Sunday, January 30, 2011

stammering and stuttering

So, I haven't seen The King's Speech, and yes I'd like to and yes I should, but you've got to find me a (orig. AmE) babysitter and (more difficult) a few hours first. Sometimes these days it seems like my cinephile wedding in England's oldest (BrE) cinema/(AmE) movie theater should be annulled on the basis that I haven't been able to keep up with (more current in BrE) the pictures since becoming a parent. In spite of this and in hono(u)r of the popularity and awardiness of The King's Speech, let's talk about stammering and stuttering.

When Ben Zimmer emailed to suggest it as a timely topic, I'd thought I'd done it. But it turns out that instead I'd commented about it on someone else's blog (as has happened before). The nice thing about getting blog suggestions from a seasoned lexicographer like Ben is that he pretty much does the work for me.

So, let's get the big claim out of the way. BrE stammer  = AmE  stutter. When I have said this before, I have been "corrected" by people who insist that they're different. They get their information from people like the novelist David Mitchell,* whose novel Black Swan Green is quoted on the Engine Room blog (the one I had commented at):

Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they're as different as diarrhoea and constipation. Stuttering's when you say the first bit of the word but can't stop saying it over and over. St-st-st-stutter. Like that. Stammering's where you get stuck straight after the first bit of the word. Like this. St...AMmer!

I've quoted Alan Cruse on synonymy before, but I'll do it again: "natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum". The words stammer and stutter both exist in both dialects, which is confusing for us. And so we look for differences between them in order to justify the existence of two words. But the differences we "find" for these pairs often have little to do with how people actually use the words. What is different in this case is which one is used as a technical term for a habitual speech impediment in the US or UK. The one that plays the role of non-'technical' term in each dialect can be used for non-pathological speech disfluencies.

Ben Zimmer (has) sent a couple of helpful Google Ngrams. These show stammer (blue line) versus stutter (red line) in American English and British English books between 1800 and 2000.

The British English version:



And the American English version:



If it is the case that stammering and stuttering are different things, then it looks like in the 1960s, they found a cure for stammering in America, and somehow that accidentally brought on more stuttering. Of course that's not what happened. What happened is that stutter took over in AmE as the usual term. In BrE, stammer has always been the more common word, but we can see possible Americani{s/z}ation in recent years--or else what has been label(l)ed as 'British English' in Google Books is not all that reliable in the past decade. That wouldn't surprise me. It's easy to see the unreliability of Google Ngrams in searching for dialect-specific instances of the phrases has a stutter and has a stammer. In these cases,  there is less data (or fewer data, if you prefer), and therefore it is more subject to weirdnesses. The BrE Ngram is unsurprising: it shows just has a stammer. The AmE one is wackier:


But if one clicks on the link to the 'American English' Google Books hits for 1983, one finds that some of the instances of the supposedly American cases of has a stammer come from The New Statesman (UK) and India Today.


If, after all this, you don't believe me that these words are dialectal equivalents, then I ask you to believe the British Stammering Association:

Terminology

"Stammering" is the same as "stuttering". "Stammering" is more often used in the UK and Ireland. "Stuttering" is usual in the United States.

(The US National Stuttering Association seems to be silent on the matter.) 


Thanks again to Ben for the research contributions to this post. This is my third post of the week, although it must be admitted that one of them wasn't a 'real' post. But I'm going to have to count that one in meeting my promise to blog three times this week--as I've received a shockingly (orig. AmE) humongous pile of (BrE) marking/(more usual AmE) grading that must be finished in the next few days. Back next weekend, I hope!



