“Courtney Act” and Non-Rhotic Puns

Courtney Act

Courtney Act (hinnk / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

This season of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured Courtney Act (aka Shane Jenek), a renowned drag performer from Brisbane, Australia. In an early episode, Act/Jenek laments that Americans don’t get the pun in his stage name, which sounds similar to “caught in the act” to Australians (i.e. koːt n̩ i ækt). “Except,” Jenek says (and I’m paraphrasing), “maybe Boston or somewhere.”

I think Jenek’s right, it would take a second or two for most Americans to detect the pun, but not quite for the reason it might seem. Americans generally pronounce the /r/ in “Courtney” where Australians don’t. But the /r/ here occurs before another alveolar consonant, so the difference is hardly as prominent as it would be for Milne’s classic Eeyore pun (made all the more amusing by the vowel lengthening in non-rhotic British “-ore”: eee-aaawww).

The bigger problem is that most Americans use a very different vowel in “caught” than the one they use in “court“, which is different still from the vowel Australians use. The latter tend toward a fairly close “caught” vowel, while the former, especially in the cot-caught merged states, notoriously pronounce the word not dissimilarly from Southeastern British “cart“.

In fact, I think a pun like “cart in the act” would be pretty easily understood by most Americans (and indeed, a Google search produces at least two instances of Americans using just that pun in headlines). The vowel in “-ar” words in my accent is more or less identical to the vowel I use in “-aw” words.1 The bigger issue is that the vowel in “Courtney” and “Caught” are quite different for most of us in the States.

As to Jenek’s comment, I rather disagree that Boston would be the city most likely to grasp the pun. Contemporary non-rhotic Bostonians often make a distinction between the vowels “caught” and “court“, with the former word pronounced with a rather open vowel similar to that of most other American accents. Marked New York City English would probably be a better example, as its speakers tend to use similar vowels for both syllables.

It doesn’t help, of course, that “Courtney Act” is a complex pun that requires an intuitive understanding of English phonetics. To get the joke, you need to know that “in” can be pronounced as a syllabic /n/ and that English speakers sometimes drop “th” after that same /n/. While a pun like “cart in the act” is easy to spot because it resembles the structure of the phrase upon which the pun rests, “Courtney Act” is harder to parse.

1. For phonetics lovers, I generally make only a slight distinction between pairs like “caught” and “cot,” pronouncing the former with something close to Cardinal 5 (ɑ) and the latter with a vowel in between Cardinals 5 and the centralized variant of Cardinal 4.


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Urban Southern English


Atlanta (David Cole / CC-BY-3.0)

A reader wrote me recently with a question about his “fading” Southern accent:

I am a native, fourth generation Georgian who has lived in Roanoke, Virginia for two years. Before then I spent three years in Austin, Texas; two in Atlanta; and four in Athens, Georgia– all metro areas and college towns. I’m wondering why my Southern accent has disappeared without me trying to do so. Does living in cosmopolitan areas naturally mute regional distinctions?

In short, yes, living in cosmopolitan areas can in some ways “mute” certain accents. Although there’s a lot more to it than that!

One of the of the most brilliant yet simple concepts in sociolinguistics is Peter Trudgill‘s “gravity model” of linguistic diffusion. A good summary of the principle can be found in William Labov‘s article Pursuing the cascade model:

In Trudgill’s gravity model of diffusion, change spreads from the largest to the next largest city, in a predictable order, the influence of one city on another being proportional to the relative sizes of the city and inversely proportional to the distance between them.

In other words, larger cities tend to influence smaller cities rather than vice versa. Big City A spreads a feature to Slightly Smaller City B, which spreads to Even Smaller City C, which spreads to Small Town D. Geographical distance is not the only factor in the spread of certain dialect features (although it is important); the actual size of the urban areas in question is also relevant.

One side effect of this phenomenon is that you can often find two large cities several hundred miles apart that have more in common with each other, dialect-wise, than either does with the intervening rural areas. A middle-class person from suburban Atlanta probably has a dialect not dissimilar from a middle-class person in suburban Charlotte, while I would be very surprised if a middle-class person from Anderson County, SC, a rural area in between the two, didn’t have a much stronger regional dialect than either. (Although I’m just guessing.) If you look at all cities in America as being interconnected to some degree, it’s probably more likely that “General American” features have spread to the urban South than its rural counterpart.

