How do you spell ‘Duh’?

Tantallon Castle, North Berwick, Scotland. Since this topic doesn't lend itself to illustration, I've decided that the fact that I mention a couple of castles means I can show you lots of interesting medieval buildings.

As I write this, our corner of England is having what our family calls a dirl day. 

What’s a dirl day?  I’ll get to that in a minute–

I’ve mentioned the intrusive R before, though I just skimmed over the subject, saying that sometimes the British seem to save up those Rs they don’t pronounce at the end of words (supah for super, ka for car) so that they can tack them onto the ends of words that don’t have an R in the first place; hearing someone on the radio refer to President Obamer is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.  I once came in on a radio broadcast in progress and couldn’t understand it at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea.  People who speak this way seem to need an R to grease the skids between a word that ends with a vowel and the following word if it begins with a vowel.  So you hear President Obama said but President Obamer is going.  (Some American accents include this intrusive R, though it’s not as widespread. )

Deal Castle, Kent. Apologies for modern sun dial in foreground.

But there’s something else going on with the letter R in this country that is even more peculiar to my American eye.  I say the eye this time and not the ear because it’s a matter of spelling. 

I first noticed the phenomenon in an on-line forum when someone owned up to having made a mistake and added der, something like this: I can’t believe I did that!  I mean—der!

Took me a couple of beats to realize that der stood in for the conversational element (because surely it isn’t actually a word) that I would have spelled duh.  What’s interesting here is this: The writer has spelled this not-quite-a-word sound with an R expressly to indicate that there is no R sound in the pronunciation

Overgrown moat of Beeston Castle, Cheshire.

You see that form—not necessarily der, but –er used the same way—in lots of places here.  The most recent example I’ve run across comes from the latest historical novel by Malcolm Ross-MacDonald, who frequently leaves comments here on my posts.  In The Dower House (written as Malcolm MacDonald; he uses different versions of his name for different sorts of books), a character slurs together the words as a matter of fact, so Malcolm writes it smatterer fact.  Took me a minute to realize what he was up to there.

To me, if you’re altering the spelling to show how a word is pronounced, spelling it with letters that aren’t pronounced makes no sense; if you’re spelling the phrase phonetically, that is, choosing letters to indicate the sounds your character made because they weren’t standard English, why would you slip back into a more formal spelling including silent letters when you come to the last syllable?  

To Malcolm, born and raised in England, –er is precisely how you ought to spell a word that ends in what he admits (aha!) via email is the sound of –uh.  It is, to Malcolm, well established that the way to indicate an unstressed final syllable is by –er, whatever else you do with phonetic spelling. 

This kind of unstressed –uh  syllable is what dictionaries represent with a schwa, a character like an upside-down e, which I hope you can see here: ə. The schwa, which for some reason my high school English teachers loved, is the linguist’s indication of the unstressed uh-sound most people use for the last syllable of sofa or the first syllable of along.   

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

Since I don’t have a schwa on my keyboard—and since I come from a place where an R at the end of a word tends to be sounded—I write the schwa sound using an –uh (duh) or an a (kinda, fella or in this case smattera fact).  But Britons have used –er this way for a good long while, at least since 1825 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  I ran across an example recently in the work of Rudyard Kipling; in his autobiographical Something of Myself (1935) he wrote that General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, called him young feller.  Since Booth was a Brit fromNottingham, it’s a safe bet Kipling was using feller to indicate that the man said fella.  

The problem is that for American readers, fella and feller carry completely different connotations.  Both mean fellow, but while fella is merely informal and could be used by almost anyone, feller—pronounced R and all—marks the speaker as being from a rural area and probably relatively uneducated.  The USA is a big country and I would never say “everybody in the US says this” or “nobody in the US says that”, but I’m tempted here, because it would be a very rare American indeed who would write feller when they meant that the person speaking didn’t pronounce the R.  The OED lists both fella and feller (with the pronunciation I’d expect would go with fella), but labels both as “vulgar or affected”—rather a slur on my character, as I grew up pronouncing it fella in everyday use, and reserving the proper pronunciation of fellow for formal designations: she’s a Stegner Fellow at Stanford;he has a Fulbright fellowship.  In any case, the OED doesn’t make the distinction between fella and feller that most Americans would make without thinking twice.

