Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dialect success in books -- your help?

Because of the cruelty that is 'marking season' (AmE prefers grading over marking), I am unable to do a 'real' post at the moment--but I'd like to follow up on the last one, which opened with
I'm giving a talk called Whose Language Is It Anyway? at the first Brighton Book Festival ("Bookstock") on 9 June (click the Whose... link for details). Since it's a book festival, I'd like talk about some books.
...and then asked for examples of bad AmE dialect representation in works by UK authors and vice versa.  Thanks to everyone whose given suggestions in the comments at that post--please feel free to add more there.

Having so much evidence of poor dialect writing is useful, but a little depressing. So, I ask you avid book-readers: can you think of any authors who switch dialects with real skill?  (It might be their editors doing the heavy lifting, but still...let's try to find some examples that give some hope.)

Thanks in advance for anything you can offer me!  And if you're in/near Brighton, do come along for the talk--it'd be lovely to meet you!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dialect fail in books - your help?

Something I've been meaning to ask you: could you help me in finding material for a talk I'll be doing soon?

I'm giving a talk called Whose Language Is It Anyway? at the first Brighton Book Festival ("Bookstock") on 9 June (click the Whose... link for details). Since it's a book festival, I'd like talk about some books. So I'm looking for examples of dialogue, first-person narration or anything, really, in which the dialectal features of the character are not right.  Really what I want are examples of US authors getting UK dialects wrong or UK authors getting US dialects wrong...but things from other anglophone countries might be helpful too.

(What I don't need is film dialogue or film accents, thanks!)


So, has any bad dialect representation stuck in your head? It'd be really helpful if you could provide author and title info with the examples. And if you read anything relevant before the 9th (or after, even), I'd love to hear about it.

And, of course, there is the possibility that some examples may be intentional.  When a UK book is published in the US, for instance, some unfamiliar words might be changed for the US audience (as famously happened for Harry Potter--warning there are a lot of errors at the link. Part way through the list, they seem to have reversed 'US' and 'UK').  It must happen in the other in the other direction too--so if you'd like to point any of those out, I'd be grateful. (The one I can think of is that Melanie Gerth's children's book Ten Little Ladybugs is Ten Little Ladybirds in the UK--and from what I can tell on the internets, the book is originally American.  And that tells you all you need to know about why I need help finding books. I haven't had time to read a novel since maternity leave. I look forward to reading my next one in retirement.)

So, have you got/do you have any examples for me? I'd love your help... 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

do you have/have you/have you got

Dipping into the email bag, we have a months-old note from Andy:
I was wondering whether you've done anything on your language blog regarding the uses of the phrases "have you got", "do you have" and "have you". I get the impression that "do you have" is the preferred form in America, whilst "have you got" is more usual in Britain. "Have you" is maybe considered rather old-fashioned in the UK these days; I'm not sure about its status in the US however.
Andy, you are a talented observer of language. While we've covered a similar topic before (I haven't/I don't have/I haven't got--see the comments too), I'm particularly inspired to do this one today as I've just been reading a paper by Peter Trudgill that cites these constructions as providing evidence that BrE is being influenced by AmE--before concluding based on a broader range of evidence that "there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other for convergence/homogenisation or divergence/disintegration at the level of grammar."

To grammatically achieve a yes/no question in English, the question has to start with a verb. Not any verb, but an auxiliary verb (or 'helping verb'). (Verbs that aren't auxiliary verbs are called lexical verbs.) If you have an auxiliary-less sentence, then you usually have to add an auxiliary to fill that beginning-of-question slot. So, if you want to ask if someone wants a pineapple, you have to add the meaningless (in this case) auxiliary do just to fill out the question structure and make it grammatical: Do you want a pineapple? rather than Want you a pineapple? But have can be either a lexical verb (as in I have a pineapple) or an auxiliary verb (as in I have found a pineapple, where found is the lexical verb and have is there as an auxiliary to carry the tense). Verbs that don't need do-support for question formation and negation are sometimes called operators.

