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  • The Diacritics 10:07 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: america, , , , ,   

    These United States 

    (Posted by John)

    Like a good law student, I was perusing my Constitutional Law book today. Along the way, I found a sort of linguistic diamond in the rough:

    “Prior to the Civil War, ‘the United States’ was treated as a plural noun. In Dred Scott, for example, the Court referred to a federal statute passed during the War of 1812 that referred to ‘the war in which the United States are engaged.’  After the Civil War, by contrast, ‘the United States’ became a singular noun.” Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet, and Karlan. Constitutional Law,6th Ed. Aspen Publishers. 2009. p 451

    When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Sandeep’s post on the linguistic legacy of 9/11, where he discusses the effects wars have had on our language.  The change from “are” to “is” that the Civil War brought about is minuscule in size, but ginormous in meaning. It reflects a profound reinterpretation of the relationship between one state and another, as well as between the states and the federal government. The shift marks the real beginning of the public’s acknowledgment that the federal government would expand its control over the states. Personally, I think it’s super cool that this tiny linguistic indicator is as important as any analysis of federal statutes or court opinions in figuring out when this trend began.

    Oh, and don’t forget to vote for The Diacritics here for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011!!

    • The Diacritics 10:22 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting! Also, what about colloquially referring to the United States as “the states”? The last instance of “the states” as referring to the U.S. in the OED is in 1890. Of course, people still do use it today. I have a hunch, though, that “the states” is more common outside of this country than inside it. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing that’s associated with the post-Civil War shift you reference here. –Sandeep

      • The Diacritics 1:05 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sandeep, here’s a test for whether “the states” is being used as the states collectively or as a shortened form of “the United States” (so “the States”)

        (1) I’m from the states, which is a good place to live.
        (2) *I’m from the states, which are a good place to live.
        (3) I’m from the states, which is currently experiencing difficult economic times.
        (4) *I’m from the states, which are currently experiencing difficult economic times.

        I like (1) and (3), thus the asterisks before (2) and (4). Those really do sound wrong to me. If you agree, then it does just look like we’re saying “the States” as a shortened form of the singular United States.

        I chose those examples, because, interestingly enough, I have trouble with the simpler sentences you might think to use as a test, in (5) and (6) below.

        (5) ?The states is an awesome place.
        (6) ???The states are an awesome place.

        I think the fact that these sound weird, but (6) worse than (5), is evidence that we are trying to use “the states” singularly. But it gets complicated, and thus the sentences sound weird, because “the states” is typically a plural syntactic object (unlike the United States, which is now a singular entry in the lexicon). We get around this problem by placing some syntactic barriers between “the states” and its verb (i.e. the complementizer ‘which’). This lets us use “the States” (as a stand-in for the United States) without confounding it syntactically with the homophonous “the states.” Or something like that….


    • Sam 10:47 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here’s a quick-and-dirty check of Google Ngram Viewer, which appears to support the claim (though with a transition date in the 1870s rather than 1860s): http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/ngrams/graph?content=The+United+States+is%2CThe+United+States+are&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

      (The search is case-sensitive, so the uppercase “T” in “the” eliminates noise from occurrences within phrases like “the powers of the United States are,” which otherwise will swamp the signal.)

    • johnwcowan 11:23 pm on September 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Americans refer to “the States” only when they are somewhere else.

      The OED cannot be safely trusted for 20th-century quotations. Even though the upper right corner says “Second edition, 1989”, only new words and new senses were added in that edition; that text is almost certainly unrevised OED1. Volume 9 part 1, which contained state, was published in 1919, but the underlying fascicle or installment containing the word, namely standard to stead, was published in 1915, so it’s unlikely that any quotations would be added thereafter.

      • The Diacritics 6:25 pm on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Do you have a source for your first assertion? That’s what I suggested in my earlier comment above, but I don’t have any actual data.

    • Bander Alfraikh 3:29 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Perhaps the most current word during the Civil War was Union, a singular word harbingering the shift from plural to singular in reference to the “States”. The shifts and shades of meaning words receive are often socio-cultural in nature as in this case although it is syntax that is affected here.

