Monday, 10 December 2012

that's not punny

How can you tell that this visual pun was created by a north American? Because it doesn’t quite work in BrE or, therefore, in Australian/NZ/South African English.

Why not? First, and obviously, because in BrE barium has the stressed vowel while bury has e. So for us Brits barium sounds different from bury ‘em. But in AmE they are homophonous.

But secondly, I think, because we don’t use the form ’em for them as freely as Americans seem to. Our weak form of them is generally ðəm, with the initial consonant retained. As the OED (1891) comments under ’em,

The emphatic form of the pronoun was early superseded by THEM pron., but the unstressed form continued to be used, being regarded as an abbreviation of them. In literature it is now obs. or arch., but is still common in familiar speech.

Obsolete or archaic… yes, but not really "still common in familiar speech" (or so it seems to me). Rather, as far as I am concerned it seems to be generally restricted to a few set formulaic expressions such as If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and give ‘em the money. Beyond that, them can lose (or assimilate) its ð in the same way as that, the or they when following z in phrases such as is that, was the, claims they, sees them.

When I was a small child we spent family holidays in a friend’s unimproved rural Yorkshire cottage called, for some reason, Buryemwick ‘Bury them alive’. But if asked what to do with dead cats, for example, we’d never have said “bury ‘em”, but rather “bury them”.

It would also be possible to take the final əm of barium as representing not ’em but him (‘im) — but only in an accent of English that has lost the contrast between ɪ and ə in this position, as in often the case in AmE but generally not the case in English English.


  1. This pun fails for me as badly as for you, for I also have /ɛ/ in bury (which is historically a Kentish dialect pronunciation adopted into London Standard Middle English), but /æ/ in barium. This pronunciation of buryis shared between the Northeast and the South. I'm not sure about the origin of my pronunciation of barium; it might be idiolectal.

    But I do think that 'em is irrelevant, and the pun is on him, because of the singular noun chemist with which it agrees. This works fine for me, since I have the Weak Vowel Merger. In any case, I wonder if 'em might still be current in BrE when preceded by a consonant, whereas using it after a vowel would create a hiatus.

    1. I think it's most definitely meant to be singular (non-gender-specific) "them". Speaking as a member of a university chemistry department where the academics are roughly equally distributed between male and female, and female students outnumber the males by nearly 60:40, it's hardly a male-dominated field.

      Anyway, as a BrE speaker (south central England) "'em" ([əm], distinct from [ɪm] "him") for "them" is the usual reduced form in my speech, almost obligatory after a consonant, but I'm hesitant after a vowel as required by the pun. I'm surprised by John W's analysis that "'em" isn't common in BrE, but maybe there are regional differences within Britain.

    2. I have TRAP, not SQUARE, in "barium" as well—thus "barium" agrees with other etymologically related words like "baritone" and "baryon", all of which have TRAP. Why should "barium" differ?

      What's the history of "bury"? What vowel is it supposed to have had etymologically—NURSE? STRUT? FOOT?—and does/did Kentish have /ɛ/ for that set in this environment as a matter of course, or is "bury" exceptional?

      —Aaron Dinkin

    3. I remembered that there was a map for "buried" in one book on the Survey of English Dialects, and I've found it on page 47 in this preview. However, this uses re-spelling rather than IPA. I'm not sure whether "uh" represents ə or ʊ. I would guess ə, as English people tend to avoid the sequence ʊr.

      Ed Aveyard

    4. In my many years as a chemist I've never heard anyone say [bæriəm]...

    5. I wonder if John Cowan and AJD would also have /æ/ in Mary.

    6. No. Mary has SQUARE.

      I have SQUARE in vary and TRAP in parent, though, which I gather are also different from what's expected?

    7. "vary" with SQUARE is normal. "parent" also usually has SQUARE (unlike "apparent" and "transparent", which are TRAP).

    8. Depends what you mean by "normal." I suspect that AJD, like me, is from the Northeast and doesn't have the "Mary-merry-marry" merger. Mary has SQUARE for almost all Americans, yes, but parent (and bury) doesn't for those roughly in between Baltimore and Boston.

      On a side note, having not really heard much General American growing up, I still have to suppress giggles when hearing about the "Hairy" Potter novels from Californians.

    9. "Emmet": to post a comment here, you MUST use your full true name. Otherwise you risk deletion. And remember that many of the readers of this blog are not American, and for us Brits "the Northeast" means Newcastle-on-Tyne, not New England or whatever you mean by it.

    10. Even us American readers of this blog are likely to think "Northeast" refers to a part of England unless content indicates otherwise, since this blog is distinctly British.

