'X's Y' versus 'the Y of X'

[I had said I'd be blogging weekly, but that didn't happen when I had to travel for family reasons. I have got(ten) back to it, not that you'll always notice. I've decided that my goal is to *write* for the blog each week, but not necessarily to publish. So, I started writing this one last week, finished this week.]

I'm doing a lot of reading about the genitive case at the moment. Grammatical case is some kind of marking (e.g. a suffix) that shows what 'job' a noun is doing in a sentence. You might know a lot about case if you've studied German or Latin or Finnish (or some other languages), which have case suffixes on nouns. You'll know a little about case from being an English speaker who knows the differences between they, them, and theirs. Modern English marks pronouns for case, but not other nouns, except...

Old English (Anglo-Saxon) had a robust case system, which it got from the ancestor it shared with German. The case suffixes pretty much died during Middle English. (English lost a lot of other kinds of suffixes over the centuries too, in part because suffixes are the kinds of things that get swallowed up in speech and in part becuase they're the kind of thing that become vulnerable when different languages come into contact—as happened for English and Norman French nearly 1000 years ago.) But one English case suffix, rather than disappearing, morphed into something else, and that something is the scourge of English spelling, the apostrophe-s: 's

So in the Old-English poem Beowulf, you can read about Grendles guðcræft. That -es on the name of the monster Grendel is the forebear of 's. We can translate it as something like 'Grendel's power' or 'Grendel's warcraft'. That (masculine, singular) genitive case marker says that there's a very close relation between Grendel and the guðcræft. Grendel is the power's source or its possessor.


But when that poem gets translated into Modern English, the translators sometimes translate the -es as an 's and sometimes not:
the might of Grendel (Francis Gummere)  
Grendel's power of destruction (Seamus Heaney)
That's because something else happened in Middle English: English started using of in the way that French uses de to express genitive relations—because French got all up in English's business at that point. Because of that change, of occurs only 30 times in Beowulf (where it has its original meaning of 'away from' or 'off'*), but over 900 times in Gummere's translation of it (where it means next to nothing).

So English has ended up with two ways of expressing those kinds of relations. We tend to talk about them as being 'possessive' relations and of the X in X's Y or the Y of X as 'the possessor'.  But the relation is not necessarily possessive. Think about something like the theft of the bicycle and the bicycle's theft: the bicycle doesn't possess the theft. The relations between the nouns in 's/of expressions are varied and hard to pin down (but they are very close relationships, covering a lot of the same ground as the genitive in Old English).

We don't exactly use 's and of interchangeably, though, and even where we can use both we often have preferences for one or the other. One of the strongest predictors of whether it'll be 's  or of is the animacy of the thing in the X position (the 'possessor'). Linguists often talk about an animacy hierarchy in which expressions that refer to  animate things are preferred in certain positions in sentences over non-animate things. In terms of what's animate, humans (the teacher, Heidi) come above animals (the badger, the parrot) and collectives (the company, the union), which come above objects (the table, the book).  All of the below noun phrases are "grammatical" but the higher up the list we go, the more apt people are to use the 's instead of the of phrase, all other things being equal:
the teacher's size        the size of the teacher
the badger's size         the size of the badger
the union's size           the size of the union
the table's size            the size of the table
A lot is going on in that 'all other things being equal' (a phrase used in both AmE and BrE, but AmE also likes all else being equal). Some other things that swing a possessive in favo(u)r of 's phrasing rather than of phrasing are:
  • heavier (more syllables/more complex syntax) possessed NPs rather than lighter ones
    (the union's argument with the management; the argument with the management of the union)
  • the need for denser texts, as in newspaper headlines 
  • speech (rather than writing)
  • informal writing style (rather than more formal writing styles)
  • the dialect being spoken
So, on the last point: English in general used to be a much stronger avoidance of 's on inanimate object names. Inanimate possessors have become more and more accepted in English over the last 200 years or so. But that change has been happening faster in American English than British. This is like a lot (but not all!) of other changes in English (see The Prodigal Tongue, or if you really like to read about statistical methods, Paul Baker's book)—the change has roots deep in English's history, but goes faster/slower in different places. In this change's case (like some others), the "newer" form ('s on inanimates) is perceived as less formal and it's more condensed (and therefore quicker to say/read). Both of these properties might characteri{s/z}e some differences between the cultures that maintain the "standard" versions of English in the two countries. AmE tolerates more informality and more brevity in more situations.

So, having been thinking about all this, I did a Difference of the Day on Twitter, showing these two charts:


Here you can see that North Americans are much more happy than others to say the book's spine or the book's ending or the table's leg or the table's style (or whatever other nouns might go after book's and table's). Here's the flipside, the of versions, which I didn't post on Twitter.



The table chart goes with what we'd expect to see: BrE doing a lot more with of than AmE. But the book table has AmE doing more of the book than BrE. You know why? Because American talk about books more. No, really:


So that's a lot more detail than you needed in order to see the AmE/BrE difference, but, hey, reading is good for you!

*Why does off look like of? Because they used to be the same word!