This is not an ironclad rule, though, by any means. It’s much more common to hear the /r/ pronounced at the end of “car” in New York City nowadays than it was in 1920, even though this feature did not arrive to the Big Apple from a larger city (you can’t get much bigger than New York, after all). In that case, the feature likely came via transplants from many regions of the country that all featured post-vocalic /r/. I do think, however, that the gravity model is a pretty important factor in dialect leveling in Southern cities.

Of course, what may seem to involve “muting” local accents in the short term can end up creating very distinctive accents in the long run. Accents in the cities of Northern England are probably good examples of the gravity model (thanks to the industrial revolution), and those are some of the most distinctive Englishes on the planet. Nevertheless, you’re usually more likely to pick up features more typical of other parts of the country in a large metro area than in an isolated rural one.


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Jim Hawkin’s “Blues”

Source: Beinecke Library

Source: Beinecke Library

I recently read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a story I greatly enjoy as a child. The novel’s pirates speak with a dialect I find puzzling as an adult reader: is it the West Country of the early chapters’ setting (akin to the famed “pirate dialect”)? Are some of the pirates Irish? Is some American English thrown in the mix?

Stevenson was not entirely going for accuracy. The story is so associated with the era of wigs and tri-corner hats that it’s easy to forget the book was written in the late Victorian era, and likely doesn’t reflect the speech of 18th-Century seamen with total verisimilitude. Stevenson wrote about a largely fanciful world, generally speaking. Many adaptations of the film are set in tropical climes, for instance, but the pines, grey trees, and sweltering heat that the author describes suggest a curious mashup of different locales.[1]

I find myself especially curious about the occasional Americanisms which pepper the pirates’ speech. For instance, Long John Silver uses the phrase let her rip, a term we still use in America today and seems to be of American origin. Does US English share this phrase with rural British English, or did Stevenson picked it up during a sojourn in America? He married a native of Indianapolis, after all.

The question is especially complex when young Jim Hawkins speaks of having “the blues:”

If we had been allowed to sit idle, we should all have fallen in the blues but Captain Smollett was never the man for that. All hands were called up before him, and he divided us into watches.

We tend to associate the blues with a very American musical form, but the term’s roots on this side of the Ocean are dubious.[2] A Google Books search yields a fair number of examples similar to Stevenson’s in British Victorian literature, in fact, such as this passage from an obscure tome titled Violet Rivers, by Winifred Taylor:

“I only wish there were an end to all these books, for they’re nothing but weariness of the flesh to me.” And Harry put his hands in his pockets, and gave a great yawn, as if to convince his hearers that he was speaking the truth.

“There’s no use going into the blues over them,” spoke Cecil again. “What can’t be cured must be endured, you know.”

As in the above two passages, many examples I found from the 19th-Century used the construction “in the blues,” or opted for a related adjective like “into.” But the meaning is nonetheless similar to how we treat the word in contemporary English. The term appears similarly in American texts from the period, however. So whether Stevenson picked up the term among Englishman or Americans is anyone’s guess.

[1] A point reinforced by the book’s most famous illustrator, New Englander N.C. Wyeth, who gave the island a rather Maine-like countenance.
[2] Confusing the matter is the fact that “blue” has been an adjective denoting “sadness” since the middle ages. The University of Michigan’s Middle English dictionary lists just such a figurative meaning, with examples such as “Wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte” from Chaucer’s The Complaint of Mars. We tend to think of “the blues” as being American as apple pie, largely due to the American musical genre associated with the term. But like apple pie (a type of which was eaten in Chaucer’s day), the actual term doesn’t seem as uniquely American as its reputation suggests.

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Reformed Views on Spelling Reform

Back in college, I obsessed over English spelling reform. Why deal with silent gh’s, I figured, when things can be so much cleaner? So I started inventing phonetically-precise alphabets, ending up with results like this:

Tu bii or not tu bii, that iz dhy kweschn!

Or sometimes I’d get fancy with the diacritics:

Tú haushóldz bóth ëlaik in dignití…

Or I’d mess around with phonemically contrastive capital letters and punctuation marks in place of vowels:


That last one is from Portia’s monologue in The Merchant of Venice. Clearly!

Alas, I was unaware at the time that a Germanic cousin was attempting widespread spelling reform, and the results were mixed, to say the least. Here’s Robert Lane Greene on what happened in Germany:

One state had 60% of voters reject the reforms in a referendum; two others announced they would ignore the reform, which had been the product of 10 years’ work. One of Germany’s most venerable papers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reverted to the old spelling in 2000, and the Spiegel and the entire Springer-Verlag followed.