    11. Aaron: Bury originally had the vowel short /y/ in Old English. In the East Midlands dialects that led to the Standard, this mostly merged with short /i/ > /ɪ/, KIT. But in the West Midlands it merged with short /u/ > /ʌ/, STRUT; in Kent it merged with short /e/ > /ɛ/, DRESS. Dialect mixture gave us STRUT in blush, which also had short /y/ in OE, a straight West Midlands pronunciation. The spelling bury with DRESS thus represents the combination of a Kentish pronunciation with a West Midlands spelling. A similar oddity is colonel with historic /r/, which represents modern French spelling combined with Old French pronunciation coronel, as if from Latin CORONELLA (wearer of a little crown) rather than COLUMNELLA (leader of a military column).

      (I can't help thinking it is a failure in the IPA that it lacks a diacritic for explicit shortness of vowels, distinct from extra-short, half long, and long.)

      Surely my identity as an American is well enough established in the community by now that it's clear what I mean when I say "the Northeast" and "the South" in reference to accent varieties close to my own?

    12. John Cowan, I don't think that's safe to assume. Furthermore, after a mention of Kentish and London English, it's natural for a reader to assume Northeast of England, whatever the wider context and whoever the writer.

      The comment about the use of the term, however, was not made to you, but to Emmett, in response to his use of the term.

  2. "But I do think that 'em is irrelevant, and the pun is on him, because of the singular noun chemist with which it agrees." - I would like to point your attention to something called "singular they".

    1. Killian

      I would like to point your attention to something called "singular they".

      It exists, Kilian. It probably exists for John Cowan and it certainly exists for me. I use it quote a lot — even employing the emphatic/reflexive themself. However, I can't use it in all contexts, and I'm not at all sure I could use it here.

      As John Cowan observed, the use of singular a chemist strongly leads to the expectation of similarly singular form.

      Moreover (for me at least), I believe the generic reference makes a difference. The writer could just as easily have chosen the form chemists, but didn't.

      I would be happier with singular them echoing a specific reference:

      —There's a chemist waiting to see you.
      —Please ask them to wait.

    2. I'm fine with generic they. Technically, it appears in contexts of indefinite reference, which may be specific or non-specific. (The difference is that in a specific reference, the speaker knows which individual is meant; in a definite reference, the speaker assumes the listener to know what is meant. A certain chemist is specific but indefinite.)

      I can only report that my intuition read barium immediately as bury him, not bury 'em, though on reflection I see the aptness of the latter well enough, and there is no phonological distinction in my speech.

    3. Just to report a asked a bona-fide American (young, liberal, NYC) and he said he read it as "bury 'im", and didn't think of "bury 'em". (He added it didn't work for him, though, as he didn't have a Mary-merry merger.)

  3. It doesn't quite work for my type of American English either. Unlike John Cowan (and like the majority of North American Anglophones AFAIK), I do have what Wikipedia calls the "Mary–marry–merry merger". However, for me 'em [əm] and 'im [ɪm] are distinct from one another; so Barium sounds like bury 'em, but different from bury 'im.

    Some people where I'm from seem to make a greater phonetic distinction than I do between the two weak forms. These people say what sounds to me like *eem [im] for 'im. That was probably more than you wanted to know though.

    1. [əm] and [ɨm] may be distinct for you when contemplating (talking to the mirror or out loud or something like that), but the vast majority of English speakers (even those without the weak vowel merger), are really inconsistent in maintaining that distinction. So, even for people, like you, who claim bury'em and bury'im sound different, the ultimate realization may be very similar in fast, uncontrolled speech.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. To me, ‘em (with schwa) seems completely normal. I would say that, for me, it’s the default form, and them is a marked emphatic form. I use the reduced form routinely in postvocalic as well as postconsonantal position (I’d definitely say I’ll do ‘em now). I’m 64 and have lived almost all of my life in Liverpool, though I wouldn’t know if that had anything to do with it.

  5. But is it not quite often claimed that [eə] doth no longer exist in British English, having given way to a plain monophthongal [e]? Was this not part of the former posting on the 'edutational' values or unvalues of Cambridge English Online Co. with its 'pronoucing diagrams'?

    OK, there is the schwa-m problem, the English generally don't say 'schwa-m' for 'him', but---this depends on what kind of sense of humo(u)r you have---but I personally find an approximative pun all the merrier, especially if it deviates from the 100 p.c. accuracy in a 'sounds familiar' way ('we don't say "schwa-m" for "him" but the Yanks do, or the Salopians, or maybe the English of Chaucer's times did, or the natives of some obscure Thridding in the Lake District, or some such...').

    Full name: see Profile

    1. The phonetic realization of //, as diphthong or monophthong, is irrelevant. The point is that barium has the SQUARE vowel, which is (and remains) distinct from the DRESS of bury in BrE.