Some of the things I've been reading that influenced this post:
Carlier, Anne and Jean-Christophe Verstraete. 2013. Genitive case and genitive constructions: an introduction. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Carlier, Anne, Michèle Goyens and Béatrice Lamiroy. 2013. De: a genitive marker in French? Its grammaticalization path from Latin to French. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt and Lars Hinrichs. 2008. Probabilistic determinants of genitive variation in spoken and written English: A multivariate comparison across time, space, and genres. In Terttu Nevalainen, IrmaTaavitsainen, Päivi Pahta, and Minna Korhonen (eds.), The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation: Corpus Evidence on English Past and Present. Amsterdam : John Benjamins.

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geez, jeez!


As with many of my discoveries about English, this one happened during a Scrabble game. I had played GEEZ and my opponent challenged it, stating that she thought I needed a J rather than a G. When British people think I've got English wrong, I make a note of it, go home, and look it up. And about half the time, it is because there is a national/dialectal difference to be found. (The rest of the time, it's down to some weird beliefs about language. And most of the things we believe about language are weird, and little to do with reality. This has been the main thesis of my research career.)

Geez/jeez is originally AmE, a way of not-taking the name Jesus in vain. I was probably an adult before I reali{s/z}ed that. To me, it was just some thing people said, and I didn't make the connection, just like a lot of people probably don't reali{s/z}e (till someone tells them) that (BrE) crikey is a way to avoid saying Christ or (BrE) cor, blimey stared as an avoidance of God blind me.

Whether people spelled it with a G because they didn't see the relationship to Jesus or whether using the G was a way to keep it one more step removed from Jesus, I don't know. What I do know is that the G is the more common spelling in AmE, but it's rarely used in BrE, where the expression has caught on (not least in imitations of Americans). I suspect that when it entered BrE people could see its minced-oath nature, and so assumed it was spel{led/t} with a J.

Click to embiggen.
https://www.english-corpora.org/glowbe/
 As we've seen before, there's a lot of spelling variation in interjections, which start their lives in speech and mostly stay there. They never get tested in school spelling quizzes, you just do what you want with them.  It will be interesting to see whether there's more standardization of the spelling of speech-like bits as an effect of the more speech-like writing we do online.  (If anyone knows of such research, I'd be interested to hear about it. I had a quick look and didn't find anything super-relevant, but there must be some out there.)

Jack Grieve has made a word-mapper tool for seeing where particular words are tweeted most in the USA. You might enjoy his maps of Sweary USA. I tried it for geez/jeez to see if there's any variation in the US. As you can see, saying {g/j}eez is not a regional thing. It's all over. But spelling it with the J, while less common overall (note the different colo[u]r scales for the maps), is more common in 'the North', i.e. the northeast and northern midwest.



What struck me about the jeez map is how the jeez area seems to echo Yankeedom in Colin Woodard's American Nations. Woodard's book posits that different regional subcultures of the US derive from its migration histories, with value systems travel(l)ing westward from the east coast (and then dispersing in different ways when migration patterns become less linear and sparser in the 'west'. Woodard's maps look much like maps of major dialect areas in the US.

https://www.businessinsider.com/the-11-nations-of-the-united-states-2015-7
Perhaps BrE has the jeez spelling because of greater contact with the northeast—though I doubt that is the relevant issue, since exposure to the word is probably mostly through speech. Perhaps Yankeedom and the UK have in common a feeling that the oath does not need so much mincing, and so they are more apt to spell it in line with its etymology.

If you're interested similar speaking/spelling problems, you be interested in these other posts. Please comment about those ones at their posts and keep those parties going:

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pigs in blankets

This keeps coming up on Twitter and in the comments at other posts, so let's talk about (BrE) pigs in blankets/(more common in AmE) pigs in a blanket (singular for both: pig in a blanket).

Recipe at BBC Good Food
British pigs in blankets are small sausages wrapped in bacon (and cooked!). They are delicious. They're traditionally served alongside turkey as part of Christmas dinner. (For me, they almost make up for the fact that Brussels sprouts are also a traditional part of Christmas dinner in England.) The usual sausage involved is a chipolata, which we could call a BrE word because it's hardly heard in the US (16 UK hits on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, but zero US ones). But then again, it's not that there's another word for it in AmE, so better to call it a UK-and-not-US thing, rather than a BrE word. Basically, all the non-imported sausages (and even some of the imported ones) are different in the UK and US.

These are (increasingly, I think) found in US cooking, but I haven't heard them called pigs in blankets in the US. My brother, with no prodding from happy me, has started serving them as pre-dinner snack at Christmas time, and we call them sausages wrapped in bacon. Now that he does that, pretty much the only thing I like better about UK Christmas than US Christmas is the fact that I don't have to travel for my pigs in blankets. (Sorry, mince pie fans.)


Recipe at food.com
In AmE, pigs in a blanket are usually small sausages wrapped in dough (and cooked!). They are delicious. When I was a kid, this usually involved (AmE) cocktail franks* (also cocktail wieners, little smokies, and general-English cocktail sausages) wrapped in the kind of Pillsbury dough that comes in a tube. I think that when I was a kid, this usually involved the dinner-roll dough, but nowadays I see most of the recipes online (including Pillsbury's) involve their crescent-roll dough. (Even though I should know better now, I'm still dangerous around a basket of freshly baked Pillsbury crescent rolls. There's no point in calling them croissants, though. A crescent roll is like a croissant that's been photocopied 100 times and then had hydrogenated palm oil added.)
* Note that on the Oscar Mayer package, the sausages are now wrapped in bacon. Trendy.

