Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling book of over 500 intriguing word histories, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs. It's a fun read!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Congratulations, Women's Hockey Team! (Now, how do I say that?)

A while ago I ran a survey asking people how they pronounced "congratulate/congratulations". With many medal-winners deserving to hear those words these days, it seems an appropriate time to look at the results. 

The question was:

Do you say 

con GRATCH

or

con GRADGE

(some people insisted they said con GRAT you, but frankly I don't believe them, unless perhaps they were having to sing the word in a church choir).

The Canadian speakers' results were:

GRATCH: 42
GRADGE: 18
The GRADGE group tended to be under the age of 40.

Americans:

GRATCH: 8
GRADGE: 7

British:

GRATCH: 6
GRADGE: 0

So, GRADGE is clearly a North American phenomenon.  American and Canadian dictionaries give both pronunciations, with GRATCH first. But not so long ago, the Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), which is remarkably non-judgemental in its pronunciations, felt the need to say that "GRADGE" was "chiefly in sub-standard speech", and I have certainly heard it criticized. This "language maven", for instance, calls it an "informal and sloppy" "beastly mispronunciation"  (conveniently not addressing the question why the -tion in "pronunciation" is not equally "sloppy"...)

But, as is so often the case in language change, a phenomenon originally considered "sub-standard" becomes the norm. It seems to me when I watch American TV shows, the only version I hear is GRADGE (people are always congradgalating someone on The Good Wife, for instance).

The question is: why has GRATCH become GRADGE?  Phonetically what is happening is that the voiceless consonant "tch" is being replaced by its voiced equivalent "dg". Replacing a voiceless "t" between two vowels with a voiced "d" is standard in North American English, where "tutor" and "Tudor", "traitor" and "trader" end up sounding the same. But we don't typically do it with the "tch" sound. The only other two words that I could find that have the same pattern of vowels and consonants as "congratulate", "spatula" and "flatulent" (I don't make these things up!) don't become "spadgula" and "fladgulent".  

I have two theories. Possibly we are recasting "congratulation" on the model of "adulation". But I rather doubt it.  I suspect our tendency to voice intervocalic consonants (a tendency that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times and accounts for why the plural of "half" is "halves") is being reinforced in the case of "congratulate" because, in addition to the two vowels surrounding the central "tch", the consonants leading up to it are all also voiced: n, g, r . In "spatula" and "flatulent", on the other hand, the initial consonants are voiceless.  Well, that's my theory; I would love to hear any comments from phonologists.

In any case, whether we say conGRADGalations or conGRATCHalations... kudos to all those Olympic athletes!

And, speaking of which, how do you pronounce "kudos"? Let me know (if you're a speaker of Canadian English) in my poll: 
https://www.facebook.com/events/216904545184539/permalink/216906155184378/?qa_ref=qd

2 comments:

  1. It's also possible we've internalized a pun, perhaps thanks to Hallmark cards, as we traditionally sent cards to kids who graduated from high school. I've even seen the spelling altered to "conGRADulations," initially (at least) as a conscious pun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is indeed a possibility, and a very common play on words (on cards, banners, cakes..) around graduation time.

      Delete