With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.
Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.
The Stinging Fly is an Irish literary magazine on the go since 1997 and a book publisher since 2005. You can order its publications from the website or, depending on where you are, from your local bookshop.
My essay looks at Galway dialect, though its features are not that different (or different mainly in degree) from southern Irish English in general. The grammar, vocabulary, idiom, and phonology of Irish English are all considered from my vantage point on the Atlantic coast.
I also discuss dialect more broadly, because people new to language studies are often unsure just what it means – linguistically, politically, performatively.
cover art by Maeve Curtis; design by Catherine Gaffney
I’ve been greatly enjoying videos by Geoff Lindsey, an accent coach from the UK who also gives courses at University College London. His YouTube channel has about 20 videos to date, mostly around 5 or 10 minutes long, on a wide range of topics to do with pronunciation and phonetics.
‘Most folks are amazed when they see the inner life of speech,’ Lindsey says in a fascinating, Stranger Things–themed primer on the human vocal organs that provides a snapshot of what happens anatomically when we speak:
Here he reveals what superhero names can tell us about stress patterns in English compounds – why, for example, we say Superman but Invisible Woman:
The first time you saw the word biopic, did you pronounce it ‘bi-OPic’, to rhyme with myopic, either aloud or in your head, before learning that it’s ‘bio-pic’, as in biographical picture? If so, you were well and truly mizzled. I mean MY-zelled. No, wait: misled.
There are words we know, or think we know, but: (1) we probably got to know them in print before hearing them spoken, and (2) their spelling is ambiguous or misleading in a way that leads us to ‘hear’ them differently – perhaps incorrectly – in our mind’s ear.
Eventually there’s a lightbulb moment. Oh, it’s a bio-pic, not a bi-opic!I’ve been mis-led, not mizzled! Some linguists and language enthusiasts call these troublesome words misles, back-formed from misled, which is perhaps the prototypical misle. Others call them book words.
My monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year, and I haven’t reported on it since November. So here are the latest four items I’ve written there, with excerpts to give you a flavour:
Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. … These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.
2. Disagreements are plenty: What can dictionary entries tell us about linguistic attitudes? I examine Samuel Johnson’s reaction to a certain use of plenty:
‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’ ‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. In his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But […] the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.
3. Loath(e) to get it wrong: Even native English speakers are often unsure of the difference between loath and loathe. Does it matter? I take a look:
Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced. The reality is a bit messier.
Another reason for the popularity of expresso is that it looks and sounds more like an English word than espresso does – albeit an imported one, with that ‘o’ at the end. Aside from esprit, another Romance-language borrowing, espresso is the only word in common use in English that begins with espr-, whereas expr- is very familiar from words like express and expression. So people unconcerned with etymology are unlikely to notice anything wrong with expresso. … Usage purists are not happy about expresso being in common use. To them, it’s wrong, end of story, and anyone who uses the word is making a careless linguistic error and a social faux pas.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Comments are welcome at either location.
Dialect coach and voice actor Erik Singer released a video this week that analyses 32 film actors’ accents, pointing out what they do well and what not so well. There’s a fair range of performances and genres, with some notoriously bad accents and a few surprises.
It’s a highly entertaining video that lasts a little over a quarter of an hour.
Cynthia Heimel’s entertaining collection of short articles If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? has a funny piece on mispronouncing a word – something we can all probably relate to. In this case it’s a common word, the speaker discovers the ‘mistake’ relatively late in life, and, as we’ll see, it’s not really a mistake at all.
The piece is presented as a letter to an agony aunt, originally published, I think, in Heimel’s column for The Village Voice:
Dear Problem Lady:
All my life I’ve said “heighth.” I thought that’s what you said. Then today my friend said to me, “It’s ‘height,’ isn’t it? At least I think so.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess it is, now that I think about it,” I said casually.
“I thought so,” she said.
I wanted to kill myself.
She knew damned well it was “height,” and she finally couldn’t stand it anymore.
I see the word clearly in my mind and it sure doesn’t have an h at the end of it. I’ve been obsessing for ten hours now. Forty-two years, I’ve said “heighth.” And I’m a horse trainer, can you guess how many times I’ve said “heighth” in my career? I’m so mortified I think I should go up to everyone I know and say, “Look, I know it’s really height, okay? I’m not stupid or anything.”
But then they’d think I was stupid and insane.
Should I just find a way to inject “height” into every conversation I have for the rest of my life?