics for the Technological Toddler

It’s clear to most people that apples , balls, cats, and dogs are no longer the images of choice for alphabet primers. So here for the 21st century is a newer offering for your Technological Toddler.

A is for “Apple®,” whose products we need, and
B is for “Broadband” for downloads at speed.
C is for “Cursor” for drag, point, and click, while
D is for “Drop-down” with things we can pick.
E is for “Ebooks” we download for pleasure, and
F is for “Facebook®,” that most use for leisure.
G is for “Google®” a web-searching titan,
H is for “Hackers” who just love to frighten.
I is for “Ice-cream” – for Androids and toffee, and
J is for “Java™” – that’s software AND coffee!
K is for “Kindle™,” a popular reader, and
L is for “Linux™,” an Open Source leader.
M is for “Microsoft®,” still a big player, and
N is for “Nike®,” a sports goods purveyor.
O is for “Outsource” for work on the cheap, and
P is for “Playstation®,” stealer of sleep.
Q is for “QWERTY” where writing can start, while
R is for “Reading,” a fast-dying art.
S is for “Skyping” that’s video chat, but
T is for “Texting,” to type “where u @?”
U is for “Unfriend” for people you hate, while
V is for “Vote Up” for people you rate!
W for “Warcraft®,” a virtual land, and
X is for “XBox®,” a Microsoft brand.
Y is for “YouTube®” where egos are fed, and
Z is for “Zombies,” the flesh-eating Dead.

And as a special treat, you can download a FREE copy of The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium [1], a PDF version with pictures that you can print out and read to your kiddos!

The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium

Let us know what your young readers think.

[1] Oh yes, it’s a real word. An abecedarium is “an alphabetical wordbook or wordlist, usually elementary; esp. a primer for teaching the basics of reading and spelling.” It dates from 1440, along with its alternate form, an abecedary (1475). It’s one of those words that deserves its day in the sun now and again, and today is a sunny day!

The Hunting of the Snark

A recent tweet pointed me to an article entitled 14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed. Being by nature more curious than a cat who works as a detective for The Olde Curiosity Shoppe Investigations Agency, I had to click through.[1]

Snark shirt

Sarcastic? Moi?

The one that caught my eye – or maybe internal ear – was the Snark, also referred to in the article as the Percontation Point or Irony Mark. Prior to this, I had two reference points for the word snark; as an animal in a Lewis Carroll poem or as a noun for a snide, sarcastic remark. It also forms the base for the adjective snarky, which means “cutting, critical, and/or irritable.”

Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark, first appeared in 1876 and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Carroll with inventing it in the sense that it is used for a mythical beast. However, Carroll’s alter ego, Charles Dodgson, was not only a first-class mathematician and logician (he got a First in Math from Oxford) but a master of the English language. It therefore seems unlikely that he was unaware of the word snark already being around prior to his using it in his poem.

Hunting of the Snark cover

Book Cover 1876

The first citation for snark, as a verb, appears in the OED as being in 1866, meaning “to snore or to snort.” It can be traced even further back as being a variation on the verb snork, which is defined as;

To snort or grunt; to breathe noisily. Said esp. of horses and pigs.

Ultimately, it’s derived from Middle Dutch[2] or Middle Low German[3] snorken, to snort. Regardless, it doesn’t take a huge leap to move from “the snorting sound of animals” to “a mythical animal in a poem.”

The use of the backward question mark to represent irony apparently comes from the 19th century and more specifically a French poet by the name of Alcanter de Brahm. The irony is that using an Irony Mark to mark “irony” is ironic! If you have to bring attention to the fact that a sentence is ironic, you might as well have just written a non-ironic comment in the first place.

Prior to this, the symbol had a brief outing as the percontation point in the 17th century, which was not used to mark irony but as a way of indicating that a sentence didn’t have a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. Thus, you would use a regular “?” for the sentence “Did it rain yesterday?” but the percontation[4] mark for “How do you fix a broken clock؟” Not surprisingly, this didn’t catch on, leaving the quirky little symbol open from being revived as the Irony Mark.

