Parties need to deprive DUP/SF of seats

Any outcome is possible, but the likeliest outcome of the current omnishambles at Stormont is an early (dark-night) election.

Any outcome is possible there too, but the likeliest is that we will get “as you were”.

“As you were” is, of course, the last thing we need. It will already be problematic getting good new faces, as who would risk a career currently to risk entering a thoroughly unstable Assembly? Then, to make matters worse, the party line-ups will remain largely unchanged, in terms both of senior figures and Assembly/Executive numbers. Since the “crisis” was caused by the current figures in the current numbers, it follows that “as you were” will merely deliver more “crisis”.

As an electorate we must be very, very clear. With nearly two thirds of all Assembly seats between them, and the capacity (directly or indirectly) to block anything with a Petition of Concern, the DUP and Sinn Féin are absolutely responsible for the gridlock and financial mismanagement which has characterised the last five years. Other parties, even taken together, lack the numbers – if the DUP and Sinn Féin decide something will happen, it will happen; if either decides it won’t, it won’t. It is for the voters to stop this being the case.

So it is not good enough simply to blame all politicians equally. Perhaps the UUP/SDLP/Alliance would do no better, but they would surely be worth a try over the DUP/SF farce. So the task, indisputably, is to move away from “as you were” as much as possible. However, realistically, there are limitations to what can be achieved, and no single party can do it alone.

There is an inevitable consequence of all this: anti-DUP/SF parties need to work together as much as possible.

A coherent (albeit, on the Unionist side, highly optimistic) objective would be to deprive either party of 30 seats, thus stopping them using the Petition of Concern. As optimistic, but there is no reason not to aim high, would be to stop a DUP/SF overall majority. Neither is a likely outcome, but even moving markedly towards that objective would create clear momentum and send a clear message – improve performance, or you won’t be so lucky next time.

This will not happen, of course, for as long as the smaller parties consider only their own, narrow, electoral interests. There is a requirement for some sort of “coalition of the willing”. Is anyone “willing” to lead it?

Labour’s target is England, not Scotland

It is well known that, of the 59 seats in Scotland at the 2015 UK General Election, the SNP won 56 and the three main UK parties just one each.

However, in the East of England region (broadly the northern Home Counties plus East Anglia) there were 58 seats contested, of which Labour mustered just four. The Conservatives took 52 – a dominance of a level very close to the SNP’s in Scotland.

In the south of England it was the same story – of 55 seats in the West Country and Cornwall, the Conservatives took 51 to Labour’s four; of the 84 seats on the South Coast and southern Home Counties the Conservatives took 78 to Labour’s four.

Therefore, in the south of England outside London, the Conservatives’ dominance and Labour’s annihilation was almost as complete as the SNP’s in Scotland – three times over!

Scotland is an irrelevance to Labour for three main reasons. Firstly, the seats they lost there actually went to potential partners not to the direct opponent (at UK level). Secondly, there is no historical or comparative electoral evidence to suggest the shift in Scotland is anything other than semi-permanent (in other words, Scotland is now the SNP’s to lose, not Labour’s to gain). Thirdly, it is just 59 seats (52 after prospective constituency changes in 2018), less than a third of the number available in the south of England even excluding London.

The other obvious problem is that, in any case, the message they would need to put forward to have any chance in Glasgow would probably be the opposite of the message required in Gloucestershire. Labour is, in any case, trapped in Scotland – seen to be Unionist only because it needs Scottish seats for a UK majority, something which makes the Scots feel they are being taken for granted and the English feel they are being unrepresented. In other words, it is a pincer movement and Labour needs to pick a side, at least covertly, to avoid being taken out in both directions – and the numbers favour England.

As I wrote last week, there are all kinds of places in the south of England which should be a natural home for Labour. If it can win in run-down East Ham, why can it not win in run-down Hastings? If it can win in social liberal Islington, why can it not win in social liberal Brighton? If it can win in aspirational Ealing, why can it not win in aspirational Reading? If it is gaining seats in Enfield, why is it losing them in Southampton? These are obvious questions, yet the party is so obsessed with Scotland (as well as with destroying its own legacy in government through factional infighting) that it has forgotten even to pose them.

England constitutes 84% of the electorate. A party which aspires to govern the UK will have to – constitutionally as well as electorally – aspire to win in England. That, and nothing else, must be Labour’s prime target.

A “quick dose of direct rule” is not an option

There seems to be a growing sense that the best option for Northern Ireland now is for a “quick dose of Direct Rule” to “sort things out” and then a restoration of devolution.

