Transcript 319: The Prodigal Tongue

DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM's weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we're going to be bringing you language news, language variation, and some great music. Maybe we'll even hear from you. My name's Daniel Midgley. I'm here with Ben Ainslie.

BEN: Good morning.

DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.

KYLIE: G'day, everyone.

DANIEL: British and American English have always had a love/hate relationship. British people try to avoid Americanisms, but we're not always great at identifying them. Are you? Well, we're going to be talking to someone who's bidialectal on this episode of Talk the Talk.

BEN: I used to be bidialectal.

DANIEL: What was your dialect? Australian and American?

BEN: Mhm!

DANIEL: Well, aren't you still?

BEN: I am no longer bidialectical. I cannot pull off an American ac —  Well, you tell me!

DANIEL: I don't know.

BEN: Put me to the test. Give me a sentence.

KYLIE: Let's give it a go.

DANIEL: Uh, the… "the eels are ready for broasting."

BEN: [CLEARS THROAT] Uh… ooh… I'm on the spot.

DANIEL: I just made that up.

BEN: [VERY AMERICANLY] "The eels are ready for broasting."

DANIEL: [ALSO VERY AMERICANLY] "The eels are ready for broasting."

BEN: "The eels are ready for broasting."

DANIEL: Well, bro, I'd say that you sound pretty American.

KYLIE: You do!

BEN: No, but would you believe it though, Daniel?

DANIEL: I would believe that you were Matt from Spokane.

BEN: Matt from Spokane?

DANIEL: Just… you know, just to pull a name out of a hat.

KYLIE: Why am I on a show with a bunch of American guys all of a sudden? This is really weird.

DANIEL: Go on, Kylie. Do it.


DANIEL: "The eels are ready for broasting." I don't even know what broasting is.


BEN: Bro roasting? 


KYLIE: Okay, now I'm definitely leaving this show.

DANIEL: Get back here!

KYLIE: Give me another one! I'll give it a shot.

BEN: "Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I'm thirsty."

KYLIE: [IMPROBABLE US SOUTHERN ACCENT] "Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I'm thirsty."

DANIEL: No, you're not [θɜsti], you're [θɚsti].

KYLIE: Thirsty. Thirsty!

BEN: I'll try it: "Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I'm thirsty."


DANIEL: See, it's all in the r's. But also I like how you gave me an [æ] in 'pass', right? We're going to test you guys on some more.

KYLIE: Cool!

BEN: Excellent! But before we do, I think it behooves us to investigate what's been going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past.

DANIEL: I found kind of a cool study from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, India.

BEN: Ooo!

DANIEL: Let me ask you a question. Which do you think there are more of: words the begin with the letter E, or words that end with the letter E?

BEN: Ooo — end.


DANIEL: Yeah, there's a lot more that end with the letter E. What about words that begin with a letter Y, versus words that end with the letter Y?

BEN: Oh, has to be end.

KYLIE: Yeah.

DANIEL: Yeah, it is. I mean, think about all those adverbs and all those adjectives that end in Y.

KYLIE: Gently, slowly.

BEN: Every, very.

DANIEL: Exactly. Now Peter Norvig quite a while ago did a huge study of words in a massive corpus. It was the Google Books Corpus, which is like seven hundred fifty billion words.

BEN: Squinty-million!

DANIEL: When you look at the first letter of a word — and this is for all the words in the corpus — it's kind of all over the place. There's no clear winner, although some letters are very rare.

BEN: Right. So there's no winners, but there's a couple of real noticeable losers.

DANIEL: Oh, yeah. The biggest letter is T, but it only starts like sixteen percent of words.

BEN: Okay.

KYLIE: Really? I remember the Sherlock Holmes short story where E was the most common letter.

DANIEL: E is the most common letter, but it's not the one that begins the most words. T is.


BEN: Right, right, right.

DANIEL: But when you look at the endings of words, there's a small collection of heavy hitters.

BEN: Right, and so I'm thinking E, Y…



DANIEL: Nope. You would think G, because of -ing.

KYLIE: Yeah, that's what I thought.

DANIEL: It's up there.

BEN: So E, Y… I'm trying to think of…




DANIEL: Yes. Think plurals.

BEN: Oh, S!

DANIEL: There are eight letters that account for about seventy six percent of the endings of all English words: E, T, N, S, R, D, F, Y. F surprised me, actually.

BEN: Yeah.


DANIEL: Anyway. here's the surprising thing. According to this experiment, which appeared in PlosOne, this pattern doesn't just hold for English. It holds for a lot of languages.

BEN: Wha…?

DANIEL: Well, Mohammed Izhar Ashraf and a team from B. S. Abdur Rahman University in Chennai looked at twenty five different languages, and they looked at their writing systems. And this included alphabetic writing systems like English, but it also included ones that don't use alphabets like Chinese. It didn't matter which language you were in; when you're at the beginning of a word or a string, the things that can start are kind of distributed across the system. But then by the end, things tighten up and only a few heavy hitters come in.

BEN: Right. So even in writing systems like Chinese which have many characters, there's a very small cabal of endings.

DANIEL: It narrows to a point.

BEN: Wow! Do they know why?

DANIEL: Well, that's a good question. Let me answer that question by thinking about English. Can you figure out why English would do this? Why would it narrow to only a few characters at the ends of strings or words?

BEN: Because ending words in certain ways makes things flow far better.


