Accents and dialects (part I): Yinzers and jawn

yinzers sign

What’s the difference between an accent, a dialect, and a language? These concepts are prone to a multitude of misconceptions, often with adverse consequences for millions of people whose speech doesn’t fall within the realm of what’s considered “standard” for their particular region. In this series of posts, I summarize three articles about accents and dialects, and I hope to pique your interest such that you check out the full pieces themselves!

To answer the initial question: an accent is one’s pronunciation and prosody (intonation, tone, stress, etc.) particularized by individual, geographic, temporal, cultural, and socioeconomic factors. A dialect is an accent PLUS all the other linguistic features of a language (syntax, lexicon, idioms, slang) also influenced by those factors. A language is basically a convenient abstraction over a grouping of mutually-intelligible dialects. It helps us conceptualize things, but it’s sometimes hard to draw fool-proof, scientifically valid lines between what’s a language versus a dialect, and aspects like culture and nationality further muddle these line-drawing attempts.

Consider the following two cases, mentioned frequently in linguistic realms: Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are relatively mutually intelligible – in reality, they’re probably closer to dialects of a single Scandinavian language – but because they’re spoken in separate countries, they’re considered separate languages. The opposite situation holds for “Chinese.” There is actually no single “Chinese” language. There’s Mandarin and Cantonese, which are NOT mutually intelligible, as well as hundreds of other “dialects” across China which are also not necessarily understandable between their groups of speakers. However, because all of the speakers reside within a single nation (and share a writing system, among other things), Mandarin and Cantonese (and others) are usually considered “dialects” of a single, monolithic “Chinese” language.

To use an oft-quoted expression: “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” This conveys the idea that the distinction between a language and a dialect is arbitrary, becoming possible only through a social lens; a language almost always has more official recognition, more cultural clout, more political power, etc. than a dialect.

Okay, time for some articles. The piece linked and summarized below is an enjoyable read about Pennsylvania dialects. My Part II follow-up will discuss accents, and Part III will consider Black English (also called AAVE – African-American Vernacular English).

greetings from PA

Pennsylvania dialects

Article: “Where Yinz At” (Slate)

“Pennsylvania, in case yinz didn’t know, is a regional dialect hotbed nonpareil.”

While states have on average two to three dialects, Pennsylvania has five – the ones associated with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh being the most widely known.

“The Philadelphia dialect features a focused avoidance of the ‘th’ sound, the swallowing of the L in lots of words, and wooder instead of water, among a zillion other things. In Pittsburgh, it’s dahntahn for downtown, and words like nebby and jagoff and yinz.”

(To sample the actual dialects, watch the funny clip embedded in the article – a skit of a Philly-Pittsburgh phone conversation between two pawnbrokers.)

Geography and migration likely shaped the unique speech patterns found in the Keystone State. North of the Interstate 80 (which roughly bisects the state), ways of speaking were influenced by immigrants from southern England. Below that boundary line, people came from Northern England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Allegheny Mountains also created a barrier between Pittsburgh and other parts of the state. After a couple hundred years, Philadelphians and Pittsburghers have come to sound pretty distinct from each other.

“[…] people from Pittsburgh are talking about ‘gettin’ off the caach and gone dahntawn on the trawly to see the fahrworks for the Fourth a July hawliday n’at,’ while Philadelphia folks provide linguistic gems like the one Monahan offered up as the most Philly sentence possible: ‘Yo Antny, when you’re done your glass of wooder, wanna get a hoagie on Thirdyfish Street awn da way over to Moik’s for de Iggles game?’”

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor William Labov says the Philadelphia dialect is generally a source of pride for residents, most of whom are positive about the city. Pittsburghese is similarly well-regarded by its speakers. The unique dialect has received a good deal of attention since linguists began visiting the area in the 1930s.

However, the fact that increasing numbers of young people are going farther away for college has resulted in Philly and Pittsburgh accents and dialects being dropped (since of course college kids want to fit in and be understood). Huge surges in online/text communication do not speed that decline though (as is often thought), and in fact, additional exposure to multiple dialects means people don’t judge others’ speech as much as they used to. Both Labov and Carnegie Mellon University English/linguistics professor Barbara Johnstone rightfully point out that the Philly and Pittsburgh dialects are (like all language) constantly evolving.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ll leave you with a few extra Pennsylvania dialect delights:

Pittsburghese_needs-vaccinated

  • “The Enduring Mystery of ‘Jawn,’ Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun”
    • “The word ‘jawn’ is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to ‘remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.’”

Lastly and more generally, if you really want to know just how complicated the dialect situation is in North America, take a gander at this incredibly detailed map/site.

