The Christmas Dialect Divide


Scrooge, from the 1st Edition of 'A Christmas Carol'

Christmas greetings differ on each side of the Atlantic.  Here in the U.S., ‘Merry Christmas‘ is used almost exclusively, while ‘Happy Christmas‘ seems more common among dialects in UK.

But wait.  Didn’t the very British A Christmas Carol feature the term ‘Merry Christmas’ prominently?  Where did this ‘happy’ business come into play?

Not only was ‘Merry Christmas’ an important part of Dickens’ classic, but I would argue it was instrumental in popularizing the term.

For evidence, one might turn to the infinitely addictive Google NGram viewer (an online tool for finding the incidence of words and phrases in books throughout history). Take a look at this search results for ‘merry Christmas:’

In the decade after the publication of A Christmas Carol, use of the term increases dramatically. You may wonder why this then appears to decrease after the mid-1860’s.  This most likely results from NGram Viewer being case-sensitive:  After the mid-19th-century, fully capitalized ‘Merry Christmas’ becomes more common, and so occurrences are more equally distributed between capitalized and non-capitalized ‘merry.’

(By the way, I doubt Dickens was the only factor in the popularization of ‘Merry Christmas.’ The Victorian Era saw both the revival of the holiday and the creation of much of the imagery associated with it. But Scrooge no doubt helped.)

So how did ‘happy Christmas’ become so much more common in the UK?  Alas, NGram Viewer offers little indication for why this might be: usage begins to increase in the mid-19th-century, and steadily rises until the present day.  The theory I’ve encountered the most relates to turnover in the monarchy. Note this interesting explanation from The Phrase Finder:

That change in meaning [i.e. the ‘Merry’ in ‘Merry Christmas’] is apparently viewed with disfavour by Queen Elizabeth II, who wishes her subjects a ‘happy’ rather than ‘merry’ Christmas in her annual Christmas broadcasts. The idea of a modern-day merry England is presumably unwelcome at the palace.

Did the Queen’s aversion to this particular greeting prompt the change? I have no idea. What I find more curious is that ‘merry Christmas’ has remained part of the lexicon of American dialects as long as it has. Almost every holiday is ‘happy’ here, so why is ‘merry Christmas’ the odd exception?


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Vocal Fry

I don’t have time for a full-on post today, but I would be negligent if I didn’t point out the recent buzz on the web and elsewhere about ‘vocal fry.’  This term, which is more or less synonymous with creaky voice, describes a voice quality that might be termed ‘rough,’ ‘growly,’ ‘smoky’ or a number of other wildly unscientific adjectives.  This article in Science magazine has a more technical description:

Vocal fry, or glottalization, is a low, staccato vibration during speech, produced by a slow fluttering of the vocal cords.

This piece has prompted a number of interesting responses:

Needless to say, after reading Mr. Liberman’s piece, I have nothing to add to the hubbub. I am rather fascinated, however, that this particular vocal quirk has stirred up so much popular discussion (by linguistics standards). Perhaps vocal fry is something we’ve all taken notice of?

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The Cornish Accent?

Lanyonquoit, Megalith, Cornwall


Half of my last name is ‘Trawick,’ which is a Cornish surname.  Or rather, Anglicized Cornish–it apparently derives from ‘Traweek.’ I’ve seen a few competing ‘Trawick’ etymologies, but after some ancestral research, this seems the most plausible contender.  As such, I’ve developed an interest in the people and language of Cornwall, and have wondered, of course, if there is such a thing as a ‘Cornish accent.’

Cornwall, along with Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, is one of the five Celtic nations of the British Isles.  This second-smallest of the nations is unique, however, in that it remains part of mainland England.  Its native language has fared poorly when compared to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, or even the Irish language: there were only a few hundred fluent speakers by 2000 (these numbers have increased since then, thanks to a language-revival campaign).

With this in mind, is there an identifiable Cornish accent?  Yes and no.  There is certainly an accent spoken in Cornwall (a few accents, actually).  Let’s take a listen to an example of such an accent, courtesy of former Cornish wrestler Gerry Trawley:

Trawley clearly speaks with an accent closely related to other accents in Western England (which are generally marked by their rhoticity, or r-fulness).  His accent does not strike me as divorced from others in Southern England.

