Thursday, November 27, 2014

you're welcome

I did two potentially (probably orig. AmE as adjective) fun things recently: I was interviewed for a famous (in one country) radio (BrE) programme/(AmE) show and I (BrE) went to the pictures and saw The Imitation Game. Potentially fun, and mostly fun, but not without worry and embarrassment.

Let's start with the (orig. AmE) radio. I've done a few such things, and in the past I have prepared. I asked producers 'is there anything you can predict I'll be asked?' and I made notes of things I thought would come up. Then the interviewer never wants to talk about what the producer said they would want to talk about, and I think "Why did I bother to prepare?"

This time, it was all very mysterious. The producer contacted me, and I only knew which broadcaster he worked for. He didn't tell me which show/programme it was for, nor who the interviewer was, just that it was going to be about the flow of words between US and UK. The mystery may have had something to do with the fact that the segment was being prepared as a surprise for another radio (BrE) presenter. But I just went with the mystery. I asked no questions other than where and when to show up and I did no preparation because it's so often wasted.

What I should have done, what I should always do, was to make a list of common topics on the blog (the Words of the Year, the things that have got the most comments, etc.) so that it would be available to inspire me. This is what I did not do. I just showed up at the BBC Sussex studios, put on my headphones, and talked (more AmE) with/(AmE & BrE) to someone in another city.

And the first thing the interviewer said was "Quick! List Americanisms that have become common in British English!"  Dear Reader, I could have said movies, I could have said train station, I could have said Can I get a.... I could have said many, many, many things. But I choked. I said various things that have been in BrE so long that no one alive reali{s/z}es they're American, like belittle. I said awesome repeatedly. And then I said you're welcome, when used as a response to thank you. The interviewer was taken with that one.

Fast-forward a few days and I'm watching The Imitation Game, being slightly bothered by words and phrases coming out of characters' mouths that I don't think would have come out of wartime British mouths. But then Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberbatch says You're welcome in response to thank you, and I think: I lied on the radio.

Then I looked for my (more BrE in this use) bag, to get out a pen to write myself a note to look it up later. Then I couldn't find my bag under the seat. Then I spent the rest of the (more BrE than AmE) film wondering if I'd left my bag in the café (AmE) restroom/(BrE) toilet. Which is to say, I have no idea who won the war because my mind was elsewhere for the rest of the (orig. AmE) running time.

Is you're welcome an Americanism? 

One thing I can say for sure is that it's a recent-ism. (I'm talking only here about the response-to-thanks usage, which is different from its use in other contexts: welcomings, offers and invitations, e.g. you're welcome to join us.) The OED's first example of it as a response to thank you comes from 1907, then not another till 1960. All of these are British, but the OED can't always be trusted on this matter because it is based in the UK and historically got most of its materials from the UK. This is mostly a spoken phrase, so it could have had a nice life somewhere else before anyone at the OED noticed it.

Looking at the Corpus of Historical American English, the first you're welcome as response to thank you is from a 1909 story by Myrtle Reed:
"...Come, let's be friends. " He offered his hand. She put hers into it for a moment, then quickly took it away. He noted that it was very cold. " I must be going, " she said, keeping her self-control with difficulty, " Aunt Francesca will miss me. " " Thank you for coming -- and for bringing the violin. " " You 're welcome . Good-bye. " " Good-bye, Silver Girl. I hope you'll be happy. "
We're stuck with fictional uses because people weren't going around recording actual conversation quite yet, but certainly the 1907 British and 1909 American fictional uses must be reflecting something that was already going on in the spoken language. What's weird is that there's no particular evidence here of one place being first. At that point in our history, after independence but before wars and mass media brought us together, you'd think that linguistic innovations would be locatable in one place or the other. So here's a hypothesis: maybe the Irish started it and we were all following their cue.

Why did I think it was American, despite this lack of evidence?

(A) because I knew it was recent.
(B) because someone might've proposed it to me as an Americanism at some point, and I was recalling that.
(C) because you hear it more in AmE than BrE.

