Showing posts with label interjections. Show all posts
Showing posts with label interjections. Show all posts


I've been teaching a new course in Pragmatics this year, and this past week we ended it with a discussion of this article:

Jefferson, Gail (2002) Is ‘‘no’’ an acknowledgment token? Comparing American and British uses of (+)/(-) tokens. Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1345-83.
The author was an important name in conversational analysis and an American who lived for years in the Netherlands. In Dutch, it's common to use nee 'no' as an acknowledg(e)ment token, that is, something that you say to indicate that you've heard what your conversational partner has said. A negative token, like nee, would be used to acknowledge a negative statement.

Knowing about the Dutch nee, Jefferson decided to check how no is used as a minimal response in English, but when she started looking at a set of British conversational data, what she found didn't sit well with her own intuitions about how no is used as a conversational support. To find out why, she compared four sets of data: British doctors and patients, British 'civilians' (her term), American doctors and patients, and American 'civilians'.

Jefferson found that British civilians responded to negative statements with negative tokens 86% of the time, whereas American civilians did so only 27% of the time. British doctors did it 37% of the time, and American doctors not at all. American civilians most usually responded to negative statements with positive tokens like uh-huh, yeah (both originally AmE) and mm-hmm. So, American civilians use negative tokens at similar rates to British doctors (the 10 percentage-point difference is not statistically significant), and both of these groups use it far less than in everyday British conversation.

Jefferson next looked at whether British and American speakers use these nos for different things. She found that AmE speakers use no as an affiliative token, but not as just an acknowledg(e)ment token. That is to say, if an American says no in a conversationally supportive way (as opposed to using no more literally to disagree with the previous utterance) in response to someone's negative statement, they mean to show some empathy for the situation the speaker is describing. An affiliative token tells your conversational partner that you have not only heard them, but that you understand where they're coming from (orig. AmE). For instance, if I say I hurt my back and you say Awww, you'd be showing me that you've not only heard me, but that you feel my pain, as it were. Compare that to a simple acknowledg(e)ment token like mm-hmm, which would seem rather cold to say in such a circumstance.

BrE civilians used no as an acknowledg(e)ment token, where AmE civilians would have to use a positive form. To give a flavo(u)r of how this might lead to cross-cultural misinterpretation, here's a made-up example:

Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist: No...
If this were affliation, one would interpret my no as 'I know what you mean--that Matt is pretty bad about keeping in touch'. That would be the way an AmE speaker would probably use it.

But if it were just acknowledg(e)ment, then all I'd be saying is 'I heard you say that you haven't heard from Matt'. If I meant that, though, as an American, I'd have to say it a different way:
Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist [without lifting her eyes from New Scientist]: Uh-huh.
British me would be able to say no there without tearing myself from my magazine--but American me could not.

In their professional roles, BrE doctors seem to be careful to use no only for affliliation--that is, they don't use it for mere acknowledg(e)ment. It's possible that they do not use the negative form for acknowledg(e)ment because they need to be careful not to sound like they're affiliating when they're not. In Jefferson's data, American doctors don't even use it to affiliate--though there were some differences in the types of doctors in her two corpora, so I'm going to stop short of making any hypotheses about that.

So, I asked my students, what do you think happens when these cultures meet? The British shouldn't have much of a problem in understanding the Americans' affiliative use of no, since they use it affiliatively too. But the Americans aren't used to hearing it used as acknowledg(e)ment, and so should interpret it as affiliation. If that's the case, what will they conclude about the British? One of the students came up with the same perception that I have about what happens. (I'm eager to hear yours in the comments.) It's possible that the American would feel they'd been cut off. Once someone affiliates with you, they're essentially saying 'You don't need to explain this to me because I get it (orig. AmE)'. This whole business reminded me of my troubles with the BrE use of never mind.

