Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter language

Unsurprisingly, I've had a few requests lately to cover terms from Harry Potter. (Thanks Bill and Mrs Peel!) Since I'm four books behind in the series --and since I only have the UK editions, and therefore don't know what's made it through to the US editions dialect-wise-- I don't feel particularly well placed to write about it. So, instead, and as my nod to Pottermania, I direct you to some sites that might help.

Although not updated since 2002, Arabella Figg's Hogwarts Express has a Dictionary Page, which includes a glossary of BrE words that have been left in the AmE editions--from at least the earlier books.

The Harry Potter Word Wizard includes various reference tools, including pronunciations of words from the Potter world, and a shorter list of BrE words in the American editions. They also have a way to contact them and make requests for additional terms. (If they need help, they can ask me!)

There's a quiz on differences between the US and UK editions of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at this site, much of which depends on BrE/AmE knowledge. Good luck!

Update, 23 July 2012:  Since one of those sites is no more, I direct you to the Harry Potter Lexicon.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

making head(s) or tail(s)

Continuing on my backlog of old requests: a colleague who's involved in a Catalan-English dictionary project forwarded (back in March) part of a conversation arising from an unfamiliar translation in the project. The Catalan phrase in question was apparently (no) trobar ni caps ni peus, and the lexicographer was questioning the translation of it as (not) to make heads or tails (of something), because she, a BrE speaker, would have said (not) to make head or tail (of something). Indeed, the plural version is the AmE version, and the singular the BrE version. (This is backed up by John Algeo in British or American English. He found only the singular in BrE texts in his corpus, and only plural in AmE texts.)

I suppose the reason I didn't write about that earlier is because there's not a lot more to say about it! It's unclear why the AmE version gained the plural markers. The phrase head or tail is defined by the OED as 'one thing or another', so etymologically speaking, the singular makes some sense. Growing up with the AmE version, I visuali{s/z}ed the things that one 'could not make heads or tails of' to be chaotic things--sort of like a Breughel painting as done by Jackson Pollock, where you wouldn't be able to find the heads or the tails of the beings in it. The BrE version lends it self to a visual that is imprecise, but not necessarily chaotic. But then, how one pictures such things must be a highly individual experience...

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Onward and upward in my quest to reduce the number of unanswered requests in my e-mail inbox. Some of them I've put off answering because the answers are long and complicated and require actual work. This one is the other kind. I've delayed answering it because I don't have any cute stories to tell about it. (Protests that none of my stories are cute should be written up in triplicate and submitted to your local authority figure.)

It comes from Paul of The Beer Card. Or, rather, it came from Paul (in March--forgive me!):
I subscribe to Bridge World, an American magazine, that exhorts its readers to 'please patronize our advertisers'. Every time I see this my instinctive reaction is to send them a sarcastic or condescending e-mail. Is this form of the verb less common in the US?

I did notice that Chambers and American Heritage Dictionary give the meanings in reverse order.
Points to Paul for the dictionary research!

Rather than saying that the 'condescend' sense of patroni{s/z}e is less common in AmE, I'd venture that the 'give financial support to' sense is more common in AmE than in BrE. One reads the please patronize our advertisers/sponsors admonition often in the newsletters of small organi{s/z}ations--charities, churches and the like--whose advertisers are typically small businesses with small advertising budgets. But since patroni{s/z}e is ambiguous (and probably also because it's a 'hard' word), one more often sees please support our advertisers/sponsors-- about four times more often with advertisers and 40 times more often with sponsors, if we can take the Google results as representative.

Trying to test this out further on Google, one is a bit hampered by the fact that Google doesn't allow for US-only searches. So, the below is a comparison of patroni{s/z}e our advertisers on the web in general versus the UK:

patronise our advertisers124
patronize our advertisers180,700

As opposed to support, which is seen more in the UK.

support our advertisers12,200323,000

In other words, a site that exhorts you to support advertisers has a 3.7% chance of being a UK-based site (at least as far as Google can tell), whereas a site that encourages you to patroni{s/z}e advertisers has only a .002% chance of being UK-based. So, since BrE readers are less likely to have come across this use of patroni{s/z}e regularly, it's more likely to strike them as odd, and to bring up the other possible meaning, as is Paul's experience. AmE readers, on the other hand, are more accustomed to relying on the object of the verb (in this case advertisers/sponsors) to tell them that it's probably the 'financially support' sense and not the 'condescend' sense that's intended. We (all dialects) do that kind of thing all the time. For instance, we know that different senses of book are at play if a police officer books a massage therapist or books a suspect. (Of course, we can overcome those interpretations with more context--the officer could book a massage therapist for assault or book a suspect (who happens to be a clown) for his daughter's birthday party. But I just raise this example to defend myself against the hordes who might claim that AmE is irresponsible for having a verb with two senses. Most verbs have at least that many!)

