Saturday, July 30, 2011

bits and pieces

I'll put the little bits before the big piece, just so they don't get lost. Here are a couple of things I've meant to tell you about and another waste of space on a certain journalist's take on Americanisms.


Introduction to British small talk, for Americans
I've done a guest post at the Macmillan Dictionary blog on this topic. Please have a look and share your experiences! 


Find me on Facebook
I now have a Facebook page as 'Lynneguist', which serves as a mirror for my Twitter feed, on which I post the Difference of the Day, links to things of AmE/BrE interest, and commentary on my day-to-day experiences as a linguist-emigrant-immigrant. (And you can leave comments too.) So, if you like that kind of thing, come and "like" me


Anti-Americanismism, part 3
I see (thank you readers!) that Matthew Engel is at it again complaining about Americanisms in BrE (and using some in order to do so), this time in the Financial Times.  His main point, that BrE is special and that Britons should care about keeping it distinct from AmE, is not without merit.  But since his focus is on vocabulary, he's missing the fact that there's no evidence of BrE and AmE becoming closer in more systematic ways--i.e. grammar and pronunciation.  In fact, the English (in both senses) dialectologist Peter Trudgill has written (in a paper I cited back here) that the two nations are actively diverging in pronunciation and that there is very little evidence of any grammatical changes.  BrE is by its nature a lexical magpie, and that's something worth acknowledging and celebrating too. (Just look at all the Australianisms in it, Mr Engel!)

Engel wisely keeps his FT article at the general-polemical level, since he's (I hope) discovered that getting into details gets him into trouble. But here's his reaction to the linguists reacting to his post:
What did surprise me was the angry reaction to my talk from American bloggers and blowhards – that’s an Americanism, but a useful one – some calling themselves lexicographers, all of whom seem able to study dictionaries but with no sense of the spoken language, certainly not here in Britain. I once got mailbombed over a column by the National Rifle Association, but their members were actually far more civil and sensible than this lot. 
In the aftermath of my programme I am now being regularly abused as anti-American, or worse. Rubbish (or trash). I lived there, have many friends there; I adore baseball.
Wow, we've got it all here.  The hypocrisy: Americanisms in BrE are OK if they're useful (but I get to decide which are useful). The passive-aggressive taunt: "some calling themselves lexicographers". The downgrading of academic research and the failure to acknowledge that some of the critics are British, living in the UK. The "some of my best friends are... and I love their culture" defen{s/c}e". And, best of all, we seem to have here a parallel to Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: claiming your critics are worse than the NRA.

But the unforgivable sin in Blogland is not to link to or at least mention the alleged lexicographers (like editor-of-at-least-five-dictionaries, Grant Barrett or Oxford dictionaries/Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer, or, you know, moi, who's more of a lexicologist, but who has lexicographed every once in a while). And here I am giving Mr Engel more free publicity. What a (orig. AmE) sucker I am.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

anti-Americanismism, part 2

As promised, here's my reaction to the second half of the BBC's list of 'Your most noted Americanisms'. Since part 1, many others have weighed in on that BBC piece, including Stan Carey, Not From Round Here, and on the BBC website (huzzah!!) Grant Barrett. The commenters at the BBC site, you may discern, are not completely taken with Grant's message.

So, back to the list.  And can I ask again:  if you'd like to discuss further any of the items that I've discussed in other blog posts (linked here), please comment at the original post. This is more helpful for people who come this way looking for answers, and it keeps the repetition down. Thanks!

26. As an expat living in New Orleans, it is a very long list but "burglarize" is currently the word that I most dislike. Simon, New Orleans
In the last instal(l)ment, I pointed out that bristling against -ize in AmE was a bit rich coming from a culture in which one can be (BrE) pressuri{s/z}ed to do something (where AmE would pressure them). Another such example is the BrE preference for acclimati{s/z}e in contexts where AmE is likely to use acclimate. In the comments of that blog post, the discussion turned to burgle/burglari{s/z}e, and I responded:
[D]on't be tempted to think that Americans have added syllables to burgle, as both words are derived (burgle by back-formation and burglarize by adding a suffix) from burglar. The two forms seem to have come about simultaneously in the 1870s. Oxford notes that burgle was at first a humorous and colloquial form.

Both burgle and burglarize are heard in the US, though burglarize is more common.

27. "Oftentimes" just makes me shiver with annoyance. Fortunately I've not noticed it over here yet. John, London
You haven't noticed in England because the people who used to say it died out. Or emigrated, perhaps.  This is one of those things that's an archaism in BrE (OED has it going back to the 14th century), but not so much in AmE. Still, you're almost 140 times more likely to hear often in AmE than oftentimes (according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English--henceforth COCA).