* The comedian David Mitchell was one of the People Who Are Wrong About American English in my Catalyst Club talk this month. He was metaphorically paraded about in metaphorical handcuffs made out of OED pages for his comments on tidbit and herb. Please find me a David Mitchell who hasn't said unsupported things about BrE/AmE differences, before I develop an unhelpful stereotype about those so named.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

with regard(s) to

I've been teaching in England for 11 years now, and I've come to the point where I cannot tell whether the weird things that (some of) my students write are generational (after all, I've never taught their generational equivalents in the US) or dialectal.  For the past couple of years my pet peeve has been with regards to and in regards to -- I rarely read a student essay, dissertation, or thesis without at least one of these scratching my eyeballs more than once. Aside from the use of three words where one (e.g. concerning) would do, there's that plural regards, which sounds to me like a confusion (or, if you like technical terms, a phrasal blending) of with/in regard to and as regards.*

In fact, I got so frustrated about it in my last batch of marking that I wrote this note on Facebook:

'Regard' has three uses in common idioms.

In 'with/in regard to', it means 'attention' or 'sight'. You would not pluralize those words in this context, so don't pluralize 'regard'.

In 'as regards'. 'regard' is a verb that means 'concerns'. You'd have the 's' on either verb here as they're agreeing with an unspoken 3rd person subject.

In 'give my regards to', 'regards' means 'greetings', and like 'greetings' in this context, it's used in the plural.

Glad I got that out of my system.
(Now, I must say here that language--particularly English--is not necessarily logical. The above explanations were intended as aids for learning and remembering which versions take the plural, and are not expected to be taken as historical facts, as I didn't research those at the time.)

I spent a long time thinking that the plural regards in this context is just the product of young people not reading as much edited text as previous generations of university students. But when I complained about it to someone or other, they did the one thing that can move me to immediate dialectal research. They claimed it was the effect of American television.

Reali{z/s}ing that I could imagine with regards to much better in an English accent than an American one, I started looking around. But the more I looked, the more confusing it got. It's a mystery wrapped in a shibboleth.

At first, I could not find much British usage commentary on it. But it definitely seems to be something that annoys Americans.  For instance, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (cited here) says:
In and with regard to, regarding, and as regards are all Standard, synonymous prepositions, slightly longer and more varied than but meaning much the same as about and concerning: I spoke to him regarding [as regards, in regard to, with regard to] his future. With regards to is Nonstandard and frequently functions as a shibboleth, although it can be Standard and idiomatic in complimentary closes to letters: With [my] regards to your family…. In regards to, however, is both Substandard and Vulgar, although it appears unfortunately often in the spoken language of some people who otherwise use Standard. It never appears in Edited English.
On the other hand, neither The Economist Style Guide (UK) nor Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford UP) have anything to say about. The Guardian Style Guide (which is more relaxed about linguistic change than some of its competitors--see this debate) says:

        regard
with regard to not with regards to (but of course you give your regards to Broadway)
And the OED says that in regards to is 'regional and non-standard' but does not mention with regards to.  So...coverage of these items is patchy, which either means that it's a newish innovation or that it's not annoying everyone else as much as it annoys me. 

On to the British and American numbers. I used Mark Davies' corpus.byu.edu website, as I often do, in order to access the British National Corpus (compiled in the early 1990s) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (1990s-present). Using these corpora and searching with regard(s) to and in regard(s) to I found the plural 'regards' outnumbering singular in BrE, but not in AmE.


BrEAmE
with regard to:with regards to3:78:1
in regard to:in regards to1:24:1


But it turns out that this data is weird. I have no idea why the plurals are coming out so high in the BNC, but other British data don't give the same result. A possible explanation can be dismissed: maybe the 'with regards to' examples were in the appropriately plural greetings sense, as in 'I send these flowers with (my) regards to you and your mother'. But I checked, and all of the examples have the 'concerning' rather than 'greeting' sense.

John Algeo's book British or American English? reports that in the Cambridge International Corpus, the singular regard is favo(u)red 19.4:1, versus the smaller 4.3:1 ratio in AmE. So, the plural looked like it was BrE in my search, but looks AmE in Algeo's.

