Saturday, August 29, 2009

filet, fillet and the pronunciation of other French borrowings

Looking through my long list of topic requests, I've found a duplicate--so that surely deserves to be treated first. Mrs Redboots recently emailed to say:
I was watching an on-line video, yesterday, of a chef preparing fish, and instead of saying he was filleting it (with a hard "t") as I should have done, he said he was "filay-ing" it, as though it were a French word. And later on, I saw it written as "filet", where I would have used "fillet". Which is the original - for me "filet" is the French term, and I hadn't realised it was also used in America.
And Laura, a New Yorker in Cambridge, wrote 10 months ago (sorry, Laura) with:
My British husband and I find endless entertainment emailing your blog entries to each other. What a great resource. I have searched past entries and cannot find anything pertaining to our longest running argument - on the pronunciation of "fillet." He says "filliT," and I would say "fillay" (like ballet, right?), although I refrain from doing so here for fear that butchers won't understand me. I thought British English would be the version more influenced by French...then again, I pronounce the er in foyer whereas he would say "foyay." What is going on with the influence of French in American and British English?
I'll have to preface this by saying that I can't possibly discuss all such differences in the pronunciation of words from French here--there are lots of them. And let's not get into the pronunciation of words from other languages just yet (I have posts-in-process on some of them). To start with Mrs R's question about which is original, well, in a sense, the question doesn't really work, since the word was borrowed at a time before spelling was standardi{s/z}ed in English. And it may not have been standardi{s/z}ed in French, either (do we have an expert out there?). Modern French spelling is based (according to what the internets tell me) on medi(a)eval pronunciation, which would mean that at the time it was first borrowed into English, the 't' would have been pronounced in the original French word.

Looking at the OED, we can see the word in English back to 1327--though that is in the sense of 'a ribbon used as a headband' . The first quotation for the 'cut of meat' meaning in English comes from around 1420, in the plural filetes (remember, though, that the word would have been borrowed earlier than this and used in speech and in writing that hasn't survived the centuries). The 1327 quote uses filet, but in all of its senses, the spellings vary for the first few centuries. In the 'cut of meat' uses, we also see Fylettes (c 1430), Phillets (1658), Filets (1725). From the 1741 quotation, fillets rules until the first American quotation in 1858 (filets). So, judging from the dates, it could be that it was imported to the Americas at a time when its spelling had not yet settled down and the influence of French settlers headed it toward(s) the more modern French spelling and pronunciation. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, in Maine people working in the fisheries say fillit on the job (their citation is from 1975, so may not be true now), though in lay use, it's filet, as in the rest of the US. For the McDonald's Filet-o-Fish, there is some question about how it should be pronounced in the UK, but the official McDonald's answer is '“Filet-o-Fish” can be pronounced any way you wish. Most people say “Filay”.'

Similarly, Americans tend to pronounce valet as 'VALay', while it is more common to pronounce the 't' in BrE. As I've mentioned before gillet/gilet show a similar spelling difference--but that difference isn't strictly on national lines--I see both gillet and gilet in England and rarely either in the US. It's usually pronounced in the French way, but then it was imported from French more recently--in the 19th century.

Across both dialects, it's a general rule that the longer the word has been in English, the more likely it is to be pronounced as it is spelled/spelt. So, claret (a wine name rarely heard in the US, where it would tend to be called Bordeaux), which has been in English since at least the middle ages, is pronounced with the 't', but Cabernet, which came to us in the 19th century, isn't. But still, there are a lot of differences. Let's divide them into types: consonant differences, vowel differences and stress differences--though where there are stress differences there are often also C and V differences. From here I'm going to do less history and more listing.