28. Eaterie. To use a prevalent phrase, oh my gaad! Alastair, Maidstone (now in Athens, Ohio)
I'm not sure whether Alastair is reacting to the word (also eatery) or the alternative spelling with -ieEatery is informal originally AmE, emphasis on the 'originally'. P.G. Wodehouse used it in Inimitable Jeeves (1923) and the OED has other examples of the UK press using it decades ago.

But the -ie spelling? That's looking more and more BrE to me. Trying to find the source of Alastair's ire, I looked for things called eaterie around Athens, OH--but I could only find things called eatery.  Looking at Wordnik's page for it, I noticed that many of the quotations were from UK-based writers/publications. So, I compared COCA and the British National Corpus. Eatery outnumbers eaterie 464:2 in the US corpus. Compare this to the UK corpus, where there are 7 cases of eaterie versus 4 of eatery.  Conclusion? Eaterie is the preferred (oddly Frenchified) British spelling and almost unknown in AmE. 

29. I'm a Brit living in New York. The one that always gets me is the American need to use the word bi-weekly when fortnightly would suffice just fine. Ami Grewal, New York
Fortnightly would not suffice in the US, since most Americans wouldn't know what you mean. It is generally not found in AmE, so to complain about Americans not using this British word is kind of like complaining about the British saying football when they could be saying soccer.  The adverb fortnightly has only been used in British English since the 19th century--so it's exactly the kind of thing that Americans shouldn't have been expected to preserve.  The noun fortnight is much older. But America hasn't bothered with it. It's a contraction of fourteen nights (or the Old English version of that), but two weeks is more transparent.

30. I hate "alternate" for "alternative". I don't like this as they are two distinct words, both have distinct meanings and it's useful to have both. Using alternate for alternative deprives us of a word. Catherine, London
This is something that people complain about on both sides of the Atlantic, and something my British students do all the time (and that their American (BrE use) tutor corrects).  Here's Grammar Girl's post on it, speaking to an American audience. While the OED marks it as 'chiefly North American', their first quotation containing the form is from a British legal text in 1776. Catherine should note, however, that alternative is in no danger of slipping from the language. The noun meanings of alternate and alternative continue to be separate, and the adjective alternative outnumbers adjectival alternate by about 7:1 in AmE (according to COCA).

31. "Hike" a price. Does that mean people who do that are hikers? No, hikers are ramblers! M Holloway, Accrington
Rambler here is a very BrE word--one that Americans in the UK tend to find amusing, since we only use the verb to ramble with the older meaning (from OED, bold added):

With reference to physical pursuits: to wander or travel in a free, unrestrained manner, without a definite aim or direction.
But the later BrE meaning is somewhat opposite to this, involving:
Now also (chiefly Brit.): to walk for pleasure through the countryside, freq. in company and on a specified route
But back to hike.  Most senses of hike are originally AmE; the word itself is of obscure origin--but probably from a colloquial and dialectal BrE word.


32. Going forward? If I do I shall collide with my keyboard. Ric Allen, Matlock

The OED's first citations of 'go forward' to mean 'make progress' come from Sir Thomas More, the Coverdale Bible and an elliptic use (now forward with your tale) from Shakespeare.  Probably overused in business jargon now, and everybody hates that.


33. I hate the word "deliverable". Used by management consultants for something that they will "deliver" instead of a report. Joseph Wall, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire

Another bit of jargon. None of the dictionaries I've checked mark it as an Americanism, and some of the American dictionaries I've checked (AHD, M-W.com) don't have it at all. It's just jargon. People don't like jargon, no matter which country they live in. Especially jargon that's used to demand things of people, like this one is.


34. The most annoying Americanism is "a million and a half" when it is clearly one and a half million! A million and a half is 1,000,000.5 where one and a half million is 1,500,000. Gordon Brown, Coventry
If I go somewhere for an hour and a half, I am going for an hour and a half an hour. If a horse wins by a length and a half, it wins by a length and a half a length. On the same analogy, a million and a half is a million and a half a million, rather than a millon and a half of one. If one, for some odd reason, needs to refer to 1,000,000.5, one could say one-million-point-five. [Attempted jokes at the expense of the former Prime Minister deleted.]


35. "Reach out to" when the correct word is "ask". For example: "I will reach out to Kevin and let you know if that timing is convenient". Reach out? Is Kevin stuck in quicksand? Is he teetering on the edge of a cliff? Can't we just ask him? Nerina, London
Really, someone's said this to you in this context? I agree. Obviously the evil doing of the Bell Telephone company. (American cultural education link.)