Recipe at BBC Good Food
The use of crescent-roll pastry, rather than a bread dough, takes American pigs in blankets a step closer to the British sausage roll, which is a sausage (often just the sausage meat) encased in puff pastry. But to my senses, US pigs in blankets and UK sausage rolls are very different things, due to the differences in sausage spicing, sausage/pastry ratios and coverage, shape, etc.). The ones in the photo here are 'mini sausage rolls', but a non-mini sausage roll contains as much sausage as a typical hot-dog-style sausage.





Recipe at Splendid Table
The final type of pig in a blanket is an American breakfast food: American-style breakfast links wrapped in an American-style pancake. They are delicious. This is the least common meaning for the expression, but one you used to be able to find on an IHOP menu. The key thing to know about these is that American breakfast sausages are nothing like any breakfast sausage in the UK. They have a lot of sage, are much slimmer than most UK sausages and sometimes casing-less, and are really well complemented by maple syrup. If you order sausage in a US breakfast diner, you may well be asked links or patties? If you've ever seen a Sausage McMuffin, you've seen a sausage (AmE) patty. You get those by slicing them like salami (but thicker!) from a big ol' package of sausage meat.

(This paragraph added in response to comments) The plural pigs in blankets is more common in BrE, while AmE tends toward pigs in a blanket. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio is about 1:4. That said, I think the plural blankets is found more in print—the COCA examples include a lot of spoken ones and fictional dialogue. Looking at Google Books ngrams, pigs in a blanket seems to be a rather recent plural.)

Now comes THE BIG TWIST IN THE TALE. The term pig in a blanket is originally AmE, but it  had nothing to do with sausages at the beginning. The OED has its first recorded use of the term showing up in 1882 and referring to oysters wrapped in bacon. This dish shows up slightly earlier in UK cook(ery) books with the name it still has: angels on horseback. The first record of a sausage-related meaning is from 1926, and refers to a sausage in a roll, rather than one baked into dough, and that meaning continues on in the 1940s. (I've found additional examples as well as the OED's up to 1948.)  Apparently, the first known use of it in the "rolled in dough" meaning occurred in 1957 in Betty Crocker's Cooking for Kids. Essentially, it looks like the current AmE meaning coincides with the wide availability of packaged refrigerator doughs.

As for the BrE meaning, it's not hard to imagine the AmE term coming over to the UK and being re-interpreted. It would not have been needed for oysters-in-bacon, since BrE already had an equally weird term for that. Sausages, usually made of pork in the UK, make a lot more sense as a 'pig' than an oyster does.


Other sausage-related posts for your information, edification, or appetization: (Is that a word? It is now.)
on hot dogs
on red hots
on baked goods (pigs in blankets briefly mentioned)
on breakfast
on bangers
on pudding (including black pudding)

 PS: Nancy Friedman has shared this glorious picture of the 1957 Betty Crocker's Cook Book for Boys and Girls (Betty Crocker = an American institution), showing (a) that the use of mini sausages was a later thing, and (b) the traditional plural form. I love the hat-tipping wiener and frank—and the explanation of the difference.
.


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dicing with death

Previously on this blog, I've discussed whether BrE and AmE are different in their singular for dice. Have a look at that blog post if that's what you're interested in.

This one is about the phrase to dice with death, meaning essentially, to take risks with one's life or safety. It's one of those things that I didn't reali{s/z}e was BrE until another American pointed it out to me. (Apologies if you were that uncredited American—I can no longer find the correspondence.)

The OED says the use of dice to mean 'risk' is especially associated with motor sports (a phrase that itself seems to be more BrE than AmE). It is not about chopping up death into cubes, but about 'gambling with one's life' (a phrasing that can be used in either language). Though Merriam-Webster includes this use of dice with an example from Newsweek, it's nowhere to be seen in the American portion of the GloWBE corpus.

The phrase raised two questions for me:
  • is it dicing with death or dicing with Death?
    I imagined the latter, that it's playing a game of dice with the Grim Reaper. But none of the corpus examples treat death as a proper name, so perhaps I'm alone in that.
  • what's the relationship to dancing with death
Since not a lot of people use dice as an intransitive verb to mean 'to play dice', I was imagining that dance with death might have arisen from a misunderstanding of dice with death—an eggcorn, if you will.  And I think there's some evidence to back that up:


In this Google Books Ngram chart (click on it for details), the blue line shows dicing with death is already in existence in BrE during (BrE) the War. The green line is American use of it, intermingling early on with dancing with death. Dancing with death eventually catches up with dicing in AmE, while also rising in BrE, perhaps getting more currency as people have more distance from the 'risk' use of dice as a verb.