 

*Photo attributions: Yinzers In The Burgh Sign; Greetings from Pennsylvania; Buses speak #Pittsburghese now, too. “Need vaccinated.”

I heart hangry bagel droids (or: How new words form)

The_fin_de_siècle_newspaper_proprietor_(cropped)

You’re probably familiar with the old adage “the only thing that’s constant is change.” Still, so many people tend to think about language as a relatively fixed affair. I’ve said it before (and will inevitably say it again): all living languages change all the time, and at all levels – phonological (sounds!), morphological (word-bits!), lexical (words!), syntactic (clauses!), and semantic (meaning!).

Historical linguistics (also known as diachronic linguistics) is the study of how and why languages change over time. In this post I’m going to discuss categories of change at the morphological and lexical levels – how new words come into being. In the future, I’ll explore semantic and perhaps phonological change.

Without further ado, here are the main mechanisms of word formation. Almost all examples are for English, but these formation types apply to other languages as well. (NOTE: Processes are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible for a word to undergo multiple processes simultaneously, or one on the heels of another.)

  1. Derivation

New words are born by adding affixes to existing words. Affixes are bound[1] morphemes that can be prefixes, suffixes, and even (for certain languages, although not really for English) infixes and circumfixes. Derivation is a very common process cross-linguistically.

Zero derivation (also known as conversion) is a special case where a new word, with a new word class (part of speech) is created from an existing word of a different class, without any change in form.

Examples:
(Derivation) hater [hate + -er], truthiness [truth + -i (-y) + -ness], deglobalization [de- + globalization], hipsterdom [hipster + -dom]

(Zero derivation) heart as verb, as in “I heart coffee” [heart as noun]; friend as verb, as in “he friended me on Facebook” [friend as noun]; green as noun, in the golf lawn sense [green as adjective]; down as verb, as in “Hector downed a beer” [down as preposition]

  1. Back-formation

This process creates a new word through the removal of true or incorrectly assumed affixes. It’s kind of the opposite of derivation. This one is easier to explain through examples:

New word

Derived from older word

Analysis

donate, automate, resurrect

(verbs)

donation, automation, resurrection

(nouns)

The nouns were borrowed into English first from Latin. The verbs were back-formed later by discarding the -ion suffix, which speakers did through analogy with other Latinate verb and (-ion) noun pairs that already existed in English.

pea

pease

The older form was initially a mass noun (like water or sand), but was reanalyzed as plural. People then dropped the “plural” -s(e) to form the “singular” count noun pea.

beg, edit, hawk

(verbs)

beggar, editor, hawker

(nouns)

Speakers mistook the -ar, -or, and ­-er on the ends of these nouns (respectively) for the agentive suffix (that did/does exist in English), and removed it to form corresponding verbs.

lime-a-rita, mango-rita

appletini, kiwini

margarita

martini

Actually examples of folk etymology, which is related to back-formation. Here, speakers incorrectly assumed that -rita in margarita and –(t)ini in martini were separate morphemes (indicating the class of cocktail). Under that assumption, they switched out the rest of the word and substituted it with morphemes indicating new twists/ingredients.

  1. Blending

Also known as portmanteaus. Blends are produced by combining two or more words, where parts of one or both words are deleted.

Examples: smog [smoke + fog], brunch [breakfast + lunch], infomercial [information + commercial], bromance [bro + romance], hangry [hungry + angry], clopen [close + open][2]

  1. Borrowing

Also known as loan words. These are expressions taken from other languages. Pronunciation is usually altered to fit the phonological rules of the borrowing language.

Examples: algebra [from Arabic], ménage à trois [from French], whisky [from Scots Gaelic or Irish], bagel [from Yiddish], doppelgänger [from German], karaoke [from Japanese]

  1. Coinage

Words can be created outright to fit some purpose. Many of these are initially product names.

Examples: Xerox, Kleenex, Jell-O, Google, zipper, Frisbee

  1. Compounding

Two or more words join together to form a compound. Frequently the joining words are nouns, but they can belong to different parts of speech, including verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc. Compounds can be separated by spaces, by hyphens, or glued to each other with nothing intervening.

Examples: homework, grocery store, mother-of-pearl, first world problem, binge-watch, weaksauce, fake news

  1. Eponyms

These are words that derive from proper nouns – usually people and place names. If a proper noun is used frequently enough and across multiple contexts, it eventually becomes a common noun (or verb or adjective).