Reading around a bit on the topic now, I'm interested to see that several researchers (all cited in Schneider 2005) have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a 'minimizer' like no problem, my pleasure, or you're welcome. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Britain thank you/thanks is often used for purposes other than thanking, or maybe it doesn't. (It depends on how the research was done--and I don't have access to all of it at the moment.)

Karen Aijmer's 1996 book Conversational Routines in English makes this point about English speakers not always responding to thanks, but has a footnote "But note the high frequency of you're welcome in American English" (p. 78). Edmondson and House (1981:167) proposed that you're welcome should be label(l)ed as 'formal' in British English, "but definitely not in American, where this token is much more common".

I may be on to something with the Irish suggestion. After all, there were a lot (millions) of Irish people in the US by 1900. Looking online for equivalents of you're welcome in Irish, I find tá fáilte romhat, which seems to literally mean 'you're welcome'. One commenter thinks might be an anglicism. But maybe it's the other way (a)round: maybe you're welcome is an Irishism in English (to use the technical term, a calque, or loan translation). I don't have the means to check this, but maybe an Irish speaker among(st) you does?

Furthermore, in Schneider's study of present-day responses to thanks (using a discourse completion task), the Irish use a lot more welcome responses than the English do. Not as many as the Americans, but still:
(Schneider 2005: 115)
(And let's just pause to note that the most common English response was the Americanism okay.)

So, I'm not sure if you're welcome is an Americanism or if its use in the Great Britain today is the effect of Americani{s/z}ation. I'm not feeling too bad about my panic-saying of it to the interviewer because, well, it is a much more American thing to say than British thing to say. And maybe it'll be edited out anyway.  Please, let it be edited out anyway.

(I'll update this with news of the mysterious interview once it's been broadcast.)

  • Aijmer, Karen. 1996. Conversational routines in English: convention and creativity. London: Longman.
  • Edmondson, Willis, and Julianne House. 1981. Let's talk and talk about it: a pedagogic interactional grammar of English. Munich: Urban & Swarzenberg. 
  • Schneider, Klaus P. 2005. No problem, you're welcome, anytime: responding to thanks in Ireland, England and the USA.  In Anne Barron and Klaus P. Schneider (eds.), Pragmatics in Irish English. Berlin: DeGruyter Mouton.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nominate 2014 Words of the Year!

While being interviewed today (which I'll let you know more about at some point), I was asked what the front-runners are for UK-to-US and US-to-UK Words of the Year. And I had no idea.

So: what do you think? Nominations are open for both categories as of now:

1. Best AmE-to-BrE import
2. Best BrE-to-AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2014, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY-worthy and other nominations weren't. Click on the WotY tag at the bottom of this post in order to visit times gone by.

Vote early and often! I plan to announce the winners in the week before Christmas.

And in other news...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The fourth 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the fourth year that I declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 , 2012, and 2013.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day' every weekday.  Last year, I swore that I wasn't going to do it again. In part I doubted that I could find another month's worth, but also in part, I was tired out from people arguing with me online about elements of the project. You can probably guess their complaints from the defensive bullet points that appear below. 

About my Untranslatables:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), this is not cause for complaint. It is cause for celebration that you have this opportunity to enrich your vocabulary! 
That all said, I wasn't given much of a hard time this year. And I certainly was not subject to abusive rants, as happened for a while last year. (Phew.)

My rules for choosing the untranslatables are:
  • They can't repeat items from the previous Untranslatables Months.
  • It should be the expression that's missing from the other country, rather than the thing. So, for instance Page 3 Girl was suggested, but there is no American newspaper that puts topless young women on page three every day (thank goodness). There's no word for it in the US only because there's nothing for it to refer to in the US, so it doesn't belong in this particular list.
  • I try to alternate American and British expressions (but that doesn't always work out).

With the words below, I've given the content of the Untranslatable of the Day tweet, expanded and re-formatted from the necessary abbreviations of 140 characters. If I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables. Here we go.