This is understandable – but very, very wrong. It cannot happen.

Firstly, it is simply ludicrous. You cannot have political stability if every time a difficult decision is required the government has to collapse for a few months to let someone else make it. The whole point of devolution is that decision making is in local hands – and not just the easy decisions!

Secondly, there are no legal means under which it can happen. The power simply to “suspend” the institutions was removed in 2006. The UK Government could in theory pass legislation to enable this, but it would be risky, requiring consultation with the Irish Government and leading potentially to a complete breakdown in relationships.

In other words, if the institutions “collapse” (because, immediately, Unionists are unprepared to work them), they will stay collapsed.

This is good news neither for Unionists nor for Nationalists. For Unionists, it makes Northern Ireland a clear exception in the UK – with Scotland, Wales and even English cities receiving more devolution, Northern Ireland would be opting for what is, frankly, colonial rule. For Nationalists, it means Conservative government and all that entails with regard to welfare and the budget – exactly what they have been trying to avoid.

We should be clear that, specifically, it is bad news for those seeking to put an end the “Republican” gangsterism. Let us remind ourselves that 13 murders in Northern Ireland in 2014 (few carried out by “Republicans” or any other “political” group) is better than 460 in 1972 (a majority by “Republicans”). We do need to move towards the goal where “Republicans”, like everyone else, accept that elections have winners and losers and no single group has a right to veto everything it does not like. However, straightforward exclusion only makes matters worse for people, not least those within communities where most self-identify as “Republican”, who are trying to ensure the case for a return to the “physical force tradition” does not gain ground. (The DUP is right, in fact, to accuse those who do not see that obvious point of “abdicating responsibility” and noting that the Ulster Unionists’ move “into Opposition” does nothing to achieve the stated objective of that move.)

Among the general public two things need to be understood about the practical real world of modern Northern Ireland. First, Direct Rule will mean better government in the short term but greater social instability, including violence, in the long term (noting that power-sharing devolution is the only form of government here whose legitimacy is not seriously contested by anyone). Second, Direct Rule cannot be implemented just for the short term.

Bearing those in mind, people just need to be careful what they wish for.

History of Rugby World Cup: 1999

Australia became the first country to land two Rugby World Cups as the millennium ended. Of all the Rugby World Cups, 1999 may be the least memorable overall, but it perhaps contained the most memorable match.

A peculiar format resulted in a set of playoffs before the quarter finals, after which all of the Home Unions had been eliminated (England was drop-kicked out 44-21 by defending champion South Africa, for whom Jannie de Beer hit five field goals among 34 individual points).

As they had earlier in the year in the Cricket World Cup, Australia and South Africa played out a semi-final tie which resulted in Australian progression, this time after extra time. The other semi-final provided the most bizarre quarter hour in the history of the tournament. Jonah Lomu had New Zealand strolling to another comfortable semi-final win against France, when suddenly it all just went horribly wrong. Flowing, passing, running rugby saw the All Blacks shell shocked by four unanswered converted tries in direct succession.

Everyone was left stunned, even the French, who crumbled in the final 35-12 to the rampant Australians.

The subjunctive – what’s that all about?

Verb forms and combinations can demonstrate a number of things. Most commonly in Western languages they are marked for “tense” (when something occurs), “aspect” (whether something is complete or progressive) and, perhaps most mysteriously for English speakers, “mood”.

“Mood” is tricky, because it can mark a huge range of things depending on the language (and, arguably, underlying culture). In the case of languages closest to English speakers (Germanic languages like German or Dutch, or Latinate languages like French or Spanish), the most common issue is that of the “subjunctive mood”, typically used to express something which is counterfactual, hypothetical or assumptive.

The subjunctive mood is in decline in almost every one of those languages, particularly in spoken use. It is hard to measure precisely, but the problem arises because it has probably declined further in English (and, specifically, British English).

Firstly, the subjunctive does have a common use in all languages as a means of expressing a desire, particularly in set phrases: “Long live the Queen!” is also subjunctive in French (“Vive la reine!”; also commonly “Vive la France!“), Spanish (“¡Viva la reina!”; also commonly “Viva España”), and German (“Hoch lebe die Königin!”) among others, including actually Esperanto (“Vivu la regxino!“).