KYLIE: We have certain traditions and expectations — as you said, adverbs or -ing just gets tacked on the end all the time.

DANIEL: Right. We have a lot of prefixes, no doubt. But when you're looking at the morphology of a language like English, you're looking at the suffixes. That's where it really comes down to.

KYLIE: Plurals, plurals, plurals.

DANIEL: Yeah, you've got plurals and you've got -en as in 'eaten' and you've got T, like -ist, and so on. So it really does come down to a few. Now, why it might this research be useful?

BEN: Um… knowing how words end could allow you to parse what people say far more effectively, because if you know that certain words are going to most likely end… seventy six percent of words are going to end in one of these eight things, you can basically have your natural language processor almost running a probabilistic, like, pass/fail test. Right? Like, person says phrase, computer turns phrase into words. Right? Then runs a probabilistic engine over the top and goes, "Do most of these words end in the things that we would expect them to end in? Oh, actually no, a bunch of these words have an — oh, maybe we need to double back on this one and give it a few more computer cycles to make sure we've got it right."

DANIEL: Yeah. This could be something that you use with automatic speech recognition. Like, is this a likely ending or is it likely to lead on to something else?

KYLIE: A bit of language detective.

DANIEL: Tell me more.

KYLIE: Well if you're finding, for example, languages that might have died out, for example, you only have small amount of evidence for, you can start making assumptions based upon, well, what have we seen in terms of patterns?

DANIEL: That's what they did!


DANIEL: This is good for undeci–.

KYLIE: And I thought I was not as impressive as Ben who used a phrase like 'natural language processing'! I thought, "Aw, man! He's so cool!"

BEN: I just default to the computers. That's my jam.

DANIEL: They took a look at the Indus Valley script. It's about five thousand years old, nobody's ever figured out what it means.

BEN: Right.

KYLIE: And I just guessed this! Oh my god!

DANIEL: Right? And one thing that's tough about this script is that the strings are quite short, so it's tricky to figure out sort of… what it is. But they were able to figure out that this was probably written from right to left.

BEN: Ah, because the end… Snap-a-doodle-doo!

DANIEL: Right, you start of the beginning of a line and there's a lot of things that could happen there, but by the time you get to the end, it narrows down to a few things. So, probably right to left.

BEN: Wow.

DANIEL: There was somebody who figured this out as well. They noticed the handwriting on these things, and they found that at the right end of the page, the handwriting is really expansive, but then when you get to the left, it like squinches! Like they ran out of room.

BEN: Yeah, yeah. 

KYLIE: Like preschoolers. "Oh no! Hang on! Eep!"

DANIEL: There's another thing. If you have an unknown script that doesn't do spaces, this could help you to figure out where in the stream the breaks are.

BEN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

DANIEL: Entropy is randomness, so you can calculate the entropy and say, "Hm! Lots of entropy here; must be at the beginning of a bit. Whoop — suddenly low entropy; must be the end of something. Hey! Lots of entropy again; must be the beginning."

BEN: Yeah, right.

DANIEL: I love it when people find patterns in language like this.

BEN: It is pretty cool.

DANIEL: It tells us something about maybe the way languages go, but also the way our brains think. 

KYLIE: Yeah.

BEN: I like it. I want to recognise a pattern during a track. Give me a track to recognise a pattern in.

DANIEL: Okay, well, why don't we listen to Real Estate with their track 'Holding Pattern' on RTRFM 92.1.


BEN: This week on Talk the Talk, we are casting our gaze into the nether regions.


KYLIE: What?

BEN: Well, not those nether re– that's not what I mean. 

KYLIE: Oh my goodness, we've got filthy minds — I'm so sorry, Ben.

BEN: I'm talking about: we're dropping ourselves directly in the middle of the Atlantic betwixt America and Britain, and we are trying to stop ourselves being torn in twain by the warring major English variants.

DANIEL: Can I just read you something. This was a letter to the editor by a British guy in High Wycombe. He says: "Open letter to the manager of Morrison's in High Wycombe. I visited your supermarket last weekend in order to complete my weekly shop, and referred to the useful overhead signs to locate the required groceries on my shopping list, i.e. eggs, bread, etc. The last item on my list was a packet of chocolate Hobnob biscuits." They're yummy, aren't they.

KYLIE: Yeah.

DANIEL: "After searching the overhead signs, I failed to find an appropriate one to assist me in locating the said Hobnobs. I then spent a not inconsiderable amount of time frantically searching the aisles, and finally found a packet. With delight I placed them into my basket. I then noticed the sign above which stated 'Cookies'. Bearing in mind that the High Wycombe supermarket is actually in Great Britain and not the United States of America, could you please explain why Morrisons have felt it necessary to bastardise the English language in this way. I look forward to your reply. John Ford, Warwick Ave., High Wycombe." Harrumph!

KYLIE: I'm keeping track of that name whenever I make a complaining letter. It's going to be by John Ford…

DANIEL: I actually like 'Disgusted in Dalkeith'. 

BEN: That is…

KYLIE: They're cousins, I'm certain.

BEN: Wow. That… mmm. Mhm. All right, so we know — Daniel more than most — that people, when it comes to the words, get real funny.

DANIEL: Yeah, we've seen cookies, we've seen ketchup and tomato sauce. A lot of people complain about Americanisms. A lot of British people. Americans don't seem to mind. They think that Britishisms are kind of cool.

KYLIE: Oh, get us another episode of, you know, Downton Abbey.