    • Josiah 3:55 am on September 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Love this post. Something I’ve been thinking about, particularly in light of all the current political happenings in our country. I’m not sure if I remember correctly but I think “Remember the Titans” referenced on this idea once. Awesome post!

    • Richard White 8:29 am on September 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Cf., inter alia, the following Language Log entries: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and


      Richard White

    • Bander Alfraikh 2:45 am on October 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I am also reminded here of similar constructions in Old English. The word “woman” was treated as masculine simply because the word ends with -man. Similarly, the United states ends in a plural, therefore, it should take the verb in the plural. This was the prevailing view of the prescriptive grammarins then. It would be equally interesting to find out if a word like “police” took “are” or “is” during the same period, the late 1890’s.

      • johnwcowan 11:31 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Not “simply because”, but because “woman” is a compound of “wife” (meaning “woman”) and “man”. Compounds take the grammatical gender of the last element in all Germanic languages that retain grammatical gender.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on September 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: america, , , hawaii, idaho,   

    Hawaiian descriptivist dreams 

    (Don’t forget to subscribe to our posts by e-mail (on the top right) or subscribe to our RSS Feed!)

    posted by Sandeep

    Hawaii is generally pronounced by non-Hawaiian Americans as /həˈwaɪ.iː/ (huh-WHY-ee). Many Hawaiians and more adventurous mainlanders pronounce it  /həˈwaɪʔiː/ (huh-WHY ‘ ee), adding a glottal stop (the same sound as the hyphen in uh-oh) between the last two syllables. Pretty straightforward, right?

    A friend of mine had the following Facebook status up this weekend:

    Somebody please tell the ESPN play-by-play guy at the CU-Hawaii game that Hawaii is not pronounced “Hava-ee.” It’s not a German word.

    To be fair, I would be pretty annoyed if someone kept unnecessarily Deutsching a common term, too. But maybe the ESPN guy knew something my friend and I didn’t. So I did a little research.

    So apparently the ESPN guy was kind of right. Huh? According to Wikipedia, in the Hawaiian language, the state is actually sometimes pronounced with a /v/ sound, /haˈvaɪʔiː/.

    Okay, to be fair, plenty of languages conflate the two sounds /w/ and /v/ (like most Indian languages, which only have one character for both sounds), so maybe something like that is going on here.

    The first grammar of the Hawaiian language was written by a German missionary, Adelbert von Chamisso. The letter “w” in German represents the sound /v/. Hence, Hawaii would have been pronounced Havaii in German even though it was spelled with a “w.” And if German chose “w” to write the name of the language (“Hawaiische sprache”), maybe they were indeed faithfully documenting the native sound.

    But others disagree that the native pronounciation is /v/. The first English transliteration of “Hawaii” was apparently “Owhyhee” or “Owhyee.” (Remarkably, the latter is a spelling that is actually still preserved in a county in southwestern Idaho, named after three Hawaiians.) That suggests that the native pronunciation was /w/, not /v/, since English has both sounds “w” /w/ and “v” /v/ and chose to use “w.”

    But we can’t always take the British pronunciation at face value. They did, after all, mangle India’s “Mumbai” to “Bombay” and “Thiruvananthapuram” to “Trivandrum” (okay, I dont blame them for the second one).

    Transliterating between languages, especially when one of them isn’t a natively written language, is an inherently unstable activity. Awkward changes are bound to occur.

    Why must you tease us with your Vs and Ws, Germany? Why?!

    My suspicion is that the rogue /v/ pronunciation arose because some languages, like German, pronounce “w” as /v/. And because “Havaii” might sound more “exotic” than “Hawaii,” some people might have automatically assumed that the /v/ pronunciation was the indigenous one.

    Even if “Havaii” is the correct, indigenous pronunciation, we might as well discard it altogether because “Hawaii” is the predominant pronunciation out there in English.