Examples: sandwich [after the fourth Earl of Sandwich], gargantuan [after Gargantua, name of the giant in Rabelais’ novels], boycott [after Capt. Charles C. Boycott], mesmerize [a back-formation from mesmerism, in turn after Franz Anton Mesmer], sadism [after the Marquis de Sade]

  1. Reducing

Several types of reducing processes exist.  The main ones are clipping, acronyms, and initialisms.

a. Clipping

New words can be formed by shearing one or more syllables off an existing longer word. Syllables can be removed from the word’s beginning, end, or both.

Examples: fax [facsimile], flu [influenza], droid [android], fridge [refrigerator], blog [weblog]

b. Acronyms

Words are created from the initial letters of several other words. Acronyms are pronounced as regular words (in contrast to initialisms below).

Examples: NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], RAM [random-access memory], FOMO [fear of missing out]

c. Initialisms

Also known as Alphabetisms. Like with acronyms, a word is created from the initial letters of other words, but the resulting term is pronounced by saying each letter. This usually happens when the string of letters is not easily pronounced as a word according to the phonological rules of the language.

Examples: NFL [National Football League], UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], WTF [what the fuck]

  1. Reduplication

Reduplication is one of my favorite phenomena.[3] It’s a process whereby a word or sound is repeated or nearly repeated to form a new word/expression. This is a productive morphological process (meaning, it’s part of the grammar and happens frequently and rather systematically) in many languages – South-East Asian and Austronesian languages particularly (e.g. Malay, Tagalog, Samoan). It’s not an especially productive process in English, although it does still happen.

Examples:
(English) wishy-washy, teensy-weensy, goody-goody, cray-cray, po-po

(Samoan) savali [‘he travels’ – third person singular + verb]; savavali [‘they travel’ – third person plural + verb]

* * * * *

Phew! Since hopefully you can see the light at the end of this long lexical tunnel, I’ll mention that of course languages lose words as well. Diverse factors motivate word loss, but that’s a subject for another post. A few quick examples of words that have fallen out of favor in English:

pell-mell [in a disorderly, reckless, hasty manner]; davenport [couch/sofa – my grandma used to say this]; grass [for marijuana – my mom still says this]; porridge [an oatmeal-like dish boiled in water or milk]; tumbrel [a farmer’s cart for hauling manure]; fain [gladly or willingly]

* * * * *

And now… ADD WORDS TO THE SPREADSHEET – Word shenanigans!

I’ve got almost 200 in there to start us off. If you’re not sure about the process for any particular word, just leave it blank or take a guess. Free bagel droids[4] to all who contribute.

 

[1] Bound meaning they cannot exist on their own, but must be attached to another morpheme.

[2] Describes a shitty situation where one has to work a closing shift followed by an opening shift. We used this term as bartenders, although I’d never seen it in print until recently. It came up in some paperwork I had to sign relating to work week ordinances, and then I saw it here as well.

[3] Some languages even have triplication – where the sound/word is copied twice!

[4] Kidding! These do not exist outside of my head. Sorry.

HeteroHomoSynoGraphPhoneNym

homonym_vid_image2.png

I hope you’ve got your noses strapped on.

If you’ve ever wondered what a poecilonym is (who hasn’t?), or needed a handy mnemonic for remembering how to spell diarrhea in British English, this video is for you.

It’s educational. It’s funny. It’s dorkery at its best. And you’ll learn more than you (THOUGHT you) ever wanted to know about word similarities:

Homonyms

 

The Drunken Dictionary: etymology of cocktails (part II)

aviation_snug

Back again, with some more cocktail origin stories! This time we’ll be delving into the emergence of gin-based drink names. During my bartending days a common response we gave to underspecified requests for custom cocktails was, “would you like something spirit-forward or citrussy?” If the customer chose the former, we’d mix them a drink with distilled liquids and liqueurs only. If it was the latter, we’d include juice (most often lemon, lime, or grapefruit) and potentially other non-alcoholic mixers (syrups, infusions, sodas). As a little homage to that question, I’m including a balance here – the below exploration has two “spirit-based” elixirs, and two “juicy” ones.

As with the last post, each cocktail has an etymological description and quote of first attested use from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There’s also a recipe based on those we used at my last bar.

GIN

Gimlet_SethAnderson_Flickr_cropped     Gimlet

The OED states that 1928 was the first print reference for this versatile gin potable. In D. B. Wesson’s I’ll never be Cured:

“The ‘Gimlet’ we were introduced to..at the Golf Club: and it proved to be the well and flavorably known ricky, but described as ‘gin, a spot of lime, and soda’.”