For what it's worth, it's slightly easier to find capital-D Death with dance than with dice, but it's far more common to find it lower-case.
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eggs

While I've been very good at keeping up with my Differences of the Day on Twitter, the blog posts have got(ten) fewer and f{a/u}rther in between. I'm committing this month (and hopefully from now on) to do one a week, and the way I'm going to make that feel more do-able is to piggyback on the work I've done for the #DotDs. Lately, I've been doing a lot of themed weeks of differences, and those can be built up into a nice little blog post.

I decided on #EggWeek because I was newly part of Egg Club. The first rule of Egg Club is that a generous member of our neighbo(u)rhood goes to a farm outside town and buys eggs from 'very happy chickens'. The second rule of Egg Club is that those of us with standing orders show up at her house with money and something to put the eggs in (we'll get to that, below).


Here are #EggWeek  differences I noted, and some information added-on by the tweople who responded to the tweets.

AmE has a vocabulary for fried-egg cooking that BrE doesn't, which starts from the assumption that if you want your eggs well-done, then you should flip them over. In UK, flipping is less common. In a (BrE) caff or (orig. AmE) greasy spoon and in some homes, a well-done egg is achieved by spooning the cooking fat over the egg. In my American life, I've never seen anyone fry an egg in enough fat to be able to spoon it. At any rate, the AmE vocabulary includes:
  • sunny-side up = not flipped
  • over easy = flipped over for just long enough that the egg white is cooked on both sides. Yolk should still be runny.
  • over medium = flipped over and cooked for a 'medium' amount of time/yolk-runniness
  • over hard = flipped over and cooked until the yolk is solid
BrE egg yolks can be described as dippy if they are nice and runny. A dippy egg is a soft-boiled egg into which you can dip your toast to get some nice yolk on it. 

That leads us to a difference that is more cultural than linguistic: in UK, soft-boiled eggs (often just called boiled eggs in this context) are just about always presented in an egg cup. I know some Americans own egg cups and use them, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Some UK folks proposed to me that this is because Americans don't eat soft-boiled eggs, but that's just not true. I once had a 70-something-day streak of having two boiled eggs and two slices of toast every evening for dinner. (This was back in my poor earning-rand-but-paying-back-student-loans-in-dollars days. You might think I'd have got(ten) sick of boiled eggs, but it's still one of my favo(u)rite meals. Only now I can afford some asparagus to go with it.)

But when I posted photos side-by-side  of British-style boiled-egg presentation and American-style, several British Twitterfolk protested that the American eggs were poached (righthand photo). No, they were boiled eggs that had been peeled and put on toast—which is exactly the way I eat them. (I am making myself hungry now. I guess I know what's for lunch.) The picture on the left is BrE egg and soldiers, the soldiers being the lengthwise-sliced toast strips.




Of course, this posting resulted in lots of people trying to tell me that the British way of eating boiled eggs is superior. You can have it, it's not for me. (My mother-in-law has given us several egg cups, perhaps because she couldn't find any at our house. I mostly store small kitchen bits in them.) Putting the egg on toast lets you give it a single and wide-spreading sprinkling of salt and (if you like) pepper. Peeling them is much easier if the eggs are fresh, which is what makes Egg Club so worth my while. The store-bought eggs I get in the UK are generally not as easy to peel. When I was a kid, a soft-boiled egg was a regular first foray in to the world of the eating after a stomach bug. My mom would peel it, and put it into a bowl, so you could smash it and dip your toast in it. But on toast is the grown-up way to go.  (And much easier than poaching, especially if you want to make a few of them.)

Egg cartons  are often called egg boxes in BrE:



The sandwich filling made of hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise is called egg mayonnaise in BrE, which Americans perceive as a pleonasm: all mayonnaise is made of eggs, so of course it's egg mayonnaise! But if you're perceiving it that way, you're probably imagining the stress pattern of the phrase as the same as you'd say herb mayonnaise for mayonnaise with herbs in it. The trick is to hear it like it's 'egg in the mayonnaise style'. The pronunciation of the mayonnaise is English, not French, but it follows a French food syntax (as we've seen before).  This concoction is called egg salad in AmE, though a lot of Americans would put in other ingredients as well to flavo(u)r the (orig. AmE) combo. This pattern holds for other mixes of bits of food with mayo: tuna mayonnaise/salad, chicken mayonnaise/salad.

There was one more #DotD in #EggWeek: whether scrambled egg is a count noun or a mass noun. In AmE, you can have a scrambled egg, but you wouldn't have scrambled egg. When you've got a bunch of it and you can't tell how many eggs are there, AmE goes for scrambled eggs. So, BrE scrambled egg on toast = AmE scrambled eggs on toast. I've covered this one before, so if you want to have a conversation about count and mass nouns, please see this old post.


One week of blogging down, many to go!

PS: I meant to point out another difference between US and UK (and European generally, I think) eggs: American eggs need to be refrigerated, British ones don't. Here's an article about why.

