Saturday, January 31, 2009


How to choose among the dozens and dozens of unfulfilled requests? I just clicked blindly in my inbox and found American ex-pat Liz being driven crazy/mad (in 2007!) by her British colleagues spelling window cill rather than sill. Liz works in architecture, so perhaps the UK specialists use cill more than sill, but I've found little evidence of it elsewhere as a preferred spelling. The OED has no entry for cill--and just mentions it as a historical/alternative spelling of sill, but the Oxford-published A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture does list cill first. Searching UK websites, hits for window sill outnumber window cill by more than three to one. So, while one sees cill more often in BrE than in AmE (where, like Liz, I've never seen it), it seems to be a minority spelling. (Historically, it's been spelled/spelt sell and cell too. The earliest use for the 'window-part' sense in the OED is from 1428 and has the spelling sill.)

Since we're discussing windows, let's talk (BrE) double-glazing--i.e. having two panes of glass in a window in order to reduce noise and loss of heat. The AmE equivalent would be double-paned windows, but the AmE term is much less commonly heard term than its BrE equivalent since double-glazed/paned windows don't offer the same level of home improvement in the US as in the UK. I've never lived in a house in the US (I've lost count of how many) that didn't have windows that are structured to have two layers, and I've never lived in a house in the UK (I've lived in four) that had more than one layer of glass in a very (BrE) draughty/(AmE) drafty frame. But this is not to say that most American houses have double-paned/glazed windows--far from it. Instead, they have a window frame with two tracks, with a window permanently in the inner track and the option of a mesh (AmE and AusE) screen or a storm window (i.e. of glass or similar material) for the outer track. In the part of the country I'm from, where it's very, very cold in winter and very, very hot in summer, a spring ritual is to (AmE or BrE) swap/(BrE) swop the storm windows for screens, with a predictable reversal of ritual in the fall/autumn.

Incidentally, when I'm asked what (besides people) I miss about the US, window screens are in the top three. One cannot enjoy a breezy warm evening in England without sharing it with every moth, wasp and mosquito in the neighbo(u)rhood. (The other two in the top three, since I expect you'll ask, are electrical outlets in bathrooms and butter wrappers that are marked with measurements, for easy baking. Electrical outlets are definitely number one--the other two change position with the seasons.)

And as long as we're discussing materials that you can look through, the plastic stuff is called perspex (or Perspex) in BrE and plexiglass (or Plexiglas--or some other combination of capitalization and esses) in AmE. Both of these are originally proprietary names--and another AmE proprietary name for this kind of stuff is Lucite. (Though I'd use Lucite when it's a thicker, less flexible piece--such as in a paperweight or the like.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009


John Wells sent me a really concise request (well, I'm reading the request into it):
AmE I should have never done it = BrE I should never have done it
- I don't think you've discussed this one, have you?
No, I've not/I haven't discussed it, but John Algeo has in his book British or American English?
Adverbs of frequency (generally, never, usually), like those of probability, tend to occur in medial position, after the first auxiliary, if there is one. However, with these also American has a higher tolerance for placement before the first auxiliary than does British: She usually is at work from nine to five versus She is usually at work from nine to five.
Concise response!

I'd feel a bit bad about such a short post, though, so here's another never fact. Algeo lists a "distinctively British" sense of never: 'not by any means'. He gives an example from a David Lodge novel (I hear the protagonist of the latest is a linguist...): "You're never Vic Wilcox's shadow?"

A little snooping on the internet brings up an abstract for a 2008 paper by David Willis (or by Anne Breitbarth, Christopher Lucas and David Willis) that comments a bit more on this:

There are a number of contexts in Present-Day English where never marks sentential negation rather than negation quantified over time:

(1) I never stole your wallet this morning.
(2) a. You’re never her mother. b. That’s never a penalty.
In (1), unavailable in standard English but widespread in nonstandard varieties of British English, never conveys pure, but emphatic, negation in the past. In (2), possible even for many speakers who reject (1), it conveys a pragmatic meaning beyond pure negation: (2a) can be paraphrased as ‘There is no reasoning by which I can reach the conclusion that you are her mother.’ (quantification over reasons rather than time). In such cases, an inference of surprise, as in (2a), or disbelief, as in (2b), may be made.

We've already looked at special BrE use of never mind, so click the link to see more on that.