Secondly, however, its usage, particularly in contemporary speech, varies hugely otherwise. In Spanish and (even more so, perhaps) Italian, it is a constant feature of the daily language, particularly in subordinate clauses (usually introduced in Spanish by que and Italian by che, although not all of these require the subjunctive). The subjunctive is compulsory to indicate objective, often translated by the infinitive (“to be”, “to do”, “to like” etc):

La LFP enviará entrenadores españoles a China para que trabajen en colegios – “The LFP [football league] will send Spanish coaches to China to work in colleges.” [El Periódico, 4 August 2015]

It is also used to indicate desire or obligation:

Espero que vengas a visitarnos – “I hope you come to visit us” [Word Reference, 19 August 2015]

Hay que tú lo hagas – “It is necessary that you do it” [RTVE Text, 18 August 2015]

It can indicate hypothesis, including in very broad terms:

Lo importante es que te gusta a ti – “The important thing is that you like it” [Coca Cola advert, RTVE, February 1998]

It can also mark something which is clearly counterfactual, effectively changing the meaning of an introducing phrase:

Aunque sea bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even if he is good, they don’t select him” [subjunctive]

Aunque es bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even though he is good, they don’t select him” [not subjunctive]

In Spanish, the present subjunctive is also used to indicate uncertainty in the future (other languages often use a future tense here):

Hasta que salga el sol – “Until the sun goes out” [song title, Don Omar, 2012]

Again, there is a distinction in meaning here:

Lo hacemos cuando vienes – “We do it when you come” [i.e. habitually]

Lo haremos cuando vengas – “We’ll do it when you come” [i.e. once, in future]

Away from subordinate clauses, it can also indicate generalisation, again changing the meaning of the introducing word:

Gane quien gane – “Whoever wins, wins” / “I don’t care who wins” [both subjunctive]

Closest to English, there is also a past subjunctive (actually with two different forms used more or less interchangeably, but we’ll not go into that…) used to indicate hypothesis, particularly in conditional clauses:

Si yo fuera rico – “If I were a rich man” [translation of song title]

Numerous verbs are also followed by the subjunctive only in the negative or interrogative (as this expresses a counterfactual situation, whereas the positive does not):

Creo que lo sabes / No creo que lo sepas / ¿Crees que lo sepa yo? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Spanish also theoretically has a future subjunctive, although this is now restricted to literary or legal usage (not so in Portuguese, in fact, where it is still heard in speech).

French in theory uses the subjunctive in much the same way as Spanish. However, in daily speech, it often manages without the subjunctive, except for more formal situations or particular phrases.

Obligation takes the subjunctive, even typically in daily speech:

Il faut que tu le fasses – “It is necessary that you do it”

However, desire is less certain:

J’espère que tu viens [or viennes] rendre visite – “I hope you come and visit” [not subjunctive, at least in common parlance – there is uncertainty even among native speakers about such cases]

French typically does distinguish between the positive (factual) and negative (counterfactual), as with Spanish above:

Je crois que tu le sais / Je [ne] crois pas que tu le saches / Crois tu que je sache? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Unlike Spanish, French uses the future in clauses with “when”:

Nous le ferrons quand tu arriveras – “We will do it when you come”

German, however, not being Latinate, uses the “subjunctive” (often known as “conjunctive”) is a completely different way, most markedly to express “reported speech”:

Frau Merkel habe besondere Vorteile in der seinerzeitigen DDR genossen – “[It is said that] Ms Merkel enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time / Ms Merkel [reportedly] enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time” [Chronik Berlin, 2005]

There are also particular set usages to indicate something obviously counterfactual:

Er guckte mich an, als käme ich von einem anderen Stern – “He looked at me as if I came [from the moon]”

There are also mixed conditional usages which may or may not be deemed “subjunctive”. However, unlike Spanish, Italian and (formal) French, there is no subjunctive for wish or desire:

Ich hoffe, dass du besuchen kommst – “I hope you come to visit” [no subjunctive]

So, what about English? I touched on it in the second half of this article, which I recommend you read. Ahem, see what I did there? “Read” is in fact subjunctive in that sentence…

The subjunctive is used in English more often than we sometimes believe, but in many cases (such as the last paragraph) its form is the same as it would be otherwise and therefore we do not notice. However, if we change this to “which I recommend she read”, or even “which I recommend be read”, we can see the subjunctive form.

This can be critical. Compare “He insists she pays” with “He insists she pay”; the first means that he is insistent that she (habitually) pays; the second that he was insistent that she pay in a particular instance.

Of course this is, as in French, a formal thing – in modern speech “He insists she pays” is the more likely form with the distinction left to context.

As in German, the subjunctive of desire is largely lost, although there are vestiges in the use of past subjunctive forms after certain verbs or in set phrases (“Wish you were here”, “Would that they had” – both present meaning, actually subjunctives).

