Bring it
March 22, 2011

Life is full of mind-boggling mysteries to ponder over. What is the Krabby Patty secret formula? Is Michele Bachmann’s IQ actually lower than Sarah Palin’s? How did Cesena striker Emanuele Giaccherini contrive to miss this gilt-edged opportunity last weekend? How do you spell the name of the current (as at time of writing) Libyan leader’s name? And why do many Americans make no distinction between the verbs ‘to bring’ and ‘to take’?

Now, far be it from us to jump on that tired old Americanism-bashing bandwagon. We at Spanish Cow believe that English is an evolving language. We don’t mourn the Stateside assassination of the letter ‘u’ in ‘colour’ and ‘honour’. Our eyeballs tend to raise skywards upon hearing ubiquitous whines in the British and American press complaining of the damage that text-speak abbreviations are doing to our beloved language (when recent studies suggest the opposite to be true). And as Spanish Cow’s country of origin is Scotland, where ‘I’ve went’ and ‘I’ve did’ are not unheard-of in daily conversation, blaming everything on those darn uneducated Yanks probably isn’t going to wash.

The bring/take thing is a fascinating phenomenon, though. To a speaker of British English, the difference is as clear as that which distinguishes ‘to come’ and ‘to go’. While, as touched on above, Britons have their own linguistic idiosyncrasies, mixing up these two staple verbs is not one of them.

But in the USA, and certainly in Minnesota in particular, that distinction appears to have been lost. Spanish Cow often hears bring in situations where take makes more grammatical sense: “I have to bring Susie’s shoes to school because she forgot them” (when speaker is standing beside you in the street and definitely not anywhere near Susie’s school) or “My husband surprised me and brought me to Chicago for our wedding anniversary” (when speaker currently lives in Minnesota and was living in Minnesota during the time she was whisked away for a bit of hanky-panky).

While we at first thought we were going a bit doolally upon hearing the above examples, we were, after much head-scratching, heartened to discover that the incorrect use of bring is recognized – and renounced quite vigorously – by American grammarians, who see it as yet another sign of a faltering education system.

So, in a nutshell, what is the difference between bring and take? Mignon Fogarty, star of the excellent US-based Grammar Girl podcast, has a nice, straightforward explanation: “Whether you use bring or take depends on your point of reference for the action. The tip is that you ask people to bring things to the place you are, and you take things to the place you are going. As one listener put it, you bring things here and take things there. For example, I would ask Aardvark to bring Squiggly to my party next week, and then Aardvark would call Squiggly and ask, ‘May I take you to Grammar Girl’s party?’”

Another sensibly phrased version of the rule can be found within the pages of the Chicago Tribune stylebook: “Bring denotes movement toward the speaker or writer; take does not.”

Mainstream American television is not immune to this mistake. It’s a daily occurrence on ESPN’s SportsCenter, although looking to sport presenters – who regularly employ the word ‘winningest’ – for grammatical guidance is akin to calling Charlie Sheen publicity-shy. Dora the Explorer peppers her pre-school pronouncements with erroneous brings and takes, but the same caveat applies.

Some better examples, then. In the latest episode of Bob’s Burgers, Fox’s amusing new animated series, the embattled Bob tells one of his irreverent offspring to “Go collect the trash and bring it to the dumpster,” despite the fact he is in the kitchen when he gives the order. And in NBC’s Lost rip-off, The Event, Sophia (played by ER’s Laura Innes) talks about ‘bringing home’ the aliens, when she is clearly on Earth and referring to, we are led to believe, another planet, or a different dimension.

Could this be another example of linguistic follow-my-leader (see December’s post on ‘Qatar’)? I.e. if something is repeated enough on American television, viewers will eventually copy it and insert it into their day-to-day speech, not realizing that that same something could actually be wrong? Or could it be a hangover from the influence exerted on American English by other colonial languages such as French, Dutch, German or Spanish? Or plain old linguistic laziness?

Because the problem here is that, unlike other manglings of English, this one has the potential to create real confusion. If your line manager says “Bring the stats to my office now”, that implies that he is actually in his office. “Take the stats to my office now”, however, suggests that he is not in his office but that you should deliver the statistics there anyway. If your boss does not understand this rule and e-mails you the former request from a conference in Rio de Janeiro, you could be hanging about for him in his office for a wee while. If he sends you the latter, and you mistakenly believe him to be absent, you should avoid discussing his receding hairline with your colleague as you both waltz into his dark lair.