DANIEL: Exactly. So people feel like bringing in words from another place just undermines your culture seriously. But we're actually lousy at telling the difference between Britishisms and Americanisms and I want to test you. Can you guess whether these are first used — whether the first appearance was British or American. Ready?

BEN: Ooo, this is going to be fun.

DANIEL: Kerfuffle. American or British?

BEN: British.

KYLIE: American.

DANIEL: Ben gets the point. This is a Britishism.

KYLIE: Ooh, well done.

BEN: Yess. It sounds… I know it's like in pop culture it's very American, but just the word 'kerfuffle' sounds silly and British.

DANIEL: Oh, so British words sound kind of silly.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: Okay. I must say that there are lots of lots of silly American words, but let's see what happens.

KYLIE: Okay.

DANIEL: To action, as in "Let's action this."

KYLIE: Oh, American.

BEN: I'm going to go with American as well.

DANIEL: It's British!

BEN: Damn.

KYLIE: What?

DANIEL: No points at all. It was first in the Times of London in 1960. How about this one: the phrase 'stiff upper lip'. 

KYLIE: Oh, everyone thinks that's British, so I might go American.

BEN: I'm going to say British.

DANIEL: It is American.

BEN: Damn.

DANIEL: But the British folks were enthusiastic adopters of the phrase.

KYLIE: Stiff upper lip, my lad.

DANIEL: It's one to one, and this is the tie breaker. It's a silly word. 'Discombobulate.' British or American?

BEN: American.

KYLIE: British.

DANIEL: It's American and Ben gets it.

BEN: Yay!

KYLIE: Well done.

BEN: Yesss!

DANIEL: The reason I know this is because I was reading a book, and the book is 'The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English'. It's a really fun book by Lynne Murphy of the University of Sussex. We've talked to her before about Shakespeare.

BEN: We have.

KYLIE: She's wonderful!

DANIEL: She has a blog,, and she was kind enough to sit down with me and talk through some of the British and American stuff. I know that there are things that we all know about, but then I decided to ask her about some differences that are a bit under the radar.

LYNNE: There are various things like where you put the adverbs in a sentence, you know, that are below the waterline, you don't necessarily notice or… I mean, for Americans, you wouldn't necessarily notice that the British don't use the simple past tense in the same way that Americans do, because what the British do do is use the present perfect. So instead of saying 'I ate' to say 'I have eaten.' And then there's the mention that the British… many British people would say 'I et', but that's another matter. But to say 'I have eaten' to Americans doesn't necessarily sound strange, but it sounds strange to British people that Americans are saying 'I ate'. So you know, what's noticeable sometimes depends on where you are.

DANIEL: And what about adverbs? Where do they go?

LYNNE: A simple one would be, you know, Americans can put 'already' at the end of a sentence.


LYNNE: And that sounds very weird in Britain, so you know, 'That's enough already!' That you would not hear in Britain. But in Britain what you would hear, which you don't hear in America in the same way, is putting 'then' at the end of a sentence, so 'Go on, then.'

DANIEL: Oh, right.

LYNNE: Things like that. So, you know there are just those little things that if you were just talking to somebody from the other culture, maybe it would strike you as not being the way you would say it, but maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it would just go past you. Maybe it would just sound like something *that* person had said. But if you look at enough data, you can see the differences.

DANIEL: I was thinking about the U in 'colour', which you know is thought of as typically British spelling. And I'm kind of amazed that American English dropped out the U, because so many people — very influential people in the USA — tried to reform English spelling: Mark Twain, you know, Teddy Roosevelt. George Bernard Shaw even. And it's all come to nothing except for one person, Noah Webster, who was amazing at it. He was so influential. Why do you think he succeeded where so many others failed?

LYNNE: Well, there are a couple of things. One is that he wrote something called the 'Blue-backed Speller'. It had a much longer official name. But it was the spelling book that was used in America for over a century by many many many schoolchildren. So he was influential because of his role as a textbook publisher, but also his dictionary. And so his main dictionary, the 1828 dictionary of the American language, he, in that one, put in various spellings, some of which, you know, have not survived, but some of which did, like the U in 'color' or spelling 'center' with an -er. And things like that. But it wasn't like he immediately had an influence. He was fought tooth and nail throughout the first half of the 19th century. So, there was another dictionary maker called Worcester who had been a helper on Webster's dictionary, but who went on to make his own dictionary which kept all of the British spellings. And there was what we called the Dictionary Wars in the 19th century, when those two dictionaries fought it out, trying to win the hearts and minds of the American people, you know, trying to prove that more churches used their dictionary, that more supreme courts and more states used their dictionaries. And so they had this big propaganda war about the two dictionaries. And in the end, Merriam-Webster — which is the company that bought Webster's Dictionary — they won, because Worcester died. And they had a company behind them and Worcester didn't so much. So that is essentially why we spell colour without the U, because there was that fight and because people became very conscious of which way to spell, and had to take sides.

DANIEL: Of course it's not just spelling. There are some little things that I've noticed, little differences that are kind of driving me crazy. I wanted to ask about them. Ladybird? It's not a bird.

LYNNE: It's not a bird. And of course, there are many animals who are called things that they aren't. 'Ladybug' comes from England as well.


