Sunday, April 29, 2007

contracted have

Months ago (I am a bad blogger), Brett wrote to ask:
Can you enlighten me any further on the differences between interpretations of "It's gone" in NA & the UK?
(You can probably tell from the NA [=North America] that Brett is writing from Canada.) Brett covers this issue on his English, Jack blog, where he writes:

I was somewhat taken aback recently when a disucssion on the ETJ mailing list brought to light the different interpretations of the 's in "Where's my car? It's gone." It turns out that most North American speakers of English interpret this as "My car is gone?" while British speakers tend to parse it as "My car has gone."
I suppose part of the reason I've taken so long to respond to Brett here is that I haven't much to add to his analysis. Or should I say: I've not got much? Or should I say: I haven't got much? or I've not much? At least part of the reason that BrE and AmE/CanE differ in their interpretations of 's as is or has is that BrE likes contracting the verb have more than AmE (and presumably CanE) does.

John Algeo, in his book British or American English?, reports that contracted have ('ve) is more common in BrE--about 1.5 times more frequent in BrE overall, but more than 5 times more frequent in BrE when used as a main verb, rather than an auxiliary verb. (Which is just part of the reason that I am annoyed that many people stereotype AmE as contracting more than BrE. If you claim it, back it up, and use some subtlety in your analysis, please!) So, while contractions of the type in (1) the most common uses of 've in both dialects, (2) is much more likely to be found in BrE than in AmE:
(1) I've been thinking. (have = auxiliary verb, expressing tense/aspect)
(2) I've a secret (have = main verb, meaning 'possess')
When have occurs between a subject pronoun and a not, the speaker has a choice--to contract the have with the pronoun (I've not gargled, she's not gargled) or to contract the not (I haven't gargled, she hasn't gargled). In both BrE and AmE, it is more common to contract the not. But the I've/she's not pattern is much more likely to be heard in BrE than in AmE; in Algeo's words the 've/'d not pattern is a "statistical Briticism". In the Cambridge International Corpus, he found for auxiliary have:
BrE: I haven't VERBed is 2.5 times more frequent than I've not VERBed
AmE: I haven't VERBed is 26 times more common than I've not VERBed
The contracted have is less common still in the past tense, but the BrE/AmE difference is more stark:
BrE: I hadn't VERBed is 20 times more frequent than I'd not VERBed
AmE: I hadn't VERBed is nearly 140 times more common than I'd not VERBed
Because BrE has an easier time allowing the contraction of main verb have, it is much more likely to allow negated contracted have as a main verb. However, it is more common in both dialects to insert a do and contract that to the not.
BrE: I don't have any NOUN is 10 times more frequent than I haven't any NOUN.
AmE: I don't have any NOUN is 60 times more frequent than I haven't any NOUN.

BrE: I don't have a NOUN is 6 times more frequent than I haven't a NOUN.
AmE: I don't have a NOUN is 55 times more frequent than I haven't a NOUN.
While writing this blog over the past few months, I've been vaguely aware that while I mark many variant spellings/words as I write, I don't mark my contractions as AmE or BrE. Since the favo(u)red forms are the same in both dialects, I suppose I can (retroactively) justify that lack of dialect-marking. But I've also been aware that I do type (and say) things like I've not (like here and here and here and more places) and they've not (here) and you've not (here), and I have the feeling that that's one area in which I've Britified myself a bit. Or bitified myself a Brit, possibly.

And while I know the comments will probably go all over the place even if I do say the following... If you'd like to discuss contractions involving other verbs, please send an e-mail rather than writing a comment. I will get to other contracted verbs at some point, but don't want to do so in the comments section!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

bungalows and ranch-style houses

Better Half just read yesterday's post and noted that I didn't mention a type of house I've been meaning to mention for a while: the bungalow.