However, the drink, along with its name, almost certainly came to be several decades earlier. There are at least two hypotheses concerning its etymology. Gimlet may derive from a tool of the same name, used for drilling small holes and tapping casks – since the cocktail had similar ‘piercing’ or ‘penetrating’ effects on its drinker.[1] The Dictionary reports that this tool term comes from Old French guimbelet (modern French gibelet). Alternatively, gimlet might be named after British Navy Surgeon Thomas Gimlette, who, starting in the 1870s, was said to have dosed his sailors’ gin with lime cordial to help combat scurvy on extended sea voyages.[2]

Recipe

  • Add to shaker tin:
    • 0.75 oz simple syrup
    • 0.75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
    • 1.5 oz gin (for dryer, I recommend Plymouth or Aviation; for botanical, St. George Terroir or Uncle Val’s)
      • Use 2 oz gin if you like it a bit stronger
  • Add ice, shake, then double-strain into coupe/cocktail glass
  • Garnish with lime wheel, wedge, or peel

 

Martini_JenConsalvo_Flickr_cropped     Martini

Can you imagine a time before what seems like the most classic of all cocktails? According to the OED, one of the earliest mentions of this spirituous beverage is 1887, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Sample the bewildering depths of the ‘Martini cocktail’.”

Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the drink was first called a Martinez, likely taken from the name of a western California city where the libation is thought to have originated. The name twisted into its current form after the arrival of Italian liquor manufacturers Martini e Rossi (who applied for U.S. trademark in 1882); the company’s dry white vermouth was an integral part of this simple cocktail.

Recipe

  • Add to mixing glass then stir with ice:
    • 0.5 oz dry white vermouth (I recommend Lo-Fi Dry, Vya Extra Dry, or Dolin Dry)
    • 2.5 oz gin (for dryer, I recommend Plymouth or Aviation; for botanical, St. George Terroir or Uncle Val’s)
  • Strain into coupe/cocktail glass
  • Garnish with olives or lemon peel, per preference

 

negroni_snug_cropped     Negroni

Another strong but refreshing gin concoction is this vermillion delight. We initially hear about it (per the OED) in 1947, in the Coshocton Tribune (Ohio):

“Orson Welles, working in ‘Cagliostro’ in Rome, writes that he’s discovered a new drink there—Negronis. It’s made of gin, Italian vermouth and Campari bitters. ‘The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.’”

If you hadn’t already guessed, the word stems from Italian. The OED asserts that it was “the name of Count Camillo Negroni, the Italian aristocrat who is believed to have invented the drink in the 1930s.”

Negronis pair well with a Saturday afternoon, a hot sun, and an outdoor café.

Recipe

  • Add to mixing glass then stir with ice:
    • 1 oz dry gin (I recommend Plymouth or Aviation)
    • 1 oz red vermouth (I recommend Punt E Mes or Carpano Antica)
    • 1 oz Campari
  • Strain into coupe/cocktail glass or rocks glass (add ice if desired)
  • Garnish by spritzing orange peel over top of glass to add its oils; add peel to drink

 

Corpse_Reviver_2_Wikimedia_cropped     Corpse Reviver (#2)

Despite its disturbing name, the Corpse Reviver #2 is juicy and tart, with a smidgeon of absinthe adding lip-smacking complexity. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this quote from the Birmingham Daily Post in 1871:

“And our American refreshment bars, In drinks of all descriptions cut a dash, From corpse revivers down to ‘brandy smash’.”

Wikipedia cites an even earlier reference – a mention in the magazine Punch, or The London Charivari in 1861:

“[…] that ‘officer of the Government’ expectorated twice with a marked gaiety of manner, and after liquoring up a Sling, a Stone Wall, and a Corpse-Reviver, he merrily danced forth into the middle of the room, and sang a pleasant song with an agreeable refrain: –”

Both sources could in fact be writing about the Corpse Reviver #1, a very different recipe (with cognac, calvados, and sweet vermouth) but who knows. No. 2 has been a much more popular request during our modern-day cocktail renaissance. Both 1 and 2 are informally known as hangover remedies, which was probably motivation for the name. Now what’s the etymology for “hair of the dog”?

Recipe

  • Add to shaker tin:
    • 0.75 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
    • 0.75 oz Cointreau
    • 0.75 oz Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano
    • 0.75 oz dry gin (I recommend Plymouth or Aviation)
  • Add ice, shake, then double-strain into coupe/cocktail glass
  • 2 dashes absinthe on top of drink
  • Garnish by spritzing orange peel over top of glass to add its oils; add peel to drink

 

[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/gimlet
[2] WayBack Machine: Royal Navy

*Photo attributions:
Aviation (post header) and Negroni (actually it’s a Scotch Boulevardier) by Zack Schwab (co-owner of The Snug, along with my good friend Jacob Racusin); Gimlet by Seth Anderson; Martini by Jen Consalvo; Corpse Reviver by Will Shenton.