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Kipling also frequently wrote kinder to mean kind of,  rather than using kinda or even kind o’ (a form you find a lot in older books) but as far as I can tell, he only used this in the speech of American characters, not that I’ve made an exhaustive study of his work.  Maybe he thought that all Americans spoke that way or maybe his neighbors in rural Vermont, where he once lived, really did say kinder, pronouncing the R, when they meant kind of. Stranger things have happened, and I don’t happen to be familiar with the dialects of Vermont in the late 19th century.

The –er word ending in British pronunciation trips up people trying to spell correctly in another way, too.  I recently ran across a British author who wrote of partygoers who formed a conger line.  That would be a conga line, by another—and a rather unusual—name.  But you can see how British English speakers, hearing conga and used to a final schwa sound being spelled as –er, would think they were hearing conger, especially when conger is a real word for a type of eel and a conga line could be thought of as moving, well, something like the way an eel does. 

Kidwelly Castle, Wales

In fact I spoke to the author, who suggested, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that the dictionary could be wrong, and the dance could easily have derived its name from the eel.  He went so far as to suggest it might have been “some bloody American” who misheard a British speaker say conger, and written it down as conga.  (Kipling apparently got tired of anti-British sentiment in the US.  Ah, Rudyard—welcome to my world, in which there is no language error too small to blame on Americans.) 

I think I’ll put my trust in the OED, which says the word started out Congo (as in the country), but filtered into English from Hispanic cultures which changed the ending to –a, to make it feminine.  In a quick poll of British friends, I found that they were all aware that conga is spelled with an a, although one of them thought that the eel was spelled conga, too.  That looks like the same error, but in reverse.

Blarney Castle, Ireland

While Americans don’t stick extra Rs onto words at the end, we do sometimes, under the influence of British (or British-like) pronunciation, push a square R into a round syllable in the middle of a word.  We do it for the same reason the author spelled out conger:  if you’re used to hearing British speakers pronounce syllables that end in –er as if there were no R, you may think an R is meant to be there.  So you hunt around for an R that nobody’s using and stick it back in the word.  You’re really just trying to help, you see.

My favorite example comes from my father-in-law, whose mother spoke with a bit of an Australian accent.  They weren’t a family that went in for a lot of religious instruction, so when he was small and heard his mother singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, including the line “God and sinners reconciled”, in order to make sense of it he assumed she was singing about “garden sinners” instead.  (Well, Adam and Eve ate the apple in a garden, right?)

Dirleton Castle, North Berwick, Scotland

This is a mondegreen, and a good one.  (If you aren’t familiar with mondegreens, see below for an explanation.)  Hymns and religious songs seem particularly prone to this kind of thing, the classic being children who hear the hymn Gladly the Cross I’d Bear as Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.  Malcolm reports hearing a hymn to My Great Redeemer as Migratory Deemer (which may confuse any Americans who don’t know that some British people pronounce migratory as MY-gruh-tree, and which leaves us to wonder what kind of bird a Deemer might be).

And what of dirl?  That’s my own spelling of a word that I kept hearing up in the Scottish borders on my first trip to the UK.  Everywhere we went, people would say “Too bad it’s such a dirl day” or “A dirl day for you, I’m afraid”.  Clearly, whatever dirl meant, it wasn’t good.  Finally during a stop at Tantallon Castle, when an employee gave me his regrets that I was visiting the site on such a dirl day, I asked him what that word meant. 

Castle Warden: “Dirl? D’ye mean ye dunna say that in America?”

Me:  “No, I’ve never heard it before.”

