December 14, 2003

We got 'im!

On the central coast of California where I live, we catch up on international news when we wake up before dawn by turning on the bedside radio and switching back and forth between KAZU in Pacific Grove, which relays National Public Radio from Washington DC, and KSPB at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, which runs a feed from the BBC World Service. It was an interesting experience this morning to hear a genuine difference in dialect and style in play. During the small hours of this morning, Saddam Hussein was captured in his hiding hole (we have so far heard it referred to a spider hole, a squirrel hole, and a rat hole, by the way: the media have yet to standardize on a specific vermin metaphor). Ambassador Bremer decided on resolutely informal style for the opening of his speech announcing the event: his first paragraph was, in full, "We got 'im!" He gave it that American English flapping and voicing of [t] between vowels that makes "got 'im" sound like what could be written phonetically as ['gadm]. But within minutes the BBC were reporting what he had said as "We got him", in their educated southern British dialect and rather formal style, with the "t" of got sounding like [t], and the [h] of him clearly audible. There is a real question about whether this (largely involuntary) style and dialect switch reported the content of Bremmer's utterance correctly. Beside the phonetic point, there is a syntactic and semantic one: "We got 'im" in American English can be present tense -- the equivalent in British of "We have got him." But in British English, "We got him" can only be preterite tense, the equivalent of "We did get him."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 14, 2003 01:38 PM