Sitting in a Starbucks

« previous post | next post »

No, I wasn't reading "a long list of ex-lovers".  I was sitting there writing a Language Log post about DeepL (probably next up after this one).  Across from me was a man with a big red beard.  I was writing a LL post on my beloved little, old MacBook Air and he was writing a long list of components, parts, and numbers, mixed in with some sketched diagrams on a white legal pad.

He seemed to be diligent, and he looked like a constructor, a builder of houses.  Finally, curiosity got the best of me, so I walked over and asked him, "What is that you're writing?" 

"I'm working on a kwow", he replied.

"A what?" I asked.

"A kwow," he repeated.

I thought maybe he was saying "crow", but doing something funny with the "r".  So I asked him to write it down on a piece of paper.

Here's what he wrote:


I almost fell over with incredulous laughter.

He said, "Don't worry.  I'm Scotch.  That's just the way we talk."

I asked him, "Do you build homes?"

"Yes," he replied.

"If you build houses, what are you doing in America?"

"A goyle", is what I thought I heard him say.

"A what?" I asked.

"A goyle," he said, though it sounded like he was gargling toward the end of the word.

Again, I asked him to write it down on the paper:


This time I had to support myself on a table to keep from falling over.

"How long have you been here in America?" I asked.

"Twelve years", he replied.

"If you've been here twelve years, how come you haven't lost your accent?"

He said that he'd lost a lot of it, though his American wife (the goyle) still pokes fun at him for the way he talks (e.g., "wa'er" for "water" and "bu'er" for "butter" — my granddaughter said "waduh" and "buduh" till she was about seven or eight).

Alas, our mirthful, amiable conversation had to end, because he needed to go build a house.  I asked his name, we shook hands, and as he was about to depart, he said, "wanna kah?"

"A what?"

"A kah," he repeated, and pulled out his business card that he handed to me.


Selected readings


  1. mg said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 1:14 pm

    Some people never lose their accents. My high school history teacher spent her first 8 years in Austria but then was evacuated in the Kindertransport (Jewish kids evacuated to England to escape the Nazis), stayed in England through university, then married an American. Twenty years later, her accent was still a strong combination of Austrian and British.

    My Irish handyman has lived here more than 30 years and still has such a heavy accent that I only understand about 3/4 of what he says.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 1:46 pm

    Scottish (¿ Scots ?) voices have been heard regularly on British radio of late, with the Scottish gender-recognition bill being the main topic of debate. But what has fascinated me is the fact that a number of Scots to whom I have listened appeared to "swallow" medial /t/s (in, for example, "strategy"). I am reasonably certain that they were not replaced by a glottal stop, but they were nonetheless missing from the middle of words in which they might normally have been expected to appear. May I ask the more knowledgeable the name of this phenomenon ?

  3. DaveK said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 2:18 pm

    The American poet Charles Simic spent most of his childhood in Serbia. He had a superb command of the English language but I heard him give a reading and, after fifty years in the US, he still had a fairly heavy “goot evenink”-style accent and dropped most of his articles.
    Of course he might have cultivated his accent for effect but it doubt it.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 3:43 pm

    Oh yes, I've become a fan of the Scottish comedian Limmy recently. (I'm about ten years late, I know.) Plenty of lovely stuff comes out of is mouth! You may want to start here or here. Or here, for an easier start with the accent. Top fun, if you like dark humour.

  5. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 3:46 pm

    And of course there's Burnistoun (of which I learned on here), and Chewin' the Fat.

  6. ardj said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 4:46 pm

    Not in the least surprised. Professor Mair -rather, delighted. Infinite shades of accent change possible. Recall, forty years ago now, my Danish girl friend (whose only UK visit had been to one small South coast resort) meeting my new professor at Birkbeck: he immediately classified her as Scots. As I grew up with Lallan but unfortunately never lived there long enough, I find a multitude of Scots accents vair' vair' hard, ye ken.

    @taylor, Phillip: as a completely amateurish suggestion, would not glottal stops themselves be elided over time ?

  7. bks said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 4:50 pm

    Kissinger arrived in the USA at age 15. That was 1938.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 4:54 pm

    "Lear" rhymes with "be a" in Paperback Writer… I (U.S.A) jst nw realiz

  9. Jon Lennox said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 5:09 pm

    Henry Kissinger's brother, Walter, arrived in America with him, was only a year younger than him, and had an impeccable standard American accent. When asked why he had lost his accent while Henry still had his, he said "it's because Henry never listens to anyone."

  10. Bloix said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 5:47 pm

    You might find the rhymes in "Three Crows" amusing (go to second 1:40) –

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 5:58 pm

    I'm slightly lost, I have to say. I made two comments earlier, somewhat similar to the one by Bloix, and they were deleted. But Bloix's comment is left standing (as it should, of course).

