February 22, 2006

Hey buddy, can you spare an adjective?

There's some recent evidence that President George W. Bush really does believe in morphological regularization of toponymic adjectives:

In other words, we're receiving goods from ports out of the UAE, as well as where this company operates. And so I, after careful review of our government, I believe the government ought to go forward. And I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British [sic] company. I'm trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to people of the world, we'll treat you fairly. And after careful scrutiny, we believe this deal is a legitimate deal that will not jeopardize the security of the country, and at the same time, send that signal that we're willing to treat people fairly. [emphasis added]

(This transcript, with its [sic] and all, is from the White House web site. I've expressed some skepticism about earlier examples, but this is surely an authoritative source.)

In this case, I'd like to point out that our president has highlighted a genuine linguistic problem. In the first place, the British Isles have got the most confusing nomenclature around. There are at least 15 names of major overlapping political and geographical entities here, ignoring all the counties and bailiwicks and islands and the like. But the real problem is the endemic shortage of adjectives. Of the 15 names, 8 have no adjectival form, as far as I can tell. One (Scotland) has three different adjectival forms: Scots for the language and (mostly) the people; Scotch for the local distilled liquor; Scottish for everything else, more or less. There are four other (ambiguous) adjectives, all irregular formations with -ish or similar endings: British, English, Irish, Welsh. But the large-scale formal political entities centered in London -- United Kingdom, Great Britain -- are entirely bereft of corresponding adjectives, except for the jokey UKish and the irregular, ambiguous and confusing pair British and Britannic.

Name Type Adjective
1. British Isles geographical: includes everything in this table no specific form
2. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland political are you kidding?
3. United Kingdom political: short form of 2 none
4. U.K. political: shorter form of 2 none (though UKish is sometimes seen as a joke)
5. Great Britain geographical: the big island no specific form
6. Great Britain political: ((England + Wales) + Scotland) no specific form
7. Britain an informal term for 6 or 2 British or Britannic (also used 1, 5, 6 and sometimes 2, 3, 4)
8. England and Wales political: one of the United Kingdoms (?) none
9. England A nation constituting half of the Kingdom of England and Wales, occupying the southeastern 2/3 of 5; or short for 8 English
10. Scotland A constituent part of the United Kingdom, in the northern part of 5 Scots or Scottish, depending
11. Wales A constituent part of the United Kingdom, in the southwestern part of 5; less independent than Scotland since it doesn't have its own legal system Welsh
12. Republic of Ireland political: the southern part of 15
(but see note below: this is apparently the offical English "description" for the state whose official name is Éire
13. Northern Ireland political: province of 2, northern part of 14 none (?)
14. Ireland political: short form of 12 Irish
15. Ireland geographical: the western island Irish

If we go into more details, it gets worse. Is there an English adjectival form for the Bailiwick of Jersey? The Wikipedia entry for Jèrriais says:

Jèrriais is often called "Jersey French" or "Jersey Norman French" by English-speakers (who lack an adjective for Jersey in the English language) and "jersiais" or "normand de Jersey" by French-speakers. Care should be taken to distinguish between Jèrriais and the Jersey Legal French used for legal contracts, laws and official documents by the government and administration of Jersey. For this reason, some prefer using the term "Jersey Norman" to avoid ambiguity and to disassociate the language with French. [emphasis added]

I believe that this modifier shortage is a specifically English problem, not to be blamed on the other inhabitants of the British Isles. The Irish and Welsh have got their adjectives, the Scots have frugally retained at least three of them (leaving Gaelic out of it), and even the inhabitants of the Bailiwick of Jersey are plentifully supplied. But over the past few centuries, the English have been creating a bewildering agglomeration of half-digested acquisitions and new organizational initiatives -- a sort of political Enron -- while completely neglecting their duty to supply these entities with adjectives. The NGOs are nowhere to be seen; U.S. unilateralism is out of style, so an adjectival Marshall Plan is not in the cards; this is clearly a case for U.N. intervention.

[Seriously, I think the standard approach is to use the form British to refer to people, companies etc. based in Great Britain. (Or should that be the United Kingdom of etc.?) And of course the British Empire, with its current residue, was built by Scots and Irish and Welsh as well as English people, not to mention the Hessians and Sikhs and so on. But it's the English language that's lacking, here, and it's easy to see how a United Statesish president could slip up on this one.]

[Update: Several people have written to straighten me out on various aspects of this question. For example, Aidan Kehoe pointed out

"Northern Irish" in adjectival usage exists -- c.f. {http://google.com/search?q="northern+irish+politics"} -- but I venture that people find it ugly, since {http://google.com/search?q="northern+ireland+politics"} has ten times as many hits.

and also asserted that:

The political adjective form for the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" is "British." Ditto "United Kingdom." Ditto "U.K." Ditto "Great Britain" in its political and geographic senses. Search for any of these things in UK law, and look for the adjectival usage around them.

As background, Aidan explained that

"Britain" is equivalent to "Great Britain" in English, with the caveat that it’s slightly less high-register. The "Great" is a calque from French, where "Grande" is needed to distinguish Britain from Brittany. The Wikipedia is wrong in describing it as "informal"; were it so, http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page39.asp in introducing the Prime Minister’s home would not use it. [in the phrase "Britain's 51 Prime Ministers", presented sans "Great" -- ed.]

OK, now we're getting somewhere -- we can blame it all on the French!

On the other side of the argument, Lora Totten-Schwartz wrote that

I'm emailing you to pester you (as I'm sure others are/will be) about calling people from Great Britain "British." 