36. Surely the most irritating is: "You do the Math." Math? It's MATHS. Michael Zealey, London

Not this one again.  Here is the true, muddled story of maths. Short story: it was only maths after it was math. And no, it's not plural.

37. I hate the fact I now have to order a "regular Americano". What ever happened to a medium sized coffee? Marcus Edwards, Hurst Green
Another one that everyone hates because it's just put there by marketing people to fool you. I have seen regular refer to small, medium and large--and that's just in Brighton (England, that is).  And why order an Americano when you could have a strong (BrE) filter coffee? (Yes, I know they're not quite the same, but in the name of patriotism...)

38. My worst horror is expiration, as in "expiration date". Whatever happened to expiry? Christina Vakomies, London
Expiration in the 'ending of something that was meant to last a certain time' sense goes back to the 1500s. First recorded use of expiry is in 1752. So, shouldn't it be Whatever happened to expiration?


39. My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were "Scotch-Irish". This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be "Scots" not "Scotch", which as I pointed out is a drink. James, Somerset
It is completely possible. Scotch-Irish is an American term to refer to a particular immigrant group. It describes a historical group that (AmE) was/(BrE) were in their time referred to (and referring to themselves) by that name. Wikipedia reproduces a number of sources on the early (18th century) use of that name, so I won't do so again here.


40.I am increasingly hearing the phrase "that'll learn you" - when the English (and more correct) version was always "that'll teach you". What a ridiculous phrase! Tabitha, London
This brings us back to the not-recogni{s/z}ing-linguistic-humo(u)r-in-the-other-dialect problem. If you express a 'that'll teach you' message, you're putting yourself above the person you were talking to. If you want to soften that grab for social/moral superiority, you make it a non-standard way of expressing it, in order to humorously put yourself down a (more BrE) peg/(more AmE) notch. To do this in an emphatic way, people who wouldn't usually do so sometimes spell/pronounce this as that'll larn ya.


41. I really hate the phrase: "Where's it at?" This is not more efficient or informative than "where is it?" It just sounds grotesque and is immensely irritating. Adam, London
See the comments thread at this old post: Where I'm at

42. Period instead of full stop. Stuart Oliver, Sunderland
Another case of Americans using a British cast-off. (Now-AmE) period for this .  punctuation mark dates to the 16th century. The first record of (BrE) full stop is from just a few decades later, in 1600. It looks like both terms were introduced around the same time, and a different one won the battle for supremacy in different places.

43. My pet hate is "winningest", used in the context "Michael Schumacher is the winningest driver of all time". I can feel the rage rising even using it here. Gayle, Nottingham
Oh, I could have sworn I'd written about this one before, but it seems I haven't. I haven't much to say about it, except that it fills a gap and demonstrates a willingness to play with the language.


44. My brother now uses the term "season" for a TV series. Hideous. D Henderson, Edinburgh
But I have done this one. The upshot: AmE uses the term season and series for different television-related meanings, but BrE doesn't make that distinction at the lexical (word) level.

45. Having an "issue" instead of a "problem". John, Leicester 
This has been much-maligned in AmE too, but I think it's thrived because it's less negative and confrontational to talk of having an issue with something rather than a problem with it.


46. I hear more and more people pronouncing the letter Z as "zee". Not happy about it! Ross, London
Fair enough, but why has zed come to us from zeta, but beta hasn't turned up in English as bed? (Because it's come from French and they did it that way. But still!) I have two zee-related suspicions: (1) Some BrE speakers prefer zee in the alphabet song because it rhymes better (tee-U-vee/double-u-eks-why-and-zee/now I know my ABCs/next time won't you play with me). (2) Fear of 'zee' is a major reason that Sesame Street is no longer broadcast in most of the UK. Both of those issues (not problems!) are discussed in this old post.


47. To "medal" instead of to win a medal. Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance. Helen, Martock, Somerset
"Americans have an awful habit of turning nouns into verbs" I'm often told. But in this case, the noun already was a verb. Here are the first two and the most recent OED quotations for to medal in the sense 'to decorate or hono(u)r with a medal':

