December 01, 2006

What's "spurious" in English?

In response to my post about having misunderstood his pronunciation of "air accidents" as "ear accidents", Jock McNaught wrote:

I'm flat-eared to have figured in your language log... Not the first time someone has had cause to do a double-attend in respect of my idiolect.

Of course, I suffer, after over a quarter of a century in England, of being accused of "talking like a Sassenach" when I go back to Scotland. Here in England students complain of my "broad Scottish accent". I take this with a pinch of salt nowadays, after a group interrupted one of my lectures to request me to "stop using scotticisms". I replied that I had not been aware of using any. Came the joint response: "yes, you used the word 'spurious' several times". (A sad comment on the state of English education, eh?)

My linguistic heritage is somewhat convoluted: parents from the Glasgow area (urban Glaswegian and West Central Scots), grew up in firstly an isolated fishing village in NE Scotland, then in an equally isolated farming community 20 miles inland. This was at a time when a dialect would change markedly just going from one fishing village to the next a few miles along the coast. The farming community had its own dialect, a variety of Mid Northern Scots (Buchan). The family then moved near Stonehaven, where South Northern Scots intruded (Mearns dialect: see Lewis Grassic Gibbon's works for examples of this - I went to university in Aberdeen, home of "the Doric" (which is largely pronounced like MNS).

However, I rarely use any of these dialects in Manchester, and have moreover modified my pronunciation to be more readily understood by my customers (sorry, students).There's clearly a Scots-of-some-sort base. But the realisation changes according to interlocutor. Nothing new there, just normal language contact and change and adaption under differing sociolinguistic conditions, but it makes it difficult for some people to pin down where I am from (apart from Scotland). The only person who did pin down a more than reasonable linguistic provenance for me was the famed Stanley Ellis of the Survey of English Dialects -- who also had a keen interest in Scots, Welsh, Irish English. There's a good picture of him doing field work at: on page 6 (also contains details of audio resources that may be of some interest to you if you had not known of them). Stanley was also involved in studying the "Yorkshire Ripper tapes". His party piece was to listen to someone then pin their accent down to within a few miles. He had a little difficulty at first with me, but then plumped for the far NE of Scotland, within 20 miles or so of what you might consider to be the main linguistic influence on me.

Here's a good site that gives details on the various dialects of Scots, including phonetic/phonological information, with useful references:

Check out also: which is the results of a survey into who speaks Scots. As you'll see, 60% of respondents in the NE of Scotland speak a form of Scots, the highest regional number, and of course there is a higher proportion of older people who claim to speak Scots.

Just off to a seminar so will close. However, I know that if I meet someone in the lift (elevator) and they ask me what floor I want (on campus, floors tend to be lettered rather than numbered), they'll have difficulty understanding whether I want 'J' or 'G'...

[Guest post by Jock McNaught]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 1, 2006 12:46 AM