LYNNE: And so they were both used in different parts of England, and one survived in America, and one survived over here. And in large part, I think a lot of things that survive in Britain today do so in order to resist sounding American. So, an interesting case of that is what's happened with 'fall', because there's an interesting dialect survey that's been done by Cambridge University, and in the 1950s there were pockets of people saying 'fall' in the UK, in England. The entire north of England was saying 'backend' for that season.

DANIEL: So we had 'fall', 'autumn', and 'backend'.

LYNNE: And 'backend'. And 'backend' was very strong in the north. And you know, here sixty, seventy, nearly seventy years later, everybody in England says 'autumn'. And 'fall' is seen as an American incursion, you know, to be resisted. So you've got London being the real influencer of what words are successful in Britain. But you've also got the sense that we can't say 'fall' because that's an Americanism, even though it wasn't originally American. Americans didn't make it up.

DANIEL: So British people started saying 'fall', Americans kept doing it, British people stopped and then everyone says, "Oh, look at this thing that Americans have innovated," but it wasn't an American innovation.

LYNNE: Yeah. Absolutely.

DANIEL: Are there any other of those? I remember 'mad' when someone's angry.

LYNNE: Yeah, there's 'mad'. There's the use of 'smart' to mean 'intelligent'. Lots of things. But sometimes the story is a bit more complicated. So for example, 'smart' went on to mean 'intelligent' in America in a way that it had never that strongly meant it in Britain. And the reason why it changed in Britain in part was because of how the word 'clever' was changing. So there's a whole ecosystem of meanings, and if one meaning's changing in one place, it's going to push things around in the other place.

DANIEL: Yeah, okay.

LYNNE: But I think the big example of British resistance to Americanism is the spelling -ize, which used to be a perfectly fine British spelling, you know, within the twentieth century. So that was the way that Oxford Dictionaries told you to spell a word like 'humanize' or 'realize', with a z. Or a zed. And nowadays people in Britain perceive the zed as an American spelling, an American incursion. You know, they will say "I'm going to proudly spell with my -ise instead of my -ize." Instead of that evil -ize! But in truth, it's only been since the 1990s that people have been spelling -ise regularly that much more.

DANIEL: Oh my gosh. Okay.

LYNNE: And that is when spell checkers came along. And so rather than, you know, this idea that everybody's spelling the same now because of technology, I think instead what happened there was it made people more aware of variant spellings and what they might mean, and influence their behavior in a way that took us further apart.

DANIEL: God, that is so human, you know. That's so language.

LYNNE: Yeah. It is, absolutely. But it's also, you know — because the people now spelling -ise — you know, my students in their lifetime, all they've known is -ise. They've only known -ize as an Americanism. And so, you know, the story that -ize was a legal Briticism is being lost, and people are telling themselves a very weird story about spelling.

DANIEL: Lynne Murphy, author of 'The Prodigal Tongue'. Did you notice how technology doesn't just bring us together? It also makes us consciously aware of how we talk. In the same way that we notice how everyone writes on the internet, and that's a social division thing as well.

BEN: I really liked the idea that it was only in the '90s that -ize was fought against, railed against! Like before that, everyone was like [NONCOMMITTAL NOISES] -ize, -ise, it's a thing, whatever. And now it's just like, "What? Clippy tells me to do what‽ I say no sir!"

DANIEL: This is exactly what happened with all of linguistic peevery. You know, before the Victorian times, everybody was like, "Oh, language. Okay, well, I guess people do it differently. Whatever. You know." But then suddenly, mmm! no no no, this is a class thing.

BEN: Yeah. Do you reckon it's kind of a thing where like the younger… the son will hear like, the quirky speech of the dad and be like, "Pssh! Man, dad's crazy. Like, that's cool. I like that random thing that he said from when he was a little kid. That's hilarious. I'll take that." But then on the flip side, Dad hears, like, the new jive talk of the youth and he's like, "Now you see here, young man." And that's kind of what's going on with Britain and America. America is the kid! America is the one who, like, splintered off and wanted to do their own thing, and threw off the shackles of tyranny, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And meanwhile, Britain is sitting there being like, "Well, I say, that's very disorganised."

DANIEL: Look, that's the way that we like to think of it. In fact, it doesn't work that way. What happens is that when people leave a country, they're actually more linguistically *conservative* than the original people.

KYLIE: I've certainly discovered that with certain diaspora. You have certain cultural groups that might cling to not only their language, but also the cultural mores of a particular time that they left their original country.

BEN: Wait, are you talking about the Jewish Diaspora?

KYLIE: This could be for anyone. Like a group of Greek people who immigrated here from the 1940s. It's still very 1940 values, even though they might be moving into the '50s, the 60's, and suddenly even the Greece they left behind is no longer that kind of Greece anymore! You know, they're still maintaining that kind of cultural niche as it were.

DANIEL: That's the case with diasporic communities. They keep the old stuff. And that is why we do see this pattern where Americans keep doing stuff that British people were doing, the British people stopped, and then they encounter it again and they think, "Ugh! Look what those Americans have innovated."

BEN: Fall? Fall‽ I say, sir, that's backend season!

DANIEL: Well, tell you what, we need to take a track and when we come back, we're going to listen to more of our chat with Lynne Murphy, author of 'The Prodigal Tongue'. If you have any questions about what you're hearing, then get them to us: 9260 9210 to get me in the studio.

BEN: If you need to discuss further 'backend season', and I understand completely why you would, you can also send us an email: [email protected]

KYLIE: Or hit us up on social media, especially on Twitter: @talkrtr.

