Dialect check

Here’s a post for native speakers of US English. Is there anything in the following story that you notice as being not part of your dialect? (I can’t tell you anything about it at the moment, but there will be a post of two on it later in the semester…) One thing that will probably come up is “Freshpeople”. This seems to be a Yale thing.

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, two young Freshpeople left their childhood home and went off to college. Their names were Ben and Kelly. They packed their bags, they said goodbye to all their friends, and they got ready to get in the car for the long drive east, to their new dorm rooms in the University of the East Coast.

They knew that they would need a lot of stuff in college, but they weren’t sure what to pack. The night before they had to leave, they were still arguing with each other over Mit, their cat. “Of course he’ll fit,” said Ben. “We can’t take him,” sobbed Kelly. “He’ll be so unhappy in our room all day.” Mit was having no argument, though, and climbed to the top of the pile of bags with whiskers quivering.

Their packing continued for a few more hours. Then Kelly lost her lucky pen, and Ben couldn’t remember if he’d packed his favorite fry-pan, the one he only uses for omlettes made with free-range eggs. Each time he went to look for it, he remembered something else that he needed to get. The pile of things got higher and higher, until even Mit the cat was getting frightened.

In the end, everything went into the car (including Mit the cat) and they drove all the way east, over the mountains, along the river valleys, through the corn fields and cities. After five or six days (only Mit the cat was really counting) they reached the University of the East Coast and went to find their dorms and settle in.

But they were in for a shock. They were met by the Dean of the college. He greeted them warmly at first, but then smiled sadly when he saw their papers. “I’m very sorry, but you’ve come to the wrong place,” he said. “Perhaps you didn’t get the letter.”

“What letter?” asked Kelly. “We didn’t get any letters from you.”

“You have been reassigned to our sister campus, the University of the West Coast. We had too many students this year. Unfortunately, their classes started last week. Since you haven’t paid your tuition there, they’ve probably cancelled your enrollment. You’ll have to apply again next year.”

This was too much for Mit the cat. He leapt off Ben’s shoulder and dug his claws into the Dean’s arm. The Dean gave a strangled scream. He had a heart attack and got sepsis from his scratches.

The Dean sued and the whole family spent the rest of their lives in jail.

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20 responses to “Dialect check

  1. In the 3rd paragraph of the story, fry-pan strikes me as non-standard American (British?), for which I say frying pan. For what it’s worth. I have no native language for linguistics purposes (English is technically my second language, Tagalog my first, but I can’t speak it natively anymore).

  2. too funny – I would have written frying pan but I thought frypan was more common here!

  3. Ditto Angelo’s comment. Everything else sounds natural to me.

  4. Omelettes is spelt wrong, but that’s not english I suppose. Am I being picky?

  5. I think “sued” in the last sentence needs an overt object. It feels like there’s a zero there and that’s weird to me. “The Dean sued them” is better.

    So besides “pin-pen-pan” what else is going on here?

  6. In my dialect, which is not US, this is very odd: “Ben couldn’t remember if he’d packed his favorite fry-pan, the one he only uses for omlettes made with free-range eggs.”

    “uses” would be “used” where I come from, when narrating a story, UNLESS the speaker knows Ben and his frying pan personally and the action reported is close in time and space to the act of narration. You wouldn’t say that with the perspective of “once upon a time”.

  7. Argh! Are Ben and Kelly boyfriend and girlfriend, or brother and sister? They live in a childhood home (could be their house rather than their city) and they are going to live in a room. But at the end, the Dean sues the whole family (bf + gf + cat is not a family, except jocularly). This kept disturbing me the more I thought about the story. I’m sorry, but I cannot comment on the linguistic features of this story when you have squicked my moral sense.

    Also, I have conceived an irrational hatred for these cat-abusing young people and feel sorry for the poor Dean.

  8. There are a couple of places in this story that use “in” where I would expect “at” instead. In the sentence, “…to their new dorm rooms in the University of the East Coast”, it sounds very odd to me to say “in” the University of the East Coast. It has to be “at” in my dialect. Same goes for “…They knew that they would need a lot of stuff in college” – that can only be “at college” for me. There are other sentences where “in college” sounds perfectly fine, but not here.

    This sentence has too many pronouns:

    “They packed their bags, they said goodbye to all their friends, and they got ready to get in the car for the long drive east, to their new dorm rooms in the University of the East Coast.”

    But I suspect the unnatural use of pronouns has more to due with the artificial discourse situation than with real dialectal differences.

  9. Thanks for the comments all.

    James, please, no guessing now! All will be revealed in a few weeks.

  10. I’m assuming the cat is actually male; it annoys me to no end how most people refer to pets as “he” without consideration of sex when a good number of them are actually female. (“It”, on the other hand, is barely acceptable when referring to household pets (more so than for babies, anyway), but not preferred.) “Home” in the first sentence should be plural unless they actually live in the same house. “To their new dorm rooms in the University” seems to refer to the University as a specific physical structure, rather than an abstract institution; I’d use “at” instead. Needing a lot of stuff “in college” is fine to my ear, probably preferred, because “in college” refers to the general experience, including the social experience and not limited to the academic one; “at college” sometimes, but not always, more specifically refers to taking classes. (There’s a lot of overlap.) It’s frying pan, not fry pan (never heard of the latter).