So, let's assume that one needs a pineapple (as I do now that I've thought of pineapples). So you stand on the street corner and ask passing strangers for a pineapple (as I'm about to do).

Starting with the shortest of the possibilities we have:
(1) Have you a pineapple?
Here we're using the stative meaning of have, 'to possess'. In the English of England*, only the stative meaning of lexical have can be an operator. (In Scotland and Ireland it may be possible, according to Trudgill, to use a more dynamic meaning of have as an operator, as in Had you pineapple for lunch?) Operator use of stative have is, according to John Algeo, "said to be somewhat old-fashioned British [...], but it is hardly imaginable in American" (p. 30). Americans know of it, of course, from the nursery song Baa, baa, black sheep (have you any wool?), but outside of storybook contexts, they wouldn't expect to run into it.

 BrE prefers our next candidate:

(2) Have you got a pineapple?

You can say this in AmE as well, but it's not the default way to ask for pineapple. Have got, of course, is sayable in non-questions as well. But considering that the British say it more than Americans, it's funny that Americans are more particular about what it means. As we've discussed before, AmE makes the distinction between have got for possession (I've got a pineapple) and requirements (I've got to go) and have gotten for acquisition (I've gotten a pineapple from the fridge). Many language pedants (or peevologists, as they have come to be known in the trade) on both sides of the Atlantic (but probably more US than UK) insist that have got should be avoided in the possession or requirement senses because have alone is more elegant. To them, I point out some of the quoted users of have got in the OED: William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, W.M.Thackeray, Lewis Carroll...

At any rate, because we can say You have got some pineapple, we can ask Have you got some pineapple? Have is an operator in all dialects in this context. What differs is whether you prefer to say it that way. We'll look at the numbers after considering the final, and most AmE, possibility:
(3) Do you have a pineapple?
So, in this case, have is treated as a non-operator lexical verb, and do must come in and fill the operator space. This is the way we usually form questions with lexical verbs in English, and it's the preferred way for AmE speakers to form questions about possession.

Now what surprised me in investigating this was how much AmE prefers (3) over (2) (especially since I've seen have got derided as an ugly Americanism by uninformed BrE speakers). Using Mark Davies' Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the BYU-British National Corpus (BNC), I searched for 'Do you have [determiner]' and 'Have you got [determiner]'. By putting [determiner] at the end, I got all cases of Do you have any, Do you have some, Do you have those, Do you have a, etc., but none of Do you have to [verb], Have you got to [verb], or Have you got [verbed]. The result:
AmE: Do you have = 3092, Have you got = 99.  So 31:1.
BrE:  Do you have = 245, Have you got = 450.  So 1:<2.
Now, whether the two corpora are really comparable is debatable, but it's worth noting that COCA is about 20% spoken language and BNC is just under 18% spoken--so it shouldn't be just a difference in spoken-versus-written proportions that is making the differences so stark.


So, the lessons of today are:
  • If you are on a UK street corner, say Have you got a pineapple?
  • If you are on a US street corner, say Do you have a pineapple?
  • If you say Have you a pineapple?, you risk assault for non-normative behavio(u)r.

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FOOTNOTE
*I really resist writing English English, as word reduplication (as in Was it a salad salad? or I bought a book but not a book book) implies 'the real thing' or 'a prototypical exemplar'. And before you say 'but it is the real thing', which English English are you talking about?  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm not being funny, but...

Of course, I can't exactly remember the conversation that inspired this post. But as we were leaving a café, Better Half said  I'm not being funny, but Costa's coffee has really gone downhill.† And I thought: that's the British idiom I'm going to cover next, because there is just so much Britishness in it.

In fact, in a 2009 paper in Discourse & Society, Judith Baxter and Kieran Wallace describe a particular use of it as:
the typically British idiom ‘I’m not being funny’ [used] to downplay the effect of a sensitive or non-politically correct comment
The phrase I'm not being funny but occurs five times in the 100-million-word British National Corpus (BNC) and zero times in the 425-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (both at corpus.byu.edu). The material in the BNC is 20+ years old, and since the phrase seems to be on the rise, I would expect it to occur more often these days. In 2008, it made a BBC list of 20 most hated clichés. There, a 'Rosie Spectacle' comments that it's "usually followed by a highly irritating and officious remark." Let's see if that's true.