DANIEL: But now, since we're talking about fall, let's hear 'Tripping Up to Fall in Love' by The Bank Holidays on RTRFM 92.1.


BEN: We are straddling the divide. We gaze across the Atlantic, and we look at all the weird things that people are saying on the other side of the Atlantic. And we're like, 'Those are weird things you're saying!" And then we laugh at them. We're talking about Americanisms and Britishisms on Talk the Talk today.

DANIEL: We're talking to Lynne Murphy, author of a new book 'The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English'. Unless you're buying the book in America, in which case it's 'the Love-Hate Relationship Between *American* and *British* English.


BEN: Smart.

KYLIE: Well done! Nice one, publishers.

DANIEL: You know we talked about the -ize ending, which I had no idea was once acceptable in England.

BEN: I did. I did know this, because when I was doing my, like, doobly-do's during my education and I kept getting corrected to -ize, I was just like, "I'm gonna find out what's going on here." And so I dug into some forums, and yeah, there was a bunch of people who were being like, I don't know why everyone's banging on about this. We spelled it with an -ize for, like, centuries. And no one cared. And now everyone's like "Blauugh, -ize is like the devil." It's just like 'programme' in Australian English is technically supposed to be the accepted one. Except for the fact that we have been spelling it 'program' for all of Australia's history.

DANIEL: I don't know about Australian English, but I will tell you that in the Google Ngram Corpus if you look at just the British part of the corpus, you'll find 'theatre programme', but you will find 'computer program'.

BEN: There you go!

KYLIE: Yeah.

BEN: Right?

DANIEL: But I decided to ask Lynne Murphy about what the deal was with zee and zed.

LYNNE: Well, it's that we didn't have one word for it when the two countries split up. So when the English were going over and settling, in Britain there were lots of words for that letter, and so one took on popularity in Britain, and one took on popularity in America. What happened was we started having universal education. More people had to talk about the letters, and more people had to talk about the letters the same way. You know, having spellers and textbooks and things like that, so I think that's what settled it down. But it did settle down in different ways in the two places, with the British going towards the French, and sort of respecting the 'zeta' Greek root of that letter, whereas Americans made it rhyme with other letters in the alphabet and therefore we've got an alphabet song that works.

DANIEL: And it doesn't end with a clunk, like it does when you add zed, right? 


DANIEL: 'Got' and 'gotten'. They're not the same, are they? But I can never keep them straight. How can I remember this?

LYNNE: Well, 'gotten' is used — I mean, I say [gɒtən] now. I'd never say [gɒtən] in America; I'd say [gɒʔən] — but 'gotten' is what you use for the participle form of 'got'. So I've 'gotten' used to speaking a bit British. And that has pretty much been lost in Britain. When I first moved here, I'd have people tell me, "Oh, they still say that in Yorkshire." I never hear that anymore, and I'm not sure if they really did still say it in Yorkshire when I first moved here. But it is an old ending, you know, and English has been shedding endings for centuries. And British English had that ending, and now it's stereotyped as sounding bad. You know, you'll read these things in British style books about how ugly it sounds. But the same people write 'forgotten', so I've never understood why it sounds ugly in 'gotten', but not ugly in 'forgotten'. But the nice thing in American is you can do two different things with it because of the got/gotten distinction. So you can say 'I've got a cold', which means 'right now I have a cold.' Or you can say 'I've gotten a cold', which means 'I've come down with a cold.' 


LYNNE: Whereas in Britain, we've lost that distinction. I mean, you can say it with different words, absolutely, but there's a little thing that Americans can do that's been lost.

DANIEL: The example that I like… I was thinking about 'got' and 'gotten' and I was thinking about this example. 'I've got five complaints' which means 'I want to complain about five things.' But if I say 'I've gotten five complaints', that means that five people have complained about me.

LYNNE: Yeah. Interesting case.

DANIEL: It's a neat distinction.

LYNNE: Mmm. Absolutely.

DANIEL: Maths.

LYNNE: Maths.

DANIEL: In Australia they say 'maths', and in America it's 'math'. And British English goes with 'maths', I guess.

LYNNE: Yes, it is 'maths'. And it's one… I say 'maths' now, because it's one of those ones that annoys people so much in Britain that you just sort of have to go along with it. But the reason why it's 'maths' is that it was originally a written abbreviation. So in written abbreviations, you often take out the middle. So think about how you abbreviate 'mister' or 'doctor', you know, with the first letter and the last letter. Well, 'maths' was like that, and so the first examples that we have of 'maths' are in listings of courses that are being offered at universities, and so it was just a written form to start with. But then people started saying it because it's completely pronounceable. And these days people will say, "Well, you have to say maths" — British people say "you have to say maths because, you know, it's plural. If you take off the -s, what are you going to do?" That's just wrong. It's not plural. It's absolutely not plural. You say things like 'maths is really hard' or 'maths is really interesting'. And so it's not plural. It never has been p — well, actually it has been plural, it was plural in Greek, and so it came over from Greek as a plural — but in English it's become a singular. But people try to have a logical explanation for why they need that -s, and they fail because there isn't a logical explanation for it. The reason why British people say 'maths' is because people around them say 'maths', not because it's a better way to say 'mathematics'.

DANIEL: I often say, you know, you've come up with a reason why it *might* be so, but then you've made the mistake of thinking that it therefore *must* be so.