Postscript, later that evening: Describing this entry to my friend the Poet this evening, I reali{s/z}ed, of course, that the two senses are not so confusing in speech. For the 'condescend' meaning I (and Better Half, so maybe this is universal) pronounce the first syllable like the word pat, and for the 'financially support' sense, I pronounce it with the same vowel as in pay. The Concise Oxford (what I have at home) only lists the pat pronunciation. American Heritage lists both, starting with pay, but doesn't specify that they go with different senses. Do you have two pronunciations, and are they sense-specific?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Continuing to make my way through ancient requests, Susie wrote back in January (oh, the neglect!) to request coverage of directly. She's probably given up on reading this blog by now, but at least I hadn't promised to discuss it directly.

The word directly, of course, is found in both AmE and BrE, as in:
Try to involve everyone, not just those directly in front of you. [University of Kent Careers Advisory Service, Tips on Making Presentations]
But the use of directly to mean 'shortly' or 'very soon', is mostly AmE--though the OED indicates that it's also BrE dialectal (but which dialects? do you know?). It's that sense of the word that's used when a (AmE) salesclerk/(BrE) shop assistant says:
I'll be with you directly.
...before they ignore you in order to deal with another customer.

For this meaning, shortly works in BrE (as well as AmE), but when I asked Better Half what he'd say instead of I'll do that directly, he said that he'd say I'll do that later. When I countered that that doesn't mean the same thing, he claimed that as a British person, he was less likely than an American to want to tie himself down to anything more specific. I think he was joking (he's rarely not joking), but if you'd like to protest or support his contention, feel free to do so in the comments!

Afterthought (the next morning): A good South African equivalent is just now, which confused (or maybe annoyed) me to no end when I first arrived there and went to a party with a co-worker. He kept saying We'll leave just now and so I'd fetched my bag or whatever and found myself waiting while he drank another drink, and another, and had another conversation...

Note that the dialectal differences involving directly and just now are not about whether they are used to talk about time, which they generally are in a lot of dialects, but whether they're used to mean 'not immediately, but soonish', which tends to be more dialect-specific. Just now in my native AmE dialect can mean 'in the very recent past' and directly can mean 'immediately' in most dialects.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

different from/than/to

The last post, on numbers, is currently number 2 on the list of most-commented upon posts, second only to toilet. This probably has something to do with the fact that it was posted shortly after this site was chosen as a Yahoo pick. (Yahoo!) It probably also has something to do with the fact that the subject got changed in the comments section (probably more than once). One of the topic-changing culprits was Howard, of the UK-US Forum. (For one of my rants on topic-changing, see this post. Hey, I'm a Libra with Virgo (AmE-preferred) rising/(BrE-preferred) ascendant. I can't help my need for order.)

In spite of the hard time I've given Howard (or, as I've started referring to him, Naughty Howard) about topic-changing, I must admit that it's a topic I've meant to cover. So, most is forgiven, Howard--but I'm still going to think of you as Naughty Howard, due to my naturally stubborn and sadistic nature (which can't be too serious, considering the Libra factor).

So, readers, fill in the blank in the following sentence:
British English is different ____ American English in many ways.
If you answered from, then congratulations! You are a citizen of the world, who uses the only variant on this phrase that is said around the Anglophonic world and the only variant that is universally considered to be "correct" by the people who make declarations about such things.