At while at first glance the apparent confusion between two verbs may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, if we allow bring and take to fuse into one, an important distinction is lost to the language. And the mind-boggling mystery that future professors of English will ponder over is how we ever let it happen.

Broken Qatar string
December 3, 2010

It will not have escaped your notice that the host nations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were announced yesterday, with Russia and Qatar the respective beneficiaries of the two FIFA voting sessions.

These results have been described all over the media as surprising, but those more in tune with the way the process works are unlikely to have batted that much of an eyelid. Sepp Blatter, doing his best impersonation of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, tried hard not to giggle when he opened the offending envelopes, which probably tells you all you need to know. He did, however, mention Scotland in glowing terms in his opening salvo (‘great organiser of the game’ or some such waffle), which softened Spanish Cow’s stance towards the artful administrator. For about 5 seconds.

Anyway, as today’s young guns like Jack Wilshire, Barry Bannan, Coutinho and Juan Agudelo look forward to strutting their stuff as near-veterans in air-conditioned stadiums, one man looking forward to not very much at all in 12 years’ time is Sunil Gulati, President of U.S. Soccer and Chairman of his country’s unsuccessful 2022 bid, who is now highly unlikely to see the biggest sporting event on the planet return to North America during his tenure.

Now, mainly because the United States were the biggest losers in the battle with tiny Qatar, the decision received a lot of airtime on this side of the ocean. ESPN’s afternoon sporting trifecta of ‘Jim Rome is Burning’, ‘Around the Horn’ and ‘PTI’ all covered it extensively. And finally getting to the point, what was surprising to me was the way they all – to a man – pronounced the name of the Middle Eastern nation.

Spanish Cow should point out that at this juncture I watch these three programmes religiously with one sole purpose: to be able to bluff my way through grid iron, basketball and, yawn, baseball discussions with my American brothers-in-law. I don’t expect their presenters to throw up fascinating linguistic idiosyncrasies. When I first heard Jim Rome, a constantly enraged individual renowned for his hatred of all things soccer, spit out something along the lines of ‘Cutter’ or ‘Cuhtr’, I thought he was having a laugh. Then his guest repeated it back, and when the protagonists of the two aforementioned shows that followed – including the slick-as-shit Tony Reali – continued to pronounce it in the same fashion, a new blog post was born.

It’s amazing that you can live somewhere for over a year – especially the States, many of whose vocab and pronunciation differences are already known in the UK via Hollywood, imported TV series and the Internet – and not be aware that many people here rhyme Qatar with ‘mutter’ and ‘nutter’. Of course, with their systematic replacement of ‘t’ by ‘d’, these words become ‘mudder’ and nudder’, but you get the idea.

Up until yesterday, I was aware of two ways of pronouncing the name in the UK: ‘KA-tar’ and ‘KAT-ar’. It would appear that speakers of British English tend to juggle both, as proven by the BBC, which included both Ka-tar and Kat-ar within the same 3-minute report last night. I’ve always opted for the latter, probably because my Dad used to tell a characteristically terrible joke which involved a pun on ‘Qatar’ and ‘catarrh’. However, not for the first time, it seems I may have backed the wrong horse, as the English-language media within the oil-rich state apparently tend to use the former, and this is backed up by the O.E.D.

But what I was most interested in was this ‘cutter’ malarkey. Is this the standard American pronunciation, or simply yet another case of the U.S. broadcast media indulging in linguistic follow-my-leader, as they did with ‘I-rack’? An Arabic professor suggests in that the Arabic pronunciation of Qatar is actually not all that far away from how English speakers might say ‘cutter’, but that doesn’t necessarily get us any further forward – it’s not like we pronounce France ‘Frrrawnse’ or Brazil ‘Braahzeel’ now, do we?

The online version of the Merriam-Webster American English dictionary goes with ‘KA-tar’, while Brian Strauss, an American journalist who spent the day with Qatar-based Al Jazeera as part of the channel’s build-up to the announcement, makes a point of stressing in a recent (very readable) article that ‘Cutter’ is not the correct pronunciation. But the American Heritage Dictionary lists both ‘Ka-tar’ and ‘Kuh-tar’ as acceptable, muddying the waters –or maybe just my brain – even more.

To take a leaf from the Scottish justice system, I think we’ll file this one under ‘not proven’ for now, and hope that the English-speaking world can settle on one of these pesky variants. They have 12 years to get it right, after all.

Before Spanish Cow goes for a lie-down in a darkened pasture, there is another side to the Qatar brouhaha that has been provoking much comment and ire over the past 24 hours on Twitter and Facebook. Or ‘the Facebook’, as George Bush would say. It’s all related to the spelling of the bloody word.