1822    Byron Let. 4 May (1979) IX. 154   He was medalled.
1860    Thackeray Nil nisi Bonum in Roundabout Papers (1899) 174   Irving went home medalled by the King.  
1985    New Yorker 18 Mar. 125/1   He was eulogized‥and was renowned and medalled for his war record.
But the AmE sense that annoys Helen is different, in that the one who gets the medal is the 'agent', rather than the 'patient' in the sentence. For the sense that Lord Byron used, medal must be in the passive in order for the medal-recipient to be the subject of the sentence (as they are in all of the examples, because one wants to put the most relevant person first). In these cases, the agent of the medal(l)ing is the giver of the medal, and if they're in the sentence at all, they go in a 'by' phrase (the King in the 1860 quote). The sports sense 'to win a medal' makes the athlete the agent--the active getter of a medal, rather than the passive recipient of one, and therefore the verb is in the active voice (She medal(l)ed, rather than She was medal(l)ed). It would be inappropriate to say that a soldier 'medalled', as they did not set out to get a medal, a medal was conferred upon them. (Yes, I'm using singular they. You got a problem with that?) The athlete, on the other hand, was (to use an apparently orig. AusE phrase) in it to win it.

While it may seem confusing to have two senses of the verb with different roles attached to the subject in each case, it's not terrifically uncommon. For example, I hurt. Someone hurt me. I was hurt (by someone).  The ice melted. I melted the ice. The ice was melted by me. And so on and so forth.



48. "I got it for free" is a pet hate. You got it "free" not "for free". You don't get something cheap and say you got it "for cheap" do you? Mark Jones, Plymouth
On this logic, Mark, are we to assume that you say I got it expensive?  Maybe you do. I cannot.

But anyhow, this use of for before an adjective is found in AmE in other contexts as well--notably for real; but the range of contexts in which it's found seems to be narrowing. Some of the early OED examples--from just 1887 and 1900--sound very old-fashioned, if not completely odd: a for-true doctor and goin' to railroad him for fair. So, it looks like for free and for real are fossils of an earlier more general use of for+adjective.

49. "Turn that off already". Oh dear. Darren, Munich
If I were to make a list of BrE peeves, I think the list would have to be topped by The Oh dear of Condescension.

Utterance-final already comes to AmE via Yiddish. It's used to mark exasperation, and it does so very well. William Safire, in this old On Language column, quotes Lillian Feinsilver's book Taste of Yiddish (1970), which suggests now as an alternative. But Turn that off, now is a bit ambiguous and certainly doesn't give me the flavo(u)r of that sentence-final already. I'd be more likely to translate it with some  rather impolite words (e.g. Turn that off for ****'s sake. or Turn that off, you ****ing ****). Isn't it beautiful that we don't have to resort to such language?


50. "I could care less" instead of "I couldn't care less" has to be the worst. Opposite meaning of what they're trying to say. Jonathan, Birmingham
Unless they're trying their hand at irony, of course. But Americans couldn't do that, could they? At any rate: old post on could care less and old guest post on irony.



I know I should probably go back and edit this, but it's late, I'm tired and I've accidentally partially published this twice already today. So, I'll post it already.  Let us know what you think...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

anti-Americanismism, part 1

In my last post, I refrained from saying much about the BBC Magazine piece by Matthew Engel on 'Why do some Americanisms annoy people?', pointing readers instead to Mark Liberman/Language Log's analysis of the so-called Americanisms that annoy at least identified by Matthew Engel. Today the BBC website followed up with '50 of your noted Americanisms', and already Geoff Pullum/Language Log, Johnson, Americans Living in London--and others I've yet to hear about, I'm sure--have posted reasoned replies to this offensive piece.

Why am I offended by this piece? I'll tell you why. Because I've paid for it.

The piece is driving a huge number of people to the BBC News website (as Stan Carey has noted on Twitter). As I type this, it is the 'most shared' piece on the site and the seventh most read (on a very big news day). But it is the journalistic equivalent of (orig. & mostly BrE) piss-poor reality television: let's get people to say things that might be controversial, and then we'll edit it into something that will get people arguing about which words to throw off the island. Two American views are printed as sidebars to the article; both, like the material in the article itself, are from readers who sent in comments. If we can call this journalism, it is completely passive journalism. Perhaps next we can have viewers' thoughts about whether it's going to rain tomorrow, rather than paying all those expensive weather forecasters. (Not to say that viewers' thoughts---or their photos of tornadoes---are never welcome on news program(me)s. That's why we have (mostly BrE) vox pops/(AmE) man-on-the-street interviews** and letters to the editor. But putting up a lightly-moderated forum of people's gripes about language does not constitute news or journalism. We get those for free on the web already. We don't need our public broadcaster for that.)

