Saturday, February 19, 2011

prototypical soup

I've been unwell (which is a very BrE way to put it, see this old guest post) a lot this winter, which seems to be the price one pays for procreating. They say that minor illnesses are good for developing children's immune systems, so I try not to resent the germs that infect poor little Grover. But I supposedly have a developed immune system. Shouldn't I be immune to some of these preschool bugs?  At least our norovirus kept us away from the preschool this week, when Erythema infectiosum has been going around. Or, as the note to parents said, slapped-cheek disease. Never heard of it? Neither had I. A little research showed that the more common nickname for it in AmE is fifth disease. That didn't really help either.  All in all, it sounds like a fairly pathetic entry into the childhood illnesses roster. (The child illustrating the infection's Wikipedia page looks like he's having a pretty good time with it!)

Before the stomach bug, it was a bad cold that had downed Grover and me. Both since my last blog post. (Better Half stays curiously well. Maybe I don't have a British-enough immune system.) Pity us!

In fact, you should pity any expat or immigrant with a minor ailment (or [BrE] the dreaded lurgy), because the one thing you want when you're feeling (chiefly BrE) grotty is the comforts of childhood--which are thin on the ground when one is separated from one's childhood by miles, oceans and passport controls, not to mention the decades. When I'm ill, I want two things, which, in my home culture, are known to have magical-medicinal properties: cold, flat ginger ale and chicken soup.

The ginger ale can be achieved. Saint Better Half only had to go to three shops before finding some.  Here, it goes by the BrE name American ginger ale, which I find amusing because (a) where I come from, we think of it as Canadian, (b) I can see no other kind of ginger ale for sale, so why do they need the adjective? One can only guess that it's to distinguish it from ginger beer, a much spicier drink, which is far more common in the UK than ginger ale (which in the UK is thought of as a mixer and not a drink in its own right). I can feel a tangent coming on. Whoops, here we go... Ginger ale consumption in the US is fairly region-specific. I come from the kind of place (the northeast) where it's a drink that you can buy cold in a single-serving bottle from a (orig. AmE) convenience store/(BrE) corner shop, but this isn't true throughout the US. And if there is a down-home 'American' ginger ale, then it's not the stuff that's used as a mixer. The Canadian mixer type is 'pale, dry' ginger ale (like this Schweppes or Canada Dry). But there is also 'golden' ginger ale, which is darker, heavier and gingerier (more like a traditional ginger beer). This is rarer in the US and even more regional. You'll know if you're in one of the regions for it if the names Vernor's or Blenheim mean anything to you (or a few others...see Wikipedia).  At any rate, it's the dry stuff that one wants if one's had a (more BrE than AmE) tummy bug. Because ginger is good for nausea, you know. It should have lots of ice, so that it gets watery and flat and rehydrates you without causing any more gastrointestinal upset.  But I live in England with a man for whom ice trays are one of those mysterious plastic things that come with a fridge yet have no clear connection to it, so I water mine down with water straight from the (BrE) tap/(AmE) faucet. Hey, I'm not well. I'm desperate.

Hm, over 600 words and I haven't even started to get to the point of this post. A record? Probably not.

The point is the soup.

See, we Americans know that chicken soup is the cure for the common cold. And, when you're recovering from a stomach virus, a nice chicken soup is a good second foray (after toast) back into the land of the digesting.  But, of course, you can't make it yourself. You're sick, after all. Stay in bed. And who wants to cook a whole chicken when no one feels much like eating? This is what the (orig. AmE) can-opener was invented for.  

It is perfectly possible to find 'chicken soup' in the UK. The problem is finding the kind that is good for a cold. Send your English (and vegetarian) husband out in the rain to buy a (AmE) can/(BrE) tin, and he will come home with five kinds of wrong before you send him out again whispering cock-a-leekie to himself.  The tins/cans of wrong will include various cream-based, coconut-based, curry-based concoctions--not what an ailing American soul needs.

