Thursday, August 20, 2009

The R in English Literature

In the 1980s there was a British/Nigerian singer named Sade. A number of people informed me that her name was pronounced Shar-day. I didn't believe it. No one whose name is pronounced Shar-day is going to spell it Sade. Just ignore the R? Finally I figured it out: this was a British rendition of the pronunciation Shah-day. If you say Shar-day with pretty much any British accent, it comes out Shah-day.

It took me a long time, though, to understand just how widespread this British approach to transcription is, and how much confusion it creates for Americans. The next time it clicked for me was thinking about a passage that had puzzled me since childhood:

"But I thought he was a boy?"
"So did I," said Christopher Robin.
"Then you can't call him Winnie?"

"I don't."
"But you said--"
"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what '
ther' means?

If you're an American, of course, you have no idea what ''ther" means. But now we see that Milne was trying to show that the word was pronounced "the" and not "thee."

Examples start to come thick and fast after a while. Why did P.G. Wodehouse, who spent a lot of time in the US, have his American characters say, "You betcher!" No American ever says "You betcher!" And neither do these; they're really saying "You betcha!" And why do people say "Er..." in books when they interrupt someone? I've never heard anyone say "Er..." But in fact they're making a sound fairly close to what would be rendered in American English as "Uh..." or "Unh..."

Some jokes don't come off as well, either, if you don't know the secret. When Alice asks why they called their teacher the tortoise if he wasn't one, the Mock Turtle says, "We called him the tortoise because he taught us, of course!" Pretty lame with a Midwestern accent. If you have a British accent, though (or a strong New England or Bronx or Southern accent), those words are nearly homophones.

Just today, I woke up from a dream in which I was playing Tevye the dairyman on stage (and also directing, if you're interested) and didn't have my costume ready. And I suddenly understood how the word "yarmulke" got its spelling. (I think the "l" is also supposed to be silent.)

This still leaves the question, why do they do it? Why don't the British just write "shah-day" and "You betcha!" Beats me. Why do they drive on the left?


  1. Yes, but Milne himself was baffled by the "ther" distinction - if I remember correctly, he replied to Christopher Robin's question, "Don't you know what 'ther' means?" by saying quickly, "Ah yes, now I do," and then, to the reader, "And I hope you do, too, because that is all you are going to find out about it." Or words to that effect.

    The whole passage bewildered me, too. I wondered later if "ther" could be related to "der" (which would explain why it should be so obviously masculine), but dismissed the notion because of Christopher Robin's age - he was five or six then, at which time he would have been far too busy studying Latin to be bothering with German.

  2. Elizabeth,

    I like the German idea. I checked and there was a consonant shift in High German from th to d, so "ther" could've been an older form that C.R. somehow picked up from his Swabian nurse. Then Winnie-thee-Pooh would have been a girl.

    Actually, I think Milne was just puzzled about how adding "the" changed sex/gender. It does sound like five-year-old logic, from my limited experience with five-year-olds.

  3. Another interesting example of this is the spelling of both Burma and Myanmar, which are pronounced closer to [bəmà] and [mjàmmà] in Burmese.

  4. Yes. To learn way more than you need to know on the subtleties of naming this particular country, see Wikipedia. It involves not only the R problem, but classical vs. colloquial language, democracy vs. dictatorship, and ethnic politics.

    I recently remembered another joke from my childhood which is lame with a Midwestern accent: What did the chick say when the hen laid an orange? Oh, look at the orange marmalade!