This is clearly a different situation from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where English accents keep a connection (even if tenuous) to the Irish, Gaelic, Scots or Welsh languages. More importantly, the accents of those other nations are more strikingly noncontinuous with the accents of England (although there are exceptions).

None of this is particularly surprising. Monolingual Cornish speakers appear to have died out in the 17th-Century, while Irish was still a majority language in Galway and Donegal a good two hundred years later. The situation simply isn’t comparable, as the Cornish language hasn’t exerted any influence on English for a good 400 years or so.

This has resulted in a mishmash of local accents that are not very consistent throughout Cornwall. In particular, there seems (or at least seemed) something of a divide between the Western and Eastern halves of the county.  The data from the Survey of English Dialects in the 1960’s suggested that Eastern Cornwall is influenced by its proximity to Devon*.  But even further West, the accents seem to show features more typical of the larger region in England to which Cornwall belongs (for instance, voiceless fricatives like ‘f,’ and ‘s’ can sometimes be voiced, becoming ‘v’ and ‘z.’)

So is there a Cornish accent?  The answer is yes, but it isn’t as strikingly unique to Cornwall as many Irish accents are to Ireland or Scottish accents are to Scotland.

One last, slightly unrelated mystery.  I’ve never quite figured out the pronunciation of my last name, which in America is TRAY-wick.  How this evolved from ‘Traweek’ is beyond me!

*The phonetically inclined might note some data from the SED: Speakers from Western Cornwall pronounced ‘mouth’ with a vowel of the type [ɛʊ], while in the two towns of Eastern Cornwall a more ‘Devonian’ realization was found: [əʏ] or [ɐʏ].


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‘Couple Dialects’

Old Couple


Couples speak their own languages.  Whether these could be called ‘dialects’ or not is up for debate. But couples certainly seem to engage in code shifting, the act of changing one’s mode of speech depending on context.  They engage in different styles of discourse depending on whether they are happy, angry, argumentative, conciliatory or any other emotion possible.

Be they dialects, languages or lingos, couple-speak is one of the more peculiar phenomena of human interaction.   Although perhaps never studied, I’ve often wondered if couple language differs by region, ethnicity, sexual orientation and culture the same way dialects do.

There are, of course, couple-centric phrases typical of certain English dialects.  This is particularly true of terms of endearment: note American Southern/Irish ‘darlin,’ British ‘love,’ and pan-dialectical ‘babe.’  Of course, few of these are exclusively romantic (or particular to an exact region).  Coversely, other romantic nicknames sound obscure outside of the couple to which they are heard (my wife calls me ‘buddy’).

A type of etymology unique to couple-speak is ‘baby talk,’ the cutesy, playful, and not a little infantile mode of expression that lovers engage in. Adults are reluctant to discuss their own use of baby talk with their significant others, of course.  (Many would rather discuss their sex life.)  Yet it’s a common type of communication in relationships. It may, in fact, contribute to one’s mental health, as this Women’s Health article suggests:

Whether it’s baby talk or coded conversation (“It’s getting chilly.” Translation: “Let’s leave now.”), the overall message is: The two of you are tight. “You are saying, symbolically, that you care enough about the other person and the relationship to develop your own way of speaking,” says Carol Bruess, Ph.D., the director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota …”You’ve got your own private world, your own mini culture.”

My impression is that ‘silly’ or ‘baby’ talk has a way of insinuating itself into adult conversation.  My wife and I got into the habit, silly as it sounds, of adding ‘-s’ onto singular nouns: ‘You want to go to the stores?’  Of course, lo and behold, what became a staple of playful discourse became quite serious: ‘We need to go to the stores, we’re really running low on breads!’

Baby talk among couples is a good example of the way facetious speech often evolves to become quite sincere.  This has intriguing implications: if childish speech can make it into the adult conversation of couples, what other linguistic ‘jokes’ become fully-fledged dialect features?


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Anovver Fing About Th-Fronting

In our discussions of dialect evolution in the UK, a common denominator is th-fronting. To review: th-fronters turn ‘th‘ words into ‘f’ or ‘v’ words: ‘thing’ becomes ‘fing,’ ‘bother’ becomes ‘bovver,’ and ‘both’ becomes ‘bof.’ It’s a feature common in broad London accents.  Note Cockney celebrity Danny Dyer‘s pronunciation of ‘thing,’ ‘with,’ and ‘third’ in this clip:

It’s clear that this feature is spreading in the UK, but not entirely clear why.  Linguist Paul Kerswill, who has studied the spread of ‘London’ accent features in the UK, has accumulated some interesting data about ‘th-fronting,’ particularly in his work on British children’s speech in the late-90’s with colleague Ann Williams*.