The term has come up a lot since my friend Recyclist bought a house that she calls a bungalow, but that doesn't (chiefly AmE) jibe with BH's notion of what a bungalow is. The word comes from India, where it refers to a one-stor(e)y house with a thick thatched roof. This has been extended outside India to refer to single-stor(e)y houses. But in my part of the US (and I do believe this varies in different parts of the US), it's used more specifically to refer to a house like this one (and like Recyclist's), which has a front porch with pillars and a partial 'attic' top floor. These were popularly built in the 1920s and 1930s, I understand. According to this internet discussion (which led me to this photo), this would be called a dormer bungalow in BrE--but having never seen one here, I haven't had any occasion to hear such a term used. What BH would call a bungalow--i.e. a one-stor(e)y house--I (when in America) would call a ranch(-style) house--not to be confused with the culinary horror ranch(-style) dressing. Buttermilk-based foods are generally not to be found in England, which is sometimes sad. Buttermilk pancakes, for instance, are particularly nice. But not having to face ranch dressing is one of those things that makes living in England a pleasure.

Friday, April 27, 2007

semi-detached, duplex and other houses

In the comments to the last post, I promised a posting on housing types...so here we go!

In his book The English: Portrait of a People, Jeremy Paxman quotes from (an English translation of) Hermann Muthesius' Das englische Haus (1904-1905):
There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the house . . . no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house.
Paxman (and he is not alone in this) attributes English interest in house and home to the English sense of privacy:
Because the English dream is privacy without loneliness, everyone wants a house. Given a choice between their own back garden and life in a communal living project where they might share the benefits of a common swimming pool or playground, most will choose their own plot of ground. In France, Germany and Italy, about half the new homes being built in the 1990s were apartments. In England, the best estimate was about 15 per cent. It reflects a belief that at the end of the day, instead of sitting on the street chatting, the English would rather go home and slam the door.
The English passion for houses, and insistence on owning rather than renting them, is often remarked upon by European observers, but there's something of a family resemblance between English and American attitudes about optimal housing situations. A major difference between them, however, is that the US has a lot more space in which to fulfil(l) the dream of every nuclear family having their own house with their own siz(e)able (BrE) garden/(AmE) yard. England has one of the highest population densities in Europe, with 383 people per square kilomet{re/er}. For London, the figure is 4,700 per km2. (For more figures see this.) Compare this to the US average of 31.7 per km2. My home state of New York averages about 195 per km2. This includes New York City, which has an average density of 10,316/km2. That just goes to show how sparsely populated my part of the state is.

So, every time my mother comes to England and sees views like this (from my university's website), she cannot help but wonder aloud at the fact that people can live this way--with no lawn separating them from the neighbo(u)rs. This type of housing is called terraced housing or a terrace (and thus terrace is a frequent element in UK street names. In pre-Better Half days, I lived on/in Denmark Terrace). In AmE, these are townhouses or row houses--but they're not nearly as common in the US as in the UK. The ones here may be single-family dwellings or they may be divided into (AmE) apartments/(BrE) flats. Better Half and I got lucky in buying our current flat/apartment, as it's end-of-terrace, meaning that we have windows on three sides, not just the front and back.

The next step into privacy is the semi-detached house, known in AmE as a duplex--that is, a building that is divided into two houses, so that each shares a wall with the other. In fact, it was only in adulthood that I learned the term duplex--we referred to the duplexes in my neighbo(u)rhood as apartment houses when I was a child.

Going one further (privacy-wise) than semi-detached, are detached houses, which are what Americans would simply call houses. To get a detached house in an English town, one must have a pile of money--especially down here in the South East:
The average property price in Brighton in 2006 was £187,309 with detached houses selling for just over £350,000. The average property in Brighton now costs £213,566 (up to £248,000 according to Halifax figures) with detached properties selling for over £400,000. The national average stands between £177,000 and £228,000. (from Edison Ford; for rough US dollar conversions, double all the numbers).
One can see here why assumptions about class are made on the basis of what type of house one lives in--although it would be extremely déclassé to go around mentioning that you live in a detached house. My first experience of these words was back in the US, watching Are You Being Served? (an old British sitcom that is--to the bemusement of many British people who lived through it--incredibly popular with PBS viewers. John Inman, RIP). Miss Brahms, the junior ladies' department assistant, frequently defends her claims to middle-classhood by proclaiming in her working class accent that she grew up in a detached house, but Mr Lucas seems to have knowledge that it was really semi-detached.