LYNNE: Yeah. Yeah. And people love to come up with explanations that make sense of the way *they* talk, and somehow put other people's talking in a nonsensical position. But you know, you can make sense of most things. You can make up an excuse for most things. And what's interesting is how desperate we are to believe that how we talk makes sense.

DANIEL: It's all just ad hoc, isn't it?

LYNNE: Yeah, I mean, vocabulary is just a bin of things that don't have rules. Vocabulary is the part of language that's just allowed to do what it wants to do. And so that's what we see with 'math' and 'maths'.

DANIEL: Do you foresee a time when British English and American English become so different that they are unrecognisable to each other, like Spanish and Portuguese?

LYNNE: No. That's what, you know, many of the people around the time of American independence thought — you know, they'd say it's going to be as different as Dutch and German, or as different as Spanish and Portuguese. But Spanish and Portuguese separated out a long long time ago, at a time when language was not so standardised in the first place. So the Latin speakers going to Portugal and the Latin speakers going to Spain probably spoke rather differently. It was at a time when we couldn't talk to each other, except face to face, so there was no getting to hear other people's English — or in that case, Latin — in order to talk more like them. And another difference is that there wasn't as much of a print culture, so Americans and British people have always been aware of how the other is writing. And so the vocabulary goes back and forth very easily because of that. Which is not something that they had way back when, when Dutch and German were separating.

DANIEL: So I guess we've got these two forces. We do have a strong differentiating tendency: oh, I don't want to be like them. But then we've also got this very strong culture of transfer and swapping things across. I guess they have their different places. British English seems to have connotations of tradition and high class, whereas American English has connotations of being young and dynamic. So there's an attraction on both sides.

LYNNE: Yes, but again, when we talk about those things, we're stereotyping the other English in a very certain way. So when Americans think about British English, they're thinking about a certain upper class southeastern way of speaking that they associate with education and refinement. And when British people think about Americans, they think about business people, they think about the people in sitcoms, they think about 'Friends' and 'The Big Bang Theory'. So we've got very specific ideas about the other country that are only a tiny tiny tiny sliver of what is actually there.

DANIEL: Lynne Murphy, author of 'The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English.' 

BEN: It's so true that when an American thinks of a British accent, it's not like they think of Essex.

DANIEL: Yeah, no, you don't. And you know, then I…

BEN: [ESSEX ACCENT] I don't want that one, I want the other one. It's myyy-lder.

DANIEL: I go back to when I was a kid, right? We all had connotations of British English as Masterpiece Theater and Hugh Grant and that was attractive to… some of us.

BEN: [LAUGHS] You got a pocket flame for Hugh Grant there, Daniel.

DANIEL: And if you were a kid listening to music, you know, and you listened to — think about it, I mean, if you listen — if you were an American kid, you listened to like, Night Ranger and bullshit like that in the '80s, whereas if you were cool, one of the cool kids, what did you listen to? You listened to Depeche Mode, you listened to ska, and like Madness and stuff.

KYLIE: [SINGS] We fade to gray.

DANIEL: Yeah, exactly, right? The whole synthpop thing. So there was that… it was just irresistible. So we knew that England was the cool kind of language, right? There's a lot of stereotyping, but then there's also a lot of swapping of language. But we still have these ideas about the bowler hat and the cowboy hat. So let's talk about Australian English just for a second. I mean, it tends to stick pretty close to British English.

BEN: Kinda.

DANIEL: And is there a kind of a reaction against British English sometimes?

BEN: Um…

DANIEL: I feel like British people don't mind Australianisms — if they're aware of them — as much as they mind Americanisms.

BEN: No, because we… uh…

DANIEL: You still got the Queen on your money.

BEN: Exactly. We're the Americans who didn't revolt. You know. We're the prisoners, sure. But we're…

KYLIE: But we're also the place where the horrible soapy stars come over and then become pop stars over there, and then they just love them. Ahem. I'm not thinking about my first name, no.

DANIEL: Well, I think there's a lot of research that we could do on this topic, but I think we probably need to take a track. This is part of a much longer interview with Lynne Murphy, so if you want to check that out it's available on our Pātreon page, or perhaps Patreon.

BEN: That is where you can see me dancing in a sultry manner.

DANIEL: Lynne Murphy's from the University of Sussex. Her blog is And the book: 'The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.' It's a ripping read. Lots of fun. Check it out. But now let's get a load of the U in colour with this track by Crooked Colours. This is 'Come Back to You' on RTRFM 92.1.


BEN: Mmm. Mhm. You feeling that?


BEN: I'm feeling that. I'm feeling alllll… that.

KYLIE: Should I leave the room, guys?

BEN: I'm going to be talking about a thing. I'm gonna be talking about a thing and it's going to be great. I'm gonna be talking about a thing and it's going to be great. And that thing is Word of the Week.

DANIEL: Thank you, Ben.

KYLIE: I don't think I can see that one going up the charts any time soon.

DANIEL: I like it!

BEN: And that's why you won't be a former Neighbours popstar, Kylie.

KYLIE: Yeah, I know. I miss out.

DANIEL: We've got three great verbs this week. Some of them are kind of new, and some of them are not.

KYLIE: Okay.

BEN: I have such time for doing words.

DANIEL: Okay, well, here we go. One is… you have to guess what this one means: plogging.

BEN: Plogging.

DANIEL: If you go plogging, what are you doing?

BEN: You are… picking up rubbish and jogging at the same time!