The problem, I have come to understand, is prototypes.

So here comes the linguistics. Soup in either British or American English will include puréed and strained things like tomato soup, things with lots of cream in them, broths like the cock-a-leekie to the right, with pieces of meat and vegetable. All these things come within the boundaries of the category 'soup' in English. But categories have more than boundaries (and those boundaries are often 'fuzzy'. Yes, that's the technical term). Categories, as represented in our minds, also have peaks...or cent{er/re}s...or cent{er/re}s that are peaks. Pick a metaphor that works for you.  That cent(e)ry peak or peaky cent{er/re} is known as the prototype of the category, and a particular thing (like cock-a-leekie) is deemed to be part of a category (like SOUP) if it is close enough to/has enough in common with the prototype.  To quote a fine reference book on the matter:

According to one view, a prototype is a cluster of properties that represent what members of the category are like on average (e.g. for the category BIRD, the prototype would consist of properties such as ‘lays eggs’, ‘has a beak’, ‘has wings’, ‘has feathers’, ‘can fly’, ‘chirps’, ‘builds nests’ etc.).  Category members may share these properties to varying degrees—hence the properties are not necessary and sufficient as in the classical model, but instead family resemblances.  In the alternative approach, the mental representation of a concept takes the form of a specific, ideal category member (or members), which acts as the prototype (e.g. for BIRD, the prototype might be a representation of a specific robin or sparrow).
In other words, when deciding whether or not something belongs to the BIRD category, one measures its birdiness against some (possibly very abstract) notion of an ideal bird.  Now, it's reasonable to believe that there might be some room for dialectal variation in what the prototype of a particular category is. But we have to be careful here--it's not just a matter of what is more frequent locally that determines what the prototype is.  Chickens and ducks might be the most common birds down on the farm, yet the farmer will not treat them as if they are the prototype against which 'birdiness' should be judged--that hono(u)r stays with the birds that (BrE) tick/(AmE) check more of the 'bird' boxes like 'can fly' and 'chirps'.

As far as I know, not much work has been done on regional variation in prototypes. The only example I can think of is a small study by Willett Kempton (reported in John Taylor's Linguistic Categorization) on Texan versus British concepts of BOOT, showing that even though both groups considered the same range of things to be boots, there was variation in their ideas of what constituted a central member of the BOOT category, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one.

Though I've not done the psychological tests that would tell us for sure, I'm pretty sure that the American SOUP prototype is along the lines of this:
a warm broth with pieces of meat, vegetables, and/or starchy things (e.g. noodles, barley, rice, matzo balls) in it'
And the English one is more along the lines of this:
a warm, savo(u)ry food made from vegetables and possibly meat that have been well-cooked and liquidi{s/z}ed
 These are not the definitions of soup, but the core exemplars of what belongs to the SOUP category, from which the 'soupiness' of other foods is measured. So, each culture has soups that don't conform to these ideals, but they nevertheless have enough in common with them (e.g. being liquid, considered food rather than drink, containing vegetables) to also be called soup.  The differences in the prototypes might have some effects on the boundaries of the category. So, for instance, since the English prototype has more emphasis on liquidi{s/z}ation, you'd expect the extension of the word soup to tolerate less in the way of (orig. AmE) chunky pieces than the AmE use of the word, which is stemming from a prototype that likes pieces and therefore will tolerate bigger ones (see point 3 below).

