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.


There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

February 14, 2013

A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to “correct” their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.

As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – “[show] what a live issue” it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.

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Irish Folk Furniture, a stop-motion documentary

February 12, 2013

Irish Folk Furniture is a stop-motion documentary, 8½ minutes long, that won an award for animation at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Director Tony Donoghue thought it might be too specialist to appeal widely, but it has charmed its way around the festival circuit. I recommend it warmly.

The film celebrates the tradition and use of farmhouse furniture in Ireland, with 16 items restored to a functional state. This is furniture not usually seen as beautiful – or starring in a film – but whose appeal lies in its very ordinariness and utility, and in the history it amasses over generations of use.

Tony Donoghue - Irish Folk Furniture - mouse

It’s a quiet gem in both form and content: as if Jan Švankmajer had rambled down a boreen in Tipperary. Dressers and flour bins wheel around the countryside while their owners chat away. The film is gently funny, beautifully shot, and features some lovely rural Irish accents and syntax, e.g. done as preterite in “we done a good bit on ’em”.

I wanted to link to the original on Donoghue’s YouTube page, but that video has since been set to private, so here it is from another page:

Edit: I’ve removed the video after seeing a comment on YouTube from Tony Donoghue saying his film was only meant to be online for the two weeks of Sundance, and that its continued online presence may undermine its film festival run.

If it reappears legitimately, I’ll reinstate it here.


Fargo accent and dialect notes

November 12, 2012

I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your policework there, Lou.

I’ve always loved the Coen brothers’ films, and Fargo (1996) was the first I saw on the big screen. Since then I’ve returned to it several times, and consider it one of their best. (I’m tempted to write about why, but I should stick to language here.)

Fargo is eminently quotable, and its regional Minnesota accents – the brothers are natives – add greatly to its character and texture. Few viewers can resist trying out an “Oh yah”, “Aw geez” or “You betcha” after seeing it. Here’s a charming scene featuring local actor and theatre director Bain Boehlke (skip to 0:30):

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Language play in ‘Jude in London’

April 17, 2012

Some people’s accents are so settled that it’s hard to imagine them changing much, if at all, through outside influence. Other people’s accents change readily and strikingly, a point exaggerated for comedic effect in Julian Gough’s recent novel Jude in London:

Her accent, in so brief a time, had gone completely London. I had seen the phenomenon before: some of the Lads, after a weekend in Limerick, would return to the Orphanage with accents so foreign they made the younger Orphans cry.

Elements of language and identity feature prominently in Jude. Its eponymous hero, an irrepressible young Irishman, initially finds his speech emerging in the form of parodically British English as a result of a “Mental Catastrophe” (explained in this extract).

His appearance has already been radically and rudely refashioned by plastic surgery. In this guise, in a valley in England (“or perhaps Wales”), he meets a group of construction workers:

I concentrated hard on distilling the pure drop of my Irishness. I structured my sentence in the glorious grammatical forms of the original language of all these islands. I would be authentically Irish.

I’d be Jude. And what name would you be after having yourself? I thought.

“The name is Jude. May I enquire as to your identity, sirs?” I said.

The more Irish I tried to be, the more English I sounded.

Holy shite.

“God’s dung!”

“What?” said the Lads.

“My speech,” I explained, “has been corrupted by English novelists.”

Jude’s plot is episodic, its elaborate set pieces tied together by the narrator’s continuing journey to learn his origins and find true love. Sincerity mixes with silliness, sometimes in the same serendipitous sentence. Throughout, opportunities for wordplay and mischief are inventively grasped.

As he wends his wandering way through the adventure, Jude meets many colourful characters borrowed from reality and warped with authorial abandon. Some serve chiefly to fuel an extravagant pun, for example the artists formerly known as Eminem and Tracey Emin, who together have founded a movement to fight for women’s rights:

“It is modelled on the Be-ism of John Ono Lennon and Yoko Ono Lennon. Except they used pacifism, and we use violence.”

“Fair play to you both,” I said.

“We call it Feminemineminemism,” he said.

“It rolls off the tongue,” I said. “Eventually.”

Eminem is subsequently referred to as Eminem Emin-Eminem. This sort of revelry in daftness gets me giggly, so as you might imagine, I had a lot of fun with the book. It’s constantly playful — almost exhaustingly so — with jokes operating on multiple levels, some immediate and obvious, some allusive and engineered with patient intricacy.