Egg cartons/boxes
colo(u)r-coded by size
PPS: What counts as a 'large' egg or a 'medium' egg differs too. Possibly not in the direction that you'd think. Have a look at Wikipedia

When I go to the shop to buy eggs in England, my choices seem to have more to do with how the chickens were raised than with the size of the eggs, whereas in US supermarkets, there seems to be more variety available in egg size, more clearly label(l)ed—e.g. in different colo(u)red cartons. You can see the difference in this photo of eggs on the shelf (not the fridge) in a UK chain versus this at our supermarket in NY state.

PPPS: It is very hard to get a white-shelled chicken egg in the UK. I go through a crisis about this every Easter when I'm trying to dye eggs (like the good American parent that I am, or try to be). I end up just leaving them in the dye extra-long and have dark colo(u)rs instead of pastel ones. In the US, white-shelled was the norm when I was growing up, but brown ones have become more and more common, on the mistaken belief that they are somehow more 'natural'. It's the species of chicken involved that determines the shell colo(u)r.
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2019 US-to-UK Word of the Year: gotten

For part 1 of the 2019 Words of the Year, click here.  Now we're on to the US-to-UK WotY.

Radzi Chinyanganya, WotY inspiration
I had pretty much decided not to do a US-to-UK Word of the Year for 2019. The words nominated were generally ones that had made a big splash in English recently on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than long-standing Americanisms that were making a splash in Britain. I had begun to think that BrE had reached peak Americanism. But then I went through my top tweets of the year, and saw one that made me think: "Oh yeah, that's it."


The US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

gotten



Here's the tweet that reminded me: 
 


Now, this choice might be controversial in that gotten is not just and not originally American. It is one of those linguistic things that mostly died in the UK while it thrived in the US. When I moved to the UK, a colleague told me that you'd still hear gotten among old people in Yorkshire. I haven't had the chance to bother any old people in Yorkshire about that, but -en forms of get were found far and wide in English dialects. That said, the OED has it as "chiefly U.S." and it is widely perceived in the UK as an Americanism. In England you do hear it more from Americans (in the media, if not in person) than from British folk. Here's a bit of what I said about it in The Prodigal Tongue:

That part of the book goes on to examine the evidence that gotten only really got going in the US—that it was not used much in the formal English of those who came from England to the Americas, and that its use exploded only in the late 19th century, when the US was finding a voice of its own. (Want to know more? I have a book to sell you!)

So, while gotten is not just American nor originally American, America is where gotten made its fortune. The "standard" British participle for get is have got, as discussed (along with its meaning) in this old post.

What's interesting about gotten in Britain in 2019 is that it's been used quite a bit in places where you don't tend to hear non-standard, regional grammatical forms: like on the BBC and in Parliament. And I have heard it among my child's middle-class (orig. AmE) tween friends here in the southeast. Here are some interesting examples, besides our friend Radzi.*

On the CBeebies (BBC channel for young children) website:


In a BBC news story about an orange seagull in Buckinghamshire:

Hospital staff said the bird "had somehow gotten himself covered in curry or turmeric".

In the linguistically (and otherwise) conservative Telegraph newspaper:**
Yet, it is the ageing filter that has gotten most people talking.

By then-Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who got into trouble for saying:
The Lib Dems have gotten kind of Taliban, haven’t they?

And in the House of Commons:
  • "I would like to share some of the thoughts of organisations that have gotten in touch in recent days to share their experience of training mental health first aiders..." —Luciana Berger, 17 Jan 2019
  • "...those in Sinn Féin say, 'Well, we’ve gotten away with two years of saying we’re not going back into government until...'" —Gregory Campbell, 5 Mar 2019
  • "...the mess that this place has gotten itself into..."  —Deirdre Brock 19 Mar 2019
  • "...the best way of dealing with this is not through a voluntary levy based on the least that can be gotten away with" —Jim Shannon, 2 July  2019
There's a difference, though, between the ones from the House of Commons and the others. The parliamentary ones have gotten in a set phrase of some sort. It's long been the case that British speakers say gotten in close proximity to mess and into, since they're alluding to Laurel and Hardy films, where gotten is indeed the form. And in the other cases above, we've got gotten away with and gotten in touch, which are figurative and idiomatic uses. (Neither of those particular idioms is particularly American.) Since gotten is heard in Parliament as part of set phrases, it's not clear that it would be a 'normal' way for those speakers to form the past participle of get in general.

The other examples above (and indeed Radzi's uses that inspired my original tweet) are have gotten just as a plain old verb in its many meanings. Those interest me more because they do seem more like the re-introduction of the get-got-gotten paradigm, and not just certain constructions that have been remembered with a certain verb form.

A lot of the British gotten that I've been exposed to is from homegrown children's television and children, and that's what really seals it for me as a 2019 word. After 20 years of not hearing it much (and training myself out of saying it much), I'm really noticing it. You can find lots of people, particularly older people, in the UK talking about its ugliness or wrongness, but the fact that younger people are un-self-consciously saying it makes me think that it will get bigger still.

And on that note, a bit later than is decent, I say goodbye to 2019!


Footnotes:

* I haven't presented corpus numbers in this post, since the bulk of the gotten numbers in corpora tend to be (in news) quoted Americans or (in other things) in set phrases. The Hansard corpus tool at Huddersfield University doesn't seem to be able to separate the gottens from the ill-gottens—which is a form that has remained in BrE despite the more general loss of gotten.

