Thursday, April 17, 2008

language play--not getting it

It's come up before on this blog that it sometimes happens that people will see an error or non-standardism in English, spoken or written by a speaker of another dialect, and assume that that way of saying/writing is standard in the other dialect. It's a shame, though, when such 'errors' are intentionally non-standard, because then the assumption that it's "just a different dialect" leads the assumer to miss some nuance of the communication. For instance, sometimes I'll say to Better Half, Ya done good. By putting it into a non-standard dialect (and not a dialect that I speak), I'm trying to add a bit of light-hearted affection to the compliment--something that's not communicated by You did well. Better Half knows enough about AmE to get this, but if I said it to a student, they might assume that that's part of the standard dialect that I usually speak and not get that I was trying to build rapport.

Anyhow, a nice example of this 'assuming it's standard' behavio(u)r came up on recently on the (AmE) copy-/(BrE)sub-editors' blog The Engine Room. There, blogger JD admitted to having believed until recently that Americans spell cemetery "sematary" because of the spelling in the title of the Stephen King book, Pet Sematary. In the book, one is supposed to understand that it's misspelt because children wrote the "cemetery's" sign.

That reminds me of being informed by BrE speakers that "thru is the American spelling of through". No, it's not. It's an abbreviated spelling form that is used mainly on signs (or painted on a road surface), and thus it's become the typical way of spelling it in drive-thru. You won't see thru replacing through in American newspaper articles (though it might be handy for an occasional headline--but I cannot recall seeing it in any) or novels--and you'd better not use it in essays for school/college/university.

Do you have any stories of misunderstood intentions due to "it must be the way they say it in American/British English" assumptions?

60 comments:

Leanna Jones said...

I love when something I read in this blog makes me think of an exact conversation I've had with my husband, in-laws, or friends! I am American (from New Jersey) and have been living in North East Wales for almost 2 years. I've known my husband (who is Welsh) for 6 years, so over that time we've had quite a few of these conversations. He also lived in Toronto for 18 months so we both make these observations, although I seem to find them more fascinating than he does!

Anyway...my first time posting after reading for about a year now.

Just wanted to add that I've had conversations with British people who have assumed that "nite" and "lite" are also generally the American spellings of night and light.

I feel like there are more than that, but can't think at the moment.

On a sort of related note, I'm also forever doubting myself when I come up against misspellings which I at first think, "oh maybe that's an accepted British spelling...wait I'm sure it's just wrong...wait, is it?!", such as today when I found the word "calender" in a document and had to ask a colleague whether it was indeed spelled calendar in the UK as well as I was sure it was!

Leanna

JohnB said...

Not a misunderstanding, as such, but something that still makes me squirm a bit (after nearly 5 years of marriage) every time my wife uses it.

"What weather are they calling for at the weekend?"

To me 'Calling for' means requesting rather than forecasting.

bill said...

This makes me wonder a bit about a bit in Eddie Izzard's Dress to Kill where he talks about the differences between the languages (you say herb where we say Herb, because there's a F***ing H in it.) But he also mentions Thru vs. Through, and I always thought he was just being funny with it, but now I wonder if he really thought that Through was spelled Thru.

I don't know if it is the same thing, but I was watching a comedian once (American) who was talking about words and was looking at the fact that a word spelled NUMB should not rhyme with a word spelled SOME.
But in that, he said that POEM rhymes with HOME...and I simply could'nt understand what he was talking about, becasue to my American accent, they sound nothing alike...in fact, one has 2 syllables and the other has 1.
So that may be what you are talking about...but if not...well...I guess, enjoy the anecdote anyway.

jm said...

Only tangentially related, but in case you missed it, you'd enjoy Jason Kottke's post about somebody else's post about saying things incorrectly on purpose, for fun.

Doug Sundseth said...

My intuition is that the single-syllable pronunciation of "poem" is a regional variation. And on looking up the word in MW10C, I see that that pronunciation is listed before the "also".

At this point, I am unsure how I actually pronounce the word; all I'm sure of is that it has two syllables in my head. 8-)

(AmE, third culture kid)

David said...

As the American child of a Scottish ex-pat, I had many, many revelations about the difference between Glaswegian English and British English the first time I went south of Hadrian's Wall.

Kim said...

Growing up, I had a classmate move from Louisiana to NJ (where I lived) and she said the word "poem" in 1 syllable, but with a definite "oi" sound - kind of rhyming with "coin" but with an m at the end.