So, I tried another old Separated by a Common LanguageTM trick, and searched websites of American and British higher education establishments by searching the phrases on Google specifying .edu or .ac.uk sites only. Here, the picture is somewhere in between the CIC and BNC/COCA stories; both Americans and British prefer the singular, but the British are more likely than Americans to use with regards to rather than with regard to. But at the same time, the British more strongly (than the Americans) prefer the singular for the in phrase:



BrEAmE
with regard to:with regards to10:117:1
in regard to:in regards to4:12:1


The other thing to note here is that the in phrase is not as common in BrE as in AmE. According to Algeo (and the CIC), of the four combinations of in, with, singular and plural, with regard to accounts for 82% of the data in BrE, but only 68% in AmE. My .edu/.ac.uk numbers come out almost exactly the same.

The only explanation for the BNC aberration that I can think of is that most of the examples of these regard(s) to phrases in the BNC are from spoken data.  I can't know how many of the CIC instances were spoken--about 17% of the corpus overall was spoken--but much of that is the BNC spoken material.

My last search was on the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), also from Mark Davies' site. This allows one to see results by decade, from the 1810s to the 2000s. I have no equivalent for BrE. But I think I have the answer to my original question: the plurals explode in the 2000s.  This jibes with my subjective experience. Thus, I'm concluding it's more a generational thing than a dialectal one.

All this, and I haven't really given you an AmE/BrE difference: both prefer the singular, and the plural seems to be picking up speed. But that's kind of the point. My initial urge was to point fingers at the British, and the British person I talked to wanted to blame it on the Americans. But it's happening everywhere, and you only really know that if you look in the right places.



* Yes, the professional linguists' line is to be descriptive, not prescriptive. But I'm not just a linguist. I am a university instructor, and one cannot be one of those [at least not on the Arts side of campus] without being a writing instructor some of the time.  I want my students to come out of our degree program(me) writing as if they are well-read, well-spoken and reasonable.  And so, I try.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Any other business

I'm posting my first blog post in more than a month tonight. I thank you for coming back to see it! In the meantime, I've been seeing a couple of research projects out the door and starting the new teaching term.  I continue to be very active on Twitter, but I know that not all of you hang out there, so here are a few of the things that I mentioned there that I haven't mentioned here.  One thing that's changed here is that Google AdSense has banned me because its algorithms detected illicit activity. I have no idea what this refers to, but they turned down my appeal and took whatever money they owed me. The good news for you: back to being an ad-free blog. I hope. I still see big blank places where the ads used to be at the ends of posts. I hope they're not advertising to you without my involvement. Here, for your edification, is the story of another soul's interaction with Google NonSense.

On a happier-for-me note, I've taken the SbaCL show out on the road, giving a talk called
The degradation of the English language: who's whose fault is it?
to the Catalyst Club in Brighton. The talk had a secret punchline title (now saved for posterity in the Catalyst Club archive), which I hope blog-readers will appreciate. It was me trying to do linguistics as stand-up comedy, and I think it can be branded a success (anyone who was there is welcome to leave their opinion in the comments). My favo(u)rite post-talk comment was: "I wish I could unlearn everything you've just taught me." I now have an appetite for more, and a multimedia powerpoint that I'd love to subject others to.  So, if you'd like to book such a talk for your club, wedding or bar mitzvah, please use the 'contact Lynneguist' link on the right.  I'm scheduled to give a new talk at Catalyst in September--and you can bet I'll do something linguisticky or cross-cultural, so if you're near Brighton, come along!

In other news, the Translation Advisor website interviewed me in December on American versus British English, and you can read that here, if you like.

And in my day job, I now have this to show off:


So, not always blogging, but busybusy.

Last but not least, I received this tweet earlier this month:


I immediately, which is to say rashly, promised that I would post three blog posts this week (after my last pressing deadline) to make up for my absence. Depending on how I fare during the week, I might count this as one of them, but I'll try to post three real posts instead.

So, hello! How have you been?