To tell the truth, I'd never noticed [on a conscious level] the extra nos, in conversation with BrE speakers. But I recogni{s/z}ed the accuracy of Jefferson's observations as I started to think about it consciously--and I even thought that if I were to have imitated certain English acquaintances then I'd probably have been liberal with the interactional nos. I wonder if anyone out there has had any SbaCL moments courtesy of no. Do let us know!
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whoa and woah

If there is one arena in which Better Half is not my better, it's spelling. It's not that he's a particularly bad speller, it's just that I like to think of myself as a particularly good one. So, at least a couple of years ago, I rolled my eyes and corrected him when he wrote an interjection meaning 'stop, wait!' as woah! That I can remember correcting BH some years later is indicative of the sadness of my life and my need to always be right, which is pretty hard to be if you're me. I suppose I was reliving 'times I've been right and BH has been wrong' because of another instance of my absolute disability when it comes to accents. I spent some time the other day insisting that a food critic on the television was French, when, in fact, he's Irish. He only dresses French. So, I cling to my 'being right' memories with the tenacity of a starving octopus.

Then I read an article in The Guardian's review section (which I now can't find, so here's a link to an earlier article in the Guardian--by the outgoing poet laureate, no less) that contained a woah. As has been mentioned here before, The Guardian (or The Grauniad) has something of a reputation for bad spelling and typographical errors, so I remarked to myself that BrE writers seem to have a hard time spelling whoa.

Then I was in an English airport and I saw an ad(vert) (I wish I'd taken a photo, but I was too airport-grumpy at the time to think of it--it might've been for Phones4You), that shouted WOAH! WOAH! WOAH! in red and white. At that point, I had to start planning my admission of wrongness to BH.

(I'm sure many halves of long-standing and happy couples are thinking that I did not have to admit that I was wrong. Since BH neither saw the ad(vert) nor remembered the time I corrected him, what was to be gained by interfering with the well-developed roles of She Who Is Right and He Who Must Be Corrected? But, you see, I had to admit I'd been wrong because I have in the past claimed that admitting-when-I'm-wrong is something that I am happy to do, and so in order to prove myself right I have to prove myself wrong--on a regular basis.)

So, my story of whoa (and woah):

The OED lists woah as a variant of woa which is a variant of whoa, which is a variant of the interjection who (not to be confused with the pronoun who--the interjection is pronounced as wo--which is also a variant of all these), which came into the language as a variant of ho! Here are the dates of the OED's quotations for these spellings of the pronunciation /wo/ when it means 'stop!':

who c.1450-1859
wo 1787-1894
woa 1840-1892
woah 1856 (one example--included under the headword woa)
whoa 1843-1898 (but, of course, we know it's still used)
It's interesting that the OED lists woa as a variant of whoa when it has earlier evidence for woa--it implies that whoa is the more standard form. We shouldn't read much into the lack of recent examples of any of these--it looks like nothing has been added to these entries since the first edition.

I don't remember ever seeing the woah spelling (I'd want to pronounce it as two syllables: wo-ah, like Noah) before moving to England, but it's a very popular spelling here. Searching just UK sites, one gets ~170,000 hits for woah and ~255,000 for whoa. Searching some American sites, one gets 33 woahs to 461 whoas on .mil and 8,800 to 39,000 on .edu (the first woahs that came up on the .edu search were quoted from a BBC site, though). Or, if you'd like to see some bar graphs showing US and UK usage of the spellings, try this.

(Can you believe I started this post on the 6th of April? Alas and alack--I wish I had a solid month to do nothing but catch up on this blog.)
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Words of the Year 2008

Any organi{s/z}ation with any tangential relation words seems to make Word of the Year pronouncements these days (or these years, at least). I believe there is a correlation between how early the pronouncements are made and whether the organi{s/z}ation is trying to sell you something. The American Dialect Society wait(s) until January (when they have their annual meeting). And that is as it should be--one needs some perspective on the year in order to evaluate its words. Oxford University Press and Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, are keen to get their press releases out in time to serve as subliminal reminders that dictionaries make great holiday gifts.

I have nothing to sell you, but I'm going to give you the SbaCL words of the year a little early this year--just to make sure that I get them out at all while a horrible deadline, not to mention a trip to the States and winter holidays and birthdays come (chiefly AmE) careening (=careering) toward(s) me. Words of the Year will be my airbag. (That metaphor is the evidence, if you need it, that my brain is not handling the pressure well.)