Modern English also gets around subjunctives, either by other modal verbs (“I will carry out his recommendations, whatever they may be”) or, arguably, by the infinitive (“I want you to be there”).

So, thirdly, if English largely gets by without the subjunctive, surely languages could just do away with it? It seems this is not so easy. If this were the case, for example, you certainly would not complicate an invented language designed to be regular with a subjunctive. Yet one exists in Esperanto, with usage somewhat akin to French (even if it is seen as more optional than complisory in some instances).

Necesas, ke vi faru gxin – “It is necessary that you do it” [optional subjunctive]

Mi esperas, ke vi venos viziti – “I hope you come to visit” [subjunctive generally not used]

Fundamental distinctions in meaning can be illustrated by the subjunctive, even in Esperanto:

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iros Belfaston – “I told you you would go to Belfast” [not subjunctive, statement of fact]

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iru Belfaston – “I told you to go to Belfast” [subjunctive, statement of command (but possibly not fact)]

In conclusion, the subjunctive mood has wildly varying usages and is in wildly different states of decline in the major European languages. Yet even in English, the world language where that decline is perhaps most marked, it remains in use; and even in Esperanto, an invented language set up to be regular and uncomplicated, it has a clear role.

 

Ulster Unionists do right thing – for wrong reason

I had long advocated that, if the Ulster Unionists were unhappy with the governance arrangements in Northern Ireland or with their Executive colleagues, they should have the courage to leave and go into opposition.

Unfortunately, however, that is not what they did yesterday.

There are two types of politics – the politics of government, and the politics of elections. It is quite possible to take an interest in and be good at one, while being entirely uninterested in and hopeless at the other. Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government; but the Ulster Unionists made it about the politics of elections.

As I noted on Twitter immediately after the recent murder of Kevin McGuigan, we found out nothing in the aftermath that we did not know beforehand. Gangland murders by organised groups the same as those who were active in the Troubles – in the Shankill, in Belvoir and in the Markets – had been a regular (though, it has be said, comparatively rare) occurrence. Of course, these organisations all have certain links with certain politicians. However, each one of these murders including the most recent was condemned by all Executive parties (indeed, Mr McGuigan’s family were visited in the direct aftermath by the local Sinn Fein representative). So it is simply not credible for the Ulster Unionists to pretend they found out something this week that they did not know a month or a year ago.

Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government. The Ulster Unionists could, perfectly legitimately, have said that they had taken the summer to decide what to do – and, given the nonsensical position on welfare and the budget demonstrated that the structures (and perhaps even the parties operating them) were no longer fit for purpose, they had decided to force the issue of Opposition by forming one to give the voters a real choice. However, that is not what they said.

Instead, they made it clearly about the politics of elections. Their statement (and subsequent positions taken in interviews) give absolutely no demonstration whatsoever of how this move helps deliver results on the issues they claim to care about; nor is there even the remotest clarity about exactly what the NIO or other parties could or should do in order for the Ulster Unionists to return to the Executive (a long-term problem for them). The implicit notion that the they will return to the Executive once they are the largest party demonstrates this is a purely electoral manoeuvre. (It is a risky one, too – allowing “Republican” gangsters to dictate when a Unionist party leaves government can hardly work out well for Unionism.)

There is nothing wrong, by the way, with electoral manoeuvres, and while I accept much of the criticism of the Ulster Unionists, I think it is inaccurate to say they have endangered the institutions (and, even if they have, it will hardly be a vote loser given the way the public feel about them currently). What they have done, however, is missed a real opportunity to deliver on improving the way devolution works; in fact, they have done precisely the contrary, making themselves a total irrelevance to any (much needed) discussion about how the structures can be improved and inter-party relationships around the Executive table improved.

This does not mean the other parties have not been presented with a strategic problem, as was the intention. It is uncertain how they will respond, and how this will play electorally. However, it is hard to see how this move actually helps deliver anything other than uncertainty in practical terms – with welfare still gridlocked, education and health reforms going nowhere, and the global economy taking another buffering.

The Ulster Unionists, therefore, have made the right move – but for entirely the wrong reason. The results will not be pretty.

Direct Rule offers better government – but must be avoided

There is no question that Direct Rule tomorrow would offer better government for Northern Ireland. Decisions on Health would be made with a greater overview and less immediate sense of crisis; decisions over transport infrastructure would be made with the whole of Northern Ireland in mind and not to suit a particular world view; decisions, well, would actually be made! As an added bonus, the cost of government would fall, adding a few million to other coffers.