DANIEL: Oh! Yes!

BEN: I know this one!

KYLIE: Oh, well done!


DANIEL: How did you?

BEN: It's Scandinavian, of course. I saw… I guess someone decided that my demographic was the one to be targeted by Facebook algorithmic advertising and this video popped up in my feed.

DANIEL: And you saw people plogging.

BEN: I saw… because of course I don't enable sound in my Facebook feed. I saw a video, and because of course most people don't enable sound, it had things at the top and like: Have you ever heard of plogging? I bet you haven't, question mark. I was like, oh bro, I'm real close to scrolling past you. You know how I feel about them clickbaity titles! 'I bet you don't…' You're right. I don't! And I don't care. But no, I stayed with it because there was people exercising, and I like exercising. And plogging is when you jog and pick up rubbish at the same time.

DANIEL: That is correct. You bring a bag along with you, and into the bag it goes. 'Plogging'. What's the pl-? I understand the -ogging part; that's just from jogging.

BEN: Plucking.

KYLIE: Plucking, or picking.

BEN: Plucking rubbish off the ground.

DANIEL: That is correct. This is a Swedish portmanteau. It is either plocka upp: to pick up, or plocka skräp: to pick up litter.

BEN: Okay. So that's word number one. Hit me with number dos.

DANIEL: Número dos: ethering.

BEN: Ethering.

DANIEL: Ethering. I saw a tweet. This is great. This is by @SeanMcElwee, link on our blog "lmao everything is awful but the parkland survivors ethering every conservative that fucks with them is the best thing thats happened in a while"

BEN: Turning… turning one into a substance so vapourous as to be like an ether?

KYLIE: Or winning on the internet? Is that what it means, because the internet is a sort of an… ephemeral place?

DANIEL: Okay, well, let's talk about the cases first of all. Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate who was running unopposed for a place in the Maine legislature called Emma Gonzáles, one of the Parkland survivors, a "skinhead lesbian".

KYLIE: Oh, she's suddenly facing a lot of opposition, isn't she?

DANIEL: Oh yes, she is. Because that's all they know how to do, is go after the person. That's all the conservatives know. So he was forced out of the race. The reaction was significant. Fox blowhard Laura Ingraham — she's the one who criticised NBA players LeBron James and Kevin Durrant for using African-American English when they criticised Trump.

BEN: Classic.

DANIEL: Yeah, Durrant said "I feel like our team as a country is not ran by a great coach." Her response was, "Shut up and dribble."

BEN: Nice.

KYLIE: I'd like to give a shoutout to Laura Ingram who has been facing significant harassment after that comment because of people who don't recognise, and they think it's her.

DANIEL: Yeah, make sure you give shit to Laura Ingraham, not Laura Ingram.


DANIEL: Telling people to shut up is kind of what she does. She did it with survivor David Hogg. She tweeted "David Hogg rejected by four colleges to which he applied and whines about it."

BEN: Good move.

DANIEL: Up to about twenty advertisers dropped her.

BEN: Nice.

DANIEL: Including Johnson & Johnson, Hulu, TripAdvisor, and Nestlé.

BEN: Wow, those are not small things. I knew all of those companies.

KYLIE: That's your boss calling you in first thing on Monday to go 'Ahem'.

DANIEL: Yeah, apparently they did, because now she's taking a little vacation.

BEN: Oh, nice one!

KYLIE: There's a few people taking that vacation who never return!

BEN: Well, she's probably not taking the vacation with TripAdvisor.

DANIEL: So that was her getting ethered.

BEN: So what is 'ethered', then?

DANIEL: It's neither of those things. It's actually a reference from rap.

BEN: Oh!

DANIEL: Everybody probably knows this except me because rap is not my main thing, but back in 2001, Jay-Z made a diss track. Or was it Jay-Zed?

BEN: Oh gawd.

DANIEL: Made a diss track against Nas and Mobb Depp called 'Takeover'. So Nas's response was a track called 'Ether' and from what I can gather, it's generally thought that 'Ether' is much better than 'Takeover', but people can listen and draw their own conclusions. Nas named the song 'Ether' because as he says, "I was told a long time ago, ghosts and spirits don't like the fumes from ether, and I just wanted to affect him with my weapon and get to his soul."

BEN: Nice one!

DANIEL: 'Ether' was a very influential diss track, and lots of other rappers have cited it, made tracks based on it, and so ethering someone means 'giving a comprehensive takedown'.

BEN: Oh, I love it! I ether students all the time. Great.

DANIEL: Nice. Now you know. The third one: versing. Love this one.

BEN: Versing, as in like singing verses?

DANIEL: Nope. The open source Mcmillan Dictionary has added 'verse' to its dictionary, but not the noun — the verb, as in 'I'll verse you.'

BEN: Oh, cool!


BEN: Yep.

DANIEL: I love this one.

BEN: This is a thing that I've said all my life, I'm pretty sure. Like, if you play video games, you say this a lot.

DANIEL: Yeah, I'll verse you, which means I'll…

BEN: I'll play you.

DANIEL: There isn't really another way to say… I mean, you could say "I'll play you", which sounds okay, but it doesn't have the 'against'.

KYLIE: I'll 'challenge', or 'bout'.

BEN: Exactly, like yeah, because if it's in, say, tennis — right? — you could play a doubles match, so you could *play* with someone, and *verse* someone else.

