Monday, March 28, 2005

Linguistic humor is popular, doesn't she?

My post about Simpsons language humor below seems to have tickled many funny bones, which is gratifying. I was going to hold off on any more of such frivolity for a while, but I was watching The Sketch Show (US version) for the first time last night, and they aired a pretty funny sketch about four students in an English grammar class. These students have real, albeit implausible, language problems, not involving stranding prepositions or choice of that instead of which; their ailments might actually be assisted by an English grammar class taught in a linguistically informed way, if any such existed. Here's the script of the BBC version of the sketch. (In the US version I saw, the Karen character's problem was not overexcitement but idiom-deployment; she said things like "I'm always crying over spilt chickens coming home to roost.")

It's mildly interesting to notice the way in which the Tim character's stress problem is represented in the script; rather than capitalize the sylLAble that he is wrongly stressing, which I think I would have chosen to do, the scriptwriter has tried to emphasize that the vowel/syllable in question is not reduced. He does this by including an 'r' after 'a' in words like 'empharsis' and 'therarpist', which in the relevant British dialect indicates lengthening of the preceding vowel, and hence non-reduction, and in other cases by spelling the relevant syllable as an independent homophonous word, as in 'sentenses' and 'awkwordness'. A combination of these strategies may be being employed in 'emberrarsement'.

At first, I had written the following about 'arse'='ass' in 'emberrarsement', above:
"...since the word ass is often written 'arse' in British English, again, I imagine, as an alternative spelling of the long back unrounded vowel in ass in that dialect. Does this mean that the r-ful independent word arse, which exists in the dialect I speak alongside of ass, originally arose as a spelling pronunciation?"
Then vague memories of arse in Shakespeare (when, I'm pretty sure, syllable-final r was still around in jolly olde Englande) prompted me to go check up on it, and I visited the OED... and of course it turns out to be precisely the opposite: Arse has got a pedigree as old as English itself, showing up at 1000 AD on the dateline and tracing its etymology to proto-Germanic, and ass (in this sense) first turns up only in 1860, presumably as a spelling variant after r-loss had been completed. Does this mean that the (independent word) ass in most of North American English is actually the spelling pronunciation? The OED dubs it a 'vulgar and dial. sp. and pronouc. of arse'. Hm! Anyway, at least I saved myself some embarrarsement (although having quoted my own embarrarsing mistake, maybe not).

But this makes for a segue into one final Simpsons note, from arses to the clothing that covers them, which I include since it's so topical w/r to what they've been discussing over at the Language Log recently: Chief Wiggum calls Milhouse's dad Kirk a tighty-whitey when arresting him in episode #1609 GABFO3, "Pranksta Rap", which just re-aired last night ("Come along, tighty-whitey," he says, or words to that effect; Kirk is fully clothed at the time.) Since Kirk has descended to a degree of loserdom rivalled only by Gil the car salesman's, it's a highly apposite usage, exemplifying the deployment of that term's derogatory sense, semantically speaking. In the hypothetical Simpsons intro linguistics course, tighty-whitey/ies could illustrate lexical innovation, raising, flapping, metonymy ('clothing for person'), pejoration driven by youth-culture-specific connotations, and pluralia tantum, all at once.

I really don't watch that much TV, honestly!

Update: Can't remember where right now but in the past week I have run across some more examples of the arse/ass variety, due to the same source: horse/hoss, curse/cuss. Something funny about how for the vulgar word the r-less variant is the one that took hold and spread in American English, but for the neutral horse and curse the r-ful variant remained the general one and hoss/cuss have a dialectal/rural/low-prestige flavor to them (to my ear).