Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Accents & Dialects' Category

Huxion Stew, Anyone?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Here is one from the weird and wonderful world of the world’s worst spellers. It was sent to me by Martha Hulshof.

“How about this one, huxion, found in an old 1956 cookbook from Downeast Yarmouth, Maine? My mother-in-law is from Holland and her mother used to cook like this, but she’s not sure what the word means. I looked on line and, remarkably enough, found refrence to the VERY SAME recipie but that author did not know the meaning of the word either! I wonder could you ascertain its origin and meaning.”

Hockshin stewI can’t prove this but I am so sure this is what happened. The stew is made from a hock (hough in Scotland, pronounced [hox]). The hock is that part of an animal’s hind leg just below the knee, thus located near the shin, so some people have used the word hockshin for a long time. It is still alive in parts of Northern England and Scotland, I believe; we have written documentation from as late as 1886. In some areas it has been reduced to ‘huxon’, only a letter away from huxion.

Now, what if we spelled hockshin by the Latin rules of spelling? Hoxion would certainly be a candidate and from hoxion to huxion is but a tiny skid. These types of spelling errors are common for words that are mostly heard and seldom seen in writing.

Further evidence is provided by preserved written examples of hox and huxen in the sense of “hamstring”. The examples are old and these words are clearly archaic but may well have been involved in the shift of CKS to X and the shift from O to U.

Bottom line, the spelling of the word hockshin has rambled all over the place in the past three centuries. That the spelling huxion was one of those places, doesn’t surprise me at all.

Scrooch Down and Scooch Over

Monday, August 31st, 2009

I expected the feedback on the distinction I recently made between scrooch and scooch to be rougher than it actually was. The most interesting comment came from Lenn Zonder and runs thus:

“I don’t remember ever hearing the word scrooch, and I am now sixty-nine years old. And maybe it is also important to point out I was a newspaper reporter most of my life, talking to and interviewing a great many people, many of them first or second generation immigrants, who spoke slang and colloquialism, and never the King’s English.”

“However, I do recall hearing and using the word scootch many times as a schoolboy. Apparently, without knowing or realizing it, we used scootch to mean both, “scootch over,” or to “scootch down,” as to hide. But the use of the word, at least in the greater New Haven, CT area, seems to have died out. I cannot recall hearing the word or phrase in the past 30-40 years. Maybe it’s an effect of living in a community of learned, Ivy League scholars.”

Well, scooch and scrooch are words  slangy enough that learned scholars would tend to eschew them, certainly not master with any sense of pride. The reason I ran them as Good Words is that they are fading in many dialects and are frequently confused in others. As connoisseurs and scholars of American slang (click here for evidence), I wanted to make sure that when our readers are slinging slang the slang they sling is true.

Both scrooch and scooch have been around for hundreds of years and I’m sure every generation confuses, conflates, or mispronounces them given nothing more than that tiny curl of the tongue (R) that separates them. They are separate words, though, with separate origins and distinct meanings.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they shortly meld together but down South, where I come from, I heard them both fifty years ago and still retain a pretty good sense of the distinction. Southern dialects are much more conservative in terms of developing and changing. Moreover, I still hear scooch emerge from the lips of very well-educated people here in Pennsylvania from time to time.

In the Floor for Discussion

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Here is an interesting question that arrived today from Dwaine Byrd of Detroit:

“I consider myself to have a fairly decent mastery of the English language, but living in the Detroit area, though raised in the South, I hear an occasional giggle when I use a term that is typically heard south of the Mason-Dixon. One of the terms I have a very hard time getting past is ‘in the floor’. I am told that it should be ‘on the floor’, which I perfectly understand and don’t argue at all. However, down home, ‘in the floor’ is very common and understood. I suppose it would be akin to getting in the bed at night to go to sleep. One doesn’t get ‘on the bed’, he gets in it. And when I take my clothes off, I put them ‘in the floor’.”

“You know, after proofreading this, it sounds a lot stranger than it actually is, but is ‘in the floor’ as common as I had always supposed it to be? Or is this term just completely taboo?”

Well, I’m from rural North Carolina, which is pretty far south and an area where turns of phrase pretty alien to Yankees are commonplace (see my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms for a sampling). However, I’ve never heard this phrase before either from North Carolinians nor from people I know from elsewhere in the South.