Eve said...

For quite a long time, I assumed that "nucular" was the standard Texan pronunciation of "nuclear".

Meg said...

On Lynn's question of using the non-standard for humor, I have often wondered whether we miss a lot in literature in archaic dialects, such as Shakespeare, or translations of dead languages, such as ancient Greek. Because we don't know the nuances of how particular phrases sounded to them (slangy? stuffy? incorrect? hip?) I suspect we're missing a lot of humor, and therefore think these authors were a lot more serious-minded than they possibly were.

mollymooly said...

As an Irish child reading British comics, I imagined the Brits carefully pronouncing the r in such interjections as "er...", "erm..." and (popular in the Beano) "erk!"

Jennywenny said...

I could be wrong, but I could swear that a brummie would be happy to say 'yow done good'. But then we brummies never make any sense! I've lost the accent mostly but I do regress after a couple of drinks!

lynneguist said...

mollymooly--the 'er'/'erm' issue is on my list for blogging soonish!

Lance said...

For over 40 years, the Chicago Tribune tried to kickstart spelling reform in the US by using "simplified" spellings like tho, altho and thru. They finally gave up in 1975.

There's an interesting account of the paper's misguided efforts here.

Joe said...

As an American, I found the word "misspelt" to be very off-putting. I always spell it "misspelled". In fact, my spell-checker marks it as an error.

biochemist said...

I used to know a Canadian who referred to 'rod iron' and it is written like this in hardware catalogues - it seems to be a heard version of 'wrought iron' and of course it makes sense because one uses rods of iron...

I know that the past tenses of many verbs differ between AmE and BrE (dove/dived, knit/knitted etc) but one that I first encountered as a 'cute' word - snuck, as in 'we snuck past grandma' - now seems to have been accepted in BrE and AmE in just the way you describe. I think it sounds more 'sneaky' than the word 'sneaked', which I still use myself in BrE.

lynneguist said...

Joe--the 'misspelt' thing comes up often in the comments, as I don't mark it as BrE because it is an alternate spelling in AmE, and I used it before I moved here--but mostly because I lazy and it would take too much conscious efforts to find all the 'lt's on the blog and mark them!

Biochemist--the 'rod iron' example is an example of an 'eggcorn'--Google 'eggcorn database' for more info!

Simon said...

Let me add my voice to the crowd - I thought the standardised spelling for through in AmE was thru. Shows you how much of my understanding of America is filtered through/thru McDonald's...

Anonymous said...

A couple of wee points from a BrE viewpoint -

The Chicago Tribune article mentions the extraneous letter in (inter alia) "solder" and in my version of BrE at least there aren't any extraneities...

Many, many years ago - when I was a mainframe computer programmer - the word "THRU" was used in the programming language COBOL in the AmE sense. This usage was not common knowledge. The person that taught me pronounced it like (BrE) "thorough" without the first schwa...

Janet said...

John and I remembered an example for you just a few minutes ago.

He's always correcting me when I use the term "roommate" in the American sense -- as in people who share a house, apartment, or dorm room. John says that in Britain, unless you actually share a room (i.e. the bed) with somebody, you're not a "roommate" but are a "flatmate" or "housemate".

This came up because of the time period he shared a flat in London with several young women, and I described one of them to somebody as being "John's ex-roommate", much to their displeasure!

Janet

Dr. Tom Roche said...

Spelling reform efforts have had a long pedigree here in the US, whereas I suspect conservativish spellings are rather more prized in the Mother Country? Sooner rather than later, indeed, methinks one may well find such alternates as 'thru' given sanction here by newspapers, NY publishing firms, dictionaries, etc., which all of a sudden can pronounce from on high, as it were, that a change in language, whether in vocabulary or in grammar, is now copesthetic.

Howard said...

One misconception I come across frequently, from both sides of the Atlantic, is that we Brits spell '-ize' words '-ise', thus 'recognise' for 'recognize', for example.

The actual truth is that both styles of spelling are used in BrE. I personally use the '-ize' style, because that was the style of my alma mater, but I have had friends complain that it's 'American'. In answer to this challenge I ask them to take down about ten British-published books from their shelves, and see how many in fact use the '-ize' spelling. They are usually quite surprised!

(One of the difficulties of the '-ize' style is that you have to remember which words do not take '-ize' in any circumstance: the word I used at the end of my previous paragraph is one such.)