Postscript (4 May): Dean over at Brighton Daily Photo has provided us with a great view of the housing density in Brighton.

Speaking of déclassé, Ben Zimmer points out that the New York Times has caught up with the rest of the world and has published an article about Kate Middleton's mother's alleged class-signifying no-nos--including and especially using the word toilet. All the news that's fit to already have been printed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

touts, scalpers and buskers

Zhoen thought she knew BrE pretty well, but then...
Just came across a new Br/E expression I'd never heard used before, touting. Which in Am/E is scalping, buying tickets, then selling them right before the event for a very high price.
She included the following contrastive examples in her e-mail:
Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis explains why the photo ID scheme in place for this year's festival could mean the death of the ticket tout. BBC News

Authorities turn up heat on scalpers. boston.com
My first thought on this was that (BrE) ticket touts sometimes have different practices than (AmE) scalpers. Either might buy tickets to an entertainment event and then re-sell them for a higher price, but the English ticket touts that I encounter most often haven't invested in the tickets in the first place. These touts operate in London Underground stations, cadging* Travelcards (day-long tickets) from people who are finished travel(l)ing, in order to re-sell them (or possibly use them themselves). A disembodied voice at Victoria Station instructs travel(l)ers not to give unused tickets to touts because the money is used for illegal activities or drugs (or something like that). One would presume that their business is falling away rapidly, as the Oyster Card (a pay-as-you-go card) is quickly replacing the Travelcard for all but tourists.

So, there I am thinking that ticket tout has a broader meaning/use than scalper, until I read the OED on scalper, which tells us that the original ticket scalpers were:
U.S. slang. One who buys and sells at a profit, but at a price lower than the official one, unused portions of long-distance railway tickets.
So, it's all the same thing, then--although the most recent quotation in the OED for this AmE sense is from 1891. The more recent sense of scalper is not unknown in the UK, but it is an originally AmE word--metaphorically related to the taking of actual scalps.

Thinking about touts/scalpers, led me to think about other street characters, and thus to the BrE word busker, meaning a street musician/performer--the type who puts a hat or violin case out for coins. AmE doesn't seem to have a word for this concept--I think one has to say street musician. How did I ever live without this word and its verb form to busk? My favo(u)rite busker in our old neighbo(u)rhood played the saw (We lived in a very busky place--and no, busky isn't BrE, it's LynneE.) We're actually trying to find him again to hire him for an upcoming event, so if you know a saw player in Brighton, please point him my way! This sense of busk may be related to an earlier sense meaning 'to cruise as a pirate', though the OED doesn't have full confidence in that etymology. But if you see a busker with an eyepatch or a hook for a hand, maybe you can submit that to the OED as etymological evidence.

While we're on the topic of music (wow, look at that pathetic segue!), this has nothing to do with dialects of English, but it does have to do with English, so I hereby note with amusement The Ex's single This Song is in English.

* This is not marked in the American Heritage Dictionary as BrE, but I hear cadge more often in BrE than I ever did in AmE--particularly in phrases like cadge a lift (AmE = beg/get a ride from). Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words has a nice little essay about it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(the) Gambia, (the) Lebanon, etc.

I wasn't going to do a whole post tonight. Really, I wasn't. I was going to be a productive member of academia and get some real work done--having spent all of my day in meetings. But in a clever moment of self-sabotage, I brought the wrong version of my document home, so there's no point in working on it. Genius!