So, without further ado (wait, is that a drumroll I hear?), the SbaCL British-English- to-American-English Word of the Year is:

vet (verb, transitive)

3. To examine carefully and critically for deficiencies or errors; spec. to investigate the suitability of (a person) for a post that requires loyalty and trustworthiness. (OED)

as in:
It raises the singular question of when and how well the Senator's campaign vetted the woman he named to be his running mate. (commenter on NewsTrust, 2 September 2008)
"Wait, wait!" you say. "How can you count that as BrE to AmE? It was right here in my AmE dictionary all along!" Oh, it was, but wasn't it interesting for those of us who live in the UK to see the big deal that was made of this word in the American blogosphere and press--like this article on Slate and this one by the Word Detective. In fact, it was number 2 on Merriam-Webster's top ten words of the year and has provoked a backlash from people who became tired of and even hate the word. Thus, it qualifies as a WotY in that it 'came into its own' in AmE this year.

The Slate article tells us that:
Through the early decades of the 20th century, vet was primarily a Britishism. It became fairly popular in the United Kingdom during the 1930s [...] Over the next couple of decades, it gained traction across the Atlantic. Time magazine appears to have used the word vetting for the first time in 1945 but only in the context of a quote from "The Anatomy of Courage," a newly published study on the psychological effects of war by the Briton Lord Moran: "A young subaltern with 'dark eyes under long lashes, a pink and white complexion' was sent to Moran for 'vetting.' " The word first appears out of quotes in that magazine in 1959 (in an article on picking a new symphony director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic), pops up once in the 1960s, and then several times in the 1980s.
But the word continues to be put in (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas of the "scare quote" variety (for instance here and here), indicating that the verb is still considered a bit "foreign". (I'm not claiming here that the writers knew that vet is BrE, just that they don't feel that the word is at-home in their dialect.)

So, congratulations vet! And president-elect Obama!

Onwards and overwards to the SbaCL American-English-to-British-English Word of the Year. It's:

That was rather anticlimatic, wasn't it? Let me try to spruce it up.

Ta-da! It's meh!

Maybe I should stop trying so hard. Meh is an interjection expressing indifference. While there was some debate among readers as to whether it qualifies as AmE-to-BrE, since it's most at home in a cyberspace that doesn't respect dialectal isoglosses, there's a widespread perception that it was populari{s/z}ed by that very American institution, The Simpsons. It's not the kind of word that British grandmothers are going about using (or American grandmothers, for that matter), but it made a splash recently when the Collins dictionary people announced that it would be included in their next edition, and their PR people ensured that the newspapers took up the story. I've since noticed my students using it, particularly on Facebook--one suspects that all the press attention has spread meh's popularity--or at least has made me more sensitive to it.

So, hurrah for meh and meh to hurrah!

Thanks to all who took the time to nominate a word. (Unlike last year, I've actually selected a nominated word. I'm softening up to you people.) Happy Word of the Year, and happy holidays!
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peek-a-boo, beebo

The special vocabulary that adults use in talking to babies has the potential to be very family-specific. After all, you're talking to a baby, who can't talk back (yet) and who's getting little other language input outside the family, so why not just make things up? We've got a number of 'inside jokes' that we use with Grover. For example, despite her lady-like appearances, Grover is a very farty baby. We started out saying poot poot when we heard the reports from down south. Then we'd say Are you pootin'? And this has turned into Is that you, Vladimir? So now, Vladimir = farty baby. And then there's the fact that we say knickerschnitz whenever Grover sneezes, which goes back to my brothers convincing (well, almost) my sister-in-law that this is what the English say instead of Gesundheit (which is, in fact, more popular in the US than in the UK).

But at the same time, babytalk is remarkably widespread within a culture--though the ocean often gets in the way of a generic, international babytalk. When talking to babies, we call cats kitties and wounds (orig. AmE) boo-boos. There's (BrE) bicky for (BrE) biscuit and (chiefly AmE) choo-choo for a train. And so on and so forth.

So, when I hear Better Half or his family using new-to-me babytalk, I'm never sure if it's something that's part of their 'family-lect' or more generally part of BrE. Since there may be a natural tendency to view one's in-laws as strange ('they're a family, but they don't do thing the way my family does!'), I tend to assume that their babytalk is 'theirs' until I hear someone else use it. Such was the case with (BrE) windy-pops, which came up in the comments back here. Now, I've found another case.