** (I got quite a few google hits for gotten in the Telegraph, for which I could see the gotten in the preview. But for some, when I clicked through, the same sentence had got. Might this be because some stories were originally posted with gotten then changed when the "error" was caught?)
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2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year: knock-on

It's the end of the year, and time to declare the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year. As ever, I've got two categories: US-to-UK and UK-to-US. In other words: I'm interested in borrowings between these national dialects. To be a SbaCL WoTY, the word doesn't have to have been imported precisely in that year—it just needs to have been noticeable in some way. For past WotYs, see here. I'll post the US-to-UK word soon; this post is for UK-to-US.

I've been noticing a lot of Britishisms in American English this year (and, as ever, Ben Yagoda is recording many of them at his Not One-Off Britishisms [NOOB] blog). I've decided to go with one nominated by Neil Dolinger last month. The UK-to-US SbaCL Word of the Year is:

knock-on

The relevant sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
Being a secondary or indirect consequence of another action, occurrence, or event
It's most commonly found in the phrase knock-on effect, which is first recorded in the OED in 1972. Knock-on itself seems to have passed into general usage from physics:

Ben Yagoda's blog had knock-on effect as an "on-the-radar NOOB" in 2012, and the reason I've chosen it as the 2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year is its 2018-19 surge in US usage, as can be seen here in the US portion of the News on the Web corpus:



Of the 612 US examples of it in this corpus, 481 are in the phrase knock-on effect(s). Another 83 are followed by another noun, such as impact, employment, and delays.

It's still very much a British expression: while knock-on still occurs about 5 times per million British words in the News on the Web corpus, it's still less than once per million in the US news corpus (.63 in 2019 overall). And that corpus is showing the marks of globali{s/z}ation—a frequent source of knock-on in the US data is from the US edition of the UK paper The Guardian and of the Irish Times international edition. Still, it is showing up in a lot of homegrown US media: local news channels, the Washington Post, Forbes, Variety, and others:

Click to enlarge
 
Why is it more common in the first half of each year than the second? Well, for 2019, there are no examples after October, so I think that might be an effect of the corpus collection methods. It could also be because of rugby, in which knock-on is a noun (for when the ball is knocked forward). The Six Nations tournament starts in February and 4 out of 24 US examples of knock-on in February 2019 and 4 of 13 in March have the rugby sense. By contrast, in January and April, zero of the 29 US hits have the rugby sense. So, while there is definitely noise from the rugby sense in two months of the year, that effect seems limited.

I'll let Ben Yagoda have the last say about whether this shift is enough to take it from "on the radar" to being a full-blown Not One-Off Britishism in the US, but I thank Neil for nominating it.
But before I go, it seems fitting to mention this dialectal difference: BrE Heath Robinson machine versus AmE Rube Goldberg machine. You can click on the links to learn about their namesakes, but here's an OK Go video to illustrate knock-on effects, just for fun. Happy New Year!
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Book Week 2019: Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet


Welcome to the final review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing. The 'week' has turned out to be eight days. If you're perturbed about that, I'm happy to offer you a full refund on your subscription fees for this blog.

On with the show. Today's book is:


Because Internet

Understanding the new rules of language (US subtitle)
Understanding how language is changing (UK subtitle)

by Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead, 2019 (N America)
Harvill Secker, 2019 (UK)


Gretchen McCulloch describes herself as an internet linguist: writing about internet language for people on the internet. She actually does a lot more than that, with daily blogging at All Things Linguistic for years and being one half of the Lingthusiasm podcast team and writing on all sorts of linguistic themes for all sorts of publications. So, I expect many readers of this blog will already know her and have heard about this book. 

US Cover
I expected Because Internet to be good, knowing Gretchen's work, but I also probably (in my grumpy, middle-aged, oh-do-we-have-to-talk-about-emojis-again? way) expected it to be faddish. There have been too many just-plain-bad, (orig. AmE) jumping-on-the-bandwagon books about emojis, and I've got(ten) a bit sour on the topic. 

This book is so much more than I expected it to be. 

I should have known better. Having read and heard much of her work, I should have expected that this would be a truly sophisticated approach to language and to general-audience linguistics writing. So far in Book Week 2019, I've recommended the books as gifts for A-level students/teachers, science lovers, and language curmudgeons. This book is good for all those groups and more. 

UK cover
The key is in the subtitle(s).* This is not just a book about emojis and autocomplete (and, actually, autocomplete isn't even in the index). This is a book about the relationship between speech and writing and how that's changed with technology. It seamlessly introduces theories of why language changes, how change spreads and how communication works in a time when the potential for change is high and the potential for changes to spread is unprecedented. 