  • BrE snug: a small, comfy room in a pub. Occasionally  extended to other comfy personal (orig. ScotE) hidey-holes. Here's a Wikipedia description. [I learned this during the year while reading an article that I now can't find. I had to look the word up, and then spent the rest of the year waiting for untranslatables month to come round again.]
  • AmE to jaywalk: to cross the street/road against the light or where there's no crossing. Thanks to @SimonKoppel for the suggestion. As I noted in a later tweet, this word is known by many in the UK, but generally only used to refer to people doing it in the US. Some British twitterers objected that this couldn't count because the thing doesn't exist in the UK. They were under the impression that one cannot jaywalk in the UK because it's not illegal to cross in the middle of the (orig. AmE) block here.  But notice that there's nothing about legality in the definition I've given. I grew up in a place where (I was told, I've never actually checked) jaywalking wasn't illegal. But we still called it jaywalking. (Remember: laws--including many traffic laws--vary by state in the US.)
  • BrE Billy No-Mates: a friendless person. Here's a history of the phrase. (Can't find who suggested it, but thanks!) Several people sent variations on this like Johnny No-mates, Norma No-Mates and Norman No-Mates, but Billy seems to be the original (and the one I hear most--the others may be a bit more spread around the anglophone world).
  • AmE backwash: saliva/mouth contents that go back into a bottle that's been swigged from. (Urban Dictionary's take on it.) Several Brits told me they knew this from childhood, but it's still not (in my experience) widespread in the UK. Of course, the word-form is used in both dialects for other kinds of washing-back in rivers and plumbing.
  • BrE garden(ing) leave: Explained in this old post.  Thanks again to @SimonKoppel.
  • BrE to plump for: to choose suddenly after much dithering. Thanks for the suggestion to @rwmg.
  • AmE will call: [of tickets] to be collected at the box office. Wikipedia says COBO ('care of box office') is the BrE equivalent, but it's not in general use. In a US theat{er/re} you might have to go to the will-call desk/counter/box office to get the tickets. COBO isn't used like that. Yet another one suggested by @SimonKoppel. I might have to put him in charge of Untranslatables month next October.
  • BrE to decant: to transfer people temporarily to another location. See sense 1.1 in Oxford Dictionaries Online. Thanks to Diane Benjamin for this suggestion.
  • AmE to stop on a dime: to come to a halt quickly and neatly in exactly the right spot. Many complained that this has a BrE equivalent in stop on a sixpence. Fair enough. Though I will note that turn on a sixpence seems to be more common than stop on...
  • BrE three-line whip: Party instruction to Members of Parliament that they must vote with the party on some matter. (Here's more explanation from a Stack Exchange.) There is a question here whether it should count: is there an equivalent three-level structure of whips in the US? Well, there could be, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to @JanetNorCal for the suggestion.
  • AmE loaded for bear: well prepared (and probably eager) for a forthcoming confrontation. Thanks to @sethadelman for the suggestion.
  • BrE gazunder: [for a buyer] to reduce an agreed-upon price for a house/property just prior to signing contract.  Here's Word Spy on it.  
  • BrE gazump. To obtain a property by offering more for it than an already-accepted offer. Here's Oxford Dictionaries Online on it.
  • AmE layaway (= AusE lay-by). Instal(l)ment purchasing, where the item's not received until it's paid off. There was some discussion about whether this should count because it's unclear that the equivalent exists in the UK. British hire-purchase is the equivalent of AmE rent-to-own or rental-purchase, in which case you take the thing home and make payments on it. I allowed it because I think one could argue that certain Christmas schemes in the UK (like this one) are kind of like layaway. Thanks to @smylers2 for the suggestion.
  • BrE U and non-U: (Non)-upper class, with particular reference to words that "should" or "shouldn't" be used. Here's the Wikipedia article on it. And here are places where the distinction has been mentioned on this blog.
  • AmE charley horse. A cramp in the leg. Here is Merriam-Webster's definition. Thanks to @meringutan for the suggestion. There were some suggestions for British-dialectal equivalents of this. Hard to tell if they're really equivalent. You can discuss amongst yourselves in the comments.
  • BrE WAGs: wives and/or girlfriends of (BrE) footballers as a type of celebrity. Discussed on this blog here. Thanks to @meringutan.
  • AmE snow day: a day when schools and businesses are closed due to snow. (Longman definition). Sometimes heard in UK now, but no local lexical equivalent. Thanks for the suggestion, @laurelspeth.
  • BrE chav. This is a word for a stereotyped type of person. Here's Wikipedia's take on it. Suggested by @kearsycormier (thanks!). This one I was most uneasy about including, because I think it is the case of it being more the referent (in this case people rather than things) rather than the word that the US lacks. It's all about the UK social class system, which operates in different ways, with different emblems, than the US class system.  Many years ago I wrote about an attempt to import chav to the US. It hasn't worked.
  • AmE family-style: adjective or adverb describing the serving of food at restaurant in dishes that are to be passed (a)round and taken from, like at home. (Oxford's definition)
  • BrE scrumping: stealing apples from an orchard. Thanks to @beardynoise for the suggestion.
  • AmE palimony: (humorous) alimony-style payments made after the break-up of a non-marital relationship. 
  • BrE dodgy: with its many shades of meaning, it's hard to think of an exact equivalent: Here's Oxford Dictionaries Online on it. Once one learns this word, it soon becomes a necessary part of one's vocabulary, so it's not surprising that there are US sightings of it. Thanks to  @tonythorne007 for the suggestion.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Descriptions in Twitter profiles