When I play the game Peek-a-boo with a baby, I hide my face, then show it suddenly and say Peek-a-boo! in a sing-song voice. Sometimes I vary it and say "Here I am!" or "There you are!", which follow the same three-syllable tune. And that's the only way that I've known the game.

But when BH's mother plays it, she says Beebo! I make a mental note to say peek-a-boo twice as much later, to reassert my influence (Jealous? Moi?), and put it down to her own creativity. Then I heard BH's sister say it, and I figured that she learned it from her mother. But then...we had a picnic in hono(u)r of Grover's half-birthday with other parents and babies, and I heard another mother say Peebo! So, yet another occasion on which I learn with disappointment (but, alas, not surprise) that I'm the strange one, not my in-laws.

The Wikipedia entry on peek(-)a(-)boo mentions nothing about alternative
exclamations, but the OED mentions peep-bo and bo-peep. I've also found this line from a London blogger, indicating that the variation in interjections is well known in these parts:
We've been playing beebo, peepo, peekaboo, whatever you want to call it for months.
So, am I right in thinking that most Americans stick to peek-a-boo? Are there other alternatives?

And is Better Half the only person who calls hands pandies or is that general BrE babytalk? (AmE snowclone): Enquiring babies want to know!
I know this derives from the nursery rhyme Handy Pandy, but I'm wondering about pandy on its own.
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uh, er, um, erm and eh

When I was young, some of my favo(u)rite books were by British authors. The title of one, Five Dolls and a Monkey, I was interested to find, is (until I publish this post) cited only once on the web. Am I the only person who loved that book? After I grew out of Five Dolls, I made my way through Agatha Christie's oeuvre. And in one or the other of these books I first encountered er and erm, as in this transcription of a comedy sketch (before I start getting complaints, please keep in mind that this is an example of the English poking fun at themselves--as they do so well--and not anti-[African]-American humo[u]r!):
CLIVE (playing an interviewer):
Erm, I think it can be truly said that the Americans have, er, their soul singers, and we English have ars-oul singers. And, er, Bo is one our leading, er, soul singers.
DEREK (playing 'Bo Duddley'):
Arsehole singers, yes.
Bo, I-, I wanted to ask you first of all, erm, .....
This is obviously a sort of, er, boogie, er, .....
This is a boogie, erm, .....
What? Jive stuff, is it?
Jive boogie woogie song, erm, and, erm, it is-, it is a, a story of ..... well, shall I, shall I sort of go through it?
Yes, I-, I-, I was thinking that some of the lyrics for, er-rm, English speaking audiences might be a little obscure.
Absolutely. Well let me .....
I wonder what the-, what-, what-, what it really is all about?
Well, let me-, let me just go through it, erm, for you. Ah:
(sings and plays piano:) "#Mamma's got a brand new bag!"
Er, "Mamma's got a brand new bag", er, this means, erm, that the-, the Harlem mother has gone out into the bustling markets of Harlem .....
..... er, to buy a gaily coloured plastic bag. Erm, and there's a certain amount of pride in this: Mamma's got a brand new bag.
I-, I suppo-, I suppose a gaily coloured plastic bag is, er, a bit of status symbol in Harlem.
It certainly is. Certainly is. Obviously, er, you know, sign of a birthday or something like that.
Now, when I was a 12-year-old reading British novels, I liked to read them out loud, in my best "English" accent, probably gleaned from Dick Van Dyke's murder of Cockney. One of the unfortunate effects of this was that I pronounced Hercule Poirot as something like "Ercule Pirate" (never mind that he's Belgian--he was in England and so must speak as my 12-year-old self believed the English to speak). But another effect was that I believed that when British people paused in speech, they made sounds that rhymed with my American pronunciations of her and worm. And for much of my life, I continued to believe that there were millions of English-speaking people somewhere (or somewhen) pronouncing /r/s in their hesitations.

But then I had a baby, and the penny dropped.

