Category Archives: Dialects


To Seek Out New Vowels …


Part of my teaching this semester (with my colleague Alice Turk) involves an exploration of space: the space of the remarkable array of speech sounds humans can produce. Consider just the vowel space, for example. Phoneticians map the infinite space of possible vowel qualities by reference to a set of reference points at the edge of vowel space: the final frontier. They’re known as the primary cardinal v…


New in DARE: Bird’s Nest on the Ground


The six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2012, continues to augment its coverage with quarterly updates by the chief editor, George Goebel, at the University of Wisconsin. The fifth update, for summer 2016, has just been published, with a dozen new entries and 40 revised ones. Most of the entries update or enrich the letter B, originally published in Volume I more than 30 years ago.

You can take a free look here.

What will you find? To begin…


Brit Thesps Nail Yank Lingo


Hugh Laurie can talk the talk.

The American characters in Genius — screening earlier this summer in art-house cinemas everywhere — are played by the following actors.

Thomas Wolfe: Jude Law (English)

Maxwell Perkins: Colin Firth (English)

Aline Bernstein: Nicole Kidman (Australian)

Ernest Hemingway: Dominic West (English)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Guy Pearce (Australian)

Zelda Fitzgerald: Vanessa Kirby (English)

I didn’t see the film, but I don’t have to in order to know the American accents are …


In the Phonetic Jungle


A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “…


Bad Optics

“Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times.  This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.

Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceiv…


DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear

DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

The last volume of the c…


Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.


Some of the teachers who discussed the quest…


Hillary Who?

Hillary-60-minutesNoting that I’ve written about the hip-hop/youth/New York trend of glottalizing (that is, “swallowing” the t before the last syllable) such words as important, button, and Manhattan, a reader recently e-mailed me, “I was intrigued by how Hillary Clinton glottalized her last name … as early as 1992. Not surprisingly, she changed it back to Clin’T’on in her campaign video last year.”

The reader included links to two YouTube videos. The first, a fairly amazing comedy bit at a 1992 roast of Ron Brow…


Being an Antecedent

On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t…


Being a Subjunctive


Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…