This post is in response to some off-topic commenting after the (the) menopause post. (I do have some rather control-freaky tendencies when it comes to off-topic commenting. If someone comments about something that deserves its own post, then I try to stem the tide of comments on it. It's not [necessarily!] that I want the glory for posting about it. It's that the comments are not searched when one does a 'search this blog' search, thus no one can ever find those interesting comments again--and I aim for searchability here!)

So...the comments back there are about which geographical names get a the in front of them, and whether or not these differ by dialect. Before I get into listing these, let's start with a little primer on the relationship between proper nouns (particularly place names) and definite determiners like the.

A referring expression--that is to say (typically) a noun phrase that is uttered/written in order to represent some entity in a (real or imaginary) world--is definite if it is used in a particular context to refer to something that is uniquely identifiable. So the indefinite noun phrase a linguist is used when the speaker does not expect that the hearer will be able to identify a unique linguist for the context--as in (1).
(1) A linguist walks into a bar...
Once you've said (1), there is a unique linguist in the context, so you can then go on to say (2):
(2) The linguist says to the bartender "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?"
Proper nouns, like England or lynneguist are (sometimes phrasal) nouns that refer uniquely. Even if you knew your conversational partner didn't know someone named Letitia Bogbottom, you would (usually) utter it without any determiner, as in (3), because there's no reason to mark it as definite since it's inherently definite.
(3) (*The) Letitia Bogbottom walks into a bar...
But some proper names include a definite determiner (and some languages put determiners with proper nouns more regularly--so in German, I'm told, it's much more natural to call someone the equivalent of the Donald than it is in English). In English, a number of types of place names take a definite determiner as a matter of course:
River names: the Mississippi, the Yangtze, the Ouse (which, along with the Uck ranks among may favo(u)rite British river names. Fancy a paddle down the Uck? Aren't you glad to know that Harveys Bitter is made on the Ouse?)

Plural names: the United States, the Outer Hebrides, the Netherlands

(Some kinds of) descriptive phrasal names often take a the: the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union
And then there are some apparently exceptional cases. For instance, cities generally don't take the but the Bronx does (because it's named after its river). Mountains generally don't, but the Matterhorn does (I have no idea why). And countries whose names aren't plural or descriptive phrases generally don't take a the (Canada, Russia, Sri Lanka), but some do. Which brings us (finally!) to: which ones do, which ones don't, which ones are AmE and which ones are BrE. Last night, I sat down at a very nice pub (with a sausage-and-mash [BrE; AmE mashed potatoes]-themed menu; woo-hoo!) with BrE-speaking Better Half and AmE-speaking Recyclist (whom I called the Recyclist last time I mentioned her, but what's a definite determiner among friends?) in order to quiz them on country names. Here's what we came up with:

BrEAmE
the Congo (referring to the river or the country)(the) Congo (referring to the country--aka Congo-Brazzaville)
the GambiaGambia
(the) Ukraine(the) Ukraine
the LebanonLebanon
ArgentinaArgentina
SudanSudan

Each of these deserves some comment.

Congo: The name of the country is based on the name of the river, and any river gets a the. Confusingly, there are now two countries that border that river that have Congo in their names, but the country formerly known as Zaire (and before that the Belgian Congo) is generally referred to these days as DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Now I have to say here that this is more my judg(e)ment than Recyclist's. In Africanist linguistic circles, at least in the US (in which I used to travel), the name of the country doesn't have a the, as the the gives it a kind of 'colonial' feel. So, I might say the Congo to refer to the place in pre-independence days, or to refer to the region more generally, but in order to refer to one of the sovereign nations, I'd leave off the the. Note that in the full names of the countries ([Democratic] Republic of...), there is a the, translated from the French name.