    “The Dean sued” is appropriate; to my ear, and I’m an attorney, “sued” without an object sometimes has the slight pejorative connotation of throwing a litigious temper tantrum. But not always; it’s also acceptable in a terse summary of the history of a case where the identity of the defendant is implied. And of course, the only way the family could end up in jail would be as a result of criminal proceedings, not as the result of a civil lawsuit.

  11. The only thing that seemed out of place to me was the fry-pan. In/at the university/college both work, and my intuitions of at/in college means is opposite of SnowLeopard’s.

  12. A few things:
    1. Fresh people (paragraph 1)
    2. Frequent usage of “Mit the cat” – once you introduce Mit as being a cat, it is no longer necessary to keep reminding the reader of what species he is.
    3. a “strangled scream” is strange modifier usage!
    4. The phrasing of the last sentence is non-standard (prob. ungrammatical for all dialects): “The Dean sued the whole family AND THEY spent …”
    5. The phrase, “Mit was having no argument, though, and climbed on top of the pile of bags with whiskers quivering” is odd in a number of ways… “having no argument” is non-standard for me; as is the description “with whiskers quivering”, but only because of the choice of adjective.
    6. The timing of that same paragraph above, the siblings were arguing the night before, but then (in the present tense) the cat jumped on top of the pile of things. This is weird.
    7. Free-range eggs is odd for me, too… the chickens are free-range, not the eggs.
    8. Kelly says, “We didn’t get any letterS from you” but there was only one letter sent. I am not sure why she replies with the plural.
    9. The first mention of the entire family is made at the end of the story, but the fact that they all spent the rest of their lives in jail is such a fundamental part of the punchline, that the mention of a family should’ve been made earlier – or else on the siblings should’ve been sent to jail.
    10. numerous nonstandard punctuation usage

  13. @Matt:
    1. See my note at the top of the page.
    2. That’s a trope of children’s stories. (there’s actually a linguistic reason for it but I can’t tell you what it is until the experiment is run)
    7. this is a weird correction — egg cartons say free-range eggs all over the place!
    9. How is this a dialectal correction?
    10. What non-standard punctuation? Most of the sentences aren’t long enough for anything other than a full stop (which is deliberate, since the story will be read aloud).

    @SnowLeopard. Mit the cat is actually male, hence the use of the male pronoun. I saw a study on arbitrary pet pronouns a while ago and cats tended to get female arbitrary pronouns (that is, people tend to assume that cats are female and dogs are male).

  14. @ Claire:
    7. Yes, the cartons may say it – but I would never say something like “I love free range eggs”, it just sounds weird – but I confess I may be over-thinking this.
    9. Well, it depends what you mean by “dialect correction” – I suppose there are
    story-telling conventions which vary with dialect…
    10. MANY examples!
    a. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, –> far, far
    b. Mit was having no argument, though, and climbed –> argument though, and…
    etc.

    HERE’S ANOTHER:

    11. Overusage of THEY: They packed their bags, [[they]] said goodbye to all their friends, and [[they]] got ready to get in the car for the long drive east…

  15. Petréa Mitchell

    I also think the dorm rooms are at the university rather than in it. “Fry-pan” is a familiar word to me only via Japanese– in English, it’s a frying pan, or just a pan.

    The local farmers’ market (in the western suburbs of Portland, OR) has “free-range eggs”. I’ve also seen “grass-fed milk” for sale there.

    And I feel really sorry for the cat…

  16. I agree about “fry-pan” and “in the university”; everything else seems fine. (matt, you’re definitely overthinking it!)

  17. “fry-pan” sounds very wrong to my ear. I guess I am a native speaker of British English, though we emigrated to Canada when I was 6.

    With regard to other comments: in/at the university are both fine to me. I didn’t notice this at all when I read the story. Ditto for sued with an implied rather than explicit object.

  18. @matt: as one who spent his childhood summers at a farm where chickens were kept, in the days before chicken factories, I can assure you that free-range hens produce free-range eggs. They (the chickens) drop them (the eggs) anywhere they (the chickens) damn well please. It’s hell to find them (the eggs) in the grass. You have to count—one chicken equals one egg, and you have to keep looking until you’ve found enough eggs to match the number of chickens you keep.

  19. I agree with everything already said, I think — esp. the “in/at” and “fry-pan” notes; “corn field” also looks a little funny to me but I can’t put my finger quite on why. It just sounds suspiciously like it was written by one of those bizarrely misguided people who, in error, call corn “maize”. (For that matter “driving through” the fields would imply off-road activity to me; I’d have expected “driving past” or perhaps “driving along”.)

  20. David Marjanović

    people tend to assume that cats are female and dogs are male

    Now that’s interesting. I mean, it’s the same in German, but in German there’s a good grammatical reason for it.

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