Castle Warden: “Dirl. D,U,L,L. Dirl.” 

Ah. A dull day, then.  One without much sun, the sky an undifferentiated wet blanket of gray. 

His vowel wasn’t the -uh I use for dull, not even close enough kin for me to recognize it as a word I knew.  And he didn’t pronounce an R, but it sounded like the vowel I’d been hearing in lowland Scotland in words like girl or twirl, so I supplied the R myself.  And why did I think I was hearing dirl and not durl?  I think the answer lies about 8 miles to the west of Tantallon, where we’d just been to visit Dirleton Castle.  In any case, the phrase stuck, and we still call such days dirl days.

You probably think it was rather dim of me not to figure out what people were saying, and maybe I should have.  In fact, I can’t believe I didn’t, I mean—der.

(Photos of Tantallon and Dirleton from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.  All other photos mine.)

MONDEGREENS — The best way to define mondegreen is through examples.  Scottish writer Sylvia Wright coined the term after she found that the lines of a song she’d learned as a child about the Earl of Moray (sometimes misprinted Murray, because that’s how it’s pronounced), which went like this:

      They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

      And Lady Mondegreen.

Were actually meant to be:

      They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

      And laid him on the green.

So one murder, not two – but a wonderful new sport: finding mondegreens.  San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll is known for his enormous collection of mondegreens (click here for his Center for the Humane Study of Mondegreens)



Filed under Architecture, Culture, Language, Travel

28 responses to “How do you spell ‘Duh’?

  1. Very entertaining Mary Ellen! I always wondered why there were so many “er”s in printed conversation. It took me years to figure out that it was pronounced “uh” as a pause in conversation.

    And my dad though “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was his own personal hymn as his name was Harold. BTW Obamer just sounds so wrong! 🙂

  2. Nice blog mef! I’ve always enjoyed the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers song Ireland’s Industry.

  3. Val Rice

    Just to add to the fun – the phrase for ‘as a matter of fact’ in Pitmans shorthand is written in one outline and, as students, we always called it ‘smatteract’, ‘cos that’s what’s written!

    Enjoy your blogs Mary Ellen, though I don’t always have time to read them.

  4. Frith-Macdonald Candida

    It’s funny to hear if from the other side: to me Americans all sound like they are saying a word spelled carrr. Come to that, they all sound like they call themselves Amerricans (or in some cases, Amurricans). We DO say the r, really we do! We just stop saying it a lot earlier than you do over the water. Waterr. And I think people do say the “r” in “der”. Just not “derr”. But it’s a bit Vicky Pollard as a pronunciation, sort of nasal, where “duh” is more middle-class and “d’oh” purely for children (of any age) who have spent too many hours in front of the Simpsons.

    But the the rendition of the English pronunciation of car as “ka” shouldn’t mislead people into thinking it’s at all like the “a” used to render “kind of” as “kinda”. The Ford Ka is sort of mocked as the Kah by most over here (just the spelling, not the vehicle). Do Americans say Ka the way the English say car?

    We should just USE the phonetic alphabet. Neither “er” nor “a” is an accurate translation of the schwa, after all. The UK pronunciation is perhaps a bit lower in the throat and closer to “er” than many American accents (certainly to ones on our TV imports). But if we can have the @ on our keyboards, why not the shwa?

    On a related, older matter, I just heard Tom and Ray Magliozzi on a Car Talk (NPR) podcast BOTH say Hyooston for Houston. Twice. Not just us, then.

    • Um, but that’s the point: They both say Hyooston. Which is correct. As I recall, you wrote last time to say that you believed it was Hooston until you read about it here and then double-checked a video of Apollo 13.

      So I would expect Tom and Ray to say Hyooston not just twice, but every time!

      As for Ka, I think the only Americans who say the word are people interested in ancient Egypt; I don’t believe the Ka automobile is sold there. (It wouldn’t be a likely name for a car model in the US, assuming they named it that because of the pun, which might be a rash assumption. In any case, the pun doesn’t work in US-ian English.)