That seamless introduction of linguistic concepts is the reason I've started this book from the beginning and not skipped around (unlike for other books in Book Week—where the rule is that I don't have to read the whole book before I start writing about it). In most books about language for non-linguists, I'm able to skim or skip the bit where they talk about the basics of how language works and the classic studies on the topic and the ideas springing from them. McCulloch covers those issues and those studies (the Labovs, the Milroys, the Eckerts), but since this is intertwined with looking at how language is changing in the 21st century—because (of the) internet—it was worth my while to read straight through. The great thing about the language of the internet is: even when it looks really different from non-internet language, it's still illustrating general principles about how language, communication, and society work. But it also shows how society is changing because of technology, particularly in changing who we are likely to interact with or hear from, In the process, it gives a history of the internet that's enlightening even for those of us who've lived through it all. (I've just flipped open to a section about  PLATO at the University of Illinois. One of my student jobs was working in a PLATO lab, playing Bugs-n-Drugs [aka Medcenter] while signing people in and out. That game was not good for my hypochondria, but I have awfully fond memories of PLATO.)


Another thing to appreciate about McCulloch's book is how unreactionary it is. She doesn't set up her discussion as "You've heard people say these stupid things about the internet, but here's the TRUTH." (A style of writing that I can be very, very guilty of.) She mostly just makes her case gracefully, based on what the language is doing, rather than reacting to what other people say the language is doing. Rather than 'This, that and the other person say emoji are a new language, but they're not', she just gets on with explaining how emoji fulfil(l) our communicative need to gesture. It's a positive approach that academic linguists will have had trained out of them by the requirements of academic publishing.

This is a bit of a nerdview 'review'. Usually reviews tell you some fun facts from the book they're reviewing, whereas I'm telling you what I've noticed about its information structure. That's because that's what I really look for in books as I prepare to write a new one. In terms of information, in this book you'll learn, among other things:
  • which "internet generation" you belong to and how your language is likely to be different from other generations'.
  • what punctuation communicates in texting/chat and how that differs from formal writing
  • how language change can be traced through studying strong and weak social links and geographic tagging on Twitter
Inevitably, the book is mainly about English, in no small part because English rules the internet. But it does make its way to other languages and cultures—for instance, how Arabic chat users adapted their spelling to the roman alphabet and how emojis are interpreted differently around the world.  In the end, she briefly considers whether space is being made for other languages on the internet.

It's a galloping read and you'll learn all sorts of things.


So, on that happy review, I declare Book Week 2019 FINISHED.


* I love the transatlantic change in subtitles, since it completely illustrates the point of chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue: that Americans like to talk about language in terms of rules, and Britons in terms of history/tradition. I've also written a shorter piece about my personal experience of it for Zócalo Public Square.
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Book Week 2019: David Shariatmadari's Don't Believe a Word

Welcome to the third review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing this week. In the end, there will be four posts. I thought there would be five, but one of the books has (orig. BrE) gone missing. Having had a day off yesterday, I will also have a day off tomorrow, so the final review will appear during the weekend. Probably.

Anyhow, today's book is:

Don't believe a word
the surprising truth about language

by David Shariatmadari
Norton, 2019 (N America)
W&N, 2019 (UK/RoW)


David Shariatmadari writes for the Guardian, often about language, and is one of the sensible journalists on the topic. The number of sensible journalists writing about language has really shot up in the past decade, and judging from reading their books, this is in part because of increasingly clear, public-facing work by academic linguists. (Yay, academic linguists!) But in Shariatmadari's case, the journalist is a linguist: he has a BA and MA in the subject. And it shows—in the best possible way. 

The book is a familiar genre: busting widely held language myths. If you've read books in this genre before, you probably don't need these myths busted. You probably know that linguistic change is natural, that the border between language and dialect is unfindable, that apes haven't really learned sign languages, and that no form of language is inherently superior to another. Nevertheless, you may learn something new, since Shariatmadari's tastes for linguistic research and theories is not always on the same wavelength as some other books directed at such a general audience.

Once again, I'm reviewing with a partial view of the book (this is the practical law of Book Week 2019). In this case, I've read chapters 1, 5, and 9 and skimmed through other bits. The introductory chapter gives us a bit of insight into Shariatmadari's conversion to full-blown linguist, as a reluctant student of Arabic who was quickly converted to admiration for the language and to the study of language as an insight into humanity. "It's not hyperbole to say that linguistics is the universal social science", he writes. "It intrudes into almost every area of knowledge."
UK cover

I chose to read chapter 5 because I'd had the pleasure of hearing him talk about its topic at a student conference recently: the popularity of "untranslatable word" lists. Goodness knows, I've contributed to them. What I liked about the talk was his detective work on the words themselves—some of the words and definitions presented in lists of 'untranslatables' are practically fictional. And yet, those of us who don't speak the language in question often eat up these lists because of our ethnocentric need to exotici{s/z}e others. This leads inevitably to discussion of linguistic relativism—the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think—and the bad, old (so-called) evidence for it and the newer evidence for something much subtler. The chapter then goes in a direction I wasn't expecting: introducing Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), an interesting (but far from universally taught) approach to meaning that uses about 65 semantic building blocks to represent and compare meanings across languages. NSM adherents make the case that few, if any, words are truly equivalent across languages. But while any word in one language may have no single-word equivalent in another language, that doesn't mean those words are untranslatable. It just means that translating them can be a delicate and complicated thing.