Gambia: Here I'm cheating and ignoring Recyclist's evidence. Recyclist says the Gambia, and so I insisted to her that she couldn't, because she's an AmE speaker. After some prodding, it turns out that she has a Gambian sister-in-law and she learned to say the Gambia from her, not from other AmE speakers. I'd never heard the Gambia until I left the US, but I hear it frequently from a fellow Scrabbler, the Twitcher, who travels often to that part of Africa. He is of a certain generation. A certain generation older than Better Half, who says: "I'd never say that. It's too colonialist." Again, this has a the because the name of the country is based on the name of the river.

Ukraine: Both AmE and BrE have the Ukraine, but both my informants and I believe that since it's become a country in its own right, we're more likely to call it Ukraine. We've probably been influenced by the fact that many newspapers are now eschewing the the. It's thought to have originally meant 'borderland', and the the came from the sense of the name as a description.

Lebanon: While Better Half generally thought most of the definite-determinered examples sounded "old-fashioned", he was adamant that it's always the Lebanon. I think he's been unduly influenced by the Human League. The the here apparently comes from the name of the mountain that the country is named after: Mount Lebanon or the Lebanon. But why does this mountain have a the when most others don't? Don't ask me. Other than in the context of discussing 1980s music from Britain, I've never heard the Lebanon from an AmE speaker.

Argentina/Sudan: Neither of my informants had any inclination to say the Sudan, perhaps demonstrating that that the is pretty far on its way out of regular use. (Sudan comes from the Arabic for 'black land'.) And while neither would say the Argentine to refer to the place, BH recogni{s/z}ed it as a really old-fashioned name for Argentina. The Argentine seems to have poetic roots.

After that tour of the world, I'm exhausted. Feel free to leave other examples in the comments.

P.S. 22 August 2014 Twitter follower  @maceochi

two quick notes

I know I promised another posting on determiners, but here are just a couple of items that I want to slip in between posts:

1. Benjamin Zimmer points out the linguistic issues that are allegedly related to the Prince William-Kate Middleton break-up over on Language Log today. The post and the links from that post touch on many topics that we've already discussed here. Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe has blogged on this too--linking to my humble blog here. Thanks, Jan!


2. Another notch on the Canadian Count belt. A vendor at the Portobello Market asked me if I was Canadian. Her response to my Americanness was "Your accent is very soft." I've had that one before too...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

(the) menopause, (the) flu, (the) hospital

My friend (and fellow datebook-sayer) the Recyclist arrived in the UK this weekend, and was surprised by the springiness of the spring here. (This week, it's worth coming to Southern England for the weather.) As we were walking around Notting Hill on Sunday, she marvel(l)ed at the wisteria in bloom, and lamented to the Networker that while hers used to bloom all the time, it has become very irregular. I (jokingly!) hypothesi{s/z}ed that her wisteria might be going through (BrE) the menopause. Having not heard me, she asked me to repeat myself and I found myself switching to the AmE version: menopause (without the). The is a definite determiner (search 'determiner' on that link), which means that it is used to indicate the uniqueness of something within a particular context (well, that's a good enough description for present purposes). And you could say, 'ok, that makes sense, since it only comes once in a lifetime.' But that explanation would predict that BrE would also use the before puberty, which it generally doesn't. So I don't know why it's there, but it's been there in BrE from the earliest example in the OED (1872).

On the other hand, AmE tends to say the flu and BrE tends to do it without the the (and often with an apostrophe: 'flu). The Networker tells me that she was more used to hearing it with the the when she was a child, and sure enough, it is the (')flu in the OED until the last example, 1957 (which is before the N was born, but no doubt the the lingered beyond that date). In a sense, the AmE the is a bit out-of-date--after all, we usually don't know which unique influenza bug we're referring to when we use the term. (And, annoyingly, many people use flu for bad colds, which, like using migraine to refer to any headache, should be a punishable offen{c/s}e.)