    Since I don't want to repeat the offence, I'll just suggest (rather than link to) three of my favourite Scottish comedy shows, Limmy's Show, Burnisoun and Chewin' the Fat, as good places to start your Scottish English explorations. You will be able to judge for yourself how indecipherable the accent is.

  12. Jim said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 6:23 pm

    I met someone in San Francisco years ago. He had lived in the Bay area for 12 years, but he was originally from NU YAWK. And then he was right back out of the accent. Just those two words, boom and done, he didn't even realize it.

  13. Chris Barts said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 7:47 pm

    I associate "goil" with Brooklyn, the "Toidy-Toid An' Toid" dialect Bugs Bunny had which NPR says is on its way out:

  14. Chris Barts said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 8:01 pm

    I also found an SMBC comic which would help in situations like these:

    Note that I have a definition for "help" primarily focused on you making interesting blog posts.

  15. Joe Fineman said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 10:54 pm

    In high school (US, 1950s) I took a course in medieval history taught by a Russian (or maybe Ukrainian) immigrant who amused the students by pronouncing "tithes" so that it sounded like "teats". The unvoiced final consonants were clearly following a rule in her native language, which also does not contain the fricative th at all. But it surely contains the diphthong i, so she must have been using an un-English spelling pronunciation. She might easily be forgiven for not having mastered the intricacies of English spelling pronunciations.

  16. DS Zhang said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:32 am

    I've also been in the US for 12 years 'til now (since Sept 2010) …. and guess whether I lost my Chinese accent, or Chinglish expression, at all? ;)

    I think it's a matter of age, though. Coming to a new country before the end of puberty versus after adulthood could cause very very different results. I have several non-American friends who spent some years (way less than 12) in the States before going back to their own countries, but having returned to the US for graduate school, they speak and write English in far, far more "authentically American" ways than I do. All of those friends' US years, with no exception, took place before high school, while mine only begins since college.

  17. DS Zhang said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:52 am

    I think this post reflects the importance of 写下来 "write it down" in another way/ context! In China, it's so prevalent of a practice that we ask the speaker to "clarify the 字 'character' which you're referring to." It's not even about 词 "word"; it's really about 字 "characters". For example:

    1. – What is your surname? 您贵姓?
    – My surname is Zhāng. 我姓Zhāng.
    – Which "Zhāng"? / 哪个张?
    – "The one combing the forms of 'bow' and 'long'" 弓长张 (or The one combing the forms of 'standing' and 'morning' 立早章).

    2. This is a real-life story which I personally experienced!!!!

    Me asking someone: "What is your surname?" 您贵姓?

    Him: "My surname is Xun (that was the sound he uttered, somewhere near "xun" in Mandarin or "syun" in general; the tone is very ambiguous and unclear)". 姓Xun / Syun.

    Me: "Which Xun?" 哪个Xun?

    Him: "The 'Xun' for Master Xun (Xunzi)!" Xun子的Xun.

    Me: "Oh nice! After the Confucian philosopher (Xúnzi 荀子)!" 哦, 那个儒家的荀子!

    Him: "No, the Xunzi (actually, should be Sunzi 孙子 in Mandarin) who wrote the Art of War!" 不是,是Xun子兵法的Xun子(孙子)!

    Turns out that he is a Cantonese speaker.


    3. Another real-life experience:

    High school Chinese teacher: "Today we are going to talk about the style of [Chinese] poetry." 今天我们来讲一下诗体 (shītǐ; same pronunciation as shītǐ 尸体, "corpse").

    Class: O_O!!!! (bursted into laughter)

    Teacher: (realized and also smiled) "Don't laugh, I'm talking about Du Fu's shītǐ 'poetic style' (yet still can be interpreted as 'corpse')! 不要笑,我说的是杜甫的诗体!

    Class: O_O (kept laughing; it is still ambiguous!)

    Teacher: (laughed and tried to control the class) "the shī in shīgē 'poetry'"! 诗歌的诗啊!

    Again, seems that characters may still matter in some cases!

  18. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:56 am

    Once you reach adulthood, changing your accent, in particular a non-native one, is absolutely the exception, not the rule. Very very very difficult. The first paragraph of essentially every paper on second language pronunciation will tell you that. So Henry Kissinger, or this Scottish guy, are much more typical than Kissinger's brother. The starting age (often termed "age of arrival" in the literature, or AOA) is a very strong predictor. The later AOA, the less likely the speaker is to lose the accent. Makes perfect logical, intuititve sense. But there are a ton of other factors, and a very large literature on this.

    Other than that, you need hundreds of hours of practice, and explicit pronunciation training helps quite a bit. (But doesn't guarantee anything.)

