Saturday, June 28, 2008

Er... I see

Over at Language Log, Heidi Harley has pointed out once again how that British terminal r can result in all sorts of mix ups for us rhotic speakers of English. Wiktionary has rhotic as

Of an English accent, pronouncing the letter r wherever it appears, as in bar (IPA: /bɑːr/) and bard or barred (IPA: /bɑːrd/); this trait is common in most of the United States; many parts of the north of England; Scotland; and India.

Of course, much of British Enlgish is non-rhotic, leading them to pronounce pairs such as farther and father as homophones.

The insight bomb that Harley dropped on LL readers (myself included) was that when you see er in transcribed speech, it is the transcription of a non-rhotic speaker of English, equivalent to what we might write as uh or ah. Similarly erm is um. The British National Corpus has 89,850 instances of er. Here's a sample (unfortunately, Blogger is cutting off the concordance, but a click on the numbers will get you much of the text):

92 G4H S_speech_unscripted bank accounts, building society, National Savings ordinary account, investment account, er National Savings, which isn't bad if you want small amounts of money invested
93 G4U S_speech_unscripted this waste is tipped, it's land tipping. Mhm. Er and er obviously that does affect the ground water. Well it shouldn't do. Well
94 HDT S_speech_scripted fashion, and we go out of our way er, to be fair in respect of er certain er areas. I would simply conclude that while we're always open to
95 HLU S_speech_scripted wanted to raise the issue of er the public service section in respect to er this because there's something prob perhaps not actually tackled in the resolution but equally
96 F7T S_unclassified Erm it comes back to the point which has just been made about the er , about the erm why have this system of election by thirds and almost backfired
97 FMA S_unclassified That man's recorded everything that was said in this room. Excuse me er It's alright it's anon anonymous. Right now listen folks. sh sh
98 JJ8 S_unclassified while I have a look, and you can hear annual negotiation, and er , and the golden rule for negotiating was er looking at your list up there
99 JTE S_unclassified had to replace as you saw outside, virtually all the timber. The er original timber here which is the dias beam and it points up something very o
100 HWX W_pop_lore the hot pumping title track. produced to a glittery crunch by Beau "Er, Ratt?" Hill, these tunes leap out from a radio like recent

Harley's observation has led various commenters to point out that:

  • what Christopher Robin was actually saying when he said "His name is Winnie-THER-Pooh" was Winnie THE Pooh.
  • what the characters in Great Expectations were saying when they said "what I meantersay" was what I mean tuh say.
And, of course, by now we all know that the rs in Burma and Myanmar were never intended to be pronounced.

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