Of course, that fact does not deter a proud former academic like myself from expressing an opinion. I have talked about dialects several times in this blog and I may have even mentioned idiolects, dialects that are constrained to a very small area, even to a single family or person. I think that is what we are dealing with here.

In and on have an interesting relationship which I might even look into some day. While Dwaine doesn’t sleep on the bed, he does, I’ll bet, sit on it. Saying that something is “in the floor” suggests that it is logically located there. In this case, if something was dropped out of place on the floor, I would expect “on the floor”. 

But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this).

You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Dwaine. This little phrase helps distinguish you from the crowd. That isn’t bad. However, if it is too much for you to handle, you might try hanging your clothes up when you go to bed. That way you won’t have to use the phrase and I’m sure someone in your family will appreciate it.

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US Dialects: East but not West

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Larry Rymal in Texas recently sent this question, which I suspect lies on the minds of many others: “I have a question. It has bugged me ever since ‘day one’: Why is our general American accent different than the British accent. I’m not referring to the difficult-to-understand cockney accent, but the general London accent of the Queen or the Prime Minister.

My thought has been that since we primarily immigrated from England, why didn’t the sound of the words? Why is the general American accent not similar to Australia’s and New Zealand’s, for example?”

I have talked on this subject a lot but can’t find anything I’ve written directly to the point. To understand the answer to Larry’s question, we need to know about the nature of dialects, how they arise and how they become languages. I have discussed this in A Language is a Dialect with an Army.

Another reason dialects arise, not covered in that blog, is that, as the area in which a language is spoken expands, speakers at the periphery come in contact with peoples speaking other languages. More often than not, speakers of both languages intermingle and begin speaking each other’s language but imperfectly, the properties of the native language carrying over into the second language and vice versa. At some point, everyone in the region may speak the dominant language but with the peculiarities introduced by the secondary language.

This is similar to what happened in the US but in the US the change in pronunciation and new vocabulary was added by immigrants who moved to the periphery of the US. All the immigrants who ended up running this country originally landed on the east coast, most passing through customs on Ellis Island, and settled in the northeast. (West coast immigration came later.)

As these foreigners entered the US, the original English speakers moved south, where the dialectal features of 18th- and 19th-century UK English are best preserved. The accents of Presidents Carter and Clinton reflect the upperclass British shift of [r] to [ah] and the pronunciation of [o] as [uh-u].

Lower class UK dialectal traits are found in the dialects of those living in rural areas. Don’t forget that large numbers of Africans were also imported into the South, where you can find considerable influence of West African languages on the dialects of people of European extraction.

The Italians, Germans, Poles, Russians, etc. came in through Ellis Island in New York and settled near by. Many characteristics of their foreign accents were absorbed by the English spoken in the area around Ellis Island. That is why the variations in accents are so marked in New York and New Jersey.

So why are there no accents or dialects out west? Well, when immigrants  overpopulated New York and New Jersey, they began moving westward. They were joined by southern farmers looking for free land.

As this great migration progressed, people speaking different accents intermarried and otherwise interacted in school, church, and business. In so doing, they shared their accents to such an extent that they created a common grammar of syntax and phonology (pronunciation) which they carried with them all the way to California.

Visitors to alphaDictionary from Washington, Oregon, and California who take our Rebel-Yankee Test, often complain that they test reports that they are 51% Yankee or 52% Southerner. The fact that these scores are so close to 50-50% reflects the fact that the dialectal differences of the South and North blended quite evenly.

So, that is why speech in the US is different from that in the UK, why we have “accents”, which is to say “dialects”, and why they are limited to the east coast of the US and not heard out west. You can easily see how the same thing happened in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.

Salmon and Salmonella

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

William Hupy has one of the sharpest eyes for quirks of language that I know of. Today it occurred to him that, while we skip the pronunciation of the L in salmon, we clearly pronounce it in salmonella. He wondered why.

Let me begin by saying that whether the L is pronounced in either word depends on where you are from: I’m from the South and we pronounce the L in both words sharply. I’ve been kidded about my pronunciation of salmon for decades in Pennsylvania, where I live now.