I regret to say that this is not because motherhood has made me smarter/cleverer. It's because breastfeeding is so horrifically boring. (Contrary to some of the pro-breast propaganda, Baby does not stare worshipfully into your eyes. It may be good for the immune system, your figure and your purse, but it can hurt like hell and you can spend a third of your 24-hour day doing it.) Being a good mother (orig. AmE) wannabe, I'm trying to keep Grover away from the television for as long as possible, but it's tough to type or turn pages while breastfeeding (though I've got(ten) pretty good at both, plus doing Kakuro). But I also want to watch television to distract myself from the realities of breastfeeding, and somehow Grover's always there when I'm doing it. Since she's facing away from the (orig. & chiefly AmE) TV set, I can get away with watching it if I turn down the sound and turn on the 'subtitle' option on our Freeview box. Watching in this way, I've become addicted to Eggheads, but when it's not 6 p.m., I often end up watching Friends or Scrubs, since one or the other seems to be on at all times. And it was only when seeing er and erm in the subtitles for American characters in these American sitcoms that I reali{s/z}ed: it's not that the British put different interjections (or discourse particles, as we say in the trade) into their filled pauses, it's just that they typically spell those pauses er and erm instead of uh and um. Since many BrE dialects do not pronounce the /r/ after vowels in such contexts, the /r/ here is just to indicate that the vowel is not a proper 'e' but a long schwa-like vowel.

And before any of you complain that I should not have been allowed to have a doctorate in Linguistics if it took me this long to figure out something this basic, let me tell you: I've thought the same thing myself. I think the technical term for this is: Duh!

When I mentioned a few posts ago that I'd be covering er/erm/uh/um soon, reader David Up North (as I'll call him to differentiate him from the other Davids I've mentioned before) wrote to ask:
I was interested to see in the comments to your latest blog that you were planning an article on 'er' and 'erm'. I wondered if you'd be covering 'eh?' as well? It's often pronounced (or possibly replaced by) 'ay?' (or something like that – rhymes with 'hey', but I don't recall ever seeing anyone writing either as 'eye dialect' representations of the sound, they usually use 'eh?'). It came to mind because I've occasionally seen Americans transcribe the sound as 'aye?' – which is obviously wrong.
I can't imagine why an American would transcribe eh as aye (pronounced like I in every dialect I know) and haven't seen it happen, myself. I speak a northern AmE dialect that, like Canadian English, ends many sentences with eh? (Famously parodied by the Great White North sketches on SCTV: How's it going, eh?) And when we write that, we spell it eh and pronounce it to rhyme with day. (I was happy to discover upon moving to South Africa that SAfE has the same kind of interjection, but it's pronounced hey. It was very easy to adjust. Much better than when I moved to Massachusetts and was mocked relentlessly for the ehs that I'd never noticed myself saying.) But, of course, the problem we're seeing here is that these interjections are usually spoken and generally only written when one is trying to represent natural speech. Since they're not part of the written language (since they're not needed in the same way when the language isn't immediately interactional), people aren't used to spelling them, and thus the spellings have been slower to become standardi{s/z}ed than the spellings for nouns and verbs. Even within AmE, I find that the informal version of yes is spelt in different ways (yeah, yeh, yea, ya) by different people. To me, yeah is informal 'yes', and yea is pronounced 'yay' and is a positive vote, yay is what you say when you're giddy and ya is what South Africans say instead of yeah. I believe that my spellings are the 'standard' spellings for AmE, but, as I say, I've seen a lot of variation and it's hard to 'correct' such spellings, since the 'standard' is not as well-established for these mostly-spoken sounds.

It's worth noting that all of these discourse particles have meanings, though they can be hard to put into words. My favo(u)rite quotation from the OED's entry for er is:
1958 Aspects of Translation 37 The really astute Englishman..must feign a certain diffident hesitation, put in a few well-placed -- ers.
The interjections' meanings are generally the same in AmE and BrE, but what may differ, as indicated by the above quotation, is how often and why people use them. One reason to use er/uh is to feign hesitation--to make it seem like you're reluctant to say something. Another reason is to hold your place in the conversation--to indicate that although you're not saying anything at this very second, you intend to finish your thought, so no one should interrupt you. It may be that people in different places from different backgrounds use these sounds for these purposes at different rates and in different situations. I believe that the stereotypes would have it that the British use er/erm to hesitate--not to rush into committing themselves to any proposition--and that Americans use um/uh because they're inarticulately rushing to commit themselves to all sorts of opinions. Nevertheless, both American uh/um and British er/erm have the potential to be used in either way by individuals.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)