My experiential evidence for the differences in prototype are as follows:
  1. American dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster) explicitly mention the likelihood of solid pieces of food in soup, while British ones (Collins, Oxford) don't.
  2. The soup of the day in English restaurants is very often a puree. In US restaurants, that's much more rare--the people want stuff in their soup.
  3. Some of the things I have made and called 'soup' have been met with a puzzled "that's more of a stew, isn't it?" from the Englishpeople I've served it to.
  4. Some of the most common soups in England are generally smooth: leek and potato, tomato (often 'tomato and basil', which to me is like eating pasta sauce with a spoon), carrot and coriander. Whereas American soups are often full of solid things: chicken noodle, beef and barley, vegetable (which brings us to...)
  5. Order 'vegetable soup' in England and it will almost certainly be smooth. Order it in the US and it will almost certainly be a broth with diced vegetables. 
But this could be more rigorously tested, so I mention here that dialectal differences in prototypes might be an interesting area for a student dissertation project to cover.  (Are any of our second years reading this?)

Two more things to cover before I go. (I must be feeling better...I haven't collapsed in a heap yet.)

First, notice that I've been saying 'English' rather than 'British' when talking about the prototype differences. The two most famous Scottish soups, cock-a-leekie and Scotch broth, are broths with (more BrE) bits in them, so the prototype might be different up there.

Which brings us to broth. It's a word found in both AmE and BrE, but in AmE it basically means BrE (but also AmE) stock--that is, a liquid made by cooking things in water, then straining the things out. In BrE, it can be used to mean a stock with stuff in it (hence Scotch broth).  So, when I've expressed my longing for a more American-style soup to an Englishperson, I've been told "oh, you mean a broth". But AmE also has bouillon, which is again broth, but I'd call it bouillon if I were drinking it out of a mug (as I used to have to do in the days when I had to go on clear liquid diets a lot. I'm not the healthiest character), especially if I'd made it with a (AmE) bouillon cube (or powder), which in BrE would be a stock cube (or, more colloquially, an Oxo cube--the dominant brand).

I'm going to stop there and go to bed, trying not to think about how much easier my life would be if I could write this many words in grant proposals in an evening.  That way lies insomnia.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

in the middle of our street/block

When I don't know what I want to blog about, I stick a virtual pin into the email inbox and choose the first do-able request/suggestion that I find. This is supposed to be a fair method, though perhaps not as fair as 'first come, first served'. Truth be told, many of the oldest ones in the inbox are in the 'may not be doable' or 'may not be a real difference' category, so I have come to avoid them a bit. At any rate, my 'fair' method might not seem fair this time, since the suggestion I've clicked on is from the same requester as the last blog post.

So, thank you Ben Zimmer for putting another interesting and pop-culture-related suggestion in my inbox. Ben noted the use of in the middle of our street in the Madness song 'Our House', and asked: "Have you talked about this one? I don't think it's possible in AmE for a house to be in the middle of a street."

Yes, that's an interesting one.  But so is the rest of the song.  It's Saturday night--let's do the whole thing!




I should start by noting that this is the only Madness song that made it to the Top 20 singles chart in the US, whereas in the UK they were HUGE, having 20 singles in the Top 20 in the 1980s (more if you count re-issues). So, for British people of my generation, mention Madness and they're as likely (if not more likely) to wax nostalgic about 'Baggy Trousers' or 'House of Fun' as about 'Our House'. Still 'Our House' has had  a lot of attention in the UK. It won the 'Best Song'  in the Ivor Novello Awards, became part of the advertising campaign for Birdseye frozen foods (video) with frontman Suggs as pea-shiller (not fair--but a good pun, no?), and was the title of a Madness-based West End musical. Unlike some other pop/rock-band-based musicals, like Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, the Madness musical did not transfer to Broadway or tour the US.