As the folk at the OED say, "The form -ize has been used in English since the 16th century; although it is used in American English, it is not an Americanism." (COED, 11th ed.) And if those guys don't know what they're talking about, who does?

Anjodjuna said...

I'm curious about ax/axe. I think I always assumed 'ax' fell in the 'thru' category, but now I'm thinking what if it's actually more widespread...

lynneguist said...

I must say, we're getting rather far from the point (as I intended it, at least!), which is 'missed additional information' in cross-dialectal communication, rather than 'things that surprised me in another dialect'!

I'll admit though, that the extra bit communicated by 'thru' isn't extremely interesting...it's just communicating 'this is written in the "signage register"'.

JohnB said...

*Grin* I suppose if we are missing the 'extra information' - we won't actually realise that we are missing it ....

I shall have to check with my wife, to see what American 'extras' I am missing out on.

Hmmm.....

lynneguist said...

I was looking for those "Aha!" moments when you realize that you, or someone you're talking with, missed the info...

Howard said...

Ah! I apologize. I mistook the purpose of this topic, and thought it to be about misapprehensions about the other dialect.

It's a tough assignment! As johnb suggests, it's like trying to discover Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns'.

JohnB said...

However, I suspect those Aha! moments are fairly few anyway. Extra information of that type is rarely just conveyed verbally - there will be body language that gives things away.

I also suspect that they only happen fairly early in a relationship as well - so in my case all those Aha! moments have been swrept away by five years of .. err .. wedded bliss!

mollymooly said...

I suspect the common equation of US "French fries" with UK "chips" is a bit of a misconception; I think they're nearest-equivalents rather different-names-for-the-same-thing. But then, I only know "fries" from McDonalds and its clones, so I don't know the full semantic range the term covers in its native environment. Perhaps the ranges of the two terms have a good deal of overlap, albeit with different core Ideal Forms.

lynneguist said...

OK, it must've been really unclear what I was intending in my request for stories...as the theme was supposed to be 'using non-standard forms to communicate something extra and not having that intentional non-standard use recogni{s/z}ed as being non-standard and thus an aspect of the communication fails.' That's what I thought I was blogging about!

Carry on as you like, I'll try not to interfere. :-/

mollymooly said...

Once I started a sentence with "I reckon..." and my American friend laughed, assuming I was imitating a grizzled 1890s prospector. In fact I was just talking normal. That's the opposite of what you meant (i.e. standard misinterpreted as nonstandard) but it's the best I can offer you.

lynneguist said...

Ah, yes, reckon...an oldie but a goodie.

Janet said...

Most of us may have been off-topic (as you intended the original topic), but the comments have been quite interesting anyway. (And I mean "quite" in the American-English way, not in the British-English way!)

Janet

ndolinger said...

When I first began to have telphone conversations with a British business associate (I'm an East Coast Yank), I would be somewhat nonplussed when we both agreed to do something I thought was rather mundane, and he responded "brilliant!". Later it was explained that this was something of an emphatic "OK", not the rousing huzzah or sarcastic put-down I thought it might be.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Brit (Welsh), living in Mid-Western USA. As a result I'm forever being asked to say a phrase "Like that guy in that film (you know the one)" because of course being British I can naturally talk like any other British person perfectly [/Sarcasm].

Once, a while back, a friend had asked me to say "Shaken not stirred", which of course I did, in my lame Sean Connery voice. I then continued using the very bad Connery while we went for lunch in an effort to irritate him. At the end of the meal the server/waitress presented us our bill and proclaimed "I'm sure you get this all the time, but do you know you sound just like Sean Connery?"

Anonymous said...

I'm still chuckling over the Stephen Fry story about his BrE pronunciation of asthma not being understood in the US (East coast drugstore? can't remember). After umpteen tos and fros the shop assistant finally realises what he's talking about. "OOh - you mean azma!" (I think he's thinking this is pretty gormless.)

Apus said...

One of the weirdest examples of the way UK/US usage can cause confusion dates back to the Korean War. A British unit was on the point of being overrun but support was slow in coming because when asked for a situation report an English colonel told an American General that "things are a trifle sticky".

Sometimes that legendary English under-statement really isn't appropriate...

biochemist said...

Oh crumbs (BrE exclamation)!
Never say 'thanks a lot!' to an American - it is a hugely sarcastic insult - whereas in the UK you have to load the intonation to make it anything other than a fulsome thanks. I have caused offence several times through this phrase...
An American colleague also told me that 'sorry about that' also always means the opposite, but I have no direct experience.

rpmason said...