In this regard Jude is reminiscent of the work of Flann O’Brien and even Buster Keaton, and it shares their plasticity of form and robust disregard for plausibility. The world is distorted this way and that, for all sorts of structural and opportunistic reasons. (Gough has described the book as being about “the bizarre love triangle between consciousness, language, and reality”.)

The style will not appeal to everyone. There is relentless use of Comedy Capitals and Emphatic Capitals, and the story and language alike are frequently and deeply scatological. Readers of Gough’s earlier novels, Juno and Juliet and Jude in Ireland (formerly Jude: Level 1), will have an idea of the tone, and may double it.

But the underlying voice is warm, wry, and consistent even as it embraces paradox and multiplicity. For all its puns, perversions, and prods at literary luminaries, Jude is no mere cheeky comic novel. It’s an original, idiosyncratic and well-written tale that resists tidy categorisation: it’s a lark within a love story and a quest full of questions; whimsy and lunacy belie heartfelt points about life, art, literature and criticism, Irish culture and politics, and Tipperary sandwiches.

John Self’s insightful review says Gough “pursues flights of fancy with ruthless logic” and that he has “not so much killed his darlings, as filled the book with them” — which is fair, I think, but then darlings have their own appeal. Kevin Barry in the Irish Times said he was interested in stories “where the writer has managed to get all of his or her darlings onto the page.”

Jude in London is part 2 of a trilogy. For a flavour, I recommend the aforelinked extract; and The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, a surreal satire of economic madness first published in the Financial Times as a standalone piece and later incorporated into Jude. Both showcase Gough’s freewheeling style and flair for farce.

Jude is available from Old Street Publishing and in bookshops.


Flouting class and flaunting mnemonics

December 5, 2011

It’s the start of a new month, which means it’s time to report on what I’ve been writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Five posts on words and language are linked and excerpted below, or you can go straight to my archive of articles.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a sign that read: “Help impact a child, donate your vehicle”. This is a usage of impact that bothers a lot of people, and I can’t say I’m fond of it myself. But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it.

So how does “impact” impact you? This post considers the word in the context of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory, which says that as we acquire vocabulary it becomes “loaded with the contexts (linguistic, generic and social) in which we repeatedly encounter it”. And it seems we can’t help wanting others to support our impressions:

We have a tendency to generalise from our feelings, leaping too easily from “I dislike this usage” to “This is wrong” or even “No one should ever say this anywhere.” It’s natural that we would want to universalise our preferences, but it’s not very reasonable or practical. Better to examine why we might object to a legitimate word. This can have a surprising impact. [more]

People sometimes adopt new modes of speech to advance in work or society or to dissociate from certain areas or attributes and so on. This may be part of what inspired the much-derided “Dortspeak” in and around Dublin.

I look briefly at the accent and at Received Pronunciation in RP and Dortspeak. RP, also known as BBC English and the Queen’s (or King’s) English, is not so exalted nowadays as it once was, but for a long time it had powerful social prestige:

An RP accent, even a modified one that combines it with regional qualities, has prestige because it implies a certain level of education, social status, prosperity and perhaps political power. Centuries ago it was the accent of the courts and high society in London and the home counties; people moving there to advance in life often adopted it as their own.

Later, RP became the accent of public schools and the BBC, which strengthened and stabilised its status as the “standard” form of English speech. It was (and remains) linked to class consciousness. [more]

Class consciousness was a recurring theme on Macmillan Dictionary Blog during November, which was its “class English” month and featured excellent posts by a range of regular and guest contributors.

My next article, Through the class ceiling, broadens the discussion in my previous post from accents to dialects:

Standard English is an important and useful variety of English, but its status comes from historical circumstance rather than inherent linguistic superiority. This point is sometimes missed by those who hold that there is an ideal form of English — which typically corresponds to the form they were taught or to which they aspire.

Later I quote from Jean Aitchison’s book Language Change: Progress or Decay?, in which she describes how Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary may have encouraged belief in a false hierarchy of linguistic properness:

Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. . . . in many instances [he] pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes [more]

Leaping forward a few centuries, High-speed tech jargon explores online lingo and its rapid turnover:

Jargon is part of a sublanguage, and is subject to forces of change just like our common vocabulary is. Technology evolves quickly and its jargon is churned out at a corresponding rate. Entire avenues of research and use are rendered obsolete by superior (or better commercialised) developments, so what were technological buzzwords one year might be unrecognisable just a few years later.