I'm trying very hard not to say, "G'wan, say that to a Scotsman!" with a giggle.  People who live outside of England are not British.  That's why they have that "United Kingdom" thingy in the official name of the country.  Scots are Scottish, Welsh are Welsh, Irish are Irish, English are either English or British.

Of course she's talking about people, whereas Aidan is talking about places and political institutions. [But see below for a strongly contrary opinion from "the Pedant-General in Ordinary".] So my ignorance is becoming deeper and more nuanced by the minute.

Aidan Kehoe closes by observing that

Now, certainly that’s not as clear as it could be, but someone doing foreign policy for a living through English can reasonably be expected to figure it out.

I believe this is intended to be a criticism of our president. Although I'm not persuaded that "doing foreign policy for a living through English" is an appropriate description of his job, I'll certainly grant that any literate citizen of the English-speaking world needs to know that whatever the adjective corresponding to Great Britain might be, if any, it's not "Great British". Alas. ]

[It's also been pointed out to me that "Great British" is hardly a true regularization, which would have to be something like "Great Britainian". Instead, it's merely a sort of over-generalization, or perhaps a blend whereby great leaks from the nominal Great Britain over into the adjectival British. Whatever.]

[Another update: Lane Greene writes

... while we're piling on, the "Republic of Ireland" may be a "political" name in your taxonomy, but isn't official. The country is officially just Ireland, and Eire. So 14: "Ireland - Short form of 12" isn't quite right. "Ireland" is the full form.

Incidentally, I admire that. Few countries do it - Canada is one that springs to mind. Knock it off with the People's Democratic Wonderful Republic of Whatever.

I think I see. The Wikipedia article says that

The Republic of Ireland (Irish: Poblacht na hÉireann) is the official description of the sovereign state which covers approximately five-sixths of the island of Ireland, off the coast of north-west Europe. The state's official name is Ireland (Irish: Éire), and this is how international organisations and citizens of Ireland usually refer to the country.

So if Wikipedia is right, Lane is not strictly correct that the "Republic of Ireland" denomination "isn't official" -- it's just the "official description", not the "official name". But I think we've split this particular hair into enough slices.

Meanwhile, I wonder -- are there any other countries that have "official descriptions" different from their official names? ]

[What I hope is the last update: Rich Alderson weighs in on behalf of the history of languages and populations:

I'd like to point out that from the point of view of historical linguistics, Lora Totten-Schwartz has it wrong when she writes

Scots are Scottish, Welsh are Welsh, Irish are Irish, English are either English or British.

The English are English, of course, but the Welsh are British (as may be some of the Scots, though they are sort of English when they aren't Gaelic). The Cornish used to be British, as are the Armorican (not to be confused with the American) expatriates, who moved to Armorica and renamed it Brittany when the English showed up in Britain.

I hope that clears that all up.

Me too.]

[TG Gibbon write:

I am no expert but I do use national adjectives everyday at work and I really have to strongly disagree with Lora Totten-Schwartz; 'British' is widely accepted, even in Scotland, as being the adjective applying to nouns from out the UK or GB. True, you'll get a Glasgow Kiss if you call a punter 'English' on the Cowgate in Auld Reekie, but much as they may regret it they do understand they are part of both an island and a state for which the adjective is 'British.' This was the rule in my (American) home growing up, it was reenforced by my (American and Scottish) education, and is currently the policy of my (American and English) company. Of course now that I think about you stand a pretty decent chance of running into an Englishman on the Cowgate.

Is Tony Blair not British? Is Edinburgh not a British university, John Cale a British musician, and Calders a British beer?

With Northern Ireland there is some added ambiguity. Those fellas could be called, correctly, either British or Irish. One for the state, the other the island. At work I would certainly 'apply the term' (as we say) 'British' to both Liam Neeson and Kenneth Branagh as we base our classifications strictly on states.


[Update: The Pedant-General in Ordinary writes to disagree in the strongest terms with the view that Scots are not British:

I am an enormous fan of the Language Log, and have shamelessly purloined some articles in the past. But to allow Lora Totten-Schwartz to describe Scots as not British is simply absurd.

She has it completely the wrong way round: To accuse a Scot of being "English", or to use the term "English" when you mean British (e.g. the "English Army" as opposed to the British Army, though oddly of course, the Armed Services pertain to the UK, not GB, and assuming of course that such mention relates to the Army post 1707), is a grave offence, not the other way round.

You compound the problem in your attempts to clear up the matter:
"Of course she's talking about people, whereas Aidan is talking about places and political institutions."

Nonsense. The adjectives apply across the board. Scots, English and Welsh people are ALL British. Scots are not English. English people are not Scots. But they are both British.

To give a simple example (for the sake of argument and without prejudice to your real actual place of birth), you are Pennsylvanian. A resident of LA could be described as Californian. But you are both American. The simplest analogy is that Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are similar to States in the US, with the UK being at the level of Federal Govt. The analogy is far from perfect since we do not have the strict separation of powers or subsidiarity that is enshrined in the US Constitution, but you get the gist. Creditting California specifically with an achievement of the US as a whole, or worse still of Pennsylvania, would be obviously wrong.

This is a howler of such epic proportions that it profoundly discredits the academic merit of the site in my eyes. It displays an ignorance of things British that I can scarcely credit. An apology and promise to do some fairly basic research would be in order: the updates with the text of emails almost suggest that there is debate on this or a legitimate difference of opinion. There is not.

(Disclaimer: I am a Scot, but I'm proud of my British Passport...)

I apologize for getting this distinction wrong. It's apparently a serious matter: over at Infinitives Unsplit, the same author is (mock-) threatening violence. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 22, 2006 08:37 AM