One could understand commercial television or newspapers doing such things--the more viewers they recruit, the more their advertisers pay them. But this is the BBC. This is what I pay a television licen{s/c}e fee for.* I want its online publications to live up to the organi{s/z}ation's charter to 'inform, educate and entertain'. And when they say 'entertain', I'd like it not to be throwing Christians to the lions or dwarf bowling or just letting people air their prejudices and ignorance with no (orig. AmE) reality check.  As Mark Liberman has demonstrated, many of Engel's pet American peeves were not, in fact, Americanisms. Guess what? Some of the contributors to this piece are not much better at distinguishing things that they don't like and things that are American. Geoff Pullum's piece on Language Log makes the case that this outpouring of anti-Americanismism is also anti-Americanism, and I think that you should read his take on that, since he makes some interesting points from an interesting perspective. But I do want to say something about the title.

It's odd, isn't it? Your most noted Americanisms. Does this sound odd to anyone else? It means, according to the introduction to the piece that they are the fifty that were most mentioned in emails to the BBC in reply to Engel's article. Now first, I'd have liked something more than one person's mention of each. Are they presented in order?  Most noted Americanisms. Sounds odd, odd, odd. But it does bear a certain phonic resemblance to a phrase that doesn't sound odd. Lo and behold, if one searches "50 most hated Americanisms", one finds that that's how some people, at least, have remembered the title.

So, a quick tour of the fifty, starting with the first twenty-five and a (orig. & cheifly AmE) rain check on the rest.  Where I've blogged about them, there's a link. (If you want to comment on the previously blogged topics, please could you do it at the original post? They continue to be read and linked to. I'd like for your comment to be where it can do the most good for people who want to know more about that particular expression.)

1. When people ask for something, I often hear: "Can I get a..." It infuriates me. It's not New York. It's not the 90s. You're not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really." Steve, Rossendale, Lancashire
This definitely sounds American to those old enough to remember when it wasn't said in the UK. But this battle is lost--it's pervasive.  Back here I did some wondering about why it sounds odd to BrE ears and not to AmE ones.

2. The next time someone tells you something is the "least worst option", tell them that their most best option is learning grammar. Mike Ayres, Bodmin, Cornwall
I liked Guardian columnist (and British expat in Brooklyn) Oliver Burkeman's response to this on Twitter: 

3. The phrase I've watched seep into the language (especially with broadcasters) is "two-time" and "three-time". Have the words double, triple etc, been totally lost? Grammatically it makes no sense, and is even worse when spoken. My pulse rises every time I hear or see it. Which is not healthy as it's almost every day now. Argh! D Rochelle, Bath
This is originally AmE, but noted by the OED in the Guardian as early as 1960. But are double and triple really equivalent to two-time and three-time? Couldn't the double Wimbledon champion mean that they won two prizes (say, in singles and doubles) in the same year? Double means 'twice as much'; two-time means 'at two times'. Grammatically it makes perfect sense, as it is identical to one-time champion, which seems to be originally BrE.

4. Using 24/7 rather than "24 hours, 7 days a week" or even just plain "all day, every day". Simon Ball, Worcester
I'm sure this one annoys some Americans too. Slang does that. I'm more annoyed that the so-called 24-hour stores here (Asda, the UK arm of Walmart) close late-ish on Saturday, re-open for a few hours on Sunday, close again, then open (on) Monday morning (see example opening times here). Does the phrase 24/7 actually crop up in BrE? (she asked, mischievously).

5. The one I can't stand is "deplane", meaning to disembark an aircraft, used in the phrase "you will be able to deplane momentarily". TykeIntheHague, Den Haag, Holland
This is an airlineism. No one says this but flight attendants and pilots, and then only to annoy you. Yes, you.

6. To "wait on" instead of "wait for" when you're not a waiter - once read a friend's comment about being in a station waiting on a train. For him, the train had yet to arrive - I would have thought rather that it had got stuck at the station with the friend on board. T Balinski, Raglan, New Zealand
Johnson's covered this one, and says:
Yes, to "wait on" also means to be a waiter, but writers from Chaucer to Milton to George Eliot used "to wait on" in various senses including "to observe", "to lie in wait for", "to await" and more.

7. "It is what it is". Pity us. Michael Knapp, Chicago, US
Apparently we're supposed/meant to pity people in Chicago who have to hear American English. Six of the fifty people whose 'noted' Americanisms the BBC has noted are in the US. Another four are in countries other than the UK (two of those are in non-Anglophone countries). One can only imagine that the US ones are expatriates from the UK or elsewhere. Engel and others claim that Americanisms are fine in their place (America), but the problem is when they invade British English. But apparently they're not OK in the US either.

