Sunday, June 19, 2011

it's down/up to you

Fellow American-academic-in-UK @PurlHussy suggested a Twitter Difference of the Day for me, and I thought: why tweet when I could blog AND tweet? (Um/Erm, because I should be marking/grading essays? Hey, blogging it is!!)

The difference is in how we more informally say 'it is your (or her or his or my) responsibility'. It may seem strange, but BrE and AmE look like they're complete opposites on this one. In BrE, one can say It's down to you to mean 'it's your responsibility to do that', whereas AmE would say it's up to you.

One does see it's up to you in BrE to mean 'it's your responsibility', or more specifically (as in AmE) 'it's your choice'. It's common enough in BrE that the OED marks it as just 'originally' AmE. There are two examples of It's up to you in the British National Corpus (accessed through corpus.byu.edu), both with this 'choice' sense:
I've done it and er I mean it's up to you as to which date you choose. [spoken in a meeting]

"Well, it's up to you of course, Mr Dakin, but this is the third time I've had to stitch her teats and I'm afraid it's going to keep on happening." [from James Herriot's Vets might fly]
 But all the ones that are straight responsibility meanings are it's down to you in the BNC (10 hits):
But if they get arrested it's down to you. [conversation]

Unless you're a tenant, it's down to you to make sure gas appliances receive the regular expert servicing they need. [advert]

Between now and Sunday it's down to you to decide that you definitely want to go ahead [speech]
(Of course there may also be examples of it'll be down to you or whether you do it is down to you or it's down to her or it's down to Nigel, etc. Searching for a single set phrase made it easier to avoid senses of down to that have nothing to do with responsibility.)

Meanwhile, in AmE, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 398 hits for it's up to you and only one for it's down to you--and in that (fictional) context it might have just meant 'you're the only one left' (hard to tell--the responsibility meaning or the 'only you' meaning would both fit in the context).

So, up and down. Why are two opposite words used to mean the same thing? Because figurative language is slippery stuff, that's why. The OED tells us that up to [someone] is from the game of poker (traced to 1896), and is in general use from 1913. In the poker context it means basically 'it's your turn to make a decision and act on it'. So, it's sort of 'we've got(ten) up to you in the series of people who need to act in this game'. (One could have seen it going the other way, with one going 'down' the list of people whose turn it would be next. But poker is a game of escalation, so it doesn't seem surprising to me that the turn-taking metaphor goes upward.)

The BrE down to [someone] is only traced back to 1970 in the OED.  One can see how this might come about from the 'there's no one else left' reading of down to (as in we're down to one candle). It's down to you says that, for the purpose of its context, the people who could have responsibility for something are reduced to one: you.

From my non-native perspective, it seems to me that up to and down to have different connotations in BrE--up to being choice and down to being serious responsibility.  AmE doesn't make any such distinction and has up to for both.

It's down/up to you to tell us what you think.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

accent attitudes

A while ago, I coined the term AVIC ('American Verbal Inferiority Complex'), to refer to an American tendency to find British English (or at least standard English English) superior to their own way of speaking.  Having done a bit of reading about accent attitudes this week, I'm wondering whether AVIC is on its way out, perhaps mostly found in older generations.  Here's what I found:

In 1985 (see references below), Stewart et al. published a study for which American subjects had been asked to rate the social status of people with standard American or standard British accents. They found that:

speakers of British English were assigned higher social status than speakers of the respondents’ own (American) accent, even though British speech was considered less intelligible and aroused more discomfort. For American listeners, this finding contrasts with their reactions to other ethnic accents (p. 103)
But that was more than 25 years ago. And just 10 years ago, Bayard et al. (2001) found that American accents were more positively evaluated in New Zealand and Australia, and America. Here's their graph showing the reactions to accents in their sample of Cleveland University students:



You might not be able to read the graph, but that dotted line at the top represents the North American accent, as spoken by a woman. Below that is North American male. Leaving third place to....Australian men! Yes, the English accent (as spoken by a man) is way down in 4th place now.

But my favo(u)rite graph of the ones I've come across is this one, from the undergraduate research journal at Brigham Young University. It shows the results of asking Brigham Young students to rate the intelligence of people with different accents.




The main significant effect found in this study was that people who'd lived at least three months outside the US rated the English accent significantly lower than people who'd only lived in the US. In fact, Americans who had not lived abroad considered the English-accented person to be much more intelligent than themselves, but the people who had lived abroad rated the standard American accent more intelligent than the standard English one.  My preferred way of interpreting this (a bit tongue-in-cheek) is that Americans are happy to rate the English as more intelligent than themselves up until they actually start meeting and talking to the English.

Better Half often complains that while he was treated like a god (the god of what, I don't know) when he first went to live and work in the US in the early 1990s, nowadays he's "nothing special" when we go to the States. He attributed this to New York City being overrun by the British, particularly when the pound was much, much stronger than the dollar. But I think he also finds it to be true when we're away from the big city where British people tend to travel. So, perhaps this is a symptom of a general trend for (standard-AmE-speaking) Americans to have more dialectal self-esteem than they used to.  You're welcome to speculate on the reasons for this in the comments--provided that you aren't too rude.


Any other business
  1. Thanks and more thanks to all of you who voted for SbaCL and my @lynneguist Twitter feed in the Lexiophiles/bab.la Top Language Lovers for 2011.  I'm grateful/flabbergasted/proud to see Separated by a Common Language ranked 5th among Language Professional Blogs (and 37th overall) and @lynneguist ranked 2nd in the Twitter category and 4th overall. Big, big thank-yous to all who had a hand in that!
  2. Thanks again for your help in locating instances of Dialect Fail and Dialect Success in transatlantic novel-writing. The Brighton Book Festival talk ('Whose Language is it Anyway?') was a success, in no small part because of your helpful suggestions.
  3. Before you ask, that talk is not available on video--but I'm very happy to give it in other venues. Please email me if you're interested! Talks (with audio publisher/video producer Better Half) are underway to recreate parts of my Lynneguist talks in snazzy podcast form. No release dates have been imagined yet, but you know I'll tell you when they're available.
  4. I had some interesting comments from English teachers (both school teachers and language-school ESL teachers) after the talk--they'd learn{ed/t} that some of their closely held beliefs about English were fictions, and thought that their colleagues would have benefited from the talk as well.  So, that got me thinking that it might be good to do some workshops with teachers on American/British differences, standards and prejudices. (It might also be useful to do them with publishers/editors, perhaps.) If there are any schools out there who might like to be guinea pigs for such a thing, please get in touch!



References:


Anderson, S. et al. (2007) How accents affect perception of intelligence. Intuition 3:5–11.

Bayard, D., A. Weatherall, C. Gallois, and J. Pittam (2001) Pax Americana? Accent attitudinal evaluations in New Zealand, Australia, and America. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5:22–49.

Stewart, MA, EB Ryan, and H Giles (1985) Accent and social class effects on status and solidarity evaluations. Personality and  Social Psychology Bulletin 11:98–105.