All the BNC examples come from the 17.8-million-word spoken part of the corpus:
  1. I 'm not being funny but she can't stick up for herself, that girl can't
  2. Giles won't tell me but he definitely knows the two people that've laid her. Oh aren't they lucky gits. And I think that I 'm not being funny but I think that Jim did one.
  3. I 'm not being funny but I think that's actually maybe quite important, 
  4. The contract sorry is very specific. I 'm not being funny but we're nitpicking now at the difference between [...] site instructions and V Os
  5. And I 'm not being funny but when Malcolm did it, we would do that [a physical recount] almost two or three days after the stock taking if there were odd counts
Is I'm not being funny but preceding "sensitive", "irritating" or "officious" comments in each case? Well, it depends on what you are sensitive about. In some of these cases, there is clearly the potential for causing offen{c/s}e--for instance, in (1) the person might be saying something critical about a friend. In others, it's not clear that anyone would disagree with the statement, as in BH's comment about coffee, or in (3), a context in which all the interlocutors seem to be agreeing that it's important to be sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired at some event. In my experience, the minimal requirement for an I'm not being funny but prologue is that the speaker is expressing an opinion. The optimal contexts for using it are those in which the statement (a) could be interpreted as a complaint or a criticism or (b) might not be shared by everyone. In the coffee example, it was hardly the type of thing that would have offended me, so I was amused that he'd bothered to preface it in this way. But he still said it, he says, "So you won't think I'm petty. Out of some insecurity." It expresses a strange kind of plea to be taken seriously along with what seems like an implicit apology for having had an opinion.

This relates to various things that Kate Fox discusses in Watching the English. There are the "modesty rules"--i.e. cultural rules that enforce the appearance (but not necessarily the reality) of modesty and the importance of not seeming earnest, but instead always being ready to keep things light with humo(u)r. So, you have an opinion, but the need to appear modest means that you have to avoid sounding self-important. The avoidance of earnestness means that people are always ready to assume that you're joking if you seem het up* about something. So, what do you do if you want to state an opinion? You try to disguise it as a small fact ("she can't stick up for herself"), preface it with I'm not being funny but to signal that something controversial is coming, then let the listener fill in a lot of the opinion (e.g. 'she is weak and probably deserves what she gets if she won't stick up for herself'), so that you don't have to earnestly or controversially say it. 

I should say, one doesn't absolutely need the but in the phrase, but it's very often there. And we can say I'm not being funny to sincerely mean just that--for instance, as a protest when someone starts laughing after you've told them something sad. That's not the pre-emptive use--the 'let me put this negative opinion here' use--that one hears so much in the UK. That said, I think that in AmE, at least, one would be more likely in those more literal cases to say I'm being serious rather than the negated I'm not being funny. 

Blogger is acting very strange these days...I hope you'll be able to post comments below!

Postscript, the next morning:
I blogged in a rush last night, which isn't the best thing for working on something pragmatic.  Let me just add--the funny in I'm not being funny but can indeed (as some people have written to say) be read as the 'queer, peculiar' sense of the word. But that meaning is not unrelated to the 'humorous' meaning. It's best translated, I think, as 'I'm not trying to be difficult, but...'. But I do believe that the choice of funny in this phrase plays on this ambiguity--it's saying both 'I'm not making a joke' and 'I'm not being eccentric'. (Glad to see some comments are getting through--I know some others haven't. What's up with Blogger, eh**?)

† I belatedly found where I'd written down what BH said, so I've replaced my earlier 'the coffee is really disgusting' with the much more British understatement 'has gone downhill'. 'Has become disgusting to me' is what he meant though. This means I've also changed some further references to his statement. And, for the record, I like Costa's coffee and BH has been complaining about everyone's coffee lately...
* orig. BrE dialectal & AmE, now more common in BrE
** The eh is prevalent in Canadian English but also in my not-so-far-from-Canada AmE dialect.