8. Dare I even mention the fanny pack? Lisa, Red Deer, Canada
Tisha at Americans Living in London notes (my link added):
Um, fanny doesn't mean the same in the US as it does in the UK.  After all this is a country that uses the term faggot to describe a pork dish.  A Brit could never get away with saying that in the States!
Not to mention bumming a fag.


9. "Touch base" - it makes me cringe no end. Chris, UK
Yeah, that annoyed a lot of us too.  Google "pet peeve" "touch base", if you'd like a show-and-tell.  Is it a baseball metaphor? That'll be especially peevable in the UK.


10. Is "physicality" a real word? Curtis, US
Johnson again (emphasis added for that obnoxious American effect): "Yes, first noted in a book published in London in 1827."


11. Transportation. What's wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US
What's wrong with transport in California is that it would be a foreign word. And a newfangled Briticism at that.  To quote the OED, transportation was "Much used in 17th c. down to c1660; afterwards gradually given up for transport, prob. to avoid association with penal transportation".


12. The word I hate to hear is "leverage". Pronounced lev-er-ig rather than lee-ver -ig. It seems to pop up in all aspects of work. And its meaning seems to have changed to "value added". Gareth Wilkins, Leicester
The pronunciation difference, with BrE preferring 'ee' where AmE prefers the "short vowel" is found in a range of words, including evolution. I haven't noticed the meaning change Mr Wilkins claims (though value added might need translation for AmE readers: 'something extra included in the price'). It is used a lot in business jargon, and 90% of any country's population hates business jargon. [Need a made-up statistic? I got'em right here!]

13. Does nobody celebrate a birthday anymore, must we all "turn" 12 or 21 or 40? Even the Duke of Edinburgh was universally described as "turning" 90 last month. When did this begin? I quite like the phrase in itself, but it seems to have obliterated all other ways of speaking about birthdays. Michael McAndrew, Swindon
Really, obliterated?  It means something different from celebrate, certainly. Glad you like it. 

14. I caught myself saying "shopping cart" instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I've never lived nor been to the US either. Graham Nicholson, Glasgow
Hey, give our word back!!  (Here's my cart/trolley post.)

15. What kind of word is "gotten"? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington
It's the kind of word that's been in English probably as long as it's been English. (First OED citation, ca. 1380.)  Here's an old post. As I've been heard to say before, if you object to gotten, then it's your duty to object to  forgotten, misbegotten and ill-gotten too.

16. "I'm good" for "I'm well". That'll do for a start. Mike, Bridgend, Wales
I used to take this as an ironic misuse--i.e. being 'incorrect' to give your response a down-home flavo(u)r. If you ever hear me say it, it's ironic. But it's general informal AmE now. (Emphasis on the informal.) An old [and not-quite-relevant! ed.] post on adjectives-as-adverbs.

17. "Bangs" for a fringe of the hair. Philip Hall, Nottingham
Here's an old post.  In AmE bangs and fringe would be somewhat different styles. (Nuance!)

18. Take-out rather than takeaway! Simon Ball, Worcester
Are the Scots still allowed to say carry-out? Old post--the comments are very informative about the regional variations. 

19. I enjoy Americanisms. I suspect even some Americans use them in a tongue-in-cheek manner? "That statement was the height of ridiculosity". Bob, Edinburgh
Oh, Bob! Thank you, Bob! This takes us back to a post called "Language play -- not getting it".

20. "A half hour" instead of "half an hour". EJB, Devon
The OED has citations back to 1420. Needless to say, they're not American.

21. A "heads up". For example, as in a business meeting. Lets do a "heads up" on this issue. I have never been sure of the meaning. R Haworth, Marlborough
Neither am I, in the way Haworth has related it.  To give someone a heads up is to give them a warning. It's informal, figurative. Looking at do a heads up on the web, there's a lot of do a heads up tournament. No idea what that means either. Jargon, or is my AmE too out-of-date?

22. Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished? Chris Capewell, Queens Park, London
A number of BrE speakers commented at an earlier post that they find train station very natural in their dialects. This battle is lost, and one can see why--since BrE has coach station (AmE (long-distance only) bus station--e.g. a Greyhound station) and train station (but not railway station) works on analogy with it.

23. To put a list into alphabetical order is to "alphabetize it" - horrid! Chris Fackrell, York
Do you care to explain this, C Fackrell?  This seems similar to Engel's complaint about 'hospitalize', in that there is some general opposition to using one of English's lovely productive derivational suffixes. Why is this one so bad? And if it's so bad, why do BrE speakers pressuri{z/s}e people to do things where AmE speakers would pressure them?