    2. Ah, sorry, I thought that the claim was that /eə/ had been replaced by exactly that vowel. The commenters in the previous posting criticised, if this be the word, the monophthongal pronunciation of SQUARE by Cambridge English Online saying it was like [epsilon] to them. On the other hand, it is often claimed that the [e] in 'bury' is significantly lower than its say French or German counterparts, and comes very close to coalescing with [epsilon]. I must say I am bit confused on this point. Last month I had some Australian guests who said e.g. 'men' with a very high [e] but that does not strike me as very British.

      Thus, 'there' even monophthongally pronounced has a different vowel than does 'bu[ry]' in English English? Is that your point?

      Full name see Profile

    3. Leaving vowel quality aside, I understand the [e] in "bury" is usually shorter.

    4. Yes, of course. Shed and shared constitute a minimal pair.

    5. Is 'are' in 'glared', if pronounced monophthongally much higher than 'a' in 'glad' in the say pre-1960 RP?

      Full true name --- see Profile.

    6. @ Wojciech: You might want to go on If you click on "swear" on the right-hand side, there are several monophthongal pronunciations in England. I suggest that listening to these is better than using words to describe it.

      There is also Geoff Lindsey's post on the subject here.

      Ed Aveyard

    7. I've just read Geoff Lindsey's post and I have to say that I found it ABSOLUTELY SHOCKING!!! Why can't the English language change less rapidly?!

    8. Ad Ed

      thank you, Ed.

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    9. ... but your wwww.comparesounds doesn't seem to feature conservative RP ('lend' (of hope and glory), his 'lenguid hend') wherefrom I could have found out whether contemporary 'glared' sound like or unlike a conservative 'glad'.

      full name see profile

    10. @Wojciech: comparing my own "glared" with my caricature of a conservative RP "glad", the tongue positions are indeed similar, but "glared" is considerably longer.

      dʒɔnəθən dʒɔːdn

    11. I see your conservative RP and raise you U-RP. Both can be ɛə. (If they always are or if it's consistently ɛə vs ɛʌ it's a caricature.)

      (Phillip Minden.)

    12. meaning that in expressively lengthened or clipped speech they are identical.

      with a love like that you know you should be 'glared'?

      Except that the Liverpudlians never used conservative RP, did they?

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    13. John: Do you have other words in bari-, bary- < βαρυσ with SQUARE also? I distinguish in spelling between the male voice baritone and the Greek accentual pattern barytone meaning 'stressed on the antepenult (or the first syllable of shorter words)', but both are TRAP in speech. (When you see a Greek word or name of modern origin, and you don't know where to put the stress, make it a barytone; you will be right significantly more often. Classical Greek words got Latin stress and this rule does not apply to them.)

  6. Could not "Buryemwick" mean "bury them quickly"? The word "wick" was used to mean "quick" or "quickly" in Yorkshire, and I've also heard to imply a generally good thing. (It has fallen out of common usage)

    The phrase "bury them alive" implies the use of "alive" in the sense of the opposite of dead, but it might mean "alive" as in lively, which is more what I would expect from the word.

    Ed Aveyard

    1. Of course, the original meaning of "quick" is "alive" (as in "quicksilver" and "to the quick"), which is still maintained in a few dialects. It's ultimately from the same Indo-European root gweyw-, gweygw- as Latin vivus, Greek bios and Welsh byw.

    2. The quick of the nail, also.

  7. American here. I go with "him" as more likely. While I don't know actual numbers in the field of chemistry, certainly stereotypically we think of scientists as more likely to be male. And this is not a situation where I would naturally use singular they. I might use it as a conscious choice to be general neutral, but that wouldn't fit with the joke since it wouldn't be quite natural. Choosing "him" as the pronoun fits.

    I also think I'd be more likely to use a 'im for him than 'em for them, though I could be wrong on that.

    The different vowel quality isn't so much an issue. Either way it's a reduced vowel, where vowel quality distinction isn't that important.

  8. What we were forgetting is that the joke follows a formula. Other jokes in that formula stick to the singular and male:

    —How do you make a Maltese Cross?
    —Poke him in the eye.

    —What's a Greek urn?
    —About ten pounds/dollars a week if he's lucky.

    The related non-human formula also assumes male reference.

    —My dog has no nose.
    —How does he smell?
    —Bleeding awful!

  9. I just want to point out that puns do not require absolute homophony to work. Just think of the Mock Turtle's puns about Reeling and Writing and Fainting in Coils. And aren't the reduced vowels of "tortoise" and "taught us" distinct for RP speakers?

    1. Both use [ə] in RP. The difference between the two would be the syllable boundary: tortoise [ˈtɔː | təs] versus taught us [ˈtɔːt | əs] (which would affect the realization of the second [t], and the vowel length I think).

    2. I think tortoise and (reduced) taught us are completely homophonous for me (RP speaker from north London).

    3. I tend to agree with you though that if the intent of the pun is clear, you can get away with a lot (and it even gets an added groan factor for not quite being a perfect homophone).


      Our affordable decorating service covers