My sister and I, both Americans, were taking pictures in Trafalgar Square. Another vacationer asked me to use his camera to take his group’s picture. He thanked me and I replied with a Midwestern twang, "You betcha!" He tilted his head a bit and asked, "You would like to wager?" I smiled broadly and said, "No. You’re welcome."

rpmason said...

biochemist, 'Thanks a lot' and 'sorry about that' both mean what they say in the US, too. Unless, as you say, they're loaded with intonation.

lynneguist said...

I think biochemist is right, that it does not take much, intonationally speaking, to make "thanks a lot" sound sarcastic in English. Respond to an email with "Thanks a lot!" and your recipient may well take it as sarcastic (and that has no intonation at all!). But that would not happen so much with "thank you!" or "thanks so much!"

mollymooly said...

The British attribute to the Americans an inability to understand irony. The recent comments would suggest the opposite. Perhaps Americans make more use of understated sarcasm, or ironic fixed expressions -- a Yiddish influence? My impression is that British irony is more self-deprecating and American irony more, well, other-deprecating...

lynneguist said...

see back here for more on humo(u)r/irony.

Bill said...

While this is probably the wrong post to say this, I have often had a theory about the British view that we don't "get" irony...

We get irony, we just don't particularly find it funny. We realize the humorous connotations that the irony suggests, but don't won't usually laugh out loud at it. And when it comes down to it, laughter is the true indicator of what an American finds funny.

(Sorry Lynne, I seem to just seem to send this thread down all the wrong paths...)

Expatmum said...

Just had to add this story. My American husband's name is Mark. When my daughter was a toddler, she had a very English accent (because of me). One day at nursery school, daddy was the helper and the teacher was trying to catch his attention by saying his name. He obviously didn't hear her, and finally our little one went over to the teacher and said, "It's not Marrk, (American pronunciation), it's Maahk, (English version.)

Roger Green said...

I tried to ask my wife, who is an English as a Second Language teacher in NY, US, but I don't think I asked her correctly. She ddid note that sometimes her kids don't think a word with a more inappropriate meaning is correct. e.g., "She had drunk her milk." "Drunk?" is so tied to inebriation that it can'
t be right.

It occurred to me that song lyrics ("Ain't She Sweet") might be the source of some confusion "in this ever-changing world in which we live in" ("Live and Let Die").

Dan Puckett said...

This is, I think, sort of on point.

My freshman English class at my Texas high school had to read William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," and for some reason, "Sucks to your asthmar!" struck a chord in several boys, who would shout it at each other, thinking Golding meant for the last word to be pronounced as we would say "azz-marr," with an American R at the end.

It didn't occur to me till much later than he must have intended a long ahh at the end. (He did, right?)

lynneguist said...

He was probably indicating an 'r' there. It's known as an 'intrusive r', and it's found in many dialects that don't have the post-vocalic (after-vowel) 'r', like standard Southern British English. People with this kind of dialect say (very approximately!) 'idear' for 'idea' but 'cah' for 'car', for instance.

here is the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon.

So, yes, this probably is on-topic as Golding's intention got away from you!

Dan Puckett said...

Lynne,

Thanks very much! I'm sure you know a lot more about it than I do, but I have a question about the intrusive R: I've heard it, and the Wikipedia article discusses it, in the context of a word ending in a vowel (such as a schwa) followed by a word beginning with a vowel.

But in "Lord of the Flies," as I remember it, "Sucks to your asthmar" either ends the utterance or is followed by a name (Piggy, maybe?) -- in other words, it is not followed by a word starting with a vowel.

So my question is: Does an intrusive R occur in arhotic dialects even when the next word starts with a consonant -- or there is no next word? In other words, would someone say something like, "I have no idear!"?

lynneguist said...

Just asked Better Half, who produces audio literature guides for students and therefore knows about such stuff, and he says it's said by someone who is mocking Piggy's pronunciation. So, it's there to indicate a regional or class difference (BH remembers Piggy as being from Derby) that's being mocked. When BH says the line, it's with a very long final vowel with an 'r'-ish quality. So, presumably the boys mocking him speak with a posher accent with a shorter vowel there.

flatlander said...