When Twitter tells me I have new followers, I can see their name and self-description before I can see their location (if they've given any). So I play a little game of 'guess which country they're from' before I click through to see it.  I seem to be good at picking out the Americans (or at least North Americans--the Canada/US distinction is hard to make here--sorry Canadians), based on the style of the name and self-description. To be fair, I'm probably guided by the photos too. (Pick out the Americans at the airport is another fun and not-too-difficult game. There, you can see the red maple leaf patches on all the Canadians' bags, which save them from the lumping-together.) But I'm a linguist, so I like to think it's the language I'm sensitive to.

(A postscript on 27 Oct 2014: In the comments, Dorothy Bishop reminds me of a post she did three years ago that was in the back of my head when I started this, but I failed to find it in my preliminary search. I didn't want to take the chance of you missing that if you don't read the comments. So, if you like this post, you'll love this one.)

Because I probably should have been doing something else, I decided to try to test 'what marks an American (versus British) Twitter profile'. Here's my method:
  • I worked backwards from recent followers using the 'Who Unfollowed Me' (Pro) list of followers whom I don't follow back. I used this because it does the opposite of Twitter: it shows me the location, and I have to click through for the description.
  • For each follower who (a) was a person, not a company, and (b) unambiguously listed their location as being in the US or UK, I recorded:
    • country: I only included people whose locations were unambiguous, so no London-Islamabad-Hong Kong multiple locations and no indications of internationality in the descriptor, such as An American in London
    • gender: by name/photo/description (female, male, unknown/other)
    • Twitter handle: does it reflect their name? Three possible values:
      • Yes/name: the handle is some version of their name or their name + numbers, e.g.  @lynne_murphy, @LynneM34, @Lynney, etc.
      • Mixed: part name/part descriptor, e.g. @LynneLinguist, @LynneEdits, @LordLynne, @CrankyLynne
      • Not name: e.g. @poltroonish, @LinguistYay, @subjunctiverobot
    • Number of self-descriptors: this is the tricky one. Basically, I counted nouns or verbs that constituted separate descriptions of the person, so:
      • Writer, teacher, blogger, linguist, parent, feminist, Scrabble player:  counts as 7.
      • Loves cooking, dreaming, whittling, singing: counts as 4.
      • Teacher of ESL, EFL and Intercultural Communication counts as 1--the main identity is 'teacher'.
      • Dreams are sometimes songs: counts as 0, since if it's label(l)ing the person, it's very indirect. 
      • An empty description also counts as 0, but I had a separate sub-category in which I distinguished the content-ful and content-less zero scores.
    •  Caveats: I also kept track of who said things like "RTs are not endorsements" or "All views are my own", but there were some in each nationality and not enough of these to warrant further analysis.
  • I did this for two notebook pages for each nationality, which totals 64 from each country. More would have been better, but I can only justify a certain amount of procrastination per day.

