Category Archives: Pronunciation

Results are in

Thanks to all who participated in the survey on pronunciation of the “-man” suffix in such words as “policeman” and “gunman.” I reported on the results yesterday on the Lingua Franca blog.

One finding I didn’t report was the difference between U.K.  and U.S. respondents. For certain words it was rather dramatic.

Here is a graph showing respondents from the U.S.:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.47.01 AMAnd this one shows U.K. respondents:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.55.27 AM

Generally speaking, U.K. respondents use the schwa more often than do American ones. Here are the three words with the biggest difference:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.06.47 AM

My hypotheses for this relates to the general idea expressed in The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, that reduced-stress schwa-vowel “-man” tends to occur in “well-established formations.”  The three words in the chart above are nothing if not well-established–and were established in the British Isles long before there even was a United States.

Also supporting the hypothesis is results on “lineman,” which I threw into the survey without thinking about the fact that it’s a mainly American term, either as a football position or the job memorialized in Glen Campbell’s song “Wichita Lineman.” (Google Ngram Viewer shows much greater use in the U.S.) Sure enough, U.K. respondents–to whom it’s unfamiliar–significantly outnumber Americans in reporting an equal-stress  /æ/ vowel in “lineman.”

“Negotiation” report

A couple of weeks ago, I posted two polls to try to determine whether pronouncing “negotiate” as “ne-go-see-ate” is, as I suspected, a Britishism. A commenter astutely noted that I had rather muddied the waters by remarking that I can’t stand that pronunciation. At that point it was too late to change the question, so I have to live with a somewhat poll that probably underreported the “see” pronunciation.

In any case, the results indicated that it is indeed more common in the U.K., with 11 percent of the respondents reporting favoring it, than in the U.S., with 3 percent.

A number of the comments shed some light on the subject. A couple of people remarked that “ne-go-see-ate” is the common BBC pronunciation. One Englishwoman said she used it herself, as a result of having gone to drama school. An Englishman said he used both pronunciations, favoring “ne-go-see-ate” “to press a point.”

An Irish woman who blogs as “Mollymooly” very helpfully provided a census of her own behavior on a variety of such words:

Definitely -s-

Probably -s-

Either -s- or -sh-

Probably -sh-

Definitely -sh-

Now -sh- once -t-

Finally, I e-mailed John Wells, editor of The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. He replied that he had no statistics on the matter but, on the question of whether “ne-go-see-ate” is more common in the U.K. than the U.S., he had a one-word answer: “Certainly.”

I’ll take that as a yes.


“Negotiate,” for U.K. residents

I only have two linguistic pet peeves, both of them idiosyncratic. I don’t like it when people say “a couple things” (instead of “a couple of things”) and I don’t like it when the word “negotiate” is pronounces “ne-go-see-ate.” I had never thought of the latter as a Britishism until I  recently heard an interview where an English person used it.

I thought I’d find out from NOOB readers if the word is pronounced differently on either side of the Atlantic. I only seem to put in one poll per post, so depending on your nationality, please respond to the appropriate poll.

I’d love to hear about any other pronunciations, and the news from Canada, Australia, etc., in the comments


Glo’al sto’ no’ heard in Bri’ish poli’ socie’y?

The dirty if not very surprising little secret of this blog is that the majority of its readers are U.K. residents, who are surprised or possibly amused that Americans have been picking up their lingo. And it’s to these Britons that I address a question.

I was reading an article in the New York Times by critic Alastair Macaulay about the quality of dance in Broadway musicals. At the end, he wrote:

As a Briton going to shows on Broadway, may I add what a fun surprise it is to hear, in two different productions, the British glottal stop? Lauren in “Kinky Boots” speaks of going to “I’aly”; and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda” says “Bu’ I’ve go’ a baby.”In Britain the glottal stop is never heard in polite society. In America, however, it’s an exotic thrill.

That rather gobsmacked me. I have written about the current popularity of the glottal stop in the U.S., and I thought it was widespread in Britain. I certainly hear it all the time from Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais. But perhaps they don’t belong, in Mr. Macaulay’s view, to “polite society.” In any case, I await the reactions of NOOB readers.


Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 12.52.59 PM

I recently became aware of the product featured above. The thing that struck me as odd (as I believe it would most Americans) is the unusual spelling of what we know as yogurt. I suspected it was a Britishism because of Alan Rickman. To be more precise, there’s a scene in the movie “Love, Actually” in which Rickman is trying to buy some jewelry for a woman not his wife, and the sales clerk (played by Rowan Atkinson) won’t let him just get on with it. Rickman finally says in exasperation: “Dip it in yogurt, cover it with chocolate buttons!” He pronounces yogurt with a short in the first syllable–that is, to rhyme with hog–and that’s consistent with the yoghurt spelling.