If you said than, then you're most likely North American. Note that objections to this form have softened through the years. For instance:
Different than has been much criticized by commentators but is nonetheless Standard [in American English--L.] at most levels except for some Edited English. Consider She looks different than [she did] yesterday. He’s different than me (some additional purist discomfort may arise here). You look different than he [him]. The problem lies in the assumption that than should be only a subordinating conjunction (requiring the pronouns that follow to be the nominative case subjects of their clauses), and not a preposition (requiring the pronouns that follow to be the objective case objects of the preposition). But Standard English does use than as both preposition and conjunction: She looks different than me is Standard and so is She looks different than I [do]. And with comparative forms of adjectives, than occurs with great frequency: She looks taller [older, better, thinner, etc.] than me [than I do]. Still, best advice for Formal and Oratorical levels: stick with different from. --Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993.
If you said to, then you're probably British, although you might be from a Commonwealth country. Or you could be me. For some reason, different to entered my grammar quite soon after I moved here. I thought I was being really "native" when I used it in a draft of a document for students. But my fellow American (and BrE pundit), the late, great Larry Trask, took me to task for it, saying that it was non-standard BrE. I can't find anyone else who feels so strongly about this as Larry did, but then again, there are fewer British style guides on the web---and I'm not in my office with Fowler's and Oxford Style at the moment. My Concise Oxford only says that different to is "less common [than different from] in formal use". Someone in a forum at this site reports:

Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition
different. 1. That d. can only be followed by from and not by to is a SUPERSTITION.

But someone else on the forum (not citing which edition of Fowler's--and that matters a lot!), claims that Fowler's is completely intolerant of different than, claiming that if one needs to have a than there, then different must be acting as an adverb, and therefore should be differently, as in This soup tastes differently than it did last night. Now, since taste is a sense verb that acts as a linking verb, it can occur with an adjective (you wouldn't say This soup tastes spicily, would you?), so I'm not sure that commentator had his/her facts right. If I were a responsible blogger, I'd wait until Monday to post this, so I could look it up myself. But instead, I'll be lazy and hope that one of you will do it! The 3rd edition, please!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

numbers, numbers and more numbers

Eric in Chicago wrote to ask about some numbers, and there are other numbers that I've been meaning to write about too. So let's have a numberfest!

Let's start with Eric's question:
I just read that the term "billion" in AmE is different than BrE. In AmE it refers to a one with nine zeros following or 1,000,000,000 but in BrE it refers to a one with twelve zeros following or 1,000,000,000,000, or a "trillion" in AmE. Do they not have a trillion in BrE? and what do they say for 1,000,000,000? one thousand million?
Historically yes, Eric: AmE billion = BrE thousand million = 1,000,000,000. However, the effect of AmE and AmE media is definitely being has been felt in BrE, and the use of billion to mean 1,000,000,000 is becoming more prevalent now widespread. For most people, these numbers are so hard to imagine that they probably just think of it as a one followed by lots and lots of zeros. Or, as one is more apt to say in BrE (than in AmE), a one followed by lots and lots of noughts.
About trillion, the OED says:
The third power of a million; a million billions, i.e. millions of millions. Also, orig. in France and local U.S., a thousand ‘billions’, or 1012 (i.e. the traditional English billion: see BILLION): this sense is now standard in the U.S. and is increasingly common in British usage.
Of the less definite -illions, OED lists zillion as 'chiefly U.S.' (although the Wikipedia article on such numbers uses a Terry Pratchett quotation in order to attest the word's existence). Squillion is not marked as U.S., although the OED's earliest citations for it are by Americans. Nevertheless, it sounds a little more BrE to me. Then there are lots of other variations (I tend to say kajillion, but that's not in the OED yet)--see the Wikipedia link for more on that subject.

Shifting to smaller numbers, there are (as we've seen before) differences in how BrE and AmE speakers express multi-digit numbers. It's definitely a more AmE trait to express four-digit numbers in hundreds:
2300 =
thousand, three hundred (BrE or AmE)
hundred (chiefly AmE)
Often, when I say things like 23 hundred, I can see the cogs turning behind my BrE-speaking interlocutors' eyes as they try to visuali{s/z}e what that expression means. Sometimes they ask for a translation. Sometimes they express annoyance! And other times, they marvel at the fact that American addresses sometimes involve four-digit house numbers. Meanwhile, my family used to think it curious that I used to live at number 7. You see, where I come from, there are no house numbers with fewer than three digits. The first house on the street is number 100. Don't ask me why. (Then, there's the fact that British streets sometimes, like in America, have odd house numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the opposite side. But other times --like on my current street-- they start at 1, continue 2, 3, 4, up one side of the road, then when it gets to the end, the numbers continue down the other side of the road, so that a road with 50 houses would have number 50 directly across from number 1, and on the other end 25 across from 26. But I'm getting away from language, am I not?)