At the time, there was clearly still a working-class/middle-class divide in terms of th-fronting. In Reading, a city on the outskirts of Greater London, rates were 0% for middle-class girls compared to over 80% for working-class boys. There was also a striking gender split, particularly in the town of Milton Keynes, where th-fronting occurred less than 10% of the time for middle-class girls but over 30% for boys.

But perhaps the most impressive observation gleaned from Kerswill and Williams’ data is the geographical spread of ‘th’-fronting. The highest incidence of this feature was found in working-class boys in Hull, a city in Northern England, far from Greater London.  Quite a journey!

We tend to think of th-fronting as a marker of London accents, but this is perhaps stereotypical. As the feature has also been a long-time feature of the Bristol accent, it might more accurately be thought of as a Southern English feature. Within the past fifty years, however, th-fronting occurs in localities far from its heartland, in urban areas of Northern England and Scotland.

The fact that th-fronting seems more common among males suggests a ‘covert prestige’ feature, a working-class shibboleth that while stigmatized, becomes a secret source of pride. The question, of course, is how the feature entered the speech of young men in such far-flung places in the first place.

As I’ve said before, what deepens the mystery is that this feature clearly can arise of its own accord without outside influence. Some accents in the American South (along with varieties of African-American Vernacular English) front ‘th’ words in a manner identical to Cockney. So to what degree is this feature spreading, and to what degree is it emerging independently?

Williams, Ann & Kerswill, Paul (1999). Dialect levelling: change and continuity in Milton Keynes, Reading and Hull. In Paul Foulkes & Gerard Docherty (eds.) Urban voices. Accent studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold. 141–162.


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Dialects and Registers

Professor One afternoon some years ago, an overheard conversation on the subway piqued my interest. A few train stops before my apartment, a pair of young men got on the car and sat across from me.  After exchanging a few friendly greetings with each other, they jumped into the following interchange:

–You read the latest issue?
–Nah, son, I’m only half-way through.
–You get to the Hitchens yet?

They then proceeded to have an erudite discussion of a Christopher Hitchens piece in Vanity Fair. This wouldn’t be notable except that the men conducted their conversation in the dialect known as African-American Vernacular English.  Loath as I am to admit it, it was startling to hear such a topic being discussed in a non-standard dialect of English.

The anecdote reminds me of linguist Peter Trudgill’s Standard English: What it isn’t*. Trudgill here distinguishes strongly between a dialect and a register.  The former is a variety of English, like Scottish, Irish, or New England, while the latter (‘register’) is something like a ‘lingo,’ or a set of terms that relate to a profession, vocation or intellectual pursuit.

We falsely assume that intellectual registers equate to ‘standard English.’  In fact, they do not.  In the above conversation, the two men are using what might be termed an ‘academic register,’ while speaking in a non-standard dialect (African-American Vernacular English).  The two are not mutually exclusive.

As Trudgill points out, the situation I’ve described above is quite normal in many other non-English-speaking countries:

In German-speaking Switzerland, for example, most speakers use their local nonstandard dialect in nearly all social situations and for nearly all purposes. Thus it is that one may hear, in the corridors of the University of Berne, two philosophy professors discussing the works of Kant using all the appropriate philosophical vocabulary while using the phonology and grammar of their local dialect.

As a hypothetical English example, Trudgill uses the Cockney-tinged phrase:

There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys

This sounds strange, doesn’t it? But maybe it shouldn’t. Trudgill’s sentence illustrates how a non-standard dialect of English could easily be used to discuss the technical subject of geography. Just because a dialect is non-standard does not mean one can’t use it to debate the most complex of intellectual abstractions.

(To be clear, we’re talking about ‘dialects’ here, not accents.  I’ve heard intellectual discourse in strong Southern, London, Northern English, New York and Carribean accents.  But rarely have I heard such conversations conducted using non-standard morphology and syntax.)

