Friday, February 26, 2010

nimrods and other idiots

Tim L wrote (a long time ago) to ask about nimrod:
Have you stumbled across the difference in meanings of the word "nimrod" in American and other Englishes?  It was a surprise to me to learn that it meant something other than dimwit, and a bigger surprise to learn that it meant dimwit only in American English.  The history is mysterious
       http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nimrod
though the Bugs Bunny explanation is widely touted on the 'net.
Nimrod, as you may know, is the name of a character in Genesis--Noah's great-grandson, and based on that it can be used to refer to 'a great hunter'.  But like many Americans, I knew it first as a word for an idiot, or as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, 'A person regarded as silly, foolish, or stupid.'  It's the kind of thing that would make one giggle if one heard it in Sunday School.  I was also unduly amused when I discovered that there's a Biblical personage named Dorcas--because of the name's similarity with the American slang term dork which these days means something very much like nimrod, but has also been used to mean 'penis'.

So, coming from an American perspective, it's surprising and strange to find that in the UK it's best known as a type of military (BrE) aeroplane/(AmE) airplane.  It sounds like having a plane named (AmE) doofus or (BrE) der-brain or (BrE) div or (particularly northern BrE) numpty.  So, speaking of "Nimrod accidents" will probably bring up different pictures in the minds of British or American listeners.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

conformity and date-writing

Here's a guest post from my lovely friend, psychologist Julie Coultas, who's been seen on this blog before in the guise of 'Maverick'.  I hope you enjoy it too!

Vive la différence! As a research psychologist, I welcome the difference between BrE and AmE. Here is one of the reasons why. An American student from the University California at Santa Barbara (SB from now on) came over to work with me last year, as she wanted to extend some conformity research that I had been doing. I run experiments to find out when and how people copy each other. Why people copy each other is another matter! Many years ago one of my experiments manipulated how people wrote the date, and we discovered that people will copy the manner in which other people write the date (e.g. change from 14/5/09 to 14th May 2009). A trivial behavio(u)r you might remark – but it is a strong indicator that when we are aware that our behavio(u)r is different to the majority we often change it to fit in with the ‘group’. In my earlier experiments we found that we could get people to change from the rare behavio(u)r (14th May 2009) to the social norm (14/5/09) more easily. It was almost as if people reali{s/z}e when their behavio(u)r is not the social norm.

After lengthy discussions with SB about how we could set up an experiment to look at how much people conform, we decided to manipulate an essential difference between BrE and AmE – yes, the manner in which we write the date. Americans write the date May 14th 2009 and British write the date 14th May 2009. Now, I don’t want to get into discussion about which is the ‘correct’ way to write the date but it does seem intuitively more simple to put the day before the month as this way it is in order of increasing size of time period. Of course, I am influenced by the BrE social norm! I want to be part of my cultural group.

At the time that we were planning our experimental study, 400 American students had arrived on our British campus for 8 weeks of study. We decided to see whether we could get American students to write the date in the British manner. We manipulated the date on two forms that the students were given when they took part in our experiment. We told them that the study was about architecture and creativity and asked them to build marshmallow and (AmE) toothpick/(BrE) cocktail stick towers in a given amount of time. At the start of the experiment, they signed a consent form that had room for one signature and, importantly for this study, the date. That way we could see how the American students usually wrote the date. Then when they had built their marshmallow towers they had to sign another form in order to be entered for a prize (BrE) draw/(AmE) drawing. This form had nine forged signatures, American email addresses and dates. We manipulated these dates so that a proportion were BrE (14th May 2009) and a proportion were AmE (May 14th 2009). We did not use any numerical dates (14/5/09) as it could become confusing for the participants.

Now the question is – can we get people to change the way that they write the date? In this particular case, can we get people to change their social norm? Well, as in many psychology experiments, there was that additional variable that changed the outcome of the whole experiment! By the time we had finished planning the experiment, the American students had been in the UK for two to three weeks. A large number of students had not been outside the USA before arriving on the British campus and so were adjusting to cultural differences. In one of the classes that these students attended, a register where they wrote their name and the date, illustrated a behavio(u)ral change across the first few weeks. In the first 2 weeks, all the students wrote AmE date, in the third week, 22% were writing BrE and by week 7, 88% were writing BrE. So even without our experimental manipulation, American students were being influenced by the social norm.