      And I know we’ve discussed the term “America”, but that was in terms of what you/we call the country. People from the States generally, not withstanding my US-ian joke above, do call themselves Americans.

      Funny that the term “Columbia” never stuck. (“Columbia, the gem of the ocean”, etc.) We could be Columbians!

    • Sudden thought — you live in the west country! I’d be interested to kno how you think US rrrs, in words like carrr, compare to the word as pronounced by people in Cornwall or people in Devon?

  5. MFC

    Re: mondegreens — The bane of church choirmasters everywhere must be the line from “The Lord’s Prayer” that sounds for all the world like: “Lead a snot into temptation.”

  6. Diane McAlpin

    Having a partner who was raised in Chicago, I hear a lot of extra ‘R’s. Example: I wash dishes and she warshes them (oh, and she also thinks her history gives her a free pass to drive like a maniac, but that’s another story).

    Thank you for the explanation about feller versus fellah! I’ve never heard anyone actually say ‘feller’ (on BBC America, my source for all things Brit) but I see it spelled like that all the time.

  7. Great post, Mary Ellen. And here was I thinking that ‘duh’ is spelled ‘doh’. I shall have to be more careful! 🙂

  8. Malcolm

    I’ve had to switch off plays on the BBC where English actors play Americans and say things like “I sore him do it.” They are following some kind of algorithm in their brains that says all aaw sound in English (war … door …) where the r is very nearly silent will have a fully pronounced r in American. So UK waa correctly becomes US war (wore); but UK saw gets falsely dragged into the transition algorithm as sore.

  9. Malcolm

    So was the song “Cinderella, Rockefella” written like that to steer Americans to a rhyme they would not otherwise make? And do Americans listening to that song just treat it as a UK-English variant of Rockefeller?
    Changing the subject, I’m always slightly thrown when Americans say to me, “So, I hear you’re a rider?” They tell me they can hear a difference between their pronunciation of ‘writer’ and ‘rider’ but I’m tarned if I can.

    • I don’t think the composer(s) of Cinderella Rockefella were attempting any subtle persuasion of Americans to a different accent, and I think that Americans who hear the song probably think it’s a joke or, as I believe the music business has it, a novelty song.

      I don’t get why British people find a humorous song that is a single data point about pronunciation, and say “what about THIS one? huh?” Funny songs are meant to be funny! I feel reasonably confident that no one thinks that Tom Lehrer is attempting to steer Americans to any new pronunciation of dis-CAH-vered because he makes it rhyme with Harvard

  10. Darn! Got cut off, wrote another message and the computer burped or something — anyway —

    It’s like “Meet Me In St Louis, Louis” — the town is pronounced by the vast majority of Americans, in fact all Americans that I know, have ever known, or have encountered via the media, as Loo-iss. The song was a joke. Yet an on-line group I belong to discussed for a couple of weeks what the pronunciation should be — this is why I made the comment re British people and one data point. The fact that the song was a joke and that there were at least two Americans on the list to attest to the mainstream pronunciation wasn’t enough to satisfy, and the conversation went on for a couple of weeks. Sigh…

  11. I have a friend from New York who drives his ca (no R), but takes a nap on his sofar— Ah, there it is! It all evens out nicely.

  12. The regional pronunciations of words can be very interesting, especially when you look at the evolution of language and dialects. I watched “The Story of English” on PBS several times. If you haven’t seen it, check it out sometime. It’s very enlightening.

  13. Having posted that, I spent the day today in Wiltshire, where a lot of people have a very pleasant accent with–how shall I put it?–very *firm* Rs. Nice!

  14. Claire Taylor

    Hi Mary Ellen. One of my more literate friends tells me you have described “rhotic”, from the Greek letter rho. Among others, Brits and New Englanders are classified as non-rhotic, because they don’t pronounce syllable-final r’s. Claire

  15. Hilarious stuff here. I love this –

    “We DO say the r, really we do! We just stop saying it a lot earlier than you do over the water.”