DANIEL: Exactly. Oh, yeah. Really good point. This comes from…?

BEN: Versus.


BEN: Right? Like vs. 

DANIEL: The Latin proposition 'against'. Which is actually related to '-vert', as in 'revert' — that's 'turn again'; 'invert', which is 'turn inside'; and 'pervert' — 'per-' means 'thoroughly', so a person who's a 'pervert' is 'thoroughly turned'.

BEN: Oh, wow! That is a cool piece of information! Not as cool as the 'backend' season, but pretty cool!

DANIEL: So English speakers looked at 'versus', and thought 'Oh, well…"

KYLIE: The turn.

DANIEL: That ends in a third-person singular -s. He versus someone else. So it got turned into a verb: to verse! 

BEN: I love it.

DANIEL: This is a process known as back-formation. It's one of my favorites.

BEN: What's other examples of back-formation?

DANIEL: Oh, well, another classic case of back-formation is when you had the French word for cherry which was 'cherise'.

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: You could have one 'cherise'. 

BEN: Right.

DANIEL: But English speakers saw that -s on the end and thought, "Oh, well, they must be talking about cherries. What would one of those things be called?" Well…

BEN: A cherry!

DANIEL: A cherry. 

BEN: There we go. 

DANIEL: So it got back-formed.

BEN: Oh, that's cool! I like that as well.

DANIEL: 'Versus' becomes a member of a small group of propositions that have turned into other words. I can only think of a couple: 'up', to up the volume; or 'down', to down your drink. 

BEN: Mhm.

DANIEL: But I can't really think of any other prepositions that turn into verbs. Maybe 'like'. But that's a little bit sketchy.

BEN: Oh, 'like's got its own weird thing going on.

KYLIE: Fascinating.

BEN: Wow — well, I really enjoyed all of that. That's really interesting. So we had 'ethered', we had 'plogging'…


BEN: And we had 'verse'. I love it.

DANIEL: Our three words of the week.

BEN: Kylie and I are getting out of here. Daniel is going to hang around and take your words into his brain, if you would like him to. And you can do that — you can inject your words into his brain via the furly-tone: 9260 9210.

DANIEL: You can also send me an email: [email protected]

BEN: If you want to get the words into his brain through his eyeballs.

DANIEL: That is what language does, isn't it? It puts words into my brain.

KYLIE: Or you could just be social about it, and hit us up on social media. Try Twitter: @talkrtr.

DANIEL: And of course our vibrant Facebook community. You guys still rock, even though Facebook is a festering garbage pile.

KYLIE: Yeah!

BEN: But the people on the Talk the Talk Facebook page float on the top of that garbage pile, like such delightful creatures. We love all of you.

DANIEL: But now let's take a track, and speaking of verse, let's listen to Khruangbin, off of their album 'The Universe Smiles Upon You'. This is 'Two Fish and an Elephant' on RTRFM 92.1.


DANIEL: You're here at the tail end of Talk the Talk. Let's get to some comments.

DANIEL: Nikki says: "I guess 'at' is also a proposition that has been verbed. I'm atting you on twitter right now." Yes, indeed she is! How could I forget 'at'? What a great proposition cum verb.

DANIEL: Holly says "I find the differences in increased syllable pronunciation between British and American English interesting. 'Battery' and 'library' being two syllables in Aus/UK English, three in American." Batt'ry. Libr'ry. "'Edinburgh' being three in Australia/UK, four in American." Ed-in-bur-ough. That is a very good example. Things get reduced.

DANIEL: Steele says: "I generally don't mind differences between American and British English but I prefer zee over zed, only because when it's called zed it's the only letter name to end with a plosive, and I can't live like that." Hang in there, Steele.

DANIEL: A lot of people were obsessed by zee and zed. Anthony says "Big fan of zee, despite growing up with zed. It really does fit better in my opinion." You know, that perception, Anthony, might be because it rhymes with other letters, like zee, bee, cee, plee, and skee… and of course w.

DANIEL: You knew that the song was going to come into it. Eli says, "If you learned your alphabet through the 'now I know my ABCs' song as I did, you will almost certainly dislike zed due to the fact that it doesn't scan in a aesthetic way. But this is an issue of aesthetics above all else, it isn't really crucial." And Guy points out the song as well and says, "Rhyming songs don't lie. It must be zee." Yes, there is a common dictum: if it rhymes, it must be true.

DANIEL: Matthias says, "Danish, my native language, doesn't use the voiced S, so cee and zee sometimes blend together when I speak. For this reason I prefer zed since it is not ambiguous." Darf Maulen says the same thing for their native German.

DANIEL: And Jason says, "After moving from the US to Canada, I've settled on 'izzard'." Yeah, we didn't talk about the regional differences in zed. There's izzard, ezod, uzzard, zod, izzet, izzart, and even just zard. Man, that letter has a lot of names.

DANIEL: And as Adam says, "It's zee beginning of zee end."

DANIEL: Thanks to everybody who commented. That was a lot of fun. And thanks especially to Lynne Murphy. You should check out her book, 'The Prodigal Tongue'. I'd like to think Jon Davidson, who's going to be taking us Out To Lunch very shortly, and of course I'd like to thank you for being such a great listener. Don't forget to check us out on Facebook and Patreon. Thanks for listening, and until next time, keep talking.


BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at

KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on, and everywhere good music is sold.

DANIEL: We're on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: [email protected], and if you'd like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we're up to by heading to

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