24. People that say "my bad" after a mistake. I don't know how anything could be as annoying or lazy as that. Simon Williamson, Lymington, Hampshire
Annoys me too. See point about slang, at number 4.  But I don't see how it's any lazier than saying my fault.

25. "Normalcy" instead of "normality" really irritates me. Tom Gabbutt, Huddersfield
 An oldie but a goodie. Here's what the Maven's Word of the Day said about it. For a long time, it was considered non-standard in AmE too, but we've overcome that and it's now nearly twice as common as normality.


Part 2....can now be seen here.


* You probably smell a rat too. The BBC has had its budgets slashed. The people in charge of such things are all co{s/z}y with the people who run a very sleazy news organi{s/z}ation. I wouldn't be surprised if the BBC website puts things up to meet readership targets or some such thing, in hopes that their budgets and services won't be further attacked.

** Thanks to reader 'jb' for noticing/suggesting this difference. In AmE man-on-the-street is about three times more common than man-in-the-street, which is the BrE form.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

milk teeth and baby teeth

Mark Liberman at Language Log has saved you from the rant that this weekend's post was to be. Oh, thank you, Mark! His post from earlier today does what needed to be done about journalist Matthew Engel's BBC piece "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?" (Yes, people.) The Language Log post starts by pointing out that only one of the first five 'Americanisms' cited by Engel is, in fact, American in origin. The only fault I can find with Liberman's piece is that it is not entitled "Why do BBC language features annoy linguists?"*

So, instead of a turgid rant about the BBC's continued knack for employing non-experts** to spout nonsense about language, I give you:

babies!!
kittens!!!
dental maiming!!!!


Today's topic was suggested by American-in-Scotland @dialect and inspired by her (first?) visit to a UK dentist. And, actually, it's rather a simple one. But just to make it more complicated, let me throw in a technical term I've just learn{ed/t}: deciduous teeth. Americans tend to call them baby teeth, and the more common term for them in BrE is milk teethFor those who like numbers, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 100 baby tooth/baby teeth and 18 milk tooth/milk teeth.  The British National Corpus (which is much smaller) has 15 milk tooth/teeth and 3 baby teeth (two of which should actually be Babyteeth the name of an album by Therapy?) and no baby tooth. When I was a child in the US, I only knew milk teeth as a term for kittens' first teeth.

A milk/baby tooth isn't forever, of course, and before it goes it is a loose tooth, but in BrE one also hears wobbly tooth a lot. As far as my Grover is concerned, this is the only term for a loose tooth, since she was first exposed to the concept through the Charlie and Lola episode "I do not ever, never want my wobbly tooth to fall out".  Checking the corpora for loose/wobbly/wiggly tooth, we get 25/1/1 in COCA (AmE) and 3/1/0 in BNC (BrE).

The tooth fairy tradition is alive and well in both the UK and the US. Reading about how much money the tooth fairy tends to leave these days has left me depressed and fearful for a completely spoil(ed/t) generation.

And as a final public service before I go: Parents, if your (orig. AmE) teenager's dentist ever suggests removing a baby/milk tooth in order to "encourage" the permanent tooth to come forward, say "NO", or else your child may spend most of her most awkward years awkwardly trying to hide the big gap where a bicuspid should be. She will have no chance of being invited to (orig. AmE) the prom and you will endanger her respect for medical/dental/parental authority for evermore.
 


* Very occasionally, the Beeb does allow experts on (rather than just famous users of) language to grace its broadcasts.  For example, I was once on a program(me) about Scrabble. It was good fun, and I thought it great that they involved a Scrabble-playing linguist in the production.  But the best part? They spelled my name wrong.

** At one level, we're all experts on the language(s) we speak--in the sense that we use the language expertly. (This is for the most part subconscious knowledge--and science is only a very small way toward(s) understanding that knowledge.) There are a lot of accomplished users of language out there, and that's who the BBC likes to ask for opinions (God help us, not facts!) about language. I would like to point out that I am an accomplished user of time and space (taking up more of it every year!). Therefore, I would like to be considered for a central role in the BBC's next program(me) on physics.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

making suggestions

I'm at the conference of the International Pragmatics Association in Manchester (UK) this week, and I was interested to see that there's a poster in the poster session (which is already posted, though the session's not till tomorrow) on directive speech acts in AmE and BrE. 'Directive speech act' means an utterance that is intended to get someone to do something. Being an impatient sort, I've looked up the author of the paper, Ilka Flöck of Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, and found an earlier paper by her on another aspect of the issue. The PDF is here, if you'd like to read it yourself.

