Wednesday, June 20, 2012

yog(h)urt

When people ask me what I like about living in England, I have usually said (in this order):
  1. the National Health Service
  2. the trains
  3. hearing about people's hobbies
Now, I know that 1 & 2 are not the best of their kind in the world, but you have to consider where I come from. Regarding (1), the NHS saved my life and made sure my child was delivered safely and never asked me to open my purse. I will be a fan for life.  On (2), in my last US town, the train came twice a week (and even then, it came several towns away). Now I don't own a car, I take the train every day, and I never want to go back to car-ownership again. But the magic is wearing off for (3). I was fascinated by hobbies that were new to me when I first came (Morris dancing, lawn bowls, trainspotting), but they are old to me now--and there are just as many interesting hobbies in the US (and, indeed, a lot of trainspotting).  So, I need a new number 3. And it's so obvious what it should be: yog(h)urt.

Let's do the linguistics first. This word comes to English from Turkish yoğurt, but English doesn't have the letter ğ or the sound that goes with it, so we had to figure out what to do with it. I'm relying on Wikipedia here, but it says that in some dialect(s) ğ is not pronounced as its own sound, but instead lengthens the preceding vowel. That would explain why it turns up as yaourt in French (and has also made appearances with that spelling in English). In another dialect(s?), ğ is pronounced as [ɰ], which is a velar approximant. So, it's like a [w], but without the lip-rounding. This is all to say that it's not a hard-g sound at all. Now, the word first appeared in English in the 17th century, so it's had a long time to be 'nativi{z/s}ed' and for people to assume it follows English spelling rules with the hard 'g' before 'u'. What I don't know is why there's ever an 'h' in it (Update: Mats in the comments section has the answer! Yay!). The h-less and h-ful spellings of the word have been present in English from the start. 

I see yoghurt more in the UK than in the US, though both Oxford and Collins list yogurt as the first choice (as do American dictionaries) and most brands spell it without the 'h'. (The pictured one here is an exception.)  My on-line grocer* mostly spells it yogurt, but sometimes puts the h in, even if the brand itself doesn't (but a search for either term brings up the same range of dairy products). The yogurt:yoghurt ratio is more than 1000:1 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English

I can't help but think that the relative popularity of the yoghurt spelling in the UK has something to do with how its pronunciation is evolving. This is one of those where if you think 'older' or 'more like the source language' means 'more correct', you'll have to give up on the belief that '(modern) British' means 'more correct'. (I'd rather you gave up on all of them, but in case you won't, I'm pointing out that you can't believe all of them at the same time.)  The OED records the pronunciation as: 
( /ˈjɒɡət/ , older /ˈjəʊɡʊət/ )

This is to say: a frequent, modern British pronunciation of the word has a first syllable that rhymes with dog (in the same dialect, at least. The [ɒ] vowel of British Received Pronunciation (RP) does not really exist in American English.) The older pronunciation there is the RP version of the /o/ vowel.  The American version of that vowel is closer to /o/, but tends to be lengthened with an off-glide.  If all of this is gibberish to you, then listen to the GOAL-vowel recordings for the [əʊ] sound and the LOT-vowel recording for the /ɒ/  at the British Library's very helpful guide to RP vowels.

Americans pronounce it more like the older pronunciation--except without that cent(e)ring of the vowel that RP does. And if you're still having a hard time imagining any of these sounds, listen to the first two pronunciations of yogurt at Forvo. The first is the modern British, the second American.  Actually, Forvo also has a Turkish pronunciation, the vowel of which doesn't directly correspond to any of the English ones (it's this one).

(This post was supposed to be a quick one. I am very bad at quick.)

So, back to my list. Yog(h)urt, no matter how you spell it or pronounce it, is a thing to love about England--and Europe, generally.  The question is: Why is American yog(h)urt so disgusting by comparison?  I am not the only one asking this question. I typed 'why is American yogurt' into Google, and it auto-completed with 'so bad'. I found the answer for what's different between American and other yog(h)urts at a blog dedicated to the question. But they copied this from somewhere else--its not clear where:
Q: What is the difference between European and American yogurt?
A: Indeed there is a difference. The difference is based on the dry matter and the ingredients. For European yogurts, there are actually two main types. Classical European yogurt, from the culture side, contains only two strains (of bacterial cultures), while mild European yogurt also contains other lactobacillus cultures such as acidophilus.
The difference between European and American yogurt starts exclusively with the selection of the starter cultures and continues with some technical or process development, e.g., homogenizing heat treatment, etc. There is also a big difference in the use of stabilizing ingredients and sweeteners. European yogurts use little of either of these, whereas American yogurts tend to be very sweet and contain a variety of stabilizers, European yogurts rely more on cultures and process for stabilization.
There are plenty of very sweet UK yog(h)urts, but it's the texture that really differs, and even the low- and no-fat versions are much less watery and sour than American versions. It's so much more pleasant--and I can't for the life of me understand why the runny, non-homogenized American ones continue to sell. While the internet tells me there's increasing demand for 'Greek' yog(h)urt in the US, no one over here seems to be clamo(u)ring for the American kind. I am not surprised.  

Before I go, here's a link to a piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog. It balances out all this living-in-England-loving with a little something-I-miss-about-America.