Now, let’s face it, it’s kind of understandable that the misspelled ‘Quater’, with a ‘u’, was one of the most searched-for terms on Google and most tweeted trends on Twitter yesterday. The list of words that begin with ‘Q’ and that don’t include a trusty ‘u’ is not long, after all. But this and other apparently erroneous attempts such as ‘Katar’ and ‘Catar’ had wannabe prooftweeters up in arms and sweating more heavily than WikiLeaks fugitive Julien Assange. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post suggested in an amusing piece that the death of spelling was upon us.

The facile assumption being made here is that everyday Twitter-users don’t take 3 seconds to double-check and do some quickie research before their fingers make contact with the keys on their laptop. And that their knowledge of the English language leaves much to be desired. Of course, this may be true. ‘Quatar’ suggests as much. But ironically, those quick to condemn others for bad spelling are guilty of exactly the same crime of which they are accusing the great unwashed, i.e. a lack of research and basic knowledge of language. Foreign language, that is.

Type ‘Katar’ into Twitter’s search box. Go on, even if you hate the bloody thing. Scroll down through the results. Was ist das? It’s German, folks. And you might see a spot of Polish too. Looking at mine right now, I get a pile of German tweets with a couple of Polish ones floating in between. That’s because –ta-da! – ‘Qatar’ is spelt with a ‘K’ in German. Goodness me, non-English speakers use social media!? How dare they?

It’s also acceptable to spell the word ‘Katar’ in French and in Swedish. ‘Catar’ is used in Portuguese as well as in Scottish Gaelic. Not that Twitter is swamped with Gaelic speakers, but I just thought I’d throw that in there.

So, what have we learned today? Qatar’s pronunciation is perplexing and its profuse spelling permutations perpetuate pointless posts and pernickety posturing from patronising pedants. Try saying that after a few pints. Which may, incidentally, be a tad tricky in 2022, as currently the only way foreign residents can buy alcohol in the Gulf state is via a permit system…

January 4, 2010

We recently celebrated the 3rd birthday of Spanish Cow’s wee calf, which reminds me of probably the worst cow joke based on Scottish English pronunciation (a quite, erm, long list, I’m sure) ever to see the light of day:

-Why’d the overworked Heilan’ coo (that’s “Highland cow” for the uninitiated) suddenly look so radiant?

– Coz she had a week aff.

If you get that joke, and have no Scottish blood in you, well – hats off to you, kind sir.

Along with a mountain of DVDs, we got him a “BIG-Bobby-Car”, the biggest-selling ride-on car in the world, apparently. For anyone that fancies it, we got it from Temi Toys Bobby Car Shop, a UK-based online retailer specialising in quality toys made by German toy manufacturer, BIG.

And why did the blog writer indulge in a blatant bout of nepotism to promote a friend’s business? Well, because he could.

Let’s return to the supposed subject at hand. As the wee man was zooming around the living room, one of his newly-acquired DVDs was blaring in the background. Having a toddler does expose you to the delights of all types of children’s TV, of course. On a grinding, daily basis. And as our particular toddler has done quite a bit of transatlantic traversing recently, it’s been fascinating to see how American television deals with the linguistic challenge of dubbing (or not, as the case may be) children’s programmes that originate from the UK or elsewhere, and vice versa.

Britain tends to rabbit-punch above its weight in this area, with a remarkable amount of cartoons, puppet shows and CGI creations having made their way onto the seemingly never-ending swathe of U.S. kids’ channels. Instead of being put off by the Teletubbies, who toddled over the pond in the late 90s, American TV has welcomed British newcomers with the most open of arms. Roary the Racing Car, Bob the Builder, Charlie and Lola, Rubbadubbers and Kipper represent just a small selection of recent British imports that have been given the American treatment, but what an “American” treatment actually represents is clearly open to debate.

The lack of a consistent approach (not just in the U.S.) in this area is remarkable, but perhaps not all that surprising, if you take into account the fragmented nature of the language services industry and the costs and logistical issues involved in full linguistic and cultural localisation.