Salmon and salmonellaAmong people raised in the North, however, unless L is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced [U] (the vowel sound in would and should), that is, before (voiceless) consonants and at the ends of words. My sons, who were born and raised in Pennsylvania pronounce milk [miUk] and hill [hiU]. This pronunciation is certainly common throughout PA, southern NY, and NJ. (In Serbian, by the way, L becomes other rounded vowel, O, in the same positions and is written that way. The past of biti “to be” is bila  “she was” but bio “he was”.)

Now, since the L in salmon appears before a consonant, we would expect it to be pronounced [saumon] in these regions, as we hear almond sometimes pronounced. Most folks up North, however, have adopted the simpler pronunciation [sammon].

That leaves us with the question of salmonella. The problem here is probably what we might call ‘retroinfluence’. Though pronunciation is supposed to influence spelling (I’m not kidding; even in English), sometimes it works the other way around. We probably see salmonella written more frequently than we hear it spoken, so pronounce the L. We more than likely hear salmon more frequently than we read it, so the pronunciation change turns up there.

The Fate of ‘-ly’ in English

Monday, August 11th, 2008

David Ross wrote the past Thursday:

Alas! The demise of the adverbial form is at hand:

‘NEW! False Friend Riddles. Riddles made up of English sentences that contain a foreign word spelled identical to an English word.’

Methinks “ly” will eventually disappear from English dictionaries, as its dearth is already ubiquitous in the vernacular.

David may be right; denizens of the southern US tier of states often omit this suffix: “Harley, he talks real good” is common enough down there though still considered substandard. In that region, at least, English might be moving the way of German which does not add endings to mark adverbs. Since endings are added to adjectives in that language, omitting an ending is the mark of an adverb.

However, I think something else is at work in the example David cites and I don’t think it is disappearing though, I must admit, it is poorly understood. At the time I was examining it, back in the 80s, no one had even noticed it, let alone researched it. If any work on this aspect of adverbs has been done since, I am unaware of it.

The English adverbial rule seems to be a bit more complicated than “add the suffix -ly to and qualitative adjective”. We know that adverbs are restricted to qualitative adjectives that refer to qualities (can be compared) and not to others. We can not make adverbs out of words like rural, urban, English which can not be compared. But the rule seems to be more complicated than this.

The rule in English seems to be something like this: “Add -ly to any qualitative adjective that does not have a predicate modifier”, i.e. a modifier that must come AFTER the adjective. Here are some examples.

The door shut quickly.
The door shut quick as a flash
NOT: The door shut quickly as a flash.

Bill left subsequently.
Bill left subsequent to Jill’s arrival.
NOT: Bill left subsequently to Jill’s arrival.

The jar opened easily.
The jar opened easy as pie.
NOT: The jar opened easily as pie.

Now, in choosing these examples, I have been careful not to confuse them with simple predicate adjectives like the one in this example:

Bill returned shortly (adverb)
Bill returned short of breath (predicate adjective)

The second sentence here contains an adjective modifying Bill and not the verb returned. It is in a category of predicate adjectives like Bill returned wet, sick, wounded. However, the evidence indicates that in English, if a true adverb has a predicate modifier, a modifier that must come after it, the suffix -ly is regularly, which is to day, grammatically, properly omitted.

Returning now to the example David cited from the alphaDictionary website, I must admit that the same example with the suffix -ly doesn’t sound as bad as the examples I cited above: “…a foreign word spelled identically to an English word.” However, to my ear, the version on the website still offends my grammar organ less. What do you think?

Cashabung and Such

Friday, August 8th, 2008

George Paul dropped a line today with a request for information on a word that has stumped us completely. Maybe someone reading this has encountered it. I rather doubt that since I think my response is probably correct. Here is what George asked:

For decades, my Italian-American family has used the word ‘cashabung’ to describe something that is worthless, good-for-nothing, no-account, no-good, manky, rubbishy, trashy, etc. I can’t find any reference to that word. Can you help?”

Here is the response:

George, you have stumped us. We’ve never encountered it and it doesn’t even occur on the Web, according to Google. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to it.

My best guess would be this. In addition to dialects, language is also marked by idiolects. An idiolect is the dialect of a family or even an individual. You have probably heard one person and only one person use a word or a word that is used only in one family. I suspect cashabung is from an idiolect, probably a blend of two words from an Italian dialect or simply an Italian word slightly mispronounced (you don’t find the combination NG at the end of many Italian words).