Another number difference that Better Half often remarks upon is the expression of the years of this decade. BrE speakers tend to include an and between the two thousand and the unit number, while AmE speakers tend not to:
2007 =
BrE typical: two thousand and seven
AmE typical: two thousand seven
Because these tend to be written as Arabic numerals instead of words, it's difficult to 'prove' the extent of these tendencies without access to a recent, well-transcribed spoken corpus of both dialects, which I don't have. However, it has been noted elsewhere. If anyone else has any facts and figures to back up these observations, by all means, let us know about them!

Monday, July 09, 2007

collective noun agreement

Sorry for the unexplained gap in posts. I was busy making an honest man of Better Half. I also reali{s/z}e that I've been somewhat selfish lately, just writing about things that I want to write about. Me, me, me. But now I that I'm a responsible member of the venerable institution of marriage, I guess it's all supposed to be about selflessness and compromise and all that jazz. So, back, finally, to responding to some of your requests.

Let's go way back. To November! How neglectful I've been! (Well, kind of--I responded to this correspondent's first question here. And this issue has been mentioned a little before, most recently in the comments for this post.) Jackie, an American who briefly lived in London, wrote to say:
I found British English atrocious. [...] Brits [...] have a strong tendency to use singular nouns with the plural form of verbs, e.g., "The gang are going to have a tough time protecting their patch," and "MIA are looking into terrorist links."
Now, Jackie, I have to say that I'm surprised that a graduate of UCLA's linguistics program(me) would use the word atrocious to refer to another variety of English! Let's all recite together now the descriptive linguists' mantra: Different dialects are different, but that doesn't make them better or worse than your dialect! Both AmE and BrE have 'logical' subject-verb agreement systems, they're just a bit different in the assumptions/preferences behind them.

Let's start with the nouns that are concerned here. It's not just any singular noun that can go with a plural verb form in BrE; it's specifically collective nouns--that is, nouns that refer to collections or collectivities (particularly, in the BrE examples, collections of people). These kinds of nouns are a bit funny. Let's look at Jackie's first example:
BrE: The gang are going to have a tough time protecting their patch.

...which in (most, standard) AmE would be:
AmE: The gang is going to have a tough time protecting its/their patch.
Notice here that while AmE strongly prefers a singular verb with a noun like gang or committee or team, it's a bit looser when it comes to pronoun agreement with such collective nouns. Thus, we can find lots of examples with a singular verb and a singular pronoun, but also examples in which the plurality of a committee (i.e. the fact that it's made up of individuals) comes through in the pronoun, but not the verb:
After questions are concluded, you and any guests will be asked to leave while the committee makes its decision. [From a University of Oregon document]

[A]ll will be notified once the committee makes their decision. [From the Westchester (NY) County Board of Legislators]
The indecision about pronoun agreement (and contrast in pronoun and verb agreement) indicates that the case of collective nouns is complicated. Grammatically, they have singular form. Semantically (i.e. in meaning), they refer to things that are inherently plural. For most nouns, the grammatical and the semantic match up--so it's hard to say whether the agreement between subject noun and verb is being triggered by the word's semantic or grammatical status. But in the case of collective nouns, we can see different varieties of English taking different strategies. BrE prefers semantic agreement (when the collective refers to animate beings, at least), and AmE prefers grammatical agreement--most of the time.

It's not really that simple, though. There are times when AmE speakers use plural agreement, in order to emphasi{s/z}e the individuality of the members of the collective (and this gets some discussion over at Language Log). So, take for example the following:
The jury disagree. [plural verb]
The jury disagrees.
[singular verb]
The City University of New York's Writing Centre guide states strongly that the plural verb must be used in this case:
Some words you might not realize are plural:
Collective nouns that represent a group of individuals who are acting independently. Whereas, for example, the word “jury” would take a singular verb when the jurors act in concert (“the jury decided that ... ”), it would take a plural verb when differences between the group are emphasized.

Wrong: “The jury disagrees [among themselves] on this issue.”

Right: “The jury disagree on this issue.”
And in BrE, when it's very clear that the collective is to be thought of as a unit, not as individuals, then a singular verb is perfectly acceptable, as in the book title:
My Family Is All I Have: A British Woman's Story of Escaping the Nazis and Surviving the Communists
Thus BrE allows a distinction between (a) and (b) below, while (b) would sound more awkward in AmE:
(a) My family is big. [i.e. there are 10 of us]
(b) My family are big. [i.e. the individuals are super-size]
Thus, AmE speakers tend to avoid sentences like (b) and to rephrase them as something like The members of my family are all big.