So one's tempted to say that there's a the balance at work here: if a the goes missing in one dialect, it has to be replaced somewhere else within that dialect. But if I said that, someone would bring up hospital as evidence that AmE has one more the than BrE.) As is well known (so well known that I'm not supposed to be mentioning it), in BrE one ends up in hospital and in AmE one ends up in the hospital when (the) flu gets too bad. Americans often express wonder that there's no the in this phrase in BrE, but note that there's no the in go to school or go to church in either dialect. When referring to being in the institution for that institution's main purpose, there is no the for church, school or (AmE) college or (BrE) university. So, if you're a (BrE) pupil/(AmE) student (or a teacher) you could say (1), but if you're not, you'd have to say (2).
  1. I left my pen at school.
  2. I left my pen at the school.
BrE carries this through for hospitals, in that if one is engaged in the business of the hospital in the role of a patient, then the the is left out. So, we get no the with the description of patient in the sickhouse, but a the for a visitor to it, as in (3) and (4).
3. She was in hospital for weeks. (AmE in the hospital)
4. I was at the hospital to visit her. (=AmE)
Note that (5) (the hospital equivalent of (1)) is no good because while the person in (1) is still the school's student after they leave the school for the day, the person in (5) is no longer the hospital's patient (or at least not an in-patient) after they leave the hospital. So, (5) sounds like someone took their sick pen to the pen hospital for treatment.
5. *I left my pen in hospital.
And now I'm going to bed. Which is not the same thing as going to the bed, which wouldn't involve getting under the (AmE) comforter /(BrE) duvet and dreaming of determiners.

Postscript: Since writing this, I've written about this issue again (possibly better) in Babel magazine, number 4. If you like reading things like this blog, you might want to consider a subscription...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

diaries and datebooks

Amanda wrote to ask if her Irish English experience crosses over to BrE:
I am from California, but I was recently given the opportunity to spent two months in Ireland. I heard people there use the word diary to describe what I would call a planner or personal calendar. It was so funny to me to hear an adult male say, "I'll write that in my diary." I think of the personal journal of teenaged girl where she writes about her most recent crush when I hear the word "diary."
Indeed, outside North America, diary is the typical way to refer to what I used to call a (AmE) datebook. (To me, planner is what the stationery companies call them, not what real people call them...but maybe people are more like stationery companies in California.) Diary conveniently verbs into diarise (or diarize), as in:
We invite you to diarise the RWL5 conference and submit abstracts for consideration for papers, symposia and posters. (from here)
AmE lacks a similar verb for recording an appointment. We can (as can BrE speakers) pencil something in, which implies that the appointment is not yet fixed, but we don't have a nice verb for making a definite commitment. Maybe Americans are commitmentphobes. Maybe that's why we won't let a president serve more than two terms. (But thank goodness for that!)

Diary
can also in BrE (as in AmE) mean the kind of blank book in which one records the events, thoughts and feelings of one's day, as does journal (though the OED says that journal usually refers to something more elaborate than a diary). Not that girls write in diaries anymore. They write blogs and myspace pages. Maybe this is a good thing, since diary-writing makes you sick! (well, maybe.)

Friday, April 13, 2007

a [adjective] ask

It's been claimed that coincidences are the product of heightened attention to a particular thing or experience, and heightened attention is probably to blame for most word-coincidences. For instance, one day when I was (BrE) at university/(AmE) in college, I received a letter from my Irish (AmE) penpal/(BrE) pen friend, in which she related that she'd been on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday in Majorca (and it was a severe disappointment). I had to look up Majorca, since I'd never heard of it before. Later in the day, I went to my avant garde film class and saw Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or, in which people run around shouting "The Majorcans are coming! The Majorcans are coming!" (Actually, it was the subtitles that were shouting something like that.) Now, had I really never heard the word Majorca before that day (and thus it was eerily strange to hear it from two unrelated sources), or had I just never noticed it before that day? I'll never know. But I was reminded of this experience when I received an e-mail from reader Tim yesterday.