 * Wait! Wait! Shopping for your groceries on-line and having them delivered! That's what really deserves to be number 3 on my list of reasons to love living in England--though it didn't really exist when I moved here. Still, yog(h)urt is definitely top-10 material.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

introducing yourself

Here is a favo(u)rite passage of mine from Kate Fox's Passport to the Pub: The Tourist's Guide to Pub Etiquette:
Don’'t ever introduce yourself. The “Hi, I’m Chuck from Alabama” approach does not go down well in British pubs. Natives will cringe and squirm with embarrassment at such brashness. If your introduction is accompanied by a beaming smile and outstretched hand, they will probably find an excuse to get away from you as quickly as possible. Sorry, but that'’s how it is. The British quite frankly do not want to know your name, or shake your hand – or at least not until a proper degree of mutual interest has been well established (like maybe when you marry their daughter). You will have to adopt a more subtle, less demonstrative approach.
In her book Watching the English (which I don't have with me at the moment--so this is from memory), Fox quotes the reaction of an American couple who were clearly upset and puzzled by this British behavio(u)r. They felt that it was some kind of cruel game for the British to withhold that basic information about themselves. The thing to understand here is this: the British sense of personal privacy is very different from the American one. Asking someone's name, even implicitly by offering yours, is a premature violation of that privacy until some goodwill has already been established between you.

I observe this all the time on the playground. The British parents strike up conversations, and may ask about each other's children's names (which they can then use to encourage their children to play together), but they don't introduce themselves. If you've got(ten) along very well, then maybe--but probably not the first time you've met--you might say 'By the way, I'm [your name here]' before you part company. Maybe.

I saw Better Half speak on two occasions with the mother of a little girl who is close to Grover's age. After the first time, he said "I think she might be someone I worked with years ago." Only at the end of the second (long) conversation did they do the "By the way, I'm..." thing, at which point they discovered that they had worked together and both had recogni{z/s}ed each other, but were afraid to approach the topic in case they were wrong. Contrast this to me meeting another American at a party--within five minutes we've established our names, where we're from, who we work for, and several points of common experience--places we've both been and people we've met who the other might have met. And I am an awkward American. I hate small talk. But establishing these similarities is de rigueur for American conversation (recall our previous discussion of compliments). Because I am awkward, and hyper-aware of certain interactional markers of foreignness in British conversations, I am completely tongue-tied on the playground. I know how not to start a conversation in a British context, but I consider the most common acceptable ways to start a conversation (commenting on the weather or the busyness of the playground) too boring/obvious to start with, so I get stuck.*

It was reassuring, then, to see some quantitative research backing up my own impressions and Fox's observations in Klaus Schneider's new (in-press) paper 'Appropriate behaviour across varieties of English' in the Journal of Pragmatics. Schneider compared the openings of small-talk conversations between teens at parties in Ireland, the US, and England. The majority of English teens (56.7%) start with a greeting only (e.g. Hi), while Americans prefer greeting + identifying themselves (60%) and sometimes explicitly asking for the other person's name. The Irish teens prefer greeting + what Schneider calls an 'approach' (73.3%), in which they refer to the context and evaluate it (almost always in a positive way). His example of an approach is Great party, isn't it?**

Looking at the elements of an opening separately, Americans are more likely to introduce themselves than to greet you with a hi or hello.  In the graph below DISC-ID means 'disclose identity'--i.e. introduce yourself.


(The figure is about a subset of the data, so the numbers don't match the more general analysis of the data in my earlier paragraph. The numbers don't add up to 100% because there are other things you might do besides these three--but these are the most frequent.)

While the data is from teens, it feels pretty representative of what adults do.

So, please, go to some parties and experiment with this and report back here. Just don't do your experiments on me. I'll be standing in the corner, pretending to notice something remarkable in my drink, trying to avoid all the pitfalls of small talk.

And in other news: 
  • I've been pathetic about blogging here, haven't I? So I completely didn't deserve to be in the Lexiophiles/bab.la Top 25 Language Bloggers this year, and I wasn't. (For the first time. I feel duly punished!) But have a look at the link for the good ones.
  • The voters and the judges were kind to my Twitter account (even though they didn't identify me by my Twitter handle in the voting--it was strange). I made it to #9 there. Here's the full list.
  • But I haven't been completely neglecting my writing-about-AmE/BrE vocation. Since the last blog, I've talked at TedXSussexUniversity on American/British politeness norms and at Horsham Skeptics in the Pub. I'll link to the TedX talk when it's on-line. The SitP talk is reviewed here. But don't read the review if you want to see me give the talk (too many spoilers!). I'm doing it again at the Brighton Skeptics in the Pub in October. A few other things are in the pipeline...


*In a cross-cultural communication course I used to teach, one of the readings was about Finnish culture, and the point that really stuck with me was that Finns are often puzzled (or maybe annoyed) by English speakers' need to state the obvious. Why say Nice weather!, for instance, when everyone can see what the weather's like? It made Finland sound like some kind of anti-small-talk Nirvana that I'd want to live in, but it's also made me super-critical of myself when I interact with Finns. There is no hope for me--I am awkward in every culture.

** Schneider also notes the predictability of the Great party! line:
Great is clearly preferred by speakers of IrE, but speakers of AmE make use of a wider range of lexical items. These include great, good, nice, especially cool and also fun, as, e.g.in Fun party, huh?