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. )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)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)