Among the consonant differences we have the already-discussed herb ('h' versus no 'h'). Then there's the French 'ch'. Chassis usually has a hard 'ch' in AmE, but usually a soft one ('sh') in BrE. (Both usually don't pronounce the final 's'.) According to the OED, preferences for the pronunciation of niche are reversed in BrE and AmE, with rhymes-with-itch dominating in AmE and rhymes-with-leash dominating in BrE. Myself, I've always pronounced it to rhyme with leash wherever I've been--but the pronunciation was only 'Frenchified' in English during the 20th century. So, nitch-sayers can consider themselves to be a certain kind of authentic, and niche-sayers can consider themselves to be another kind of authentic. And then there's schedule, which begins with a 'sh' in BrE, and a 'sk' in AmE--though one does hear the AmE pronunciation in BrE now (and BrE speakers often say timetable where AmE speakers would say schedule).

On the vowels, I've been mocked in England for my AmE pronunciation of France (rhymes with ants but without the 't'). Yes, the standard, southern BrE pronunciation is more like the French pronunciation, but it's also part of a more general pattern of AmE having the [ae] sound (as in cat) and standard, southern BrE having a long [a:] in these places--cf. dance, lance, chance and answer. And the southern BrE pronunciation of these things in these ways is due to a modern change in pronunciation (see this discussion of the TRAP-BATH split). So, I'm not convinced that BrE speakers say Frahnce (or Fraunce, if you prefer) because they are being authentic in a French way--they are being true to the rules of their own dialect.

A more irregular difference is in clique, which is 'cleek' in BrE, but often 'click' in AmE. See the Eggcorn database for some discussion of the consequences.

And leisure is more French-ish in BrE, where it rhymes with pleasure, than in AmE where the first syllable is usually pronounced 'lee'.

The 'a' in apricot is like that in cap in [my dialect of] AmE and in cape in BrE. I'm sure there are people in each dialect who would argue that theirs is closer to the French, but the fact that both dialects pronounce the final 't' (and that neither uses a 'b' rather than a 'p') tells us that it's given up any preten{c/s}e of being French.

As you can see, this list is pretty random and I'm sure there are others that could be added. Here's one that has both consonant and vowel differences: vase. The BrE pronunciation is more like the French with an 'ah' and a 'z', whereas the usual AmE pronunciation rhymes with place.

On to stress... Note that most of the following involve vowel changes as well, since unstressed vowels are reduced (which often includes making them more centrali{s/z}ed in the mouth).

AmE tends to keep the French stress pattern make recent loan words sound more 'foreign' by resisting the native urge to stress earlier in the word, whereas stress in BrE tends to gravitate to the front of the word. This means that ballet is BALay in BrE and balAY in AmE. The same pattern can be found in a number of two-syllable French borrowings.
frontier (in this case, neither dialect preserves the French three-syllable pronunciation)
garage (with changes in the vowels and final consonant too, as mentioned here)
For three-syllable words, BrE often stresses the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable where AmE stresses the final one, with a secondary stress on the first syllable. Thus one stress pattern can seem as if it's turned inside-out if you're used to the other one. The sore-thumbiest one for me is Piaget:
(the Swiss psychologist): BrE pee-AH-ʒay vs. AmE PEE-uh-ʒAY
This is not to say that AmE always resists the urge to move the stress leftward or that BrE never does. Observe police, which has the accent on the last syllable in both standard dialects--though there is a non-standard (and sometimes jokingly used) first-syllable-stressing pronunciation in some dialects of AmE: PO-leese. Courgette and aubergine in BrE retain the final stress.

And then there are the other examples that go the opposite way, with AmE having the stress more front-ward than BrE. This is typically for words that have been in the language longer and seem 'less French' to us than things like beret and escargot:
address (noun)
And then there is Renaissance, for which I quote from the American Heritage Book of English Usage:
This 19th-century borrowing from French, which literally means “rebirth,” is usually stressed on the first and third syllables in American English. In British English the word is usually stressed on the second syllable, which is pronounced with a long a sound [...]. The American English pronunciation is an approximation to the French pronunciation, while the British English pronunciation reflects the typical English (Germanic) tendency to put the main stress on the root part of a word.
So, I'm sure you'll come up with many more examples and counter-examples, but that's a smattering, at least. Special thanks to Better Half, for letting me (AmE) sleep in/(BrE) have a lie-in a few times during the past couple of weeks, so that I could work/blog into the wee hours. Having written all this, I find I've not/I haven't commented on Laura's mention of foyer, but since I don't want to abuse BH's kindness by sleeping the whole of tomorrow away, I'll just refer you to this nice little discussion on 'The Growlery'. I've concentrated on pronunciation here, rather than French-versus-English spelling, which we'll go into another time. If you can't wait, see here and here and here for some discussions where French and spelling intersect.