It is understandable, therefore, why so many people are reaching the conclusion that it is time to end the whole charade and return to Direct Rule – “We are incapable of governing ourselves”, after all…

Understandable – but wrong.

Devolution is absolutely necessary.

It is absolutely necessary because it is the basis of our social contract which keeps Northern Ireland relatively stable – it keeps us within the UK (reflecting our British identity), it is tied to cross-border bodies (reflecting our Irish identity), and it is dependent on power-sharing (ensuring a sense of democratic legitimacy across the traditional community divide).

It is absolutely necessary because it is the norm in the British Isles of the 21st century – with devolution flowing more and more towards Edinburgh and Cardiff; ever more direct linkages with Dublin (not requiring any UK intervention); and even a degree of devolution to London. We are tied to the greater whole, but we can also to an extent pick and choose who it is useful to deal with and learn from.

It is absolutely necessary because, frankly, we need to learn to govern ourselves and have some self-respect. For example, Direct Rule would mean, bizarrely, prospective investors having Northern Ireland sold to them at a political level by politicians from England’s West Country or Midlands (whose own motivations would be suspect) – making us, bluntly, look like some desperate and corrupt colony.

Devolution is not working, at all. It is perhaps because of our underlying insecurities that that just makes us want to give up – and it is understandable that we would, to be clear. However, the answer to devolution not working is not to abandon it; the answer is to make it work.

The current difficulty is that devolution is being deliberately left in the hands of people who are abusing it. There have to be means of passing difficult democratic decisions – so the Petition of Concern needs to be reformed to avoid its abuse. There have to be means of penalising and even dismissing those in high office who abuse that office – so the Ministerial Code needs to be independently and judicially enforceable. There has to be motivation for legislators to think of the whole of Northern Ireland, not just a particular “community”, when making decisions – so parties opting not to “designate” should if anything be rewarded, and certainly not penalised. There have to be means of holding the government to account, including with the threat of its replacement at an election by an alternative – so there must be funding and speaking rights for parties opting not to take Executive places.

Not only must we make devolution work, but there are clear and obvious structural reforms which would help dramatically. We need not expect those abusing the current system to change it, so a very brief period of “mothballing” while the UK Government in consultation with the Irish Government makes the necessary changes may well be needed.

However, to be clear, the purpose of any reform talks will not be to end devolution, but to enforce changes which will make it work (and give the electorate a real democratic choice). We are perfectly capable of governing ourselves, in fact – but only if we are motivated actually to govern.

A1 fatalties reason for sorrow – and anger

There was a severe accident on the new A8 road between Belfast and Larne on Sunday, in which there was one casualty but no one was killed. The road is built to the highest possible safety standards below a motorway, including a median barrier throughout meaning that all traffic is proceeding the same way, and there can therefore be no head-on collisions where, in effect, impact speed is doubled or impact is directly with the side door of the car.

Such standards were not originally envisaged for the road and, indeed, there are other, older sections of it where a head-on or sideways collision would be possible due to a break in the median barrier. It is no accident that standards have been raised – people like Wesley Johnston, the roads blogger, and Ben Lowry, in the Belfast Telegraph and now the News Letter, have long campaigned for “no gaps” (i.e. no breaks in the central reservation of a dual carriageway). It was indeed while querying the baffling decision to put median breaks and roundabouts on the new A6 Toome Bypass in 2004 that I got to know both, and upon becoming an elected representative in 2005 I was prominent in highlighting the outrage of allowing blatantly dangerous turnings to remain on prominent, dualled, inter-urban routes.

Our pressure did deliver a change of policy, first apparent arguably on the new A1 Newry Bypass and then more obviously on the new A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley route. A regular dual carriageway would have seen fatalities in the double figures on those routes since 2010 – there have in fact been two. That is the difference in action.

This brings us to the three young gentlemen who had set out on a journey on Sunday afternoon but were not lucky enough to be travelling on a road the standard of the new A8. They were travelling on the A1 between Dromore and Banbridge, a stretch which retains “gaps” (breaks in the central barrier), and where I was interviewed by Niall Donnelly for UTV fully ten years ago appealing for them to be closed (I cannot find the footage but I am certain of the timing). At one of the gaps, the one for Mount Ida Road, all three were killed.

