Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for September, 2007

Dialectal Overcompensation

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Bill Taber today wrote about one of the most fascinating aspects of English dialects, overcompensation. He wrote, “Wash, warsh—seems most women say warsh and man say wash. Why?”

Kennedy-BunkerThe only linguistic explanation is that most women you know, Bill, come from a different background; their immigrant ancestors were the urban middle-class British. These British English speakers tend to say [warsh], [lawr], etc. It is overcompensation in a dialect where the R is regularly (yes, regularly, governed by rule) lost after the sound AH: car become [cah], marsh become [mahsh], and so on.

At some point some influential speakers of this dialect became aware they were dropping the Rs and tried to replace them. However, since they had never heard them from their parents, they didn’t know where to put them. As a result, they tended to put Rs after every AH sound, whether they were supposed to be there or not.

Various dialects show the same effort after the UH sound. Both the Boston Brahmins and my mother, a rural Southerner, pronounced Cuba [Cuber], Eva [eever]”, etc. This is because one of their ancestors tried to stop dropping Rs after UH in words like mother [mothuh], gather [gathuh], matter [mattuh]. Again, they were not sure where the Rs go, since their ancestors always dropped them, so they tended to put them everywhere. Some of the overcompensated Rs stuck in the dialect; others didn’t.

Overcompensation is the unfortunate result of guilt and shame felt by those who speak a non-dominant dialect. The ‘standard language’ is always the dialect spoken by the most powerful people in a society. All others are disdained, laughed at and, most unfairly, taken as a sign of ignorance. This latter prejudice leads to economic discrimination which makes no sense, as the explosive economic rise of the South after the invention of air conditioning demonstrates.

Overcompensation occurs elsewhere in the North. Those who followed the US TV series “All in the Family”, might have noticed that the Queens dialect of Archie Bunker reflected some inconsistencies. Archie pronounced bird [boid], murder [moiduh], and third [toid]. However, Archie’s toilet was his [terlet], his “dingbat” of a wife, Edith, cooked with [erl] rather than oil, and tended to [berl] rather than boil the spaghetti.

Again, the (brighter) speakers of Brooklyn and Queens dialect became painfully aware of one reason why their speech made those outside their dialect area laugh at them and they tried to repair it. Problem was, they didn’t know which OIs should be ER and which, not, since they had never heard ER in their neighborhood. The result was, again, overcompensation.

As I have said over and over again: a regional dialect is nothing more than variations in the grammar of a language that naturally arise when the language is spoken over a wide area. It has nothing to do with intelligence and the only difference between a regional dialect and the ‘standard’ or ‘literary’ dialect is the (lack of) power of the people speaking it.

Happy Punctuation Day!

Monday, September 24th, 2007

I am back from my foray into France, the land where everyone loves pain and a drink of water makes you say, “Oh!” It is a land where champs are flat and ordinary though everyone’s beau is good-looking. Hands are the main thing there. In France all pets are stinkers though the cats are rather chatty. You have to rue the streets even though everyone lives in chateaus for a personne is noone at all.

ApostropheHappy National Punctuation Day all! Apparently we do not celebrate Punctuation Day the way we celebrate Labor Day—by avoiding any hint of it. I am not sure what one does on National Punctuation Day; I am at my usual labors.  You can read more about it here.

Punctuation is, of course, very important to language. The most famous proof is the sentence, “A woman without her man is nothing”, which some English teacher is purported to have written on an unsuspecting blackboard, asking that the class punctuate it correctly. The men all punctuated it thus: “A woman, without her man, is nothing”. The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing”.

A more interesting example was given years ago by my phonetics teacher at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Pike. He offered the simple sentence, “I love you,” pointing out that the intonation (and, by extention, the punctuation) can reverse the meaning: “I? Love you?”

So don’t stop at watching your Ps and Qs; watch your punctuation, too.

Yes, we had a wonderful cruise down the Rhône from Beaune (a wonderful discovery) to Arles, then spending 4 days in Aix (where all married women are ex-wives), sallying out from there to Le Baux and other monuments worth seeing. It is good to be back home, too.

More La-Di-Dahs and La-Di-Da’s

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

Sue Gold, Communications Director of Westtown School, was one of two Good Word readers who asked the question: “Why do you have to put an apostrophe before the s in la-di-da’s?”

ApostropheGood question. The traditional answer is that since “la-di-da” is not a real noun or verb, the apostrophe is appropriate. Words and other things used as major lexical categories have traditionally been marked by using an apostrophe between them and any suffixes that accrue to them, especially if omitting the apostrophe results in a odd-looking form.

Many writers in the US are moving away from this rule, though. I’ve long since given up on writing the decades with apostrophes, e.g. 1980s rather than the traditional 1980’s, since it is a number, not a noun.

In the midst of change like this, when there is no basis for a choice, I sometimes make my choice democratically just to keep the decision from being totally arbitrary: the la-di-da’s outnumber the la-di-das 2 : 1 on the Web (today). This fact probably reflects the fact that the non-noun rule is still in practice in all the other English-speaking regions of the world. Of course, democracy is not the way matters of style are settled so the question remains an unsettled one.

Of course, you can also use an H in this case: la-di-dahs.

La-di-da: Putting on the Dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Hanne Quillevere, a Good Word subscriber living in Canada, was reminded by today’s Good Word, la-di-da,of a funny phrase now slipping out use. She wrote:

“If you are up to dealing with a phrase, rather than a single word, how would you trace the meaning of the phrase, “putting on the dog”? I have now looked through four reference works on idioms, slang and quotations, and while “dog” appears many times, “putting on the dog” does not. I have always thought it meant something along the lines of today’s la-di-da.”

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase “put on dog”, e.g. in A. Gilbert’s No Dust in Attic (1962) xiv. 190: “Matron put on a lot of dog about the hospital’s responsibility”. Here the phrase uses “dog” as a mass (uncountable) noun. The phrase generally means “to splurge, to make a flashy display” or, as one of the OED citations puts it: “cut the swell”. I have always heard it as “putting on THE dog”, too, but I heard it only when living in the South.

This phrase means to do something up in a showy fashion, a synonym of that lovely British phrase, “(dress up like) the dog’s dinner”. (These phrases must have arisen during a stretch when all British dogs were show dogs.) It isn’t the same as “la-di-da” but both these phrases refer to situations that might well elicit a “la-di-da” or two.