Keep in mind that these reforms were extremely minor compared to the top-down reboot I imagined in my late teens. I would probably agree with said reforms, were I a German speaker. And if modest attempts to regularize the grapheme /ß/ has the potential to cause such a ruckus, one can only imagine the outrage if we added unfamiliar double vowels and umlauts to English.

As I started studying dialects, I began to wonder just whose dialect my fantastical systems would emulate. To avoid any prejudice, I started using Wells’ lexical sets. But this caused problems in its own right. My American eyes would need to scan constructions like dauns for “dance” and aufter for “after.” A Northern Englishman would have to contend, likewise, with a different letter for “put” or “but.” And while a Glaswegian, say, probably sees nothing wrong with using the same double-o in “book” and “loot,” she would have to adjust to these words having different spellings in a phonemically exhaustive system.

As I became more of a book-reader, grand spelling reform started to rankle the bibliophile in me. I enjoy perusing dusty volumes from the 1700s with a fairly good idea of what the author is describing. And what about purposefully fanciful spellings and eye dialect? Hardy, Stevenson, Lawrence, Twain, and Hurston all require an understanding of orthographic standards to comprehend their characters’ non-standard English. Good luck creating an OCR algorithm to translate Hardy’s West Country into a new system.

So sorry, 19-year-old me, I don’t think your goofy alphabets are such a gud aidiia. That’s not to suggest that minor changes in spelling are a bad thing; it may very well be that “women” and “enough” will one day be spelled wimin and enuff. Spelling will change, just as everything in language changes. But adopting standards to fit the natural evolution of language is always preferable to overhauling everything in one fell swoop.


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged , | 31 Comments

“Jersey” or “Jersey?”

Jamain/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

About a week ago, my wife and I went to a fancy grocery store and splurged on an expensive bottle of half-and-half. As we were putting away our haul, I read the description on the back of the bottle and exclaimed, “This comes from real Jersey cows!”

My wife looked at me skeptically. Discerning the cause of her confusion, I replied, “Not New Jersey. The Isle of Jersey. Between Britain and France.”

This exchange seems unfair, in retrospect. Jersey (the American Jersey) has many wonderful small farms and artisanal food producers. But it does raise the question of why Northeasterners have taken to truncating “New Jersey” to an informal name matching its Channel Island namesake. Why don’t do this with the majority of other “New” place names?

There probably are other “New” places in America which have lost their modifier in the local parlance, but I can’t think of any prominent examples. To state the obvious, were I to refer to New York, New Hampshire or New England as, respectively, “York,” “Hampshire,” or (most ridiculously) “England,” nobody would have the foggiest idea of what I’d be referencing. Yet “Jersey,” probably due to familiarity, seems perfectly natural.

It strikes me that many place names are shortened for ease of articulation. I doubt it’s coincidental that many-syllabled “Indianapolis” and “Philadelphia” become “Indy” and “Philly,” while nobody calls “Denver” “Denny.” But “New Jersey” isn’t more difficult to say than “New Hampshire” or “New Bedford” and, at any rate, “New” wouldn’t be the problem if it were called “New Jerseyatophalikios.” So why is “Jersey” unique?


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New Mexican Spanish

Wikipedia has many excellent entries on regional dialects. I’m wary of taking all its information at face value, but the site provides good links to relevant sociolinguistics texts that would be tricky for laypeople to track down otherwise.

That being said, the site has some peculiar un-sourced dialect articles that leave me both scratching my head and yearning for more. One of my favorites is a little artitle entitled New Mexican Spanish. Its section on phonology is particularly notable. For instance, apparently this variety of Spanish renders pronounces /s/ as [h] at the beginning and middle of words so that…

somos así



Also, /b/ before /w/ apparently becomes [g], so that abuelo sounds like aguelo. And /n/ is sometimes inserted before “ch” so that muchos becomes munchos.

I can’t verify whether this information reflects contemporary use, as the article cites few sources. Which is a shame, because New Mexican Spanish has a rich and important history, dating back to Spanish settlement in the area around Santa Fe, Taos, and Los Alamos. I tracked down a century-old text via Google Books on New Mexican Spanish (there are some JSTOR articles, but I don’t have access) which suggests a variety quite different than the kind of Spanish we learn in school.

For instance, according to the author, this dialect would have had a rounded front vowel for /ue/ words like “bueno” (bu̯œno) and “muerto” (mu̯œrto). It also would have had Russian-esque vowel reduction, so that “tirar” would have been tɪɾaɾ, “de nada” would have presumably been something like də nadɐ, and “unidos” would have been along the lines of ʊnidʊs. (If my extrapolations of early IPA are correct).