I loved 'Our House' as an American teenager, particularly for its wordplay, but I have to wonder how much I missed in my pre-UK days.  So, for the benefit of my teenage self, here's a stanza-by-stanza playback:

Father wears his Sunday best
Mother's tired she needs a rest
The kids are playing up downstairs
Sister's sighing in her sleep
Brother's got a date to keep
He can't hang around
In my day job, antonyms are my special(i)ty, so I am particularly fond of the juxtapositon of up/down here. However, I don't think that in my youth I understood that this wasn't just a little lyrical nonsense.  To play up is informal BrE for behaving irritatingly or erratically. One's lumbago can play up, the computer might play up, and certainly one's children can play up.  (Late addition: BZ has pointed out the AmE equivalent: act up.)
Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our ...
The chorus, and the point of BZ's original query. To my young American ears, this sounded intentionally funny.  The house is in the middle of the street! Like where the manholes should be! No, no, no.  This is the BrE equivalent of in AmE in the middle of our block. This is a originally AmE use of block to mean 'the length of a street between cross-streets' or 'one side of a square of land with buildings, bounded by four streets'. This sense is not often found in BrE, though most BrE speakers I know are aware of it. Still, they find it odd when Americans apply it to British places since (a) there are rarely regular blocks in British towns ([BrE] Have/(AmE) take a look at this map of Camden Town, London [home of Madness], for instance) and (b) block has a more prominent residence-related BrE sense: 'a building separated into units', e.g. an office block or a block of flats. This sense of block is not marked as dialectal in the American Heritage Dictionary, but do Americans actually say it much? In AmE, I'd always say office building or apartment building.  (For another difference in UK/US use of street, see back here.)

But even if it weren't in the middle of the street, 'our house' would still be in our street, because in BrE addresses can be in the street or road. John Algeo, in British or American English?, writes:
For specifying the position of something relative to a street, British generally uses in and American on. When the street in question is noted as a shopping location, British uses on or in.
Algeo's corpus has equal numbers of in/on the High Street (i.e. the main shopping street--akin to AmE Main Street, at least, before the Walmartification of American towns). A Google search of British books shows a clear preference for in in this case, however.  (Click here to see the ngram view.)
Our house it has a crowd
There's always something happening
And it's usually quite loud
Our mum she's so house-proud
Nothing ever slows her down
And a mess is not allowed
House-proud is the piece of BrE I remember learning through this song. The meaning is fairly transparent. To be house-proud is to take particular pride in the upkeep and decoration of one's house.  The expression reminds me of Kate Fox's discussion of the English relationship to their homes in her book Watching the English. A related newspaper piece by Fox can be found here--but I really recommend the book. Again.  (Click on the link for mum--I've discussed it on an earlier occasion.)
Father gets up late for work
Mother has to iron his shirt
Then she sends the kids to school
Sees them off with a small kiss
She's the one they're going to miss
In lots of ways

This one has no glaringly specific BrEisms, but does allow us to note British male predilection for comedic cross-dressing, evident in the video above.

The last unrepeated verse has nothing particularly non-AmE about it either, but I include it here for completeness, and because I like how I can hear the words being delivered as I read them.
I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we'd play simply waste the day away
Then we'd say nothing would come between us two dreamers

The song ends with the chorussy bit repeated, with variations, including this one: 
Our house, was our castle and our keep
Our house, in the middle of our street
We can't say that castle and keep is non-AmE; if we needed to talk about castles and keeps, those are the words we'd use. But since we don't have medi(a)eval castles, many Americans might not know this sense of keep. Call me a philistine (you probably won't be the first), but I  didn't know it (despite hearing it in the song repeatedly) or other castle-part terms until I moved to England and started visiting castles. Here's a guide to castle parts for those who want to know.

And in case I haven't already thoroughly shown my age, I'll say this: I was so lucky to be a teenager and (AmE) college/(BrE) university student in the 1980s.* At least when I'm going senile and just want to sing songs from my prime, I'll be ok. Oh wait, I just had a Lionel Richie flashback. I'm doomed.



*Whether it was cool to like Madness in the 1980s is another matter, especially for my English generation-mates, such as Better Half. At the time, he tells me, one couldn't like both the ska-inspired London music that included Madness (though Madness were definitely ska-lite) and the northern New Romantics. But age works wonders on taste, and now we find ourselves nostalgic for music that we were too cool for then. But I am still embarrassed to have done so much dancing to Lionel Richie.