The horrific outcome of Sunday's fatal A1 collision - courtesy BBC

The horrific outcome of Sunday’s fatal A1 collision – courtesy BBC

There is a particular horror to road fatalities. They are so sudden; utterly innocent (and, disproportionately, young) people are involved; there but for the grace of God go the rest of us (I was driving the same route almost exactly 24 hours earlier myself).

In this case, however, there is also a particular anger. There have been proposals to close these lethal “gaps” since 2007, but still we await action – as the answer late last year to this question (not surprisingly asked at my behest) demonstrates.

It is to the credit of TransportNI (the agency formerly known as Roads Service) that they changed policy on dual carriageway construction some time ago, but the Department has been far too slow in implementing the “gap closing” proposals which are frankly straightforward (in that the case for them is clear on safety grounds and they do not require significant new land, etc) and relatively inexpensive (versus other prominent projects which, while improving traffic flow, will not make such a difference to safety).

There has been a rather unfortunate attitude among some senior bureaucrats that they were somehow being cunning by not upgrading the Belfast-Dublin route on the Northern side of the border to full motorway standard, as merely dualling it was cheaper. Let us be clear: merely dualling it and allowing cars to compete with bicycles and tractors across central reservations may have been cheap – but it was lethal.

The whole A1 in Northern Ireland must be upgraded without delay to the standard, at the very least, of the new stretch of the A8. If not, we are guaranteed to see more horror, just as we saw so completely unnecessarily on Sunday.

My sincerest condolences to the families and friends. Let us now ensure this does not happen again.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1995

One vehicle driver got a surprise on the evening of the World Cup Final in 1995, when he found the captain of the winning team thumbing a lift – it was truly a World Cup which resounded, and even spawned a film.

Francois Pienaar could not quite believe the interest new South African President Nelson Mandela showed in the team before its first ever World Cup match, against none other than defending champion Australia. The Springboks dominated, and cruised through the pool phase with only one minor issue – James Dalton’s red card against Canada. This was to become curiously relevant.

The quarters were notable for a repeat of the previous Final, between England and Australia. Australia never led from early on but kept pegging England back, getting it to 22-22 heading into the final minute. Step forward that man Rob Andrew again, with a monster drop from the left side to put England through.

He would end up, maybe, wishing he hadn’t. In the semi-final, the English defence faced humiliation from the moment New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu literally ran over Mike Catt. Two tries already conceded, England still hadn’t registered when All Black forward Zinzan Brooke calmly unleashed a forty-yard dropped goal.

With one semi a metaphorical wash-out, the other was nearly a literal wash-out – and suddenly that earlier red card mattered. If the game were deemed drawn, for any reason, disciplinary record would decide it and South Africa would be out of its own World Cup. The game was played forty minutes late in a swimming pool, with France finally having to surrender while only four points down and camped on the Springbok line.

The final was not thrilling but was tense. At 9-9 going into extra-time, with Lomu stopped by courageous Springbok tap tackling, South Africa’s disciplinary record looked once again as if it may prove costly. At 12-12 at half-time in extra-time, this was even more so. Joel Stransky was left to step up, and ensure the happy ending, the celebrations – and the hitch hike of champions.

Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

Why do we pronounce “one” and “won” the same way? After all, they are not remotely the same word!

To take the latter first, there is some instability in the pronunciation of the letter <o>, particularly before a nasal (typically <n> or <m>); it is frequently pronounced as if it were <u>. This is partly because it is only recently that (British) English moved to lip rounding on the letter <o> (even old Pathé news clips will show this lacking, as remains the case in American), so <o> and <u> were once more similar. The other reason, bizarrely, is simply orthography – some calligraphers did not like to write <u> before <n> or <m> because it could run together and become unclear, so they switched to <o>. The winning version in Standard Written English was chosen almost at random – hence we have “win-won” but “sing-sung”; and “son” and “sun” are pronounced identically. It was not completely random, etymology also had something to do with it – hence, for example, “London”.

What about “one”, why is it pronounced the same way?

Until the fifteenth century across England, and indeed later in most English-speaking areas, “one” was pronounced as you would expect, to rhyme with “stone” and close to modern southern English “own”. Of course, this remains in related words such as “only”, “(a)lone(ly)” and even in fact “atone”. Modern Scots does pronounce the direct equivalent ane “one” (cf. stane “stone”) as you would expect (Scots actually has a “y-glide” in such circumstances, thus it sounds like “yin”, but this is entirely predictable); and of course Dutch has een (cf. steen “stone”) and German has ein (cf. Stein).

So what happened to make English the lone (ahem) exception?

Well, nobody knows! Some things in language are just mysterious. This is just, well, one…

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