Looking at some specific programmes, the grandaddy of ’em all is Thomas the Tank Engine – Reverend Awdry’s stories, adapted for the small screen by Britt Allcroft, have enjoyed incredible success all over the globe. Long before Tinky Winky of the Teletubbies was having his sexuality questioned, Thomas, James, Edward et al were invited to strut their stuff across the pond. Somewhere along the track (pun intended; so much so it’s painful, like being hit by a train), though, along with the understandable decision to bring in an American-accented actor for the narration and character voices (initially provided by legendary stand-up comic George Carlin, who did a commendable job of whining like Percy and carping like Gordon) someone appears to have come up with the bright idea of making what can only be described as arbitrary changes to the original script, which leads to some quite amusing sequences where James will tell Toby in forceful Yankee tones “that’s just rubbish!” or “don’t be so cheeky!”. The more specific terminological differences (guard’s van/caboose, trucks/freight cars, points/switches etc.) were indeed adapted, fortunately, thereby saving 5-year-old trainspotters (itself a British term) from Dallas to Duluth from begging Santa for a US English-British English dictionary. Interestingly, the Fat Controller officially became “Sir Topham Hatt” for American audiences at this point, and has never had to deal with references to his weight in the U.S.A. Whether this was for reasons of political correctness or to emphasise the series’ Britishness is unclear.

The pragmatic Bob the Builder and the breathless Roary the Racing Car have both undergone a more comprehensive – but not complete – localisation process where the scripts and some names are changed. So Bob speaks with an American accent (provided by sardonic comedian Greg Proops, he of Whose line is it anyway? fame) and refers to a “wrench” rather than a “spanner” and a “truck” instead of a “lorry”. There is the odd slip, with old potboilers “soccer” and “football” spattered around in a seemingly random fashion, although this is probably down to a careless initial check of the script at the American end. As an aside, Spanish Cow was in fact recently forced to explain (post-transatlantic move) to his slightly confused offspring why Bob suddenly “sounded funny”. As yet another aside, the Gaelic version shown on BBC Scotland (no longer viewable in the Spanish Cow household) was always a favourite back home, simply due to the fact that Bob’s Gaelic alter ego is “Calum Clachair”, and just happens to share a first name with the aforementioned offspring.

In Roary, a show where the main characters have to deal with more violent head-ons than Silvio Berlusconi and Tiger Woods (oh c’mon, I couldn’t resist), the localisation of the voices has been taken so seriously that Mr Carburettor’s accent has been modified so that he now speaks like an Italian-American from New Jersey rather than an actual Italian, and Plugger’s Caribbean tones have morphed into a Texas drawl. Some voices from the original version do remain, notably Marsha’s and Cici’s (“Zizzy” in the U.S. version). It’s possible that this was done as a nod to their creators or perhaps they simply ran out of voices and/or money. Although, having had the dubious pleasure of wandering around the opulent Roary tent at the Melbourne Grand Prix earlier this year, the latter seems unlikely. As already mentioned, many of the characters’ names have been given an American makeover, with “Drifter” becoming “Dragga” and “Plugger” being swapped for “Lugga”. One rather head-scratching change comes in the form of the pesky rabbit’s moniker, which transforms to “Furz” from “Flash”. What’s up with that, Doc?

Peter Kay’s star turn in the role of Big Chris is not maintained stateside, and you could argue that the programme is all the poorer for it. However, in a nice touch that even cynical, hard-bitten followers of this blog (thanks for the support, you two) will appreciate, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. replaces the former Formula One world champion Stirling Moss in the role of narrator in the US version.

There is a third category of programmes for little people making the trip across the Atlantic: those that haven’t been touched at all. Kipper and Rubbadubbers, as well as the excellent Charlie and Lola, are three examples where unusual restraint has been shown (but again, perhaps simple economics came into play), but this is not necessary a bad thing, as it has introduced the warbling yet well-matched tones of Martin Clunes (Kipper), Sean Bean and John Gordon Sinclair (both Rubbadubbers) to a brand new audience. Rubbadubbers also includes something that every children’s programme should have: a character with a Scottish accent. That is, with the exception of Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, a cartoon whose only notable achievement is knocking Christophe Lambert (Highlander) off top spot in the “worst on-screen Scottish accents of all time” list. Although, in a spirit of fairness, Sean Connery’s or Ewan McGregor’s American accents do tend to induce the type of squirming only found in Managing Director offices of Maclaren (they of the finger-pummelling pushchairs, a new concept in baby goods) and Eurostar (they of the 16-hour undersea imprisonment, a new concept in European travel).

