Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Some Things I Learned About Language

Nursery Rhymes

I listen to language podcasts and pick up things here and there. I think they are most enjoyable when they go into detail about things I knew only in part but had rattling around in my head for years. I had a copy of The Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould when I was in college and remembered many stray bits, including humorous examples of people overinterpreting them to suit retrospective biases. The rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock" stems from old Celtic sheep-counting methods, which reportedly lasted in rural corners into the 19th C. These varied from region to region, but tended to gravitate toward adjoining numbers rhyming.  The closest to the nursery rhyme is Hovera, Dovera, Dick - eight, nine, ten - the version found in Derbyshire, Cumberland, and in the Scots language. The connection with a clock was rather natural. 

Eeny, Meenie, Miney, Mo is also claimed to come from those counting sets, but I don't buy it.  The closest one can get is Ana, Pana - one, two - from the Lake District. Dutch linguists uncovered an Old Saxon incantation that strikes me as much closer, even though that would drive the rhyme back over a thousand years.

Anne manne miene mukke,
Ikke tikke takke tukke...

It also has "tikke" a more plausible background for "tiger" than something that a rural sheep-counter would come up with (and get his neighbors to imitate).  I did not hear N*** put in that rhyme until about fifth grade, at summer camp. I found it shocking, and a mark of low character to use it.  

Ring around Rosie is not about the plague, which was irritating to learn a couple of decades ago.  Pease Porridge is what we would call baked beans or one of its relatives. "Peas" was not a plural and stretches back to a time when not all English plurals were made by adding -s. Compare children, oxen, brethren. But as the -s form took over, it just seemed natural that these objects must be the plural form, and a single one of then a pea.

Bo Peep is actually Peep Bo, a version of Peekaboo, as in King Lear.  From almost two centuries earlier we have the lyric  Halfe England ys nowght now but shepe // In every corner they play boe-peep  How exactly the game got connected with sheep is unknown, but it goes way back. The first recorded Bo-Peep was not a girl, but a short woman, by the way, in the early 18th C.

New Words Happening Often Come Backshifts.

A backshift is the accent moving to the first word of a phrase, as in black BIRD or black BOARD becoming the single word blackbird or blackboard.  It happens with phrases, as earlier in the 20th C everyone would say Boy SCOUT, or Chinese FOOD, or Pizza PIE, but as the new concept became familiar the stress would go to the beginning. Boyscout is pronounced as one word now, no matter how it is written because of organisational inertia. Once that happens, other changes easily follow, such as the "pie" dropping out altogether. It is a natural rule of English that no one teaches us. ReCORD/REHcord; outLAW/OUTlaw. The verb suspect has the accent on the second syllable, and when it was first used as a noun it kept that.  But we like our nouns to accent on the first syllable, and is became SUSpect. Hear also the original forms SuperMARket

This seems like a small change, but these compound, and Barley-arn (house) becomes barn, Wer-ald, that is "man" + "age" or "era" becomes world. Most notably, "GOD be WITH you" shortened to GOD b' WI' ye, and the "with" usually holding the accent. 

"Road" usually takes the accent, as in Tobacco ROAD, Mountain ROAD, and "Lane" does the same. Penny LANE, Smyth LANE, and so does "Avenue."  But "street" sends its accent to the proper name: CHURCH Street, MAIN Street. "Drive" usually keeps the stress, as does "Boulevard," but that last one has some examples of the proper name keeping the sound, especially when named after a person. Both also can have equal stress between the name and type of road. I have no idea why this is.

Language Change Is Driven More By Women.  

Or so I am told. The new habit of uptalk, of ending phrases and sentences with a rising tone as if asking a question started with sorority girls and is still more common among women, especially younger ones. The most common version is AmIright? But it is common among young men as well, if you can hear the tone in So I'm going to Ohio State in the fall?  I'll be starting grad school in microbiology? I'll be living with my cousin? And on the concluding phrase the voice will drop down it the usual way. I was really surprised I got in. It is supposed to be a softener, a way of making a declaration less emphatic, but it is more a continuer, a way of letting a person know that you are still speaking, but this would be a place to break in if they wanted. It is an everyday version of the preacher saying "Can I get an amen?" Or a speaker saying "Are you with me?"

There is a new method of emphasis which drops down to the lower register and slows down with a rasp or gutteral, as in And I - looove draamaaa. It came in about a decade ago among females in their thirties but has spread out in age and to both sexes.