The current appellation of the Snark presumably arose from the idea that a snarky remark is sometimes made with a little snort. However, it’s unlikely to catch on simply for one reason: there’s no key for it on the keyboard! Sure, if you have a full keyboard with a numeric keypad AND you have Unicode AND you type ALT+2E2E, then maybe you can get the ؟ symbol – but even then, not everyone else can read it on their computers.

[1] Those of you who have not yet met Detective Mittens, the Crime-Solving Cat, should click on this link to experience the surreal humor.

[2] Middle Dutch is a collective name for a number of closely related West Germanic dialects that were spoken and written between 1150 and 1500.

[3] Middle Low German is a language descended from Old Saxon and the ancestor of modern Low German. It was spoken from about 1100 to 1600.  All these come from what’s called the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, dating back to the Iron Age.

[4] Percontation is an interesting word because it comes from the Latin percontare, meaning “to inquire or interrogate,” ultimately from percontus, which means “by using a punting pole!” The idea is to test something by poking it with a stick. We can track it to the ancient Greek word  κοντός, a boat pole. In the UK, you may hear in Norfolk talk about using a quant to propel a boat; it’s from the same Greek root.

Indiana Jones and the Search for the Pot of Ink

I am a firm believer in always maintaining a low-tech backup system for those times when such basic necessities as electricity and WiFi are not available. It may be hard to believe but there are places in the world where iPhones, Droids, and laptops won’t work! I know, crazy, yes?

Which is why I carry two pieces of technology that operate in such extreme conditions. One is called a notepad and made of pieces of paper bound together inside two hard covers. The second is critical for the success of the notepad and it’s called a pen. This is a small, hand-held tube containing ink, a colored liquid that you can use to mark the paper.

Moleskine Notebook

Moleskine Notebook

I’m mentioning these in detail because it is possible that some people in the not-to-distant future may not have any direct experience with these items. They may also be unfamiliar with the process of scratching marks on paper, which we call writing. Unbelievable? Maybe not.

From Fall 2011, the State of Indiana will no longer require students to learn cursive script as part of the school curriculum. It will become “optional” – which is as good as saying “ignored.” Hawaii has jumped on the bandwagon by adopting a similar stance, along with Illinois, Ohio, and apparently a good number of others. Doubtless kids will be required to take a stab at hitting keys on a keyboard or iPad, provided it doesn’t eat into their “Angry Birds” time; and of course, it will be essential to learn to spell in order to send text messages and tweets. Well, sort of spell. But the actual skill of using a pen on paper could be on the way out. Once credit card technology can handle fingerprints, we won’t even have to sign receipts.

All of this has been steadily creeping up on us as can be evidenced by the fact that trying to get ink for refilling a fountain pen is becoming a tougher task than tracking down a crystal skull – or the scrolls in the Ark of the Covenent. Hell, it would be easier to find the scrolls than to write them if you needed to use a bottle of ink!

Fountain pen

Cross Torero Pen

My low-tech backup system currently consists of a Moleskine reporter’s notepad and a Cross Torero Diamondback fountain pen. In truth, I’ve been a Moleskine notebook scribbler for a few years now and the pen can vary, but essentially, armed with these two pieces of equipment, I can keep track of ideas, save contact details, draw maps for people, and use the International Phonetic Alphabet to knock out a phonological analysis. My first draft was “ knock up a phonological analysis” but I am aware that “knock up” in the US means something different from the UK meaning of “knock up” that I am referring to!

Phonological analysis

At this point in evolution, it is still possible to refill these pens using ink-filled plastic cartridges but as we become more eco-conscious, using a refillable cartridge makes more sense. And after all, this is precisely how you could do it less than 30 years ago. Now I’m not talking going back to the quill and dipping into an inkwell, just being able to suck ink from a bottle into a pen. Hardly rocket science.