New Mexican Spanish is, in fact, one of the oldest native dialects in the United States, preceding most of the more established English varieties. Which is why it’s a shame that one of the most recent articles I could find about the topic is titled New Mexican Spanish: Demise of the Earliest European Variety in the United States. Is this dialect still going strong?


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Contact Info

Hi, all,

I’m retiring the “official” email address for this blog (info@dialectblog.com) and replacing it with a simple gmail address. This is not an important change unless you’ve contacted me in the past. Long story short, my host’s email service is mediocre and (this is a separate issue) it’s hard to weed through solicitations to find legitimate queries.

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Henry Higgins, Language Snob

My Fair Lady

Richard Maney/Photo by Friedman-Abeles, NYC

The classic musical My Fair Lady is on TV right now, and I am puzzling over Henry Higgins (I have shared my thoughts about the character before). If he obsesses over dialects so much, why does he hate non-standard English? Lerner and Loewe took this quirk to its extreme, as is clear from Higgins’ first musical stanza:

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters!
By right she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

No feel-good sociolinguist, Higgins! Perhaps this irony was G.B. Shaw’s point (it’s been a while since I’ve read My Fair Lady‘s source, Pygmalion), but it’s nevertheless an unsettling contradiction.

It also strikes me as unrealistic. When I think of inspirations for Higgins, English phonetician Daniel Jones naturally comes to mind. And while the younger Jones would no doubt have held attitudes  contemporary linguists would find stuffy (he revised his opinions over the years), I doubt he would have endorsed Higgins’ opinions. In The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones, authors Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mee  take Shaw to task:

The view of phonetics presented in Pygmalion is essentially that of the elocutionist working skillful transformations with “people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment” … this would have been a somewhat one-sided view of the science. By 1912, it was unfair to concentrate on a tiny area of a diverse subject and present it (even in a comedy) as virtually the total substance of the science.

In other words, Higgins made for a great Shavian protagonist, but he wasn’t necessarily representative of Edwardian phoneticians.


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Faulkner, Joyce, and Regional Modernism

James Joyce

Joyce’s Grave (Lars Haefner CC BY-SA 3.0)

I most associate literary modernism with Joyce and Faulkner, writers who pushed literature’s boundaries further than they had, and perhaps have since, been pushed. Both explored non-standard grammar and syntax, so it’s no coincidence that they were master “dialect writers.”

That being said, I find it hard to separate dialect from literary invention in these authors’ works. Joyce, for instance, mixes Irish pronunciations with “poetic misspellings,” as one finds in this short sentence from Finnegan’s Wake:

A glass of Danu U’Dunnell’s foamous olde Dobbelin Ayle.

Anyone familiar with Hiberno-English will recognize Dobbelin as a local pronunciation of the Irish capital (i.e. dʌbəlɪn or dʊbəlɪn). Foamous is almost certainly a pun suggesting the head atop a well-poured pint. But why Ayle for “Ale?” Contemporary Dublin English differs from Western Hiberno-English in diphthongizing “ale” where, say, a Limerick native has a monophthong (i.e. ɛɪl vs. ɛ:l). But I have no idea if this is what Joyce is indicating. Likewise, U’Dunnell might suggest a Dubliners’ unrounded vowel in LOT words*. Or maybe Joyce just felt like using a “u” there.

As I’m no scholar of modernism, these are layman’s impressions. But such are the puzzles the casual reader encounters when reading Joyce. He loved other languages and Englishes, of course, so these quirks can partially be attributed to those other influences. Take this passage from Ulysses (I’ve highlighted relevant words):

Time they were stopping up in the City Arms pisser Burke told me there was an old one there with a cracked loodheramaun of a nephew and Bloom trying to get the soft side of her doing the mollycoddle playing bézique to come in for a bit of the wampum in her will and not eating meat of a Friday because the old one was always thumping her craw and taking the lout out for a walk.

Old one is a Hiberno-English phrase (sometimes written “aul wan“), as is loodhermaun (from Irish liúdramán). But mollycoddle is not exclusively Irish, Narragansett-derived wampum hardly strikes me Hibernian (although I might be wrong), and bézique is a French card game. Which of these words would an Edwardian Dubliner have used? And which words simply struck Joyce’s fancy?