There is also the glottal stop pronunciation of mitten, kitten as mi''en and ki''en, about three times more common among females, nearly all under fifty. When men drive a language change, it is nearly always one of two forms: new insults and profanity, or a return to an accent or dialect form that is disappearing - which is interestingly, a change that is a preservation rather than a new thing.  The example I came across was from young male natives of Martha's Vineyard in the 60s wanting to show that they were not the new people who had moved in, but the old-timers, stressing the vowels similar to the Canadian aboot, (which is actually more like abaoot). That may be a maritme/coastal variant from New Brunswick that has spread in the last few decades to other places in Canada. My grandfather from around Yarmouth, Nova Scotia did not use it.


james said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
james said...

Interesting. The "tiger" version of eeny meeny was the only one I knew for ages.

Zachriel said...

Very informative. Thanks.

Sam L. said...

I've stopped my glottals.

LinJ said...

Do you have any language podcasts you would recommend? Thanks.

random observer said...

I always thought it peculiar that so many Americans think we Canadians say "oot" or "aboot" for "out" and "about". To us the double o, if familiar at all, would represent a thick Celtic dialect accent one might here from some Scots or Irish or from the more Gaelic-ancestry parts of Newfoundland or the Maritimes. The rest of us think we are saying "abowt" and hear the generic American pronunciation as, by comparison, a long, drawn out drawl. This of course must be why Americans used to that hear our more clipped pronunciation as though it were a double o, because it's too short for them. The way I usually visualize it is that:

A person with the Celtic accent would say "aboot", actually pronouncing it as two o in succession, and likely aware on some level that this is dialect or even slang, and avoiding it in mixed company;

Your run of the mill central or western Anglo Canadian will say "abowt" without much drawing out of the vowel.

Our impression of the average northeastern American would say "abaouwt", just a tad more extending the vowel but almost to the point where to our ears it sounds like heading into an extended southern drawl, riffing on all the possibilities of the vowel except for an e sound.

random observer said...

Your mitten/kitten reference reminds me of the endless controversy over whether the h has any effect on the pronunciation of words like whipped, or indeed whether.

For my part, I slide easily between no h sound at all, which I think is the American influenced standard, and slight softening of the w, which [heh] I think is the older standard here. Naturally, sometimes the latter sounds to some Americans like I'm overemphasizing the h. The endlessly vulgar [increasingly so] but occasionally culturally insightful cartoon "Family Guy" had a bit on this, surrounding the name of Cool Whip.

On the other hand, the way I've pronounced mitten and kitten all my life, I think, corresponds to your glottal stop variant now that I think of it. Pronouncing the t almost sounds arch to me. Curious mirror of the way I think about the whip question.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Linj - I like The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud, even though he is posting less regularly now. 150 episodes, and he is up to about 1500.

John McWhorter does Lexicon Valley, which I like. He used to do Slate's Spectacular Vernacular, but it's more difficult to find him there, because there were other hosts before him and there are now other hosts after. He did a few year's worth though, if you want to take the time to burrow through it.

@ random observer - even those who say the "t" say mit'n, which is halfway between MIH-ten and MI''en. The latter group actually gets more of the "eh" sound in.

I overpronounce many consonants, which I learned partly from theater and partly from wanting to be precise (sometimes artificially so), so I don't look to my own speech a s a good example of anything. I had a little bit of a NE Coastal accent as a child but lost that going to college in Virginia. I am now very neutral in accent, like a newscaster. I easily pick up a softened version of the accent of anyone I am talking to without even trying. It seems both cummy and a politeness, to be more easily understood and to have no "side" to put folks off. My wife wonders if I take it too far and someone is going to think I am mocking them.

Korora said...

I never knew of the "☢🌀⚠§" version until high school.

Tom Bridgeland said...

One daughter uses the ki'n mi'n pronunciation and the other doesn't. The one who does is younger and learned her English in elementary school from native English speakers. The one who doesn't is a few years older and learned her English from me, with no other English speakers living nearby. We were overseas while they were small and moved to the US when the younger was in first grade. She had always slightly resisted using English, since none of her friends spoke it.

The younger daughter also says I-ron, two distinct syllables, rather than iron as one syllable as I say it. Is that a thing, or just a quirk of my daughter?