Friday, August 28, 2009

initials and names

So, when you heard about a blog on British and American English, did you think: 'There's a blogger who's going to run out of material soon'? If only! I've written more than 300 posts on BrE and AmE over the past three-and-a-bit years, have 92 messages in my inbox requesting discussion of other (often MANY other) topics that I've not yet covered, and those don't even include the ever-growing list in my head of things that fit my original intention of discussing the "words/phrases/pronunciations/grammatical constructions that get me into trouble on a daily basis" (plus the pragmatic conventions, social constraints and value systems that affect communication and get me into even more trouble). I'd hoped that I'd blog at least three times a week during my (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday, but instead I have blogged just twice (ok, now thrice) and received six emails with good requests for new topics plus a number of others in the comments sections of current and old posts plus the 'have you blogged that yet?' conversational asides from Better Half and others at a rate of about three per day. I'm fairly confident that I could blog daily on this topic until retirement age and still have ideas for new posts. But, of course, I'll have to wait until I'm retired to blog at my desired pace. In the meantime, I'll just have to take my vitamins (while trying not to think too hard about how that's pronounced) in the hope that I'll have a long enough retirement to even start to do these dialects justice. If you're interested in reading the faster-paced version of the blog, please remember to eat your five a day, walk your 10,000 steps and use your SPF 50--you've got another 20-some years to wait before it even starts.

And after that bit of solipsistic (ish) reflection, a post that concerns me-me-me! Ok, so it starts with a much more famous writer, but that's just an excuse to get to me. One of the aforementioned six emails was from Marc, who wrote:
I'm listening to Just a Minute on Radio 4, and the subject is "Scott Fitzgerald". It seems to me that Americans always say "F. Scott Fitzgerald". I actually think the Just a Minute usage makes more sense, since his full name is Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. If he chose to call himself "Scott", the alternatives in my mind would be his four-name full name, or Scott Fitzgerald.
Well, his family called him 'Scott' and I'm sure that's how he introduced himself in social situations, but when he published he called himself F. Scott Fitzgerald, as on the cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (via Wikipedia):

Fitzgerald was named after his famous relative, Francis Scott Key, but the family called him Scott--I don't know why, possibly to differentiate him from some other Francis or because they didn't like the possible nicknames for Francis or because they just liked Scott. But when Americans (like me! like me!) go by their second names (like I do! like I do!), they (I) tend to acknowledge that they (I) have a first name by including the first initial in formal, written contexts.

My story is a little different than Fitzgerald's--when my parents named me, it was with the intention that I would be known by both of my names. When I got to high school, the computeri{s/z}ed attendance (esp. AmE) rosters had room only for first name and middle initial--so my teachers tended to call me by my first name. I didn't like that, so I rebelled (kind of) and reinvented myself (more so) by adopting my middle name as my 'main name' when I started attending college/university courses. But the outcome is the same as Fitzgerald's: when I publish, I do so with my first initial, full middle name, and full surname.

(Sorry, I can't find an image of this in which my name is clear--nor is there a good picture of the next one. That linked picture is a pre-publication lovely co-author's name will also be on it when it's published.)

I must pause for the inevitable question "What does the M stand for?" When I lived in the northeastern US, I had a ready-made non-answer that worked: "It starts with an M and I have an Irish surname. You can figure it out." But when I moved to foreign lands (first South Africa, then TEXAS), I found that the people couldn't figure it out, since they had considerably less exposure to certain Catholic-Irish-American naming practices. (NB: my non-answer doesn't work in Ireland either.) But you're intelligent, worldly people. You can figure it out. Or if not, you can read this. Note that the double-naming Irish-American thing in the north is perceived (at least by folks like me) as being a different tradition than the (largely non-Catholic) double-naming tradition in the South, for which a broader range of possible name combinations is available (as well as the tradition of using a family surname as the second name). See here for some examples.