Prior to receiving his e-mail, I'd been reading the Times Higher Education Supplement (as you do), in which there was an article about UK universities trying to emulate US universities in their fundraising successes. (A very popular discussion in UK higher ed these days--which, frustratingly, usually ignores the fact that the tax incentives for charitable giving are much better in the US than the UK.) The title of the article included the phrase the big ask, and later in the article it refers to "the soliciation--or ask (in US fundraising parlance)" (that "quotation" was from memory--but I think it captures what was said). So, there we have the THES seeming to claim that using ask in this way (as a noun) is an Americanism. The Lynneguist in me thinks: "Bloggable!"

THEN comes the e-mail from American Tim, in which he asks about "BrE" a tough ask, which he'd just read or heard. So, we've got a British newspaper claiming that nominal (=noun) ask is AmE, and an AmE speaker assuming that it's BrE.

THEN, I'm having my Thursday-nightly pizza with my BrE-speaking girlfriends. The Poet, speaking about some emotional trade-offs says, "That's an incredibly huge ask." I thank her for using the word I've been thinking about, and she says "It's certainly not something I heard when growing up. It has a definite foreignness about it" (again--more of a paraphrase than a quotation!).

So, what nationality is nominal ask? Drum roll, please! It's Australian! And not the first time that BrE and AmE speakers have mis-attributed an AusE phrase--although last time the BrE and AmE speakers (myself included!) were all to eager to claim an AusE expression as their own (see back here, but make sure to read the comments to get the whole story).

This is what the OED (in its 2005 draft entry for the 3rd edition) has to say about it:
colloq. (orig. Austral.) (chiefly Sport). With modifying word or phrase, as a big (also huge, etc.) ask: something which is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount. Cf. tall order s.v.
Now, the THES article could not have been the first time I'd seen/heard ask, but it was the first time I'd really noticed it. But three times from unrelated sources in a 26-hour period? I think we can claim it as a weird coincidence, can't we?

Monday, April 09, 2007

another puzzle

It's still a holiday in the UK, but not in the US. So, in order to bring some fun and games into the American workday (even though, with my timing, it's almost over), here's a little puzzle for the Americans out there.

A few weeks ago, I read the following in an article about Sienna Miller in the free version of the local newspaper, and it took me FOREVER to figure out what the missing letters were--which just goes to show that I have not completely internali{s/z}ed my BrE taboo words.
Director George Hickenlooper joked that he had tried to stop Miller tucking into French fries and chocolate but she simply told him to 'b***** off'.
Do you know what it is? And if you didn't, what was your first guess? (Answers in the comments please.) British English speakers, please let Americans have a go before answering--we know you [probably] know the answer! I am aware, however, that both puzzles so far have been directed toward Americans. ([AmE] No fair!) If you have any ideas for a puzzle for BrE speakers, then please e-mail them to me.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

and you/you too

Better Half and I spent the first part of the long Easter weekend (two bank holidays, woo-hoo!) in the picturesque village of Rye, East Sussex. The first day, we made the mistake of having a big lunch, which left us uninterested in dinner until too late to do anything about it, so the next day we skipped lunch and had some locally-made ice cream instead (woo-hoo-hoo). At the end of our ice cream transaction, the following exchange occurred:

Ice cream man: Have a good afternoon!

[Nearly simultaneously:]
BH: And you!
Me: You too!
Each response is understood to represent a whole proposition/sentence, but in each case a slightly different part of the understood proposition is omitted:
BrE: And you [have a good afternoon].
AmE: You [have a good afternoon] too.
It struck me that BH's and my responses here followed in the pattern that we saw back in the discussion of me (n)either and nor I, with the Brit preferring a conjunction+pronoun and the American a pronoun + adverb. That's all I have to say about it really...that there's a pattern! Like most linguists, I love patterns.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