US cover
The final chapter (9) takes the opposite view to David Adger's Language Unlimited (in my last review), and argues that the hierarchical (and human-specific) nature of linguistic structure need not be the product of an innate Universal Grammar, but instead could arise from the complexity of the system involved and humans' advanced social cognition. While Adger had a whole book for his argument, Shariatmadari has 30-odd pages, and so it's not really fair to compare them in terms of the depth of their argumentation, but still worth reading the latter to get a sense of how linguists and psychologists are arguing about these things.

Shariatmadari is a clear and engaging writer, and includes a good range of references and a glossary of linguistic terminology. If you know someone who still believes some language myths, this might be a good present for them. (Though in my experience, people don't actually like getting presents that threaten their worldview. I still do it, because I care more about myth-busting writers earning royalties than I care about linguistic chauvinists getting presents they want.) It would also make an excellent gift for A-level English and language students (and teachers) and others who might be future linguists. After they read it, send them my way. I love having myth-busted students.
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Book week 2019: David Adger's Language Unlimited

Welcome to the second review post of Book Week 2019. See the intro to Book Week 2019 to understand more about what I'm doing this week. Next up we have:

Language unlimited
the science behind our most creative power

by David Adger
Oxford University Press, 2019


This is a book for people who like to think about HOW THINGS WORK. It's a serious work of popular science writing, which carefully spells out the mysteries of syntax. And by mysteries, I mean things you've probably never even noticed about language. But once they're pointed out, you have to sit back and say "Whoa." Because even though you hadn't noticed these things, you know them. Remember a few years ago, when the internet was hopping with posts about how we subconsciously know which order to put adjectives in? That's kid's play compared with the stuff that Adger'll teach you about the things you know but don't know about.

Adger (who is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University, London) describes the situation carefully, clearly, and engagingly, using copious examples and analogies to communicate some really subtle points. (I particularly liked the explanation of form versus function in language, which drew on the form versus the function of alcohol. Chin-chin!) He draws in evidence from neurology, psychology, and computer science to both corroborate his points and to introduce further questions about how language works.

As I said in the intro to Book week, I have not read all the books I'm reviewing absolutely cover-to-cover. In this case, of the ten chapters, I read 1–3, 7, and 10—and skimmed through the other chapters. The early chapters make the case that there's more to linguistic structure than meets the eye and that human linguistic abilities must consist of something special—they must be qualitatively different from the types of cognition that other animals use and that humans use in non-linguistic communication. Later ones cover issues like how children experience and acquire their first language and what happens when computers try to learn human language. Throughout, the examples feature Adger's partner Anson and his cat Lilly.  I almost feel like I know them now. Hi Anson and Lilly!

Adger makes clear from the start that his book makes a particular argument in favo(u)r of a particular way of explaining language's mysteries—and that particular way is a Chomskyan way. This means that he makes the case for a Universal Grammar that underlies all human language. I was struck by his willingness and ability to take this all the way for a lay audience. By chapter 9, he is explaining Merge, the key tool of Chomsky's Minimalist Program

Now, here I have to say: this is not the kind of linguistics I do. It's not just that I'm not a syntactician—though I have, from time to time, dipped my toe into theories grammatical. It's also that I lost faith in theoretical monotheism when I moved from a very Chomskyan undergraduate degree to a more ecumenical linguistics department for my (post)graduate studies. When I arrived for my PhD studies, the department wanted to know which syntactic theories I'd studied, so they could determine which courses I needed to take. I could not tell them. After four years of studying Chomskyan linguistics, I thought I had spent four undergraduate years studying "Syntax". No one had told me that I was studying a theory of syntax, just one among several theories.

Ever since, I have tended to agnosticism and s{c/k}epticism when it comes to syntactic theory. (This is probably how I ended up as not-a-syntactician; I don't know that it's possible to have a career in grammatical studies without adhering to one theoretical church or another.) Being a lexicologist has meant that I don't have to take sides on these things. And so I play around with different theories and see how they deal with the phenomena I study. When I listen to the evangelists, I listen warily. I tend to find that they oversimplify the approaches of competitor theories, and don't learn as much from them as they could (or, at least, sometimes don't give them credit for their contributions). This is all a very long explanation of why I skipped to chapter 7—the chapter where Adger responds to some non-Chomskyan ideas (mostly personified in the chapter by Joan Bybee).

So (mostly BrE*) all credit to Adger for spending a chapter on this, and for citing recent work in it. I generally thought his points were fair, but I did what I usually do in response to such theoretical take-downs: I thought "ok, but what about..." I do think he's right that some facts point to the existence of a Universal Grammar, but I also think it's not the only interesting part of the story, and that it's premature to discount arguments that explore the possibility that much of what happens in language learning is based in experience of language and general cognitive abilities. But then, I would think that.

I definitely recommend the book for people who are interested in the scientific approach to language, but I'd skip the final chapter (10). It is an oddly tacked-on bit about sociolinguistic phenomena, precisely the kinds of things that are not even approached in the theory the rest of the book has been arguing for.

I congratulate Adger on this strong work that makes extraordinarily abstract concepts clear.





P.S. Since I'm not doing Differences of the Day on Twitter this week, here's little chart of use of all credit to (frequency per million words) in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for good measure.


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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)