    I have a question though. Is “farther” different from “father”? I asked a couple of UK friends that once, and they thought there was, but then when they said both, they decided they couldn’t really detect any, so maybe there wasn’t.

    Also loved

    “I’m always slightly thrown when Americans say to me, “So, I hear you’re a rider?” They tell me they can hear a difference between their pronunciation of ‘writer’ and ‘rider’ but I’m tarned if I can.”

    I can, but the funny thing is, the difference isn’t in the t/d sound, it’s in the i. The i in rider is longer than the i in writer – it’s more like eye. In writer it’s like the i in like.

    Mary Ellen – are you sure “er” isn’t used to indicate not so much an r that isn’t there as a particular vowel sound – the one in her or the first syllable of Goethe?

    • re the er (as it were) — yes, the -er indicates the schwa sound (I think I said) but it is still odd to me that the letter chosen to indicate the vowel is a silent consonant.

      As for being a rider, and the I-vowel involved, I’ve got a post on that, too: –only now, you’re in on the joke before you read the opening. Can’t be helped. But the telephone conversation that opens that piece actual did happen!

      • It occurs to me belatedly that the British don’t say “horseback riding” — or do they?

        Around here (Surrey-Hampshire border) people tend to just say “riding”; the presence of a horse is assumed. I don’t mean to imply that “riding” is used particularly in the USA for some kind of riding that doesn’t involve horses (and I grew up in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, of which there can be few horsier places). I just have never heard “horseback riding” used in the UK. Anybody know? Any of you UK-ians in the discussion?

      • Right, except the ‘e’ in ‘her’ isn’t exactly a schwa, is it? I’m probably wrong; a linguist friend (Mya, from R’ville – remember her?) once told me I’d gotten it wrong, and explained, and I don’t remember what she explained, but the drift was that it’s not as simple as I had thought. But anyway the ‘e’ in her isn’t the same as the final ‘a’ in Victoria…is it? There is a kind of ghostly ‘r’ in the sound of that ‘e’ even if you don’t pronounce the ‘r’ – or if you stop saying it earlier, as your witty friend said above.

        I realized later that I was pointing out the dead obvious about rider/writer – I just hadn’t noticed it before. Apparently the i is always long before d and short before t. Ride, side, hide, bide, tide. Right, fight, light, mite, site. There really is an audible difference between sighting and siding, slighting and sliding…in spite of Murkans’ bad habit of turning that t into a d.

        I remember that earlier post.

      • But “her” is not an unstressed syllable. It’s linguistically different (sez me, with my vast ignorance of linguistics) from the -er in words from British English such as feller, or kinder–in the above–or for that matter, father/sister/brother/you-get-the-idea-er.

        Plus of course there are different British Englishes, so I’m generalizing anyway…

      • Ah right. I was thinking of the er in der as opposed to the one in feller.

      • Oops — right. And if there’s really a suspicion of an R in the pronunciation of ‘der’, then we really are using different words, and ‘der’ is not just a variant spelling of ‘duh’ to indidate pronunciation. In which case this entire blog post is moot!

  16. First time here; just had to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this post. On the topic of spelling words phonetically in literature, I wonder what you made of ‘Trainspotting’. Or ‘God of small things’. I’m sure you can think of more examples, but those two seemed ground-breaking at the time of their publishing.

    • Thanks for coming by, and especially for staying to comment, though I probably don’t have answers that satisfy. I read “God of Small Things” so long ago I don’t remember the phonetic spellings; I vaguely recall they spelled out words from some language (or more likely languageS) from the subcontinent, but then you’d have to transliterate them anyway to put them into a book using the Roman alphabet. In any case, I don’t remember stumbling over phonetic spellings there (but then I have a very poor memory, alas). As for “Trainspotting”, I confess I haven’t read it!

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