A big caveat here is that I'm only sampling my own followers, which is to say it's probably people with an interest in language or US/UK issues, possibly a bit older and educated than average.  So this might not be generali{s/z}able to US/UK Twitter users generally. The other caveat, of course, is that I'm equating location with culture. For all I know, half of the people who listed their location as 'London' are exchange students who aren't mentioning that they're from Iceland. But I'm working with what I've got, and we can only hope that the rate of 'false positives' in one country's data is matched in the other country's data.

All examples in this post are made up, mimicking profiles I read. I don't want people to feel like I'm giving any individuals a hard time. Or to [orig. AmE] out them to their friends and family as someone who follows me.  If it so happens that I've made up a handle or a profile that actually exists, that's accidental.

So this is what I found:

Overall the sample had more women than men, which is to be expected because 62% of Twitter users are female (according to one study).  (For this sample it's 56% female. The table below has raw numbers.) The gender breakdown was similar across nationalities, so whatever we see here is more likely to be a national effect rather than a gender effect.

      F     M    O

US     37     26     1
UK     34     25     5
Total        71     51     6

Handle = name?
I was interested in the name versus pseudonym issue because, as we've seen before, Americans introduce themselves by name earlier in conversation than Brits do. So, I wondered, are the British more careful about giving out names on Twitter? The caveat for this result is that I have no way of knowing whether the handles people use are their real names. If someone's name was presented as 'Gemma Thornton-Baker' and her handle is @gemmatbkr, then the fact that the handle matched the name meant that I counted this as a name, rather than a pseudonym.  If their name was presented as 'Hunky Cloud' or their handle was @rottenweather, then I took it for granted that their name wasn't really Rotten Weather.

But after all this preamble, I'm not even going to bother to put together an HTML table of results because the numbers were exactly the same for US and UK.  So, hypothesis that Brits would be less apt to use their name as a handle was not supported.

On to the meat of what I wanted to look at. Remember, I'm not testing word-count of the self-descriptions, but the number of separate descriptions given--a single description may be one or ten words long. So, this isn't about how much one says, but how many different things one says. My hypothesis was that Americans list more different things, divulging more about themselves.

The result favo(u)red the hypothesis, in that Americans listed, on average, 3.58 descriptors and the British 2.78.  The range was exactly the same: 0 to 14 descriptors. The US median was 3 and the UK median was 2.

But although the numbers were in the right direction for the hypothesis, they are only significant at p=.100, which means, basically, that there's a 10% likelihood that the difference is down to chance. We'd probably have a better answer if I'd looked at more than 64 people per country. Which is why I'm going to point this out to our students who are currently looking for research projects to do...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Henny Penny, Chicken Little, Chicken Licken

While writing the other day, I wondered whether it would be widely understood if I used Chicken Little as a metaphor for a certain kind of language peever. It felt right, but I also knew the name Henny Penny (of the main character in the story--see comments for variations), both from my American childhood and from my child's English childhood. Then I got an email informing me that my Survey Monkey subscription had been auto-renewed for the next month. Which is to say, I had failed to notice the note in my (BrE) diary/(AmE) planner on Tuesday that said "UNSUBSCRIBE FROM SURVEY MONKEY". At that point, I decided to get my money's worth from this unintended subscription, and so I devised something called the Famous Chicken Survey. Because I'd read another name, Chicken Licken, on Wikipedia, I threw that into the survey.

(Now I know, with a bit more research that Hen-Len is another name, found for instance in a UK-published version from 1849.  For that and more, see this site, which catalog[ue]s Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 20C folktales.)

156 people from the US (n=80) and UK (n=76) had answered by tonight (and small numbers from other places, not to be analy{s/z}ed here), and 146 of those answered the key question:

So there we have it, Chicken Licken (orange) is BrE, Chicken Little (blue) is AmE.  While there's some Chicken Little in the UK answers, that's only 9 people on that blue bar. They might have been affected by the Disney films by that name (1943 and 2005).