minding

After the recent discussion of signs you wouldn't see in America, Amy in San Francisco e-mailed to say:
I recently obtained a few stick-on signs when last in the UK that I prize (for our hazard-ridden basement): "Mind the step" and "Mind your head." It occasioned some talk around here---the very same UK company (Seton.co.uk) through their US branch only sells "Watch your step" and "Watch Your Head" signs. My [British] husband said he always found it somewhat nonsensical to tell someone to watch their own head. I like the signs because they remind me pleasurably of being in UK pubs full of uneven floors and low ancient beams.
Of course, the most famous British warning signs/announcements are in the London Underground (= AmE subway--but note that BrE subway usually means 'pedestrian underpass' (orig. AmE)) and other (BrE) railway stations (=AmE train stations): MIND THE GAP, or sometimes more explicitly: MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM EDGE. Click here to hear one version of that announcement, by voice artiste Emma Clarke. One hears different versions of the announcement on different lines. (Incidentally, one hears artiste much more in BrE than in AmE.) You can read more about minding the gap on Annie Mole's guide to Underground Etiquette, from which the photo at the right comes. See also her fantastic London Underground blog.

Amy's husband's observation, that you can't watch your own head, struck me as fairly sensible, but, of course, American English happily allows us to watch with senses other than sight. For instance if you're told to watch your mouth (i.e. don't be impudent), you don't run for a mirror. This sense of watch, meaning 'take care to pay attention to' is also present in BrE, but it is more common in such contexts in AmE. A BrE equivalent of watch your mouth is mind your language. (This was also the title of a British sitcom in the 1970s, which was, by most accounts, fairly horrid. Better Half has just read this and accused me of wild understatement. He says it was "excrement in visual form". Which brings us back to overstatement.)

Now, mind has many obsolete, obscure and dialectal (especially Scottish and Caribbean) senses that I won't go into here, but for me one of its most salient meanings is 'be obedient to'. That sense is listed in the OED as "Now regional (chiefly N. Amer. and Irish English)". So, one must mind one's parents and mind the teacher. Since Americans often hear imperative mind in this sense, hearing mind the gap or mind your head can sound to us like we're meant to obey the gap or head, rather than to (orig. AmE) watch out for it.

The prominence of the 'obey' sense of mind in AmE also makes BrE child-minder (kind of like [orig. AmE] babysitter, but more usually used to refer to refer to semi-formal day care arrangements) sound ambiguous, as it could mean 'one who obeys a child' as well as 'one who takes care of a child'. Of course, if we want our words to be 'sensible', then babysitter deserves to be mocked, since one needn't sit when one (AmE) babysits. (Note that the sitting here is sitting with the baby, not on the baby.) But, then again, life would be a lot less interesting if languages were 'sensible' all the time.

Both dialects use mind to mean something like 'to be bothered about' in contexts like Do you mind if I smoke? But, as we've seen before, BrE and AmE use never mind in different kinds of contexts and for different kinds of purposes.

[Finally found the problem with comments on this post and have corrected it. For those with an RSS feed, I apologi{s/z}e if this meant that you got this post a half dozen times while I tried and tried again!]

Monday, April 02, 2007

resources on regional accents

We have American houseguests at the moment, so not a lot of time to blog, but lots of time to sit around and listen to other Americans' impressions of BrE. So far, we've discussed pudding/dessert, Jell-o/jelly (both mentioned back here) and something else that we discussed for at least a few minutes and that I have now forgotten completely.

So, in the absence of time/presence of mind to write much more, here are some recommendations for resources on regional accents. The British Library has recently unveiled their Sounds Familiar? website. This is a wonderful resource, full of descriptions and recordings of various dialects in the UK.

Looking for something somewhat similar for the US, I found the Varieties of English website at University of Arizona. This covers other Englishes in addition to American--and doesn't cover the whole of America. (For instance, the English of white Arizonans isn't treated at all.) But if you click on 'Southern States' or 'Northeast US', you get some general description and sound samples. A classic (meaning that it already existed when I started teaching) American dialect 'edutainment' is the film American Tongues. If you can find a copy, it's definitely a good one.

If you have other dialect audio-visual resources to recommend, please do so!