When I moved to the UK, I started having trouble with my first initial and name. I had come to think of M. Lynne Murphy as my 'brand', but you can see that my employer has decided not to include my initial in my web profile. Furthermore, plenty of people seem to have a hard time referring to my work using my first initial. So, I'm referred to as Lynne M. Murphy and L.M. Murphy (even by people who I work very closely with--Scandinavians seem to be the most frequent reversers). Google Scholar even thinks I'm L.M. Murphy for this publication (even though it links to something that gets my name right). I thus work toward(s) the next research-based funding exercise for higher education in England with fear and loathing, since I have particular reason to fear that citations of my work will not be counted accurately.

When I first moved to my job at Sussex, I had an American colleague, the great Larry Trask, who was born Robert Lawrence Trask. This led some English university folk to ask me "why do all you Americans use your middle names?" Of course, two linguists do not amount to "all Americans", and looking at famous linguists and philosophers who use their middle names, I'm not at all convinced that Americans use middle names more than the British do. After all, two of the people I cite the most, HP Grice and DA Cruse were born in the UK and were/are called by their middle names. But they mostly publish(ed) with both initials, rather than initial-plus-name. Checking Wikipedia, the Cambridge University Press catalog(ue) and my own friends/citations, all of the first-initial users are American:
G Tucker Childs
W Tecumseh Fitch
D Robert Ladd (working in Scotland)
M Lynne Murphy (working in England)
T Daniel Seely
A Ronald Walton
(but here's another one, with an interesting story, who doesn't quite fit in this list)

The most famous living linguist also goes by his middle name, but Avram Noam Chomsky just skips to his middle name with no fanfare. I have no way of checking how many other middle-name users completely omit the first name when publishing. (Know of any others?)

If you're not all that interested in linguists' names (poor you), here is a first-initial-plus-middle-name hall of fame, which cheats a little by including some people who didn't really use the first initial (like Neville Chamberlain).

The AmE tendency to use first initials is tied, no doubt, to the AmE tendency to use middle initials in the names of people who go by their first names. Wikipedia notes that "The practice of abbreviating middle names to initials is rare in the United Kingdom", although certainly some UK authors use their middle initials when publishing--especially if they have common first and last names. Americans are so in love with these initials that we had a president who had an initial and no name to go with it: Harry S Truman. (And I'll repeat a link here because it's the same kind of story.)

But Americans like to spell out the name that they're called by, and so do not tend to reduce their names to just initials + surname, as the British often do in formal/bureaucratic situations. For instance, it's more frequent on forms in the UK to be asked for surname and initials, than in the US, where one typically is asked for first name and middle initial (much to the chagrin of those of us who want to be mysterious about our first names). UK credit/debit cards and (BrE) cheque-books (=AmE checkbooks) typically have only initials+surname, though the bank will certainly have your full name on record. American ones more typically have a name and an initial. And this is reflected in signatures, too. Better Half's signature includes neither of his given names--just initials, and it's my impression that this is much more common in the UK than in the US.

But while the English often use just initials in 'formal' (i.e. printed) settings, I've also heard them complain about the American trend for calling people by their initials. (I once belonged to a group of about a dozen Americans that happened to have two people called 'D.J.'--this had nothing to do with turntables. One was male, one female.) I must say, it's not my taste either, but then again there are lots of names that aren't to my taste.

And then there's the question of who uses both first and middle names--e.g. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I direct you to Language Log for that discussion. But in that discussion there is a comment that the first initial + middle name thing is common in Scotland. I'll quote it in its entirety:

  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Scots eldest sons frequently have the same first names as their fathers, but actually use their middle names instead, and will abbreviate themselves as e.g.

    J. Ewan McPherson

    An author relative of mine whose name follows this pattern finds that Americans frequently switch round his initial and forename to conform to their preferred Homer J Rodeheaver pattern. I actually have an American edition of one of his works with this error on the front page.