The British (and English people, more specifically) are often stereotyped as being very indirect in their style--that is, implying their meanings rather than saying exactly what they mean. (The stereotypical British use of irony is a classic example of this--saying the opposite of what one means in order to implicate one's true meaning.) Americans, on the other hand, are often stereotyped as being very direct--brash or bossy, even.

So, what happens when people from these cultures make suggestions? For her study, Flöck defines suggestions as follows:
A speech act is understood as a suggestion when the following conditions apply:
- The speaker (S) wants the hearer (H) to consider the action proposed.
- S and H know that H is not obliged to carry out the action proposed by S.
- S believes that the suggestion is in the interest of H.
- S may or may not include herself in the proposed action  (Flöck 2011: 69)
Flöck looked for suggestions in two corpora of spoken English: the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English and the British component of the International Corpus of English. Skipping to the end, she found that:
Apart from modest preferences for one or the other head act or modification strategy, no major differences between the two varieties could be observed. Unlike other speech acts, suggestions might therefore not have a strong potential for intercultural misunderstanding.  (Flöck 2011: 79; emphasis added)
That is, on the whole, the British and Americans do not differ in whether they prefer direct or indirect strategies for suggestions. What Flöck did find were some differences in how the indirect strategies are phrased, with the British modifying their requests more (using 'upgraders' and 'downtoners') and Americans relying more on the 'head' of the suggestion--the unadorned sentence and its verb phrase in particular.

Now, I do not want to claim that I am not bossy. I'm a first-born. I'm a teacher. Of course I'm bossy. But at the same time, I do not perceive myself as being anywhere near as bossy as a certain Englishman thinks I am. And I suspect that this might be because of some of the different preferences for phrasing Flöck noticed.  One difference was in the modal verbs used in suggestions. British speakers used more modals of obligation (should, shall), while Americans tended toward(s) can, but Americans also used more Why don't you...?  (Note: the fact that you say either is not counterevidence to this! Both cultures use all these strategies--but at different rates in the corpora.)

The British-preferred modals of obligation are considered by Flöck to be more direct.  That is, they're communicating the directive meaning: 'I think you should do this'. Can on the other hand, is (arguably--depending on how you like your modal verb analysis) ambiguous between a weak obligatory meaning and a capability meaning: i.e. 'you are able to do this and therefore you have the option to do it'. My question is: might should-preferers perceive can as too ambiguous for use in this context, or find its option-giving meaning to be insincere? Or am I basing too much of my hypothesi{z/s}ing on the fact that my husband thinks I'm bossy?

I can also see that Why don't you... might be perceived as bossy. It has no modal at all. It sounds like it's implying that the other person should have already thought of doing the suggested thing.

And I think (but these kinds of self-reportings are notoriously [BrE] dodgy) that I use can (e.g. Can you do it this way? You can try this.*) a bit and that I use Why don't you a lot more than BH would. And when he either automatically does the suggested thing or takes issue with me being bossy, I sometimes say: Wait a minute! It was just a question/suggestion! 

The British indirectness tends to come from the use of modifiers, such as with understaters like a bit, to begin with, for the moment and downgraders like just, perhaps, at least, maybe, probably. With these markers missing, no wonder British people (for it's probably more than just BH) find me bossy.

Because I'm away from my books and because it's hard to google research on US/UK interactions,** I haven't anything more hard-evidency to offer you about mutual stereotypes of bossiness or about suggestion styles. My suspicion is that Americans are more likely to expect negotiation to follow suggestions, whereas the British are more likely to expect compliance (possibly with a bit of griping about it afterwards--this fits with the British complaint culture: see this or this, for example). 

Flöck's paper here at IPrA compares her corpus results to what people do in the classic pragmatics research tool: the Discourse Completion Task (essentially, a written role-play).  And I'll just say, it looks like the DCT doesn't do very well.  Go Corpus Linguistics!

Before I leave, to the long-suffering Better Half: Happy Anniversary!


* Could is not in Flöck's modal comparison chart. I'm assuming that when she says can, she means can and not can/could, but I might be wrong about that. For me, could is much more natural in suggestions than can, and it's a bit more indirect).
** Because one gets everything on American-Chinese interactions that happen to cite something from the British Journal of Psychology and so on and so forth.

References
Flöck, Ilka (2011) "Suggestions in British and American English. A corpus-linguistic study." Paper presented at the 33rd annual meeting of the German Linguistic Society 2011 [Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft, DGfS], Göttingen, February 2011. 

Flöck, Ilka (2011) "‘Don't tell a great man what to do’: Directive speech acts in American and British English conversations." Poster presented at the 12th International Pragmatics Conference, Manchester, July 2011