English &
How It Got That Way
Bill Bryson

We pronounce many words --- perhaps most --- in ways that are considerably at variance with the ways they are spelled and often even more so with the ways we think we are saying them. We may believe we say "later" but in fact we say "lader. " We may think we say "ladies," but it's more probably "laties" or even, in the middle of a busy sentence, "lays." Handbag comes out as "hambag. " We think we say "butter," but it's really "budder" or "buddah" or even "bu'r. " We see wash, but say "worsh. " We think we say "granted," but really say "grannid." No one says "looked." It's "lookt." "I'll just get her" becomes "aldges gedder. " We constantly allow sounds to creep into words where they have no real business. We introduce a "p" between "m" and "t" or "m" and "s" sounds, so that we really say "warmpth" and "somepthing." We can't help ourselves. We similarly put a "t" between "n" and "s" sounds, which is why it is nearly impossible for us to distinguish between mints and mince or between prints and prince....

We tend to slur those things most familiar to us, particularly place-names. Australians will tell you they come from "Stralia," while Torontoans will tell you they come from "Tronna." In Iowa it's "Iwa" and in Ohio it's "Hia." People from Milwaukee say they're from "Mwawkee." In Louisville it's "Loovul," in Newark it's "Nerk," and in Indianapolis it's "Naplus." People in Philadelphia don't come from there; they come from "Fuhluffia." The amount of slurring depends on the degree of familiarity and frequency with which the word is spoken. The process is well illustrated by the street in London called Marylebone Road. Visitors from abroad often misread it as "Marleybone." Provincial Britons tend to give it its full phonetic value: "Mary-luh-bone." Londoners are inclined to slur it to "Mairbun" or something similar while those who live or work along it slur it even further to something not far off "Mbn."

For the record, when bits are nicked off the front end of words it's called aphesis, when off the back it's called apocope, and when from the middle it's syncope. A somewhat extreme example of the process is the naval shortening of forecastle to fo'c'sle, but the tendency to compress is as old as language itself. Daisy was once day's eye, good-bye was God-be-with-you, hello was (possibly) whole-be-thou, shepherd was sheep herd, lord was loafward, every was everich, fortnight (a word curiously neglected in America) was fourteen-night.

The British, who are noted for their clipped diction, are particularly good at lopping syllables off words as if with a sword, turning immediately into "meejutly," necessary into "nessree," library into "libree." The process was brought to a kind of glorious consummation with a word that is now all but dead --- halfpennyworth. With the disappearance in the 1980s of the halfpenny (itself neatly hacked down in spoken British to hapenee), the English are now denied the rich satisfaction of compressing halfpennyworth into haypth. They must instead content themselves with giving their place-names a squeeze --- turning Barnoldswick into "Barlick," Wymondham into "Windum," Cholmondeston into "Chumson."

We Americans like to think our diction more precise. To be sure, we do give full value to each syllable in words like necessary, immediate, dignatory, lavatory, and (very nearly) laboratory. On the other hand, we more freely admit a dead schwa into -ile words such as fragile, hostile, and mobile (though not, perversely, into infantile and mercantile) where the British are, by contrast, scrupulously phonetic. And both of us, I would submit, are equally prone to slur phrases --- though not necessarily the same ones. Where the British will say howjado for "how do you do," an American will say jeetjet for "have you taken sustenance recently?" and lesskweet for "in that case, let us retire to a convivial place for a spot of refreshment."

This tendency to compress and mangle words was first formally noted in a 1949 New Yorker article by one John Davenport who gave it the happy name of Slurvian. In American English, Slurvian perhaps reaches its pinnacle in Baltimore, a city whose citizens have long had a particular gift for chewing up the most important vowels, consonants, and even syllables of most words and converting them into a kind of verbal compost, to put it in the most charitable terms possible. In Baltimore (pronounced Balamer), an eagle is an "iggle," a tiger is a "tagger," water is "wooder," a power mower is a "paramour," a store is a "stewer," clothes are clays, orange juice is "amjoos," a bureau is a "beero," and the Orals are of course the local baseball team. Whole glossaries have been composed to help outsiders interpret these and the many hundreds of other terms that in Baltimore pass for English. Baltimoreans may be masters at this particular art, but it is one practiced to a greater or lesser degree by people everywhere.

All of this is by way of coming around to the somewhat paradoxical observation that we speak with remarkable laxness and imprecision and yet manage to express ourselves with wondrous subtlety --- and simply breathtaking speed. In normal conversation we speak at a rate of about 300 syllables a minute. To do this we force air up through the larynx --- or supralaryngeal vocal tract, to be technical about it --- and, by variously pursing our lips and flapping our tongue around in our mouth rather in the manner of a freshly landed fish, we shape each passing puff of air into a series of loosely differentiated plosives, fricatives, gutturals, and other minor atmospheric disturbances. These emerge as a more or less continuous blur of sound. People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis. Syllables, words, sentences run together like a watercolor left in the rain. To understand what anyone is saying to us we must separate these noises into words and the words into sentences so that we might in our turn issue a stream of mixed sounds in response. If what we say is suitably apt and amusing, the listener will show his delight by emitting a series of uncontrolled high-pitched noises, accompanied by sharp intakes of breath of the sort normally associated with a seizure or heart failure. And by these means we converse. Talking, when you think about it, is a very strange business indeed.

And yet we achieve the process effortlessly. We absorb and interpret spoken sounds more or less instantaneously. If I say to "Which do you like better, peas or carrots?" it will take you on average less than a fifth of a second --- the length of an eye blink --- to interpret the question, consider the relative merits of the two vegetables, and formulate a reply. We repeat this process hundreds of times a day, generally with such speed that often we have our answer ready before the person has even finished the question. As listeners we can distinguish between the most subtle gradations of emphasis. Most people, if they are reasonably attentive, can clearly detect the difference between that's tough and that stuff, between I love you and isle of view, and between gray day and Grade A even though the phonics could hardly be more similar.

--- ©1990 William Morrow

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