After considering (and linking to) a few recent articles on tech jargon, two of which find fault with its ubiquity or opacity, I conclude that

So long as jargon is reasonably transparent and pitched at the appropriate level, there is no cause for alarm; when communication fails because the words we use are too obscure or esoteric, people will either stop reading or let us know. [more]

Finally, Avoid flaunting your confusion is about commonly confused word pairs like flaunt vs. flout, and how we can use mnemonics and other methods to help remember which word is which.

To remember that flaunt means show off, for example, you could think of the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. To make it doubly effective, address the other word in the pair, too: notice the lout in flout and think of a lout flouting the law . . . .

Mnemonics can help us only if we put them to work. First we need to be aware that there’s a difficulty, and to take responsibility for it. The tricks we devise can be personally meaningful or arbitrary and absurd, so long as they’re readily brought to mind. The more memorable they are, the more reliably they’ll do the job. [more]

Feel free to share your thoughts below or at the aforelinked posts.


Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Identity

October 3, 2011

Episode 2 of Fry’s Planet Word (BBC) focuses on dialects and sociolinguistic identity. It kicks off in Yorkshire, where poet Ian McMillan demonstrates stereotypical aspects of various local accents. Fry is inspired to offer his own verbal tour of the UK’s accent map, playing a weatherman to help precipitate the “microclimates” analogy.

There’s an unexpected detour into Whorfianism. After pondering our dialects’ effect on how people perceive us (Geordie, once scorned, is now adored), the show looks at languages’ effect on how we perceive the world. Lera Boroditsky, who champions linguistic relativity, tells Fry that people speaking Russian or English espouse more collectivist or individualistic ideas, respectively.

This has dinner-party Wow value, especially when it’s the only side of the story we’re told, and it seems inevitable we’ll soon hear the no-word-for-X meme. Sure enough Fry asks, rhetorically, “If you don’t have a word for evil, does it vanish?” The answer, which was not supplied, is a resounding No. (Assuming the existence of evil for the sake of the question.)

Next up is language death, something Fry rightly laments. We venture to Connemara, County Galway, where he famously had a cameo in the Irish TV soap opera Ros na Rún. He drinks Guinness and hears stories in traditional pubs, asks schoolchildren about learning Irish (they admit to texting in English), and shares hopes and trivia about the Irish tongue. Fry has spoken on this subject before.

In the Basque country, Fry meets a woman who says language, like food, can absorb external influences. He suggests that language and cuisine might be closely entwined because recipes were once passed on by word of mouth. It’s an interesting idea, but without researching it I have no idea if it’s based on fact or theory or hearsay or whimsy; and this, I think, is the show’s fault.

When I wrote about the first episode, Babel, I said Fry’s popularity and likeability would draw an audience who might not have a particular interest in language. But because he is not a specialist, he misses opportunities to ask better questions, and we are left with too much fluff. I kept getting the impression that the most important thing in any encounter was that everyone enjoy themselves and get along.

In France, Fry meets one of the 40 immortals of the Académie française, which dictates on “proper” French. It’s a curiously awkward meeting, and Fry, left outside the door while the Académie holds a meeting, decides the system is “very strange and very French”. Lightening the mood, he hears from a hip-hop singer in Marseilles how subcultural and ethnic minority slang is slipping into common spoken French in small but satisfying ways.

Similar mixing is happening in Hebrew, which died as a spoken language but was revived through political will and collective identity. Fry visits Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who offers an amusing metaphor of Hebrew as a Phoenix, a cuckoo, and a magpie. At a garage, they discuss the problem of what to call things like puncture and carburettor in a language that was frozen for so long. Some ancient terms are modernised, some words are borrowed from elsewhere.

Every language, so long as it lives and is not totally isolated, is a melting pot, and the show finishes in a cauldron of partisan wit: a football ground, where Fry watches Norwich City and he bonds with his chosen tribe. The obvious point is quickly made, and there is no time for analysis or examples of the curses and chants of the terrace.

Planet Word is fond of bonding, and of cultural quirks and scenic jaunts, but so far it suffers from a dearth of information and structure, and a surfeit of Stephen Fry himself (whom I like). Experts are interviewed, but given too little time. That said, it is an enjoyable programme with broad appeal; your mileage will probably vary principally according to your feelings about Fry and your foreknowledge of linguistics.

Next week’s episode is about swearing. That should be fun.

Update: Language Log has posted a critical review of this episode that looks in more detail at its shortcomings.



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