One can likewise deduce many things about rural Mississippi English in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I’m currently reading. Particularly intriguing are his use of terms we associate more with the British Isles, such as et (i.e. the past tense of “eat”) and ay (yes). He clearly understood the linguistic terrain of his fictional landscape.

But even in this “accessible” Faulkner work, the line between Mississippi English and mere poetry is hazy. As with The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner writes chapters from the perspective of a character with child-like cognition, in this case the young Vardaman**. Those who have followed the recent conversation about prepositional because might enjoy this Vardaman gripe:

“Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in town because flour and sugar and coffee. “Wouldn’t you ruther have bananas?”

Vardaman’s meaning seems unambiguous: he wonders why God made him “rural” instead of a “town boy” with access to urban amenities. But is that prepositional “because” part of Vardaman’s dialect? Or is it a Faulknerian creative flourish? Heck, is this even a case of prepositional “because?” (Faulkner might have left a space where another writer might have used ellipses: “why can’t He make them all in town because … flour and sugar and coffee.”)

It doesn’t help that both writers were storytellers prone to mythologizing themselves and their provenances. Where their written idiolects begin and the dialect of their milieus end will be debated for a long time.

*”Ayle,” not unpredictably, was once an alternate spelling of “ale.” “U’Dunnell,” however, has only been used by Joyce as far as I can tell.

**His age is never given in the book, but he is presumably pre-adolescent.


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“Oy,” “Bollocks” and Other Trick Words

In an episode of HBO’s The NewsroomEmily Mortimer’s character addresses coworkers with a frustrated “oy!” Mortimer does not play a Brooklyn grandmother; “oy[or “oi“] is a British term roughly similar to American English “hey!”* I would assume the show’s American writer, Aaron Sorkin, added the word to give Mortimer’s dialogue a more authentically “British” flair.

To be honest, though, when American screenwriters or playwrights or novelists use “oy,” I wince. The word joins a class of terms–including blokemate, and bollocks–that make up a writerly box of tricks to indicate Britishness without delving into the deeper structural differences between British and American English. It’s possible Mortimer’s character might indeed say “oi!” while addressing staff (she’s a television executive), but I don’t know that I’d be comfortable as an American writer putting the word in a character’s mouth.

I had a similar reaction while recently re-watching the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, written by Americans Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz and Peter Hedges:

Now, I enjoyed this film tremendously and think its writers are far better at capturing non-American dialogue than your average Hollywood screenwriter (it possibly helps that Chris Weitz attended secondary school and university in England). It also features some wonderful transatlantic humor, as when a stodgy, RP-accented schoolmaster at a talent show cheerily announces a dance troupe named “Def Penalty Kru with Murder Fo’ Life.”

But I still found the film’s “density of Englishness” occasionally distracting. I’ll illustrate this observation by comparing some stereotypically British terms as they appear in Hornby’s novel versus the film (via my GooglePlay copy of the book and a possibly dodgy–but accurate–internet transcription of the movie):

Word Movie Book
Bloody 9 13
Shag 4 0
Mate 13 5
Bloke 4 9
Crap (Adj.) 5 5
Bollocks 2 1
Cheers 2 0
Rubbish 3 7

In some cases, the screenwriters added slang not present in the original; Hornby never used “shag” or “cheers.” Other words, like “bloody” and “bloke” appear more often in the book, but have a decent frequencies in the film given that it’s only 101 minutes.

Tellingly, though, “mate” is where the two works differ most. The word pops up frequently in the film (it’s in the trailer) but rarely occurs in the novel. It’s consistent with my observation that writers focus on tags like “mate” or borderline extralinguistic utterances like “oy” more than anything else. It strikes one as overcompensation, like a 13-year-old’s nervous “likes” and “umms” during a classroom presentation.

I don’t mean to pick on these writers especially; writing in a dialect other than your own is a very tricky feat to pull off. There are so many things you can screw up that it’s going to be nerve-racking. Nor is it entirely fair to pick on Americans; I could write an entirely different post about Zadie Smith’s treatment of American English in the otherwise excellent On Beauty**.

But while packing dialogue with dialect terms seems like an easy way to create “authenticity,” such words bear semantic complexities trickier to master, in some ways, than syntax and morphology. In other words, I think it lends more authenticity if your British character says “got” instead of “gotten” than to load his speech with plenty of “mates” and “bollockses.”

*On the other hand, “hey” straddles the border between “what?” and “you know?” in some varieties of British English.

**That’s a trickier case, perhaps, because Smith was writing about a family headed by a British father and American mother. 


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