So there you go. A post with no self-revelatory anecdotes or gratuitous pictures of baby and with perhaps the lowest proportion of my own words ever! I always tell my students that if they quote their sources rather than paraphrasing in their own words (and citing the source, of course!), then they've missed out on the opportunity to demonstrate to me that they actually understood what they quoted. Oh well/never mind, I hope you'll excuse me from that demonstration--it's time for bed. And I may have fit in an anecdote or self-revelation after all.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Happy New Year

It's been a while... but here I am to wish you Happy New Year!
But how do you say it? Biochemist writes to ask:
Why do Americans put the emphasis on New - as in: 'enjoy the NOO year holiday' or 'What are you doing at Nooyers?'
Brits refer to the New Year evenly emphasised: 'I'll see you next term, in the new year....' 'Did you have a good time at Christmas and New Year?' and so on.
The 'noo' versus 'new' issue is one that I've discussed before, but the stress difference took me a while to appreciate. I said it to myself a few times and didn't hear the difference Biochemist described. Coming back to it a half-day later, I did hear the difference in my own speech--but it does underscore the point that I'm losing it, dialectally speaking.

At any rate, Biochemist asks why, and of course, the answer is: Americans say it their way because it's what they hear from other Americans, and the British say it that way because it's what they hear from other Brits. One might hope that it's part of a general rule for how to pronounce compound nouns and that the rule differs in the US and the UK, but to my knowledge no one's discovered such a rule. (Some of you may be wondering why I keep calling New Year a compound when it's two words. It may be two words in spelling, but we use it as one word--and so it is pronounced with compound stress of some sort, rather than in the way that we would pronounce new year as a phrase made of adjective + noun, in which case the stress would usually be on the noun.) Here's a bit from the abstract for a research project headed by Sabine Arndt-Lappe and Ingo Plag at Universität Siegen:
It is generally assumed that compounds in English are stressed on the left-hand member (e.g. bláckboard, wátchmaker). However, there is a considerable amount of variation in stress assignment (e.g. apricot crúmble, Penny Láne, Tory léader) that is unaccounted for in the literature. [...] It turned out that, although making correct predictions for parts of the data, none of the structural and semantic mechanisms proposed in the literature works in a categorical fashion, and that probabilistic and analogical models are more successful in their predictions than traditional rule-based ones.
In other words, English compound stress is irregular. And where there are irregularities (or really complex regularities with different options for applying them), there's the opportunity for cross-Atlantic variability. You could say here that AmE uses the more 'typical' compound stress and BrE is doing something a little funny--if it is your wont to point out ways in which AmE makes more 'sense'. While it's probably wrong to say that one language variety makes more sense than another, it's an awful lot of fun to make that claim when you're an American living in the UK, dealing with condescension about your language on a regular basis. In any case, perhaps Arndt-Lappe and Plag or others will find something to answer Biochemist's question, but it's going to take some digging. Good luck to them! (And thanks to my colleague, Herr Dr Phonologist, for pointing me in the direction of their work.)

This wasn't my first New Year query--the last one has been sitting in my inbox since two New Years ago. It came from Justin, who's probably given up looking for answers to his questions on my blog:
what are Americans meaning when they say "Happy New Year's"? (I'm guessing at the apostrophe.) Is this "Happy New Year's Day" or is there something more interesting going on here?
First, we have to note that Happy New Year is a common expression in AmE--the possessive variation is not the only AmE version. Happy New Year's --with or without an apostrophe-- gets 9.7m Google hits, as opposed to 90.7 for Happy New Year. Of those with the 's, 97,000 are Happy New Year's Day, 678,000 are Happy New Year's Eve. My intuition is that Happy New Year's can be used to mean either of these--or both simultaneously. In other words, we might be using it in order to be vague about which bit of the holiday we're wishing you well for, since it spans two days--or, at least, an evening and a day. Of course, the version without the 's seems to wish people well for the year to follow, not just the holiday itself.

Thanks for coming back to read after my month-plus holiday from blogging. It seems perverse to call it a holiday since it was full of hard labo(u)r--a different kind from last year's. (Not that I went through a hard labo(u)r last year...but this time I was absent for the birth of a book, rather than a baby.) My schedule continues to be relentless, with deadlines smacking me in the face (I wish that they'd whoosh by me like they did for Douglas Adams, but mine are set on a collision course) and a one-year-old whose remaining moments of babydom I am savo(u)ring. So, I'll continue to aim, as I did last year, for a post a week (I may fail) and ask for your patience in waiting for me to respond to your e-mails. Happy New Year!