Working on this study with SB (an American student) over a period of 8 weeks gave us many opportunities to remark on cultural differences. For instance, we bought (orig. AmE) cookies and drinks as an incentive for these students to take part in the study. I was strictly instructed by SB in the type of cookies and (BrE) crisps/(AmE) chips to buy – they had to be familiar to the students otherwise they would not be interested. We almost had a breakdown in communication when SB saw the (BrE) sell-by date on one of the packs of cookies! If we write the date differently, we also read it differently. We always have to be calculating is it the 7/5 or 5/7? Things like that can make a difference when buying goods or arriving on the right day for a meeting.

Finally, let me describe one finding from our study that is not related to AmE and BrE date signing. In a previous study we found that people were more likely to change from 14th May to 14/5 than from 14/5 to 14th May. You could almost argue that 14/5 is the social norm in the UK. Many people would counter that it depends on the situation in which they are writing the date. Despite these considerations, we can state quite categorically that people do change the way that they write the date dependent on how many other people write it in a certain way. In the study with the American students, SB and I found that they changed from 14/5/09 to 14th May 2009 (from the numerical to the analogical) far more than in my previous study. We call this our ‘stranger in a strange land’ phenomenon. These students were out of their comfort zone and were more likely to copy the majority behavio(u)r to fit in with the group. Or maybe American students are more conformist than British students?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

take-outs and take-aways

I've settled into Twitter by attempting a "Difference of the Day" each day, as well as passing on other (BrE) titbits/(AmE) tidbits of possible dialectal and cross-cultural interest.  There's only so much you can do in 140 characters, so most of the "differences" are over-simplified, as my Twitter followers and Facebook friends are happy to point out.  Yesterday's tweet inspired a fair amount of fine-tuning by readers.  It went:
In hono(u)r of Friday night, the Difference of the Day is AmE take-out (noun) and to-go (adj/adv) vs. BrE take-away.
Let's start with the BrE one.  Take-away is extremely flexible, both grammatically and semantically.  It can be:
A noun for the food that's been taken away:  We had a Chinese take-away.
A noun for a place that only sells prepared food to eat off-site: We went to the Chinese take-away.
An adjective for such food or place: a take-away pizza
A phrasal verb: Is that to eat here (or eat in) or take away?
On the last point: it's not really a full-fledged verb. You never hear anyone say We took out or We took out a pizza (or even worse, We took out a Chinese).  It's used mainly in the infinitive and mainly in the process of making or receiving a food order.  After the fact, you'd say We got a take-away, or some such thing.

A couple of readers pointed out that in Scottish English it would be carry-out (with the same grammatical range) rather than take-away.  I'll still call take-away BrE rather than just English English since (a) it's certainly spread that far, even if it's not the native term; there are businesses that call themselves take-aways in Edinburgh and Glasgow (though probably more that call themselves carry-outs, it's true) and (b) 'non-Scottish' doesn't necessarily mean 'English'--there are other parts of the UK tooOn point (a), there are over a million hits for each of take-away+Edinburgh and carry-out+Edinburgh, and the Glaswegian equivalents--in fact, one of the first hits is www.glasgowtakeaways.co.uk.

Damien Hall wrote to say:

I haven't checked this, but I think I've heard that this is a demonstration of a classic dialectological phenomenon, two varieties with an intermediate transition zone in between: so Southern English take-away, Scots carry-out, and I think some bits of Northern English say take-out.
Damien has remembered correctly.  I found this quotation in "The study of dialect convergence and divergence: conceptual and methodological considerations" by Frans Hinskens, Peter Auer, and Paul Kerswill (in their edited collection Dialect Change, Cambridge University Press, 2005):
Whenever dialect mixing leads to the stabilisation of the variants that are typical of the respective ‘pure’ lects along with additional ‘compromise’ variants, one usually speaks of fudging (cf. Chambers and Trudgill 1998: 110–118; Britain 2002, 2004). [...] a similar, more recent, example from British English, discussed by Trudgill, concerns central and southern take away, the northern variant carry out, and the intermediate take out, which is used in the southern part of northern England.
Incidentally, if you're getting fish and (BrE) chips, you generally don't need to mention that it's take-away.  As we say in Linguistics, fish and chips are unmarked for taking-away--it's far less usual to have your fish and chips in a restaurant. A (BrE) fish-and-chip shop is perhaps the archetype of British take-away establishments, and they most often don't have seating for eating-in.

On to the American: take-out does not have quite the range that take-away does, since it shares the work with to-go (which we have discussed a little bit already)A friend pointed out that he'd say carry-out for pizza or Italian food.  And you know what?  So would I.   I'm not sure why this is--it doesn't seem to be particularly regional, since my friend is from California, living in Illinois, and I'm from New York state.