What’s sad, of course, is that such mixtures of non-standard dialects and ‘intellectual’ language seem uniquely uncommon for our language.  Obviously, much of this can be attributed to the correlation between dialect and class.  It’s no secret that education and ‘standard English’ tend to go hand in hand, at least in America.  But as Trudgill’s Swiss example illustrates, this need not be the case.

Why do we exclusively associate elevated discourse with the dialect we know as ‘Standard English?’

*Trudgill, P. (1999). Standard english: What it isn’t. In Bex, T. and Watts, R. J. (Eds.), Standard English: The widening debate (117-128). London: Routledge.


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How People Think They Make Sounds


Photo: Rachael Ashe

When I was younger, I believed I made the English /r/ sound with my lips.  When I visualized this consonant, I pictured myself making a tight half-pout.  I saw /r/, in essence, as a more emphatic version of/w/.

So it was something of a shock when I took an introductory voice and speech course in college.  My professor (and a prescriptivist speech textbook) taught me that the ‘correct’ way to produce /r/ is by moving the front of one’s tongue to the space behind the upper teeth.  Compounding my confusion was the fact that when I was younger, my /r/ was ‘bunched,’ meaning it involved the back of the tongue, not the front.

This anecdote highlights an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years: people sometimes have off-base perceptions of how they themselves produce the sounds of English. And I’ve noticed what seems to be a pattern. People are aware of movements they make with their lips, but are often unconscious of what they do with their tongue.

Take the /w/ sound. Most non-phonetician types probably assume (as I once assumed) that this sound is made entirely with the lips. The fact that ‘w’ involves tongue movement (lifting the back of the tongue to the soft palate), is something few people would be cognizant of.

The same is probably true of the ‘oo’ sound: many imagine this vowel being made by rounding the lips alone.  Tongue height, of course, is equally if not more important (and I might argue that in some dialects, lip roundedness is an afterthought).  Still, when most people think of ‘oo,’ they think of a pair of lips forming a perfect ‘o.’

So why do the lips seem more on people’s minds than the tongue? I’ve sometimes wonder if this is because the lips are more consistently visible: the first president Bush told the country to ‘Read my lips,’ not to ‘Read the interplay of gestures between my lips and tongue.’  We have a vague notion that the tongue is doing something back there in the darkness, but we’re not quite sure what.

These are obviously personal observations, and hardly universal.  But it does seem that humans assign conscious gestures to entirely unconscious activities, particularly when it comes to talking. Why do we notice some of the movements that create speech while ignoring others?


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Polar Bears and Cross Dressers

Polar Bear


One of the handful of slips the excellent British actor Hugh Laurie made on House (he speaks with an American accent on the show) was when he had a line with the term ‘cross dresser.’  Every vowel and consonant was technically correct, but he noticeably pronounced ‘cross dresser‘ with stress on the second word; in American accents, the emphasis is usually on ‘cross.’

The major difference here is in the way Americans and Britons treat those grammatical units called ‘noun phrases.’  These are any of those little adjective-noun combos, of which ‘grammatical units,’ ‘major difference,’ and, indeed, ‘noun phrase’ itself are examples from this paragraph.

My impression is that in noun phrases with an adjective (I would also cite ‘polar bear’ and ‘spread eagle’), the British tend to put stress more often on the noun than Americans do.  Some may recall Will Ferrell poking fun at this feature in 1990’s Saturday Night Live episodes, playing a libidinous quasi-English professor who referred to a jacuzzi as a ‘hot tub.’

Americans, on the other hand, typically say ‘cross dresser,’ ‘polar bear,’ and ‘spread-eagle.’ Of course, not every noun phrase gets stress on the adjective.  We say ‘Canterbury road,’ not ‘Canterbury road.’  And there are many of these types of phrases where stress entirely depends on context.  For ‘cross-country,’ the latter word gets stressed in the sentence ‘We’re going cross-country,’ but the former gets stressed in ‘I went cross-country skiing.’

Conversely, this is not to say that British dialects always hit the noun.  You’ll notice in this news story that nobody refers to the ‘Christmas tree’ as a ‘Christmas tree‘ (fun bonus: the Northeastern English accent as :12):

As my Hugh Laurie example at the top suggests, this is a real challenge for actors doing dialect work.  I’ve never been able to find any hard or fast rules, nor any comprehensive list of these types of differences.  And this problem extends beyond British and American dialects.  There are nuances to the way Irish English treats word stress that I can’t quite fathom (and am hesitant to discuss, since it can be hard to separate prosodic features of Irish English from questions of stress).