    For accents of "the same language" (but what is "the same language", of course? Scottish and Australian are probably more different than Swedish and Norwegian), things are less clear-cut. You will see this discussed as "accent/dialect accommodation". But the effect often tends to be quite sutble and somewhat irregular. You tend to misidentify and misapply rules, akin to creolization.

    When the accent is a strong part of the speaker's identity, which seems to be the case for many Scottish people, you expect less accommodation. Again, intuitive.

    And since apparently links are allowed after all, in the meantime I remembered a rant from Limmy, on people commenting on his pronunciation of the word "train" (using "eye dialect" too, like the OP here). Not from his BBC comedy times but a more modern streaming-era one: Warning: some moderately strong language. Limmy is of course 100% right in the sense that the Scottish realization is more conservative (i.e. historically older, thus possibly "more proper") than the General British or General American ones, not to mention Australian or London. "Laser-****ing perfect."

    And especially for Philip Taylor, some of Limmy's peeving from the older times, on Americanisms: Remember that this is comedy (albeit this one is not one of his best ones; at least tangentially on topic).

  19. Daniel Rutter said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 4:04 am

    Scottish people don't call themselves "Scotch". Scotch is whisky, not people.

    Then again, since you were clearly divided by a common language, you might have misheard it.

  20. Peter Taylor said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 5:22 am

    @Daniel Rutter, permit me to point you to the Burns poem On a Scotch bard, gone to the West Indies.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 5:23 am

    @Daniel Rutter:

    He hadn't forgotten his accent, but maybe, according to what you say, he had forgotten his language!

    (It wasn't a question of my mishearing it.)

    WRITTEN on his "kah":


    I'm Kevin, and I'm the Scotch in Scotch + Pepper Homes.
    We turn houses into homes.


    "Scotch + Pepper" was also written on his baseball cap.

  22. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 8:25 am

    I think "elision" might be the lingusitic term Philip Taylor is looking for.

    Regarding "Scottish" and "Scotch", the speaker could perhaps have glottalized the "tt" to mask it and then reduced the "i" in the unstressed second syllable to almost null. As a result, the word being said is "Scottish" but audibly it sounds far more like "Scotch".

  23. KeithB said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 8:27 am

    I had a professor from Greece for my motors class in college. He did have a thick accent, but the main problem was he kept mixing up english and greek letters!

  24. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 11:30 am

    Or reading Victor's last post, perhaps he was actually saying "Scotch", but the difference from "Scottish" could in theory be minimal and hence the name. Wikipedia tells me Scotch is a contraction of Scottish, which would make sense linguistically for the reasons I mentioned above.

  25. Bloix said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 12:41 pm

    I used to work with a woman from Indiana who was an avid amateur golfer – she'd been state champion two or three times and competed nationally and internationally, including in tournaments at St Andrew's, which she loved. She called the game "goff," which I assumed was an affectation of a Scottish pronunciation. This post prompted to me to do a little research:
    “Among the old players of the game it is called goff. Caddies at St. Andrews and such places call it gowff. I have heard respectable individuals call it goaf (like loaf). Golf (the l being sounded) is unknown in Scotland."

  26. Bloix said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 12:56 pm

    Completely OT but too much fun to ignore:
    Headline in today's Washington Post (caps as original):

    A slick Super Bowl field saw looks trump traction

    Anyone want to guess?

  27. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:16 pm

    @ Jarek Weckwerth

    I'm surprised that some commentators don't seem to be aware of that.

    The cut-off age when it becomes impossible for all but the very gifted to learn a new language with perfect accent is somewhere from the teens to early twenties. I'd guess it varies a bit from person-to-person.

    The ones year's difference between the Kissingers could have been crucial.

  28. Elizabeth Okada said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:28 pm

    @DS Zhang: this situation also happens in Japanese, and speakers commonly mime writing the character on the palm of their hand to eliminate confusion. I wonder if Chinese speakers do this as well?

  29. Monscampus said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:31 pm

    Scotch vs. Scottish

    Having lived in Scotland I know for a fact that some people there refer to themselves as Scottish, others call themselves Scotch. Never mind what foreigners might have read in books or Wikipedia.

  30. /df said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 8:15 pm

    Prof Mair may care to check the Scottish accents in this 1987 TV show and report on how Kevin's compares with them: Or this earlier TV play from the same author:

  31. Robot Therapist said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 7:10 am

  32. Peter said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 9:16 am

    Accents across Scotland – the land of my birth – vary as much as they do across England or Germany or many other countries. Scots English also uses many words derived from Gaelic and other sources. As Philip Taylor observed, a word like 'strategic' is commonly pronounced in Edinburgh or Glasgow by – shall we say – those less educated, as strah-eejic, and while I give give 'Edinburgh' 4 syllables, you'll hear close to 'Embra' in the streets. And the adjective from 'Scotland' is usually Scotch for whisky, Scottish for institutions and Scots for people or the language.

RSS feed for comments on this post