When I (AmE) saw A Clockwork Orange I didn't understand half the dialogue and chalked it up to accent and dialect. Later I learned that a great deal of the main character's vocabulary was made up by Anthony Burgess for effect. Don't know how much of the slang made its way into everyday usage.

Dan Puckett said...

Lynne,

Thank you (and Better Half) so much! That answers something that has puzzled me since the late 1960s.

TChem said...

It's not *quite* the same thing because I don't know what the "right" answer is, but often if I'm watching a show made in the UK, and someone uses language in a non-standard way that gets laughs, I can't quite figure out where the joke is. I might be able to tell that they're putting on an accent that's not their usual one. But a phrase that's unfamiliar to me could be indicative of someone from wherever the accent's from, OR it's a class indicator consistent with the accent, OR it could be that the phrase is completely at odds with the accent, and that's why it's funny.

Of course I can't think of an example right now, but I suppose it'd be similar to saying "Howdy y'all" (non-USians: that's a Southern US thing) in a Southern accent, or in my generic Northeastern accent. The first might be funny because it's playing into the stereotype (that's a bit too harsh of a word for what I'm talking about, but you get the idea). Meanwhile, the second could be funny by subverting the expectation.

Usually it's funny to an American ear just because it's an odd phrase, but I can usually tell there's a bit of something missing.

c in nyc said...

My better half and I (both AmE) spend too much time reading blogs and have encountered "innit" written by BrEs at the end of their sentences. We understand it's slang for "isn't it", but my SO thinks it's just casual BrE, but I believe it's possibly a sarcastic nod against the lower socio-economic group called chavs. Any thoughts?

lynneguist said...

Yes, I've heard/seen innit used with the proverbial nod and wink--not just to indicate class, but also 'youf' (which is used with a nod/wink to mean 'youth').

Shannon said...

I realise this is months later, but just now I was relating a story that happened a few years ago.

I'm an American expat in the UK and a few years ago I was at a conference by the sea. Some other conference goers invited me to go paddling. I had no intention of going paddling, but went along where I learned that paddling meant wading in the water, not paddling a small boat w/ an oar.

David Winters said...

The debate on the word "poem" (one syllable or two) and different UK regional dialects reminds me of the old joke about the London women who dropped into a Newcastle hairdressers while on holiday to get a "perm".
"Can I have a perm here," she asked.
"Certainly maam, how about 'I wandered lonely as a clood...."

Zhoen said...

Thing is, with US accents, we are often making fun of each other, and the Br/E folks think we all talk the same way. So, if I mix in a Texas drawl y'all, a L00siana slur, a Valleygirl gag, a bit of Minnesotan donchaknow, and round off with a Boston allset, wickedpisser, that poor Brit is going to be downright con-fuuused.

But then, he's just said Hooston, instead of Hyouston, so I'm thinking he's pretty slow anyways.

(How's that for on topic?)

Mister Bixby said...

To Bill (Months and months later): The comedian is Gallagher, who's from Florida. It's part of this bit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDFQXxWIyvQ

Irene said...

Sometimes in my own speech, I'll adopt a word or phrase that's normally outside of my register in order to convey a certain feeling with it. I have a hunch that the subtext would not always be readily understood by someone who wasn't American. Some examples:

If I call someone 'girl,' I'm usually adding a bit of sass. I might say 'Girl, you fine!' to emphasize in a playful way that a woman looks sexy [note: this is not probably acceptable for a guy to say, unless it's to his wife or girlfriend.] Or if I say, "You go, girl!" then I'm adding a bit of feistiness to my encouragement. Because I'm pulling on African American Vernacular English, I don't know if that subtext would be understood by a non-American.

In my dialect of AmE, the verb 'to learn' can't take a person as a direct object. In certain regional dialects, however, it can. If I adopt that and say something like, "I'm gonna learn him. I'm gonna learn him reeal good," then I mean I'm going to teach him a lesson, probably involving violence. I get the mental image of a rural white man with a belt or a club or something. The adoption of the different register also means I'm joking and don't really mean it.

On the other end of the class spectrum, if I use 'an' in front of a noun that begins with an 'h' (an history, for example), I give off an aura of pretentiousness. Is that something a Brit would pick up on? I don't know.

safcforme said...

We can't even have our own language now! To us it's simply, English. Why Americans insist on calling it 'British English' annoys me greatly.
We're only a small island so it's no wonder we all speak the same language, that doesn't mean WE have to differentiate it by calling british english. No! it's English... PERIOD lol