The only word that comes to my mind is cowabunga, an exclamation of surprise introduced in the ‘Howdy Doody Show’ back in the 1950s.  I notice that it still survives in the Internet community with a variety of meanings. None of them, however, approaches the sense of cashabung that you mention.

Well, Bless my Cotton-Pickin’ Heart

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

This month alphaDictionary will set a new record of more than 500,000 unique visitors to the site. A ‘unique visitor’ is a distinct viewer.  This excites me because it will bring more mail and, hopefully, delightful pieces like this one, received today from Julie McIntosh of Dallas, Texas. By the way, she is right: you can say pert much what you want to about a person down South so long as you prefix or suffix it with ‘bless my heart’. . . and that’s what I like about the South.

I have to correct y’all about your definition of “bless your heart” [in your Glossary of Quaint Southernisms].  This is not [only] a compliment, nor is it an expression of encouragement or approval.  Quite the contrary, this delightful and right useful expression is frequently called upon because properly bred Southerners (particularly Southern ladies like yours truly) would never want to say a harsh word about anyone.  Therefore, we soften it with “bless your heart” or “bless his heart” or “bless her heart”, etc.  
Example: “Bless his heart, if you put his brain on the head of a pin it would roll around like a bowlin’ ball on a six-lane highway.” 
Example: “That child has a face only her mother could love, bless her little heart.”
Example: An uncouth man says to southern lady, “Damn, woman… You’re FINE!”  Southern Lady responds, “Well,  bless your heart” rather than giving the uncouth man the “go to hell” he so richly deserves.   
For my last example, if you have a little ol’ lady in her Ford Tempo driving 45 in the fast lane in Detroit, someone might say to her, “HEY! (expletive deleted) What the (expletive deleted) do you think you’re doing?  Get the (expletive deleted) off the road!”  Down South, we’d just pass her on the right and say, “Well bless that darlin’ ol’ girl’s heart.” 
Basically, if the heart is sufficiently blessed, then any negative comment is softened into something downright pleasant — or at least less than nasty.     
But y’all just didn’t know, what with you bein’ from Pennsylvania and all…bless yer precious little ol’ Yankee hearts!   
Hugs and Kisses,  
Julie McIntosh

How’s ‘Yall’ Doing?

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Spread of yallWhen my family sat down at the table in ‘The Egg and I” cafe in Boulder last week, the waitress dropped off the menus and said, “I’ll come back to help yall in a minute.” As someone who has been tracking the spread of the new pronoun yall (2nd person plural personal) for some time now (see my article and blog entry), I was curious as to where our waitress had picked it up.

When she returned, I learned that she had spent most of her life in Colorado but had been born and spent a few years in Utah and Arizona. Her family as far as she could remember came from California. Since US dialects only made it as far as the Mississippi except for the southern one, which made it as far as Texas, yall should not be in these far western states.

Yet, it is there, further supporting my points: (1) The language has been in need of a 2nd person plural personal pronoun since the thouyou distinction broke down ages ago and (2) yall is the best candidate for the job: youse (New York, New Jersey) and yuns (Pennsylvania) are losing out.

I told you so.


Saturday, April 12th, 2008

I received this comment last week: “I was just listening to a cellphone product review on the CNET website, and the speaker, a guy in his early 30’s, ended every statement about the phones features with “up-talk”. I find this speech habit to be extremely annoying. In general i thought it was indicative of younger speakers, but they seem to be getting older and older – i guess i am too for that matter. I guess that once everyone my age is dead, everyone will be doing it and nobody will be annoyed, know what I’m saying?”

I see no reason to be upset by “uptalk”: it has been around since before the states were united. It is the common intonational means of indicating the end of a clause in Irish English.  All English speakers from Ireland and other parts north of England use this intonational marker—some parts of Scotland, too. 

It is more common in the south of the US because dialects there tend to be more conservative, preserving various aspects that settlers brought with them from the old country.

But it is nothing to be offended at. Different languages and different dialects have different means of intonationally marking clauses, sentences, and questions.  This one has been around for centuries—at least.