The noun take-out has a very New York City feel to me, but that's probably just because I grew up in a part of the state that didn't really have take-out establishments (fast food, yes; Chinese restaurants, no) in my long-ago (1970s/80s) youth.  The fast-food places would ask if you wanted your food for here or to go.  (Indeed, I had to ask that myself during my two stints of McDonald's purgatory-on-Earth.)  The pizza places ask if you want it for carry-out (or also pick-up) or delivery.   For me in my youth, getting a take-out was what people on television did--though getting carry-out pizza was a regular treat for us.

A completely non-linguistic aside: it can be funny to reali{s/z}e how atypical one's everyday foods can be.  For me, pizza is the food of childhood (perhaps it wasn't so in other parts of the US way back then--I'm not sure. The northeast has had plenty of Italian immigration.)   Better Half was introduced to pizza when he was about 13 at Pizzaland, where they served up a half a pizza with a (BrE) jacket potato/(AmE) baked potato and cole slaw.  I still get the giggles whenever he mentions it.  (His sister's mother-in-law made it into her 70s without ever having had pasta.  She was not impressed when Sister-in-Law introduced her to it.)  I also find it funny that some English people say to me that they couldn't eat pizza often.  I reply: but you have sandwiches every day--what's the difference? It's another way of having bread with cheese, meat or veg and condiments.  (It becomes clear in most cases that we're never going to see eye-to-eye on this.  But as a conciliatory point, I really like British pizza--which is more like what one gets in northern Italy. Thin, olive-oily crusts and top-rate toppings.)

On the other hand, a few English people have asked me how curry here compares to Indian food in the US, and I have to explain that I never had Indian food until I moved to South Africa in my mid-20s--and that I have never lived in an American town that had an Indian restaurant (though some of the towns have changed by now--though their Indian places are generally fairly fancy, not the kinds of places you'd get a take-away/take-out curry from).  I still haven't acquired the British native's facility with an Indian menu. I can tell you that I like dupiazas (or dopiazas), that chicken tikka masala is supposedly the national dish of the UK and that kurmas (or kormas) are for (orig. AmE) wimps.  Other than that, I have to read all the fine print on the menus.  Here's a cheat-sheet if, like me, you need one...

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Barack Obama

Some months ago (sorry!) I had more than one request for treatment of the pronunciation of Barack Obama's name.  There was this from American Jonathan Bogart:
I've heard more than one BBC newsreader pronounce the first name of the president of the United States the way I (an American) would refer to a military quartering, approximately "BERReck." This flies in the face of the way American journalists pronounce it, the way Kenyans -- who might be said to have first dibs -- pronounce it (which is not quite the same, as the r is an alveolar flap and both syllables are equally stressed), and the way the man himself pronounces it: roughly "BuhROCK." I was wondering what the reason for this might be; is this how the BBC has decided to pronounce the name, did I happen to hear a random couple of errors, or do different newsreaders get to choose the way they pronounce the names of world leaders?

And then I had message from Damien Hall, a sociolinguist at York University, who said:
Just checked in at SBaCL again, and found a comment on the latest post about the (?former) British habit of pronouncing the new President 'BA-r@ck Obama'. [DH is using the @ to stand for the schwa sound--i.e. an unstressed, reduced vowel--ed.] I have resisted the temptation to launch into a response on it, as I predict that the response could be quite lengthy (tempting though it was, as my (American) wife and I have talked about this difference: my observation is that almost all Brits used to pronounce 'Barack' with initial stress but, once he became more familiar, many/most learned that that wasn't where the stress went; and my theory is that it just fits into BrE's usual greater tendency to nativise foreign things including stress-patterns, cf garage etc).

In response to American Anne T. at this post:
I've just come from listening to NPR (National Public Radio) on which a British reporter, didn't catch his name, was interviewing Pakistani people about what they expect from Barack Obama. BARack Obama, he said, repeatedly. With a hard first A and stress on the first syllable, instead of BaRACK with a soft first (and second) A and stress on the second syllable. Why oh why?
Which just goes to prove that this blog is not a democracy, since the poor, mispronounced man has been in office for over a year now, and I've failed to respond to what has to be the most requested topic in my inbox.  Since then, I've had further correspondence with Damien, who points out this joke at the pronunciation's expense:

Early on, when he was but a candidate for the Democratic nomination (whom people over here seemed to unanimously think would lose to Hillary Clinton, though that's only my impression, as I was in America at the time), the misperception that his name was pronounced 'BA-r@ck' gave rise to a memorable moment from Andy Parsons on Mock The Week. I can't find a video of it, but the line was essentially this:

Parsons: 'BA-r@ck'? That's a bad name for a candidate, isn't it? Imagine the scene: "Ladies and gentlemen, 'BA-r@ck' Obama!" "Whaat? Oh, OK - 'Oy! Obama! You're SHIT!'"
This is only funny if you know the BrE use of barrack as a verb that means mean 'to heckle, to shout down' (particularly with reference to politicians--see the examples here).  (And, yes, you can say shit on the BBC--but only (BrE) after the watershed.)  Damien also thinks we pronounce the surname differently, with BrE speakers more likely to reduce the first syllable /o/ to a schwa, and Americans more likely to retain a fuller [o].
My excuse for leaving this topic for so long is that, as you know, pronunciation is not my strong point.  So, I asked John Wells, author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, what he made of this.  He reports:
In the current (3rd) edition of LPD I give the BrE pronunciation as ˈbæræk or -ək, the AmE as bəˈrɑːk or bəˈræk. I don't think it's a BBC decision. It's the usual BrE vs AmE treatment of foreign disyllables: cf cliché, café etc.
We've talked about some of these differences in various places before, especially here.  But we've also talked about the feeling that names should be pronounced as the named person pronounces them--or at least as closely as one can with the sounds at one's dialectal disposal.  Since all the sounds here are available to BBC newsreaders, it's hard for me to feel like the usual treatment of foreign disyllables should apply, since names have a lot more allowance for variation from the standard dialectal rules than non-name words do.  So, the difference is explained, but not justified in my book.

Of course, you'll be able to (indeed, I can too) point out lots of examples in which Americans pronounce British names incorrectly.  But they typically do so from a position of ignorance, rather than intention.  Since it'd be hard to miss Americans' pronunciation of their own president's name, it seems less likely that ignorance is to blame here, though it may well be inattention rather than intention.  (And, as someone with a horrible memory for learned pronunciations, I cannot lead the switch-hunt.) 

So, what do you think?  Excusable or not?  To what lengths should one go in order to accommodate the pronunciation of personal names that flout one's dialect's rules?  Do (AmE) newscasters/(BrE) news readers have different responsibilities for this than the rest of us?  Or, by attempting the 'correct' pronunciation, do they leave themselves open to mocking? (I was trying to find the Saturday Night Live clips in which Victoria Jackson tried to authentically pronounce 'Nicaragua', but apparently they are not on the web. Ho-hum.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

named after/for and miscellaneous verbs

Finally dipping into my inbox to respond to one of the many requests that have filled it.  English reader DBT wrote a while ago to ask:
I have always said that a person or a place is 'named after' someone or something else. Boston Mass is 'named after' Boston in Lincolnshire. Just in the last years or so, particularly in written material, I've suddenly started encountering 'named for' in stead, such as 'Boston Mass is named for Boston in Lincolnshire. This sounds to my ears both odd and counterintuitive. Is it a dialectical difference or an age one, or is it simply a mark  of poor grammar?
It's a dialectal difference.  John Algeo's British or American English reports that in the Cambridge International Corpus BrE texts have 6.5 times as many afters as fors and AmE texts have 1.3 times as many fors as afters.  This goes along with my experience that both named after and named for are fine in AmE, but that named for is not used much in BrE. 

DBT's email continues:
I do not know whether people who say 'named for his father' would also say 'called for his father' meaning 'called after' rather than 'came to the door to collect him'.
I can't speak for all AmE speakers, but I would not say either called after or called for to mean 'called the same thing as'.  I'd use the verb name in this instance, or, if the name is a nickname, then might say called the same thing as or some such circumlocution.  It's also worth noting here that collecting a person has a distinctly BrE ring to it.  An American would more normally pick up someone (if said American taking said someone somewhere) or just come to get someone. Call in senses meaning 'come to, visit' is also less often used in AmE (where it sounds rather old-fashioned to me) than in BrE.  Algeo's book notes call into, as in Call into your local Post Office branch, as BrE.  Meanwhile, BrE doesn't use call as much with reference to telephones.  Americans call their mothers (on the phone), the British ring their mothers.  I'm sure neither do it as often as the mothers would like.

And as long as I've mentioned pick up...  Oh, how hilarious it is when BrE speakers express their amazement at Americans' feat of strength when they have picked up the house before guests arrive.  (That, my dear friends, is an instance of American sarcasm.)  Americans in Britain, learn fast: it's called tidying here.  That verb is not absent from AmE, but it somehow sounds too fussy.  So, we pick up or clean, but we almost never tidy.