But how easy is it to find bottles of ink? Amazingly enough, these are now “specialist items.” In fact, if you type the work “ink replacement” or “ink cartridge” into a search engine, you find printer inks. Go to Staples and you’ll even find fountain pens as “fine writing instruments” and not “pens.” Trying to get hold of a fountain pen is like taking a trip to Diagon Alley and finding Ollivanders (“The pen chooses the writer, Speech Dude. It’s not always clear why.”)

Notebook AAC

AAC device

In the absence of Hogwortian powers, I’m afraid that the quest for ink meant having to go to a variety of stores, which included Staples (one bottle of black ink), Wal-Mart (no ink), a local craft store (lots of calligraphy equipment but no bottled ink), and a book store (no ink, no books – it was the local Borders and tragically its last day. Now there’s a sign of the times.)

It’s somewhat ironic that in order to maintain this quaint, old-fashioned art of writing on paper with a fountain pen I ended up having to use the internet, the very thing that is hastening us toward a new phase of literacy, or even illiteracy. After all, if I can talk to a computer and have it speak back, why do I even need to write anything?

Perhaps Robert Graves was more prophetic than he knew when he wrote the words of the final lines of his classic story, I, Claudius; “Write no more now,  Tiberius Claudius, God of the Britons, write no more.”

A Case in Point… or several cases

You’re using your iPad you bought off eBay to check the FedEx site while waiting for your AirTran flight and wondering if you set your TiVo to record iCarly.

So what has this got to do with camels?



Well, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people used things called pens and pencils in order to record words. I know, pretty freaky, yes? And to make life easier and more legible, there were a few rules that writers (people who used pens to scratch letters on paper) would follow. One special set of rules looked at when you should use letters written in lower case (“abcde…”) or upper case (“ABCDE…). In general, these were pretty simple.

Pen and paper

iPen and iPaper

(a) Use an upper case letter at the beginning of a sentence.
(b) Use an upper case letter at the beginning of a word that named a person or a place.

Apart from a few deviations, these two rules would get you through life with rarely a red ink circle being drawn around a word by your English teacher. Life was simple. It was so simple that even a word processor could handle it.

Alas, the dubious profession of Marketing, a job that is pretty much just a minor variation on “the world’s oldest profession,” decided that in order for companies to become more visible, abandoning these rules would be a minor inconvenience but help sell more stuff.

Back in the 50’s, when movies were huge – and a cup of coffee was just “a cup of coffee,” and didn’t require fluent Italian to place an order, along with the ability to choose from 300 weird and wonderful combinations of milks, flavors, creams, sizes, and temperatures – two companies competed to produce the then-new “widescreen” formats. These were CinemaScope and VistaVision.



In an effort to establish a visual image for their brands (that’s marketing speak for “looking different”) they decided to toss an upper case letter in the middle of a word. Oh the humanity! Presumably language mavens, English teachers, and people who wrote letters to the newspapers bemoaning how the country is going to the dogs, all foamed at the mouth, wrote letters to the newspapers, and bemoaned the absence of the ability to blog.

Sadly, no-one else really cared and the camel case world became a reality; words with upper case letters stuck up like a hump in the middle. Technically, this was more of a bactrian camel than a dromedary, but we’ll come back to that. And at this point, it wasn’t called camel case but medial capitals, which sounds much more like a linguistics term than the urbandictionary-ish word, camel case.

Prior to all this, camel case had been the province of Scotsmen and the upper-class English, who could get away with MacDougal, MacDonald, FitzHenry, and StJohn-FfordsSmyth. The English, of course, could always do anything they liked with the language because it was theirs and they certainly wouldn’t stand for Johnny Foreigner lecturing them about what was and wasn’t correct.

By the 70’s, most people in marketing were graduates of the Hippy culture of the 60’s, so the lasting effects of psychedelic drugs meant that they really didn’t care which letters were upper case, where they went in a word, or whether they were even in the right order. CompuServe thought that it would be cool to have the large “S” poking up in the middle of the word like a demented serpent about to bite anyone who felt like complaining, and the anally fiscal folks at MasterCard were presumably saving money by leaving out a space between Master and Card and thus using less ink in their billing statements.