"Americans frequently switch (a)round his initial and forename"! Oh, don't get me started (again)! (Except to note that forename is much more common in BrE than in AmE.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

seaside diversions

While it's still seasonal, I should mention a couple of differences that have come up in Grover's first summer of proper playing on the beach.

First there are these things:
[photo and instructions for building it from]

In my AmE dialect, this is called a pinwheel, but in BrE it's called a windmill (because it looks like a 'real' windmill). It may also be called a windmill by Americans as well. Pinwheel in AmE is also extended to other things that resemble including the pinwheel quilt pattern and pinwheel cookies (which resemble the motion more than the thing).

And then there are these things:

[from Open Clip Art Library]

In BrE, this is a bucket and spade. Now, whenever my in-laws discuss these, they put them in that order (bucket and spade), and so I was going to say that this phrase is an irreversible binomial (something we've discussed before) but via Google, I actually find more spade and buckets [see the first comment for vindication of my intuition/experience]. The AmE equivalent (in my dialect, at least) is shovel and pail, which I would put in that order, but for which there are many times more examples of the other order, pail and shovel, online. So, don't listen to me about word orders--apparently I don't know.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

musical notes

Sorry I've been quiet--was trying to finish a book before coming on holiday. So, 'hello' from the US, where Grover is getting reacquainted with her cousins and I only have a little editing to do in order to finish the book. (I think my honeymoon was the only non-working holiday I've had in years...)

In the interest of not distracting myself too much from that editing, I'm going to pull together some info that readers have sent me about musical terminology in the two countries. Since my years of childhood music lessons did not result in any usable skills, I've never applied myself to the making of music in the UK, and so my exposure to the terminology has been slight. But reader darcherd kindly sent me a list that he's encountered in his reading, which I reproduce here. The first item of each pair is BrE and the second AmE.

  • Breve - A note of two bars' length (a count of 8) in 4/4 time (no AmE equivalent of which I'm aware)
  • Conservatoire - Conservatory
  • Crotchet - Quarter note
  • Minim - Half note
  • Quaver - Eighth note
  • Semiquaver - Sixteenth note
  • Demisemiquaver - Thirty-second note
  • Hemidemisemiquaver - Sixty-fourth note
  • Semibreve - Whole note
  • Semitone - Half step
I'm assuming that darcherd is correct about all these. (Use the comments if you'd like to correct or expand on any of this, please.) I haven't checked all the notes terminology, but I did look up conservatoire, about which the OED says:
A public establishment (in France, Germany or Italy) for special instruction in music and declamation. (The French form of the word is commonly used in England in speaking not only of the Conservatoire of Paris, but also, with less propriety, of the Conservatorium of Leipzig, and the Conservatorios of Italy, and is even sometimes assumed as the name of musical schools in England. In the U.S. the anglicized form conservatory is used.)
Conservatory tends to be used in BrE in a deviation from this sense (also from the OED):
A greenhouse for tender flowers or plants; now, usually, an ornamental house into which plants in bloom are brought from the hot-house or green-house.

The deviation is that the conservatories people tend to speak of are glass-enclosed extensions on their homes, which allegedly raise the value of the property, but always seem to be too hot to sit in, thus requiring very elaborate systems of window blinds. (See photo, from here.)

But back to music...David Young wrote some time ago to point out this bit from the March 2009 issue of Classical Guitar magazine:
Without being too rigorous about it, Classical Guitar has generally preferred the word 'rendering' to the word 'rendition' to describe a performance of music, considering it to be American usage only. However, I discovered the word 'rendition' in an English review published in 1906. So it's been around for at least 103 years, though it lost some respectability recently, when it came to mean removing suspected terrorists to a remote country where they could be tortured without too much danger of the details being picked up by the international media.

But 'rendering' can bring to mind a coat of plaster, and is only fractionally better.[Colin Cooper, Editorial Consultant]
The dangling participle there is driving me a little (AmE) crazy/(BrE) mad, but massive quotation is the way to go if one wants to blog quickly!