Are there any ‘rules’ to noun phrase stress for different accents and dialects?


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The Paths of ‘Geezer’

Something that’s puzzled me about the speech of young British co-workers is the term ‘geezer.’  In America, this word refers, impolitely, to an elderly man.  More accurately, I’d say it’s used more in theory than practice: it’s one of those slang words that everyone understands but is rather archaic-sounding in contemporary language. I hear ‘geezer’ used in movies about insolent teenagers in the 1950’s, but rarely on the lips of my peers.

Regardless, ‘geezer’ means something different in British dialects, where it’s arguably a term of affection directed toward younger people. I say ‘arguably’ because it’s hard to pin down a solid definition of British ‘geezer.’ I’ve heard it equated with ‘bloke,’ but there are shades of meaning here that elude me. The fairly British-centric Collins English dictionary defines the word simply as ‘a man.’  But as with dude, lad, and mate, I doubt this is the whole story.

So how did this word mean such different things in the two dialects? Most dictionaries state that ‘geezer’ is a variation of the rather archaic ‘guiser,’ which refers to a masked or costumed reveler (or ‘mummer’). The word seems linked to the more recognizable French-derived ‘guise.’ (You’ll note a similar association with costumes and masks in the related term ‘disguise.’)

How ‘guiser’ (or rather, its offspring) came to mean both ‘old man’ and ‘bloke’ seems at first obscure, until one sees the natural evolution of the term. Random House dictionary offers a definition of ‘geezer’ that serves as something of a ‘missing link:’ an odd or eccentric man.

It seems the strangeness and exoticism of masked celebration remained part of the word in this stage of its development. But the two contemporary definitions on each side of the Atlantic are still somewhat puzzling. The ‘eccentricity’ of an old man seems to have been the impetus for the American version. But how did the word became a term of fraternal endearment in the UK?

Any other ideas how British ‘geezer’ came to be?


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French Stress and Broad A’s


Photo: Stu Spivack

We Americans perhaps assume that the British pronounce ‘foreign’ words more inaccurately than we do. As evidence, one might cite such foreign loans as ‘Mario,’ ‘pasta,’ and ‘cliché!’ At first glance, it might look as if Americans stress the correct syllable or use the correct ‘ah’ sound.

But that’s not quite right.  In many cases where the British seem to pronounce foreign words the ‘wrong’ way, we delude ourselves in thinking we are any more correct. In the case of the previous paragraph, for instance, most Americans treat the ‘a‘ in ‘Mario’ and ‘pasta’ the same as the broad ‘ah’ in ‘father:’ hence ‘MAH-rio’ and ‘PAH-sta.’ We would probably deem this more ‘correct’ than the British pronunciation, which uses the ‘short a’ in words like ‘cat.’

But in the original Italian, the vowel in these words is typically centralized, neither back (as in the American pronunciation) nor front (as in the British pronunciation). So one could argue that American ‘pasta’ isn’t any more correct than British ‘pasta.’  It’s just a different interpretation.

The same is true of ‘French stress.’ Here in the States, we pat ourselves on the back about our ‘authentic’ pronunciation of French words like ‘cliché,’ ‘gourmet’ and ‘buffet’ with the ‘correct’ stress on the second syllable. We find it odd when we hear Britons put the emphasis at the beginning of these words.

Yet this is ignorant of the fact that French in fact has no lexical stress.  While stress (when it occurs) tends to fall on the last syllable of words, the American pronunciation isn’t technically more ‘correct’ than the British.  Our perception of proper French stress, as was the case with the Italian examples, doesn’t quite gel with reality.

Given, it’s likely Americans pronounce Spanish words closer to their native realizations: the language is a more ubiquitous part of our culture.  (It is indeed amusing to hear an Englishman pronounce ‘cojones’ as if it were a near-rhyme with ‘honest.’) But as our bizarre pronunciation of ‘lingerie’ indicates, we’re just as likely to mangle foreign pronunciations as our friends across the Atlantic.  We’re in no position to judge!


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