I thought that perhaps Henny Penny was old-fashioned, but it's found across the age groups. That one may just depend on which book you had in your house (or your preschool). I don't have a historical corpus for BrE at home (and I doubt I have a big enough one for this job), but the Corpus of Historical American English has 2 Henny Pennys between 1880 and 1909, and 26 Chicken Littles, so that's clearly not a very new name.

It would not be surprising to find that Chicken Little is a corruption of Chicken Licken, since all of the story's other names rhyme: Cocky-Locky, Goosey-Loosey, etc.  It also would not surprise me if the Little corruption and the alternative Henny Penny arose from a Victorian desire to avoid the association with licking. At least, that's what I'd want to avoid, since Chicken Licken sounds like a (BrE) dodgy (orig. AmE) fast-food joint to me. But that might be because it is a fast-food (orig. AmE) chain in South Africa, where I used to live. Not to mention that the Victorians wouldn't have heard of it.

The Wikipedia page for the South African Chicken Licken funnily enough refers to the Henny Penny Corporation (USA), which supplies equipment to chicken-frying businesses. I can see why these companies wouldn't want little in their names, but they're clearly not worried about associating their businesses with muddle-headed paranoia.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


This is the kind of blog topic I love -- like the soup or bacon sandwich ones -- where I'm reporting on my slowly acquired reali{s/z}ation that there are subtle UK/US differences in meanings of certain familiar words. The meanings are so similar that they often refer to the same things. What's different is where the cent{er/re} and periphery of the meaning are. Because these differences are hard to tease out, we may go through conversations not reali{s/z}ing that we're not quite communicating. Of course, it's loving these kinds of things that got me to be a lexical semanticist in the first place.

It all started with the World in Words podcast three years ago, in which I was Patrick Cox's guest. Here's how he titled the segment:

Patrick had asked me about how my speech is received in England (I can't remember if this bit is actually in the podcast), and I'd remarked that it disconcerts me when it's said that I have a twang. To me, people from Kentucky have twangs. I have an accent (of course, we all do), but it's not anything I'd describe as twangy. My accent is (among other things) mumbly. I don't see 'mumbly' and 'twangy' as going together.  (Regarding mumbly: I liked Ben Yagoda's post this week about new -y adjectives.) I expect a twangy accent to sound like a country (AmE jocular) gee-tar.

Patrick went along with my puzzlement at being called 'twangy' in his blog post, but the twangs kept coming my way, and I kept hearing twang applied to accents that I don't consider to be 'twangy'. The final straw came (on) Thursday when the Guardian referred to Peter Capaldi's accent as a 'Scottish twang'. I thought: what in the world does twang mean if it applies to Peter Capaldi?  (If you're reading this aloud, note that in my accent 'Peter Capaldi' comes out as Peter Capaldi Swoooon.)

Some discussion on Twitter started to lift the scales from my eyes, and a little on-line survey I've done has confirmed: BrE has a meaning for twang that's not found in AmE, nor in its own dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins).  Have/take a look:

Both AmE and BrE have the sense 'a strongly nasal quality in a person's speech, esp in certain dialects' (as Collins puts it). That is reflected in the light green bar in the chart.  The orange 'neither of the above' bar may be populated by people who didn't like that I didn't say 'nasal' or something similarly specific in my definitions. The teal bar represents 'has a hint of an accent', and that is much more strongly BrE than AmE--just edging out the (presumably) older meaning. Similar numbers of Americans (107) and British (103) are represented in the results.

The 'hint of an accent' meaning explains the cases where people say that I or Peter Capaldi have a twang--we're not speaking with the full force of the accents associated with our regions. I think this use is probably found in Ireland too, or else I can't explain this sentence about the X-Men character Magneto, as played by Sir Ian McKellen (who once had a sip of my Coke when we were marching in the Johannesburg Pride parade; oh, and I like to [orig. AmE] name-drop):

At least he does sound German when he speaks German, but you'd think that he might have had a slight German twang when he was speaking English, what with him being RAISED BY NAZIS AND ALL. (from GloBWE)

German? Twang? This does not compute, given the meaning of twang that I use, but it works fine if what you mean by twang is not 'having a certain kind of accent' but 'having a bit of an accent of some kind'. One of the British respondents described it as "the hint of a weird or unusual accent that jars with the listener's expectations". 