It’s important to note that this whole thing works both ways, of course. Unlike the majority of top-quality adult dramas that cross the ocean from America, British TV executives do regularly give the green light to an element of localisation on children’s shows. During the psychedelic adventures of the joint Canadian/American production The Backyardigans, for example, “soccer” (yes, that linguistic thorn yet again) is routinely replaced with “football”, as “diaper” is with “nappy”. The voices are also re-dubbed with slightly posh English accents. It’s interesting that the name of the series escaped untouched, given the different meanings of the word “yard” in the English-speaking world. It makes you wonder if the hard-working editors and dubbing artists that attack these things are so tied up in the script and voicing that the actual name isn’t even given any consideration. Spanish import PocoYo (roughly “MiniMe” in English) – voiced in the UK by the ubiquitously comforting Stephen Fry – is another case in point.

And then there are the programmes whose raison d’être is to encourage language learning, such as Dora the Explorer, its poorer relation Go, Diego, Go, the superior Ni Hao Kai-lan and Handy Manny. The ability of young children to pick up a foreign language is well-documented – long before the tabloids were babbling hysterically about their misinterpretation of the “newborn babies cry in native tongue” study that came out last year, much research had already been published over the years confirming that, as far as foreign language acquisition is concerned, you need to hit ’em with it while they’re still young.

Dora is an intriguing example, not least because it may plant Spanish language seeds in younger generations that will only bear fruit many years later (even if all it achieves is introducing young minds to the actual concept of a foreign language, it will have done well). As the teaching of Spanish is still nothing like as widespread in the UK – in the States, many children’s programmes can be switched to Spanish at the press of a remote control button, instantly transforming Bob the Builder into Bob, el Constructor – as the Old Firm of French and German, the language of Cervantes looks to have got one over on those of Baudelaire and Goethe here (the lesser-known Pigloo apart), imprinting words and phrases (rather random ones, admittedly) on impressionable young minds as the eponymous Dora resolutely makes her way “through the forest, over the mountain and across the river”.

Fascinatingly, Dora the Explorer is used as a tool for learning English in France as well as in many other nations. So the parts that are normally in English are dubbed into French, and the Spanish bits are replaced by English (still with me?). Given that episodes are chock-full of piñatas, sombreros and the like, the dubbing teams in these countries must have felt like going “through the forest, over the mountain and into the river” at times. Of course, we’re now entering much-explored territory that links countries that dub to poor foreign language performance (when compared to countries that subtitle)…but that, my friends, is a whole ’nother topic for a whole ’nother day.

Sesame Street was one of the first children’s programmes to include smatterings of Spanish in each episode, which gave it a very exotic aura when it first aired on UK TV back in the early 70s, given that the teaching of anything other than French, German or Latin during that period would have been a laughable concept. The undisputed value of Sesame Street as a learning device was a topic recently explored by “Lynneguist” in her brilliant “Separated by a common language” blog, which is most definitely worth a bidialectical glance, if you have a minute. As many of her posters point out, it is a real shame that the show is no longer shown in the UK, apart from in Northern Ireland, where a spin-off entitled Sesame Tree has lived up to its promise of promoting tolerance in the region. Sesame Street is a veritable localisation pioneer, with locally-produced versions adapted to local needs in existence all over the globe. In the South African version, there is even an HIV-positive character, Kami, brought in to increase awareness in an area where AIDS has reached epidemic proportions. Kami has friends in high places, having appeared on-screen with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, no less.

It would indeed be heart-warming to see Sesame Street brought back to British screens (well, non-Northern Irish ones, anyway), but given that the BBC mistakenly believes that they already have enough shows that cover literacy and numeracy, that seems about as likely as Sarah Palin being able to locate Belfast on a map.

The increasingly widespread teaching of Mandarin Chinese also now has a televised outlet, in the form of Ni Hao Kai-lan. As multicultural attempts go, it’s a slightly more stimulating effort than Dora, focussing on Chinese culture as well as language. Again, while it’s not going to make your 5-year-old fluent overnight, its horizon-widening potential cannot be understated.

Coming back to the Anglophone world, another present recently acquired by the wee man was The Gruffalo, voted the UK’s favourite bedtime story last month, a not inconsiderable accolade. With the star-studded film version having been watched by a pretty staggering 9 million people on Xmas Day in the UK, it raises the question as to whether or not it will be re-dubbed for US audiences, when it makes its inevitable leap across the water. The voices of Robbie Coltrane (The Gruffalo), Helena Bonham Carter (narrator) and Tom Wilkinson (fox) may well be kept in place if the Harry Potter formula is used, where the U.S. versions of the books are bursting with replacement American vocabulary and grammar (there are hundreds of examples, according to an interesting if slightly pointless study carried out in 2001), but the films use British actors and a British English script. It actually says something about the sophisticated nature of the young mind that this inconsistency is not really questioned. What it says, I do not know. Something, anyway.

Happy New Year to you all.