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Ya big feartie!


The following story which just recently came through my inbox (thanks to Dave Sayers for noticing it) made me chuckle, mainly because I didn’t realise that fearties was an especially Scottish term (although I only just found out yesterday that the phrase to clap the dog is also a Scottish term, whereas English English would use pet…). Anyway, feartie derives from the Scottish term feart, an adjective meaning, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘afraid’, and feartie is simply the nominal form of the adjective (I’m not sure whether there are any English English terms which follow a similar pattern?).

I don’t have access to the actual recordings, but I think it’s fair to assume that the speaker here would have have produced a glottal plosive, resulting in something like [ˈfiɹʔˌiz]. I’d then guess that the Hansard transcriber heard [ˈfiɹʔˌiz], thought that the glottal plosive was unnecessary, resulting in [ˈfiɹˌiz]. It’s not a huge gamble to assume that since the transcriber would a) not having any immediate lexical corollary to the word fearties and b) had a different phonological system to the speaker, they would have resolved the confusion by choosing a word with a similar phonological and syllabic structure; hence fairies.

The story also made me think of a situation a few weeks ago when we were out having lunch with some friends, complete with make-your-own Bloody Marys. The conversation turned to the different neighbourhoods in Pittsburgh (there are over fifty!), and one of these neighbourhoods is called ‘Fairywood’. Now, Scottish English has contrastive vowels before /r/, so words like ‘merry’, ‘marry’ and ‘Mary’ are distinct. Other varieties, however, have these some or all of these vowels merged (or neutralised, a nice discussion of which can be found here), so these words sound the same. Since ‘fairy’ and ‘ferry’ were homophonous in my interlocutor’s speech, I struggled for about a minute as I tried to map their pronunciation onto my own phonological system to determine whether it was ‘fairy’ or ‘ferry’ (I had to give up and just ask them to clarify which it was). And no, the Bloody Marys weren’t a factor.

From the back of a monster the cheery driver calls out.

“Haud oan man, nae need tae be feart! I’ll gie ye a lift.”

The Social Linguist

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