The moral of the story is: collective noun agreement is tricky. A semantic strategy is probably more flexible than a grammatical strategy, but people can communicate just fine with either strategy!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

what's so difficult about water?

As mentioned in my last post, an American ordering water in a British restaurant often amounts to a verbal slapstick scene. (But if you want to read some real verbal slapstick, see my dear friend lazybrain's most recent post.) American visitors to these shores typically have to ask for water at least three times before communication is achieved--and there is similar difficulty for some BrE speakers ordering water in the US. One commenter back at the last entry presumes that this is because of the (southern) BrE lack of post-vocalic /r/s (i.e. 'r' after a vowel sound). That is to say, many AmE dialects pronounce a distinct /r/ at the end of water, whereas some prominent BrE dialects don't.

I don't think that's the problem, though. Firstly, when (mostly [r]-ful) northern Americans order water in the (mostly [r]-less) southern states, we don't get that slapstick, and vice versa. Second, there's a lot more going on in water.

I think the biggest problem is the pronunciation of the /t/. In most standard forms of BrE, it's pronounced [t]--like the [t] in tiger. (In some non-standard forms of BrE, it can be pronounced as a glottal stop--i.e. an interruption to the flow of sound that is made by closing the glottis, in the throat . Americans typically use a glottal stop instead of a [t] in mitten. It's also the sound between the vowels in uh-oh!) In AmE, a /t/ between two vowels is typically pronounced as an alveolar flap. Alveolar refers to the gum ridge behind the top front teeth. In a flap (or 'tap'), the tongue passes very quickly over that point. When BrE speakers parody this sound, they often use a [d], but a flap is not a [d], as described in this tutorial:
Flaps are abbreviated forms of the alveolar plosives /t/ and /d/ and the alveolar nasal /n/. In a normal alveolar plosive closure, the vocal tract is blocked for some 50 ms, but in the flap, produced by one rapid tap of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, the duration is very short, on the order of 10-20 ms. The flap is very common in American English. [From Center for Spoken Language Understanding, Oregon School of Science & Engineering, Spectrogram-reading tutorial]
When I lecture, the two things I try to be careful about are: (a) pronouncing my /t/s, and (b) saying cannot instead of can't (I cannot say that I always succeed), since I discovered quickly that these were the American pronunciations that most impeded my communication to BrE speakers.

But wait! There are more differences between BrE and AmE pronunciations of water. The /a/ vowel differs quite a bit, with the BrE version being (in my amateur-phonetician estimation) longer than the AmE version, giving the word a different rhythm in the two dialects. The standard southern BrE vowel is also quite a bit rounder than the very open standard AmE vowel.

So, there are two differences in the rhythmic profile of water that differ quite a bit cross-Atlantically, plus two vowel differences (the quality of the /a/ and what happens with the /r/). It's amazing that anyone ever quenches their thirst in another country. (Unless it's with beer. My brothers mastered the ordering of a pint almost immediately.)

A tip for travel(l)ers: modify your water. If you want the free stuff, say tap water in Britain and iced water in America. (If you don't want the ice, ask for iced water without the ice--just modify your water with a word that the waiter will be expecting to hear!) I don't recommend slowing down your pronunciation--that only exaggerates the differences. If you're American, using a fully pronounced [t] should be all it takes to make your water comprehensible. I don't recommend that BrE speakers take on a flap, since a badly executed flap may make it sound like you're mocking the American you're speaking to. Just say water as many times as necessary, then accept the compliments on how intelligent your accent sounds.

eating faggots

My family (AmE) is/(BrE) are here this week, so I haven't a lot of time for blogging. You'd think that there would be a lot to blog about, with six Americans clashing with English culture constantly, but the linguistic conversations are mostly of the "Chips are French fries!" variety, and the miscommunications mostly occur when asking waiters for water (OK, I'll blog about that next).

Most menus need a fair amount of translation, both for the dishes that are not eaten as much in America and for the food names that are different. So far, the one that's caused the most raised eyebrows was beef and herb faggots. Better Half described these as English meatballs, which seemed like a reasonable description, but all of the recipes I've found this morning (for beef or pork faggots) involve a fair amount of offal--which is not what comes to mind when I think 'meatballs'. Here is a recipe for the curious.