I also asked which accents people think are twangy, but since I didn't do that with a multiple-choice question, I can't give you a nice chart. When talking about other countries, the British mostly said the US (especially south and midwest). Some said Australia. When asked about twangs in their own country, the West Country was mentioned most often.

People from the US strongly associated it with the US South (from Appalachia to Texas) and often said they would not use the word of non-American accents.

Lots of people from both countries mentioned banjos. 

I know people from other countries would like to a breakdown of results from those, but there weren't very big numbers from any other country. Still, 11 out of 14 Canadians preferred the 'definite regional accent' meaning, as did 10 of 11 Australians. So, the 'hint of accent' looks particularly British.

And this makes a lot of sense. British people are generally highly sensitive to and about accents. As famously written by G. B. Shaw, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Britain's diversity of accents in its small geographic space means that the accents can communicate a lot about geographical, educational and social status--reflecting and contributing to the famous British class system. Since many British people (including one I live with) form immediate and lasting  impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.

I can't go without saying a little something about nasal. Nasal is a word that people apply to all kinds of accents, even those that are anything but nasal from a physiological perspective. Allan Metcalf has discussed this on the Lingua Franca blog, which he closes with "And don't get me started about twang..."

Many thanks to all 252 of you who so kindly responded to the survey. I was particularly touched that some used the comments space to write nice things about this blog or my Twitter feed. I feel like the luckiest linguist on the internet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Typically, as we've discussed before, two-syllable words from French are stressed on their first syllable in BrE and on the second in AmE -- BALlet versus balLET, BAton versus baTON, etc. (Please see and comment on the linked post if that's the issue you're interested in.)

photo from:

This led me to wonder about shallot because it looks like a French borrowing (so many food words are), but the stress pattern is makes it look like it isn't:  BrE shalLOT versus AmE SHALlot or shalLOT. (You can hear them both in an American accent here.)  American dictionaries tend to list the second-syllable stress version first--apparently considering that as most "correct". But I've always said SHALlot and can't recall hearing an American say shalLOT. For example, here's video of an American editor at a cooking magazine saying it the way I say it. (American and British vowel qualities in the word differ in predictable ways: we are firmly divided by the 'lot' vowel--or vowels, taking into account the variety found. Here I'm just going to focus on the stress pattern.)

So why doesn't it follow the two-syllable French-borrowing pattern? Probably because it's not a two-syllable French word. The French eschalotte has lost its first vowel in its journey into contemporary English.

Eschalotte was borrowed into English with the e at the beginning (at least in writing), though it lost the one at the end. The OED has citations for eschalot(t) in English from 1707 into the 19th century. But was that first e ever pronounced? One of the OED's citations is from Johnson's dictionary:

1755   Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang.,   Eschalot. Pronounced shallot.
The citations for shal(l)ot go earlier than those for the more French-looking version--back to 1664, making it look even more like that first e has been ignored from the (AmE) get-go.

Nevertheless, English seems to have some kind of sense-memory that we shouldn't treat it like ballet or beret or other French two-syllable words, because it isn't one. Nevertheless I see it and my reptilian high-school brain wants me to say 'shalLO' because that -ot reminds me of things like escargot and Margot.

The OED gets a bit judg(e)mental about the spelling:
The spelling shallot, though inferior to shalot because it suggests a wrong pronunciation, is now the more common.
Now, if they want me to come down hard on the 'lot' (as I know they do), I don't really understand that comment. Perhaps they mean that people might say SHALL-ot because they see shall in it. Well, that is what Americans do, but I can't imagine that we'd pronounce it like the dictionaries (and the British) tell us to if it had only one 'l'. I see shalot and I want to say it like chalet with an o.

If you're an American who says shalLOT, let us know--and please tell us where you got it from (i.e. what part of the country you learn{ed/t} the word in, or whether you've been influenced by BrE).

Meanwhile, I'm taking comfort in the fact that eschalotte shares history with (mostly AmE) scallion, since when I want a shallot I usually have to take a few moments to remember that scallion isn't the word for it.