(If you want to hear Rickman say this line, check out this hilarious YouTube mashup:


According to the OED, up until the mid-twentieth century, various spellings for the word (derived from Turkish) abounded, including yoghurd, yogourt,yahourt, yaghourt, yogurd, yoghourt, yooghort, and yughard. Subsequently, according to this Google Ngram chart, yogurt (red line) has prevailed in the U.S., and has roughly tied in the U.K. with yoghurt (yellow and green lines).

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 1.47.36 PM

Google Ngrams only goes up till 2008, and when more recent data come in, I’m sure that as a result of companies like the Minnesota-based Mountain High, U.S. yoghurt (blue line) will be on the upswing.


Rapper Chief Keef

Rapper Chief Keef

I have remarked on the fondness of young Americans–especially African-American rappers and/or people from the New York metropolitan area–for the glottal stop. Now it appears that another of Cockney characteristic, th-fronting, is ready for its U.S. closeup.

Th-fronting is a feature of Cockney–and now, apparently, of Estuary English–in which a th sound is pronounced like an f (as in I fink instead of I think) or v (as in the way the TV show “Big Brother” is commonly referred to in U.K. red-top tabloid headlines: “Big Bruvva”). Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G is a heavy user, and it’s been prominent recently in hip U.S. references to the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as “Keef.”

That same word actually represents the only indigenous U.S. use I’m aware of. It’s in the name of a teenage rapper from Chicago: Chief Keef. His website reports that he was born Keith Cozart but is silent on how Keith became Keef.

NOOB readers are a clever lot, and among them are probably one or two hip-hop fans. If so, I would be grateful for any enlightenment on the phenomenon of th-fronting among the rappers.


I was reminded that I’d been meaning to write about this one by a Facebook friend who linked to an ad posted on Craigslist, 4/24/12: “I am in need of someone who will cook (not microwave) and dangle bacon in front of my starving face while running to the YMCA. The objective is to trick my arse into working out. ”

The OED’s first citation for arse, with that spelling, to refer to a person or animal’s posterior is from 1480. There are multitudinous variations over the years, including this exchange from Ben Jonson’s 1602 “Poetaster”: ” Cris. They say, he’s valiant. Tvcc. Valiant? so is mine arse.” Ooh, snap.

The common and traditional U.S. term, of course, is ass. The OED says of this word: “vulgar and dialect sp. and pronunciation of arse. Now chiefly U.S.”
Its citations for ass are nearly all American, one exception being this from William Golding’s 1959 Free Fall:  “You sit on your fat ass in your ‘ouse all the week.”

Arse and ass look different in print. However, in Britain, where non-rhotic (that is, silent r) pronunciation is the standard, they would sound the same. This site offers British and American pronunciations of arse. The former is non-rhotic. The latter is risible in the exaggerated New York accent it affects.

In My Fair Lady (Broadway: 1956, film version: 1964), written by the American Alan Jay Lerner, Eliza Doolittle famously shouts out at the racetrack scene, “Come on, Dover, move yer bloomin’ arse!” That, anyway, is the spelling one finds on the internet; I don’t have access to the libretto or screenplay. I also don’t have access to the Broadway or soundtrack record albums. I would suspect that Julie Andrews, the original Liza, says it non-rhotically; probably Audrey Hepburn in the movie version as well.  Someone please let me know if that’s not the case.

Arse has been around for a long time in the U.S. as a sort of literary novelty item. Donald Barthleme’s first novel, “Snow White,” contained a chapter titled THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE’S ARSE. A 1971 letter by the anglophile S.J. Perelman noted that some New Yorker contributors ”tend to have a ramrod up their arse, acting as though they invented the paper.” (I would say that paper, to refer to a magazine, is a Britishism as well.)

Moving up to the present, arse has become a vogue term in the U.S. in recent years, very much analogous to shite. A 2010 comment on a New York Times blog post by someone who signs him- or herself “AmericanYankee” says: “The last thing I want is for bin Laden and his sycophantic arse kissing illiterate supporters to think they are somehow special.”

Just two days ago, blogging his displeasure about the New York Times at just two days, Charles Pierce comments, “This is all my arse.” And bringing it all back home, a commenter on his post writes, “The Times is, for the most part, irrelevant, and this sort of link-trolling crap should be ignored. It only encourages more shite.”