The computer industry worked hand in hand with the marketing industry to ensure that the simple rules for using letters would never again be useful. Although Bill Gates stands out as maybe the one geek who remembered his English lessons and created Microsoft without the need to turn it into a hunchback, software engineers thought otherwise. ClarisWorks, WordPerfect, PageMaker, HyperCard, and so on, littered the shelves with boxes filled with several hundred floppy disks.

Floppy disks

The Good Old Days

Meanwhile, the corporate world brought us ValueJet, BlackBerry, MySpace, WordPress, PayPal, and some of the older companies jumped on the caravan by simply dropping a space, so Radio Shack became RadioShack and Harper Collins Publishing became HarperCollins.

The Age of the Web introduced us all to a new phenomenon: the URL or universal resource locator. Originally, if you wanted to go to a web site, all you needed to know was something called its Internet Protocol (IP) address. Tragically, IP addresses were designed by computer geeks who think only in numbers rather than letters, so such addresses consisted of four groups of numbers.  For example, if you wanted to buy a book from Amazon, you could type in

Catchy and memorable, yes?

Fortunately, the idea for using URLs was more appealing to the world because it used letters instead of number. Remembering is much easier, and lends itself to creating and remember many more.

But what URLs don’t like are spaces. So imagine you have a business creating custom pens called Pen Island and have this brilliant idea for starting a web site. Because you can’t have spaces, here’s what you get as you url:

Sharing this on your business card could lead to some confusion , not to mention acute embarrassment and a warning letter from your IT department! However, you CAN use either upper or lower case letters because browsers don’t care. Switching to looks better.

Incidentally, the Italian company Powergen had a similar problem with its now defunct site, Go ahead, think about it!

Now look what you’ve done. You’ve created a camelcase address! And using such humping can make an address easier to read, and thus easier to remember.

So again, what has this to do with camels?

These medial capitals are not really camel-like unless you imagine the first capital as the camel’s head, or you consider a camel with two humps – the bactrian. The true camel case arrived when companies began starting a word with a lower case letter followed by an upper case, and then dropping back to lower case again. This is much more camel-like.

Bactrian camel

One hump or two? The bactrian

Computer programmers, who subsequently went on to create computer-based corporations like, say, Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc. at one time used a programming language called PASCAL, and when you wrote your code, you would use Pascal case, which was to use an upper case first letter and other upper case letter to make functions readable. Thus, you might have some code looking like this:

BEGIN { ReadSchedClrArgs }
{ Read the days. }
ReadDay(input, StartDay);
ReadDay(input, EndDay);

IF (StartDay <> BadDay) AND (EndDay <> BadDay) THEN
StartHour := MapTo24(InputHour);
EndHour := MapTo24(InputHour);
Error := FALSE

You can see how there are lots of examples of functions that contain a mix of upper and lower case letters. It’s no surprise that someone who had spent years doing this would then call their company DentalFloss, BigDogBurgers, or EnglishToday.

If you program in C#, Java, or Visual Basic, camel case is the norm when you want to write a parameter, which is just a value that changes. So you might see;


What this really means is that when Steve Jobs and his orchard of programmers introduced us to the iPod, the camel case was little more than a ripe “full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow” and there was no stopping the windfall.

Camel case is now used to refer to both forms of medial capitals, so both iPad and SpongeBob SquarePants are camel case, even if the yellow porous one is really two bactrians!

SpongeBob SquarePants

SpongeBob camel case

And one final comment: The jury is still out on whether it’s camel case, camelcase, camelCase, or CamelCase. I’m sticking with camel case just because I like it.

UPDATE: 5/9/14
Eagle-eyed reader, Ed, pointed out that I used the apostrophe in a rather wayward fashion when talking about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And by “wayward” I mean “wrong.” I used 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when it should have been ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. As it’s my policy not to practice revisionism by simple editing the original as if nothing had happened, I’m adding this mea culpa loong after the original post was written. For those who read The Dudes for educational purposes, the apostrophe in ’50s is there to indicate that something is missing; in this case, the 19.