Below is the image included in the tweet, in case it doesn’t appear above. It’s from a recent poll by UK research firm YouGov in which 2018 people in Britain were asked how attractive or unattractive they found 12 accents in Britain and Ireland. In this post I want to address the poll and some of the responses to it.
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 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 Dictionary4th 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.
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.
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to report. First up, LOL slash grammar, knowmsayin? looks at recent innovations in how people use LOL and slash, among other terms:
Sometimes . . . existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.
Other switches are more unusual.
Linguist John McWhorter has noted that the phrase (Do) you know what I’m saying? is not usually the question it might superficially seem to be,
but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.
I offer a brief synopsis of the broader implications for language (hint: harmless; positive), then the comments extend the discussion: OMG is cited as showing similar semantic drift to LOL, while dot dot dot and full stop are further examples of verbalised punctuation.
Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.
A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself.
Since I began with an anecdote from my school days, readers have joined in by sharing stories of pronunciation-related embarrassment and epiphanies (and, included in the post, one of violence). Feel free to add your own.
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.*
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.
Alexander John Ellis (1814–90) was a musicologist, philologist and phonetician whose approach to language was systematic and descriptive. He gave primacy to speech over written forms, writing in chapter 1, vol. 1 of his magnum opus On Early English Pronunciation (1869–89) that “a real, living, growing language”:
has always been a collection of spoken sounds, and it is only in so far as they indicate these sounds that other symbols can be dignified with the name of language.
Henry Hitchings, in The Language Wars, says Ellis carried with him a variety of tuning forks (among other things kept in the 28 pockets of his greatcoat), the better to measure the pitch of musical instruments he encountered; and, perhaps, of voices – Ellis said a vowel sound “is properly a musical tone with a definite quality or timbre”.
A few lines after the quotation above comes an astute passage on the mutability of language:
Spoken language is born of any two or more associated human beings. It grows, matures, assimilates, changes, incorporates, excludes, develops, languishes, decays, dies utterly, with the societies to which it owes its being. It is difficult to seize its chameleon form at any moment. Each speaker as thought inspires him, each listener as the thought reaches him with the sound, creates some new turn of expression, some fresh alliance of thought with sound, some useful modification of thought with custom, some instantaneous innovation which either perishes at the instant of birth, or becomes part of the common stock, a progenitor of future language. The different sensations of each speaker, the different appreciations of each hearer, their intellectual growth, their environment, their aptitude for conveying or receiving impressions, their very passions, originate, change, and create language.
This view shows Ellis’s appreciation of just how immediate, dynamic, and democratically distributed is language change. Like it or lament it (or lose no sleep whatsoever over it), language change is something in which everyone plays a part whenever they speak or write to someone else.
Time for another language linkfest. They grow quickly when I turn my back, one link giving rise to another. Anyway, it’s the usual mixum-gatherum of items relating to language, linguistics, words and books. Happy reading.