One last musical note, which came up in a conversation with friends recently, is that pop music has a much broader application in BrE than in AmE. In my American high school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university, it was deeply uncool to like 'pop' music, one had to like (orig. AmE) rock or (orig. AmE) R&B or, later, (orig. AmE) indie music. (Or jazz or classical, but not pop!) But many of the British acts that we thought were cool would have been defined (or would have defined themselves) as pop in Britain. A key difference may be the fact that the British charts don't categori{s/z}e music in such strict ways. Whereas the American Billboard magazine publishes a load of genre charts each week (giving rise to the AmE phrase crossover artist for someone who charts* in more than one genre), the UK Singles Chart is not genre-specific and did not start having genre-specific versions until the 1990s.

Googling the phrase "I'm just a pop star", we find it attributed to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Björk--but in my American days I would not have described either of them in that way (especially not Pink Floyd). I would have limited its use to Britney Spears and 'N Sync or whatever the (orig. AmE) tweenies were listening to at the time. I had thought that the uncoolness of pop was what made Pop Idol into American Idol when it moved across the Atlantic--but Wikipedia tells me it was legal restrictions instead. Younger Americans can tell us if pop has redeemed itself in recent years (comments, please!).

*This verb sense of chart hasn't made it into the OED yet, so I'm not sure where it originated.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


It's been a while since I've had a simple 'they call it this/we call it that' post. Some of you can think of this as a reward for sitting through all the grammar and html tables. It's an old request, but a seasonal one. Mrs Redboots wrote months ago to ask:

"She had once stayed in a rented cottage in Surrey, and she remembered the odd term the British use for this arrangement: self-catering."

Is it odd? And what do Americans say?
It is odd, Mrs R. And although just sentences ago I promised a 'they call it this/we call it that' post, I can't hono(u)r my own promise, because Americans don't call it anything.

Why? Because Americans don't expect their holiday/vacation abodes (and their prices) to include any meals. The British notion of 'bed and breakfast' is regarded as a quaint one that was only imported in earnest (as tourist accommodation) to America a couple of decades ago (or so). In fact, I recently had a conversation with an Englishwoman who had come over to the US for our second wedding reception and was still talking (two years later) about how incredibly wonderful the B&B in my hometown was. While that B&B is especially nice (elaborate, different breakfasts every morning, warm cookies every evening, all antique furniture, scented bath potions, and so forth), I think it especially impressed my English friend because B&B accommodation in the UK can be somewhat dire (it can also be very, very nice). In fact, B&Bs often serve the roles in the UK that (AmE) motels do in the US (except that there are far fewer films involving murders in B&Bs than in motels!). For evidence, see this article that recalls a B&B's role in housing homeless families.

I'm finding that increasingly one can get a room in a hotel without breakfast in the UK (for a lower price), just as in the US provision of included-in-the-price breakfast (or at least doughnuts and coffee) has increased.

But back to self-catering. This is generally used by BrE speakers to refer to (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation accommodation such as cottages, cabins, and (BrE) flats/(AmE) apartments,where there is no restaurant or service staff to provide meals, but cooking facilities are available. In the US, we'd just say we were renting a cottage somewhere, and that would be that--no need to mention the eating arrangements. One often hears BrE speakers saying things like "We want to go self-catering this year", to mean that they want a reduced-cost, back-to-basics holiday/vacation.

One often sees (BrE) package holidays advertised as 'self-catering' (as opposed to 'bed and breakfast' or 'all inclusive'). Here's another contrast: Americans rarely take package holidays unless (a) they've got a deal to go to Disneyworld, or (b) they're in their 'golden years'. This is probably because (a) Americans are wary of anything that might 'tie them down' too much, (b) [and therefore] they often just get in the car and drive, and (c) they get almost no holiday/vacation time (usually two weeks' paid vacation for Americans versus the six weeks or so that Europeans usually get)--and therefore often use what they've got to do things that need to be done, like visiting family or undertaking big projects, rather than going on treks to new and different places.

We've discussed a couple of other differences in tourist accommodation in past posts--so click back if you'd like to read/discuss (BrE) flannels/(AmE) washcloths in hotel bathrooms or (BrE) en-suite accommodation.