Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

June 2, 2014

I don’t know when I first realised that painstaking – which means very careful, diligent and meticulous – is about taking pains. It’s obvious when you see it, but I didn’t make the connection when I first saw the word, and duly used and encountered it for a while before the etymology occurred to me or I read it somewhere.

Consider for a moment how you say the word, specifically the s in the middle. Do you voice it like a z, as in pains-taking, or is it an unvoiced, ‘soft’ s, as in pain-staking? Maybe you say it both ways? Or it could be borderline – it often seems so. I know the pronunciation of a sound can depend a lot on its neighbours, but I don’t have the phonetic savvy to establish precisely what’s going on here.

In any case it seems I’m not the only one to whom the word’s structure wasn’t initially glaringly obvious. When I asked on Twitter how people spoke it, most said they didn’t voice the s, and some were surprised (to put it mildly) to analyse it anew as taking pains. I’ve just put the full Twitter discussion up on Storify, if you’d like to take a look.

tibetan buddhist sand mandala

Tibetan Buddhist monks taking pains over a sand mandala.*

Curiously, there may be a UK/US difference here. British dictionaries tend to include the voiced-s pronunciation (or ‘z-form’) in their entries for painstaking, but some omit the unvoiced-s variant despite its popularity. Macmillan and Collins offer only the z-form, as does Oxford Dictionaries’ UK page – its US page has both.

Cambridge’s UK audio sample is clearly pains-taking, IPA /ˈpeɪnzˌteɪ.kɪŋ/, but its US audio is closer to pain-staking. Merriam-Webster has \ˈpān-ˌstā-kiŋ\ but its audio is (I think) ambiguous. The American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. has the z-form only, but the 5th has both and notes that despite its etymology the word “often sounds as if it were made from pain and staking”.

So here’s a quick poll, to increase the sample size of this informal survey. Comments on how you say it and what your dialect is would also be welcome, as would phonetic analysis from anyone who has taken pains to learn those ropes.

* Photographer unknown. Please tell me if you can identify the source.


How do you pronounce “Imgur”? Take the poll!

April 9, 2014

In a recent post on pseudotranslations, I wrote that Imgur, of imgur.com fame, was pronounced “imager”. But this skated over a lively and unresolved debate. The site itself says:

Imgur is pronounced “image-er/im-ij-er.” The name comes from “ur” and the extension “img” – your image!

But it’s not an intuitive pronunciation. When I first encountered the site I called it “im-gur” or “im-grr”. Because the g is followed by a u, it didn’t even occur to me that it might be a soft /dʒ/ sound. Most of the people I’ve spoken to about it agree, or they avoid saying it altogether.

*

boromir meme - one does not simply say imgur

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An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?


An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

November 19, 2013

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced “aitch” /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as “haitch” /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said “a HLA marker”, never “an HLA marker”. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on IrishTimes.com returned 1,946 hits for “a HSE” and 92 for “an HSE” (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE “the HSE”. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

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Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

October 29, 2013

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.


Modern English as an archaic dialect

October 22, 2013

Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.

I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:

(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.

(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.

(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.

No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.


You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like

May 24, 2013

An impressively silly debate resumed this week over the “correct” pronunciation of GIF. Steve Wilhite, who invented the format, prefers “jif”, and at the recent Webby Awards he shared this opinion (tongue presumably in cheek) through a projected GIF set to Richard Strauss.*

It's pronounced 'jif' not 'gif' - Steve Wilhite at 2013 Webby Awards

Mr Wilhite knows the OED accepts both common pronunciations, hard-g /gɪf/ as in gift and soft-g /dʒɪf/ as in gist. (As do other dictionaries and all right-thinking people.) But the lexicographers, he told the New York Times, “are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

End of story? Well, no. This is English: it’s messy. It misbehaves.

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