    After all, the pronunciation of American place names has changed a lot over time anyway. Think about “New Mexico” — pronounced /ˈmɛksɨkoʊ/ “mek-si-ko” not the Spanish /mexiko/ “me-hi-ko.” Or Louisiana — /luːˌiːziˈænə/ “loo-easy-anna” not the French /lwizjan/ “lweezyan.” Or pretty much any place name derived from Native American languages. English is remarkably devastating in its alteration of other languages.

    And when a placename has been so totally assimilated into the language and culture, such as in the case of an American state, the popular pronunciation is the real pronunciation. This belief that popular usage and pronunciation is more important to teach and learn (in other words, bottom-up linguistics) than prescriptive usage (top-down linguistics) is called descriptivism.

    It’s unclear whether the ESPN guy was pronouncing “Hawaii” faithfully or not. In terms of descriptivist English pronunciation, he was wrong.

    Either way, I’m guessing Hawaii’s fans don’t care which way the ESPN dude pronounces it as long as they win.

    I think I need to do some more on-location research.

    • goofy 3:10 pm on September 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I have done some on-location research (i.e. I’ve been to Hawaii on vacation) and a lot of Hawaiians do pronounce it with /v/. They also pronounce some place names, like Haleʻiwa, with /v/.

    • goofy 3:27 pm on September 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I should add I’m not talking about native Hawaiian speakers. I never met any native Hawaiian speakers.

      • The Diacritics 11:49 pm on September 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Interesting point! I wonder if there’s any effect of Tagalog, Japanese or Chinese (the three most-spoken minority languages in HI) on the pronunciation of place names. Japanese and Chinese have /w/, but I’m not sure about Tagalog. Maybe there’s something going on there. -Sandeep

    • Püppi 8:43 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Chamisso a missionary? He was a Romantic poet and translator of troubadours. He wrote the tale of Peter Schlemihl who sells his shadow to the devil. He was also a botanist, many plant species are named in his honor. He said of himself, “I am a Frenchman in Germany and a German in France, a Catholic among Protestants, a Protestant among Catholics, a Jacobine among aristocrats and a nobleman among democrats, a freethinker among the pious and a bigot among the prejudice-free… I belong nowhere, everywhere I am the stranger.” That might have made him a missionary everywhere he was or went, but certainly not in the sense you imply. He came to Hawai’i as a botanist and stayed for a month. The missionaries arrived later.

    • johnwcowan 10:20 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Okay, time for the classic.

      A young man is practicing to be a stand-up comic. Using his mother as a test subject, he tries out the following joke:

      Two Americans from the mainland are walking down a street in Honolulo, arguing about whether the name of the state is pronounced “Hawaii” or “Havaii”. One sees an obvious local coming the other way, and says “Let’s ask him. Excuse me, sir, is the state pronounced ‘Hawaii’ or ‘Havaii’?”

      “Havaii”, says the native.

      “Told you so,” says the American. “Thank you, sir.”

      “You’re velcome.”

      The young man’s mother is puzzled. “I don’t get it. Vot’s funny?”

    • komfo,amonan 5:44 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Wikipedia claims it’s a simple matter, claiming that in Hawaiian [v] and [w] are allophones, and continuing::

      [v] is also the norm after /i/ and /e/, whereas [w] is usual after /u/ and /o/. After /a/ and initially, however, [w] and [v] are in free variation.

      Citation given, in case anyone cares to verify.

  • The Diacritics 1:25 pm on August 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , america, regional,   

    “I don’t have an accent.” 

    posted by Sandeep

    What do you drink?

    No, I’m not interested in your bar habits. I’m asking about the fizzy pop in your can at lunch. The sugar-rush soda you drink to stay up late. The caramel-colored coke in your cup. Which one is it?

    According to linguistic surveys, the name of your soft drink is determined by your geographic origins. People in the Northeast and the West call it “soda”; people across the Midwest largely know it as “pop”; and Southerners call it “coke,” no matter the brand.

    (credit: Pop vs Soda)

    The emergence of a mass-market American image in the last few decades has reduced regional differences like these. With mainstream newscasters and sitcom stars speaking in essentially the same dialect and accent, successive generations concerned with embodying a normative American identity have readily adopted linguistic traits that were once confined to certain regions in the central Midwest. They created a General American standard that now defines “average” in this country. This dialect of English is so unconsciously “normal” in the U.S. that speakers of General American identify themselves in a vacuum of identity: “I don’t have an accent.”

    Please. General American isn’t a monolith; it’s a heterogeneous amalgam of related accents. Don’t believe me? Try these simple tests.

    Pronounce these words: “Mary,” “merry” and “marry.” Are they all the same? You are seemingly in the majority, at least in America. The Mary-merry-marry merger is associated with rhotic dialects—that is, those that pronounce the written “R” at the ends of words or before consonants. General American is a rhotic form of English.

    But I grew up near coastal New Jersey, and although I didn’t speak with the non-rhotic Jersey Shore—excuse me, Jersey Shwa—accent, my schoolteachers and my friends’ parents did. I was surrounded by it. Speakers of non-rhotic accents usually pronounce the three words differently—and so do I. Although neither my friends nor I speak with a Jersey accent, this anomaly has stuck with us.

    Here’s another: “cot” and “caught.” If they are indistinguishable, you’re in the same boat as about 40% of Americans and nearly all Canadians. According to linguists, you’re probably from the Midwest, New England or farther north. Most other Americans pronounce the two slightly differently. The cot-caught merger is associated with a large shift in vowel pronunciation that occurred around the Great Lakes—a transformation that gave us, among other things, the much-maligned folksiness of one Sarah Palin.

    Okay, one more: how do you pronounce the ubiquitous suffix “–ing”? Many people drop the velar closure “ng” and say “–in.” Others, like my Pennsylvanian roommate, pronounce it “een,” stretching out the vowel. Sometimes it’s situational: you’re “chillin,” but other times you’re “relaxing.”

    It can be stunning to see how different we are, even when we fall under a “monolithic” label like General American.

    It’s just the same with those accents that are associated with very broadly painted geographic regions (“Southern”), ethnicities (“African-American”) or classes (“redneck”). To ascribe a certain linguistic destiny to swaths of people based on one aspect of their identity is foolish: we all know people who break the mold of stereotypes. Everyone’s accent is formed by multiple experiences and sources. And like other traits, it can be intimate and treasured.

    When we enter a world in which our accent is unusual, though, how do we react? With exaggeration or with assimilation? When I was abroad in Australia, I swung wildly between the two. Sometimes I would find myself emphasizing my accent, amplifying my “R” pronunciation and stubbornly using American vocabulary; other days, I’d yearn to fit in, studying the bizarre intricacies of Australian vowel production. In New York City, a speech coach market has emerged for those desperate to part ways with their distinctive accent, complaining that their “tawking” colors their professional and social relationships.

    When the General American dialect is taken as a homogeneous, normative identity, some react by emphasizing their “heterodox” accent. Others can’t hear the difference. Still others assimilate. Universities pride themselves on diversity—but in truth, to be associated with a regional linguistic idiom can be crippling because it forms a lens through which others perceive you, often to the exclusion of other aspects of your identity.

    Those who fall under the General American normative umbrella are privileged in this country to be evaluated first on non-linguistic traits. Many, if not most, other speakers are not. This discrepancy is antithetical to a mission of diversity.

    Maybe my examples of linguistic heterogeneity are just fun quizzes, but maybe they’re a little more, too. Perhaps even a small understanding of the diversity within a so-seen monolith of identity like General American gets us somewhere toward an appreciation of larger, non-standard deviations from the norm.

    It’s interesting, after all, to see how some of the last vestiges of regional linguistic idioms—minor pronunciation differences among General American speakers—are humorous, whereas bigger dialectal differences can be personal and professional handicaps.

    I do have an accent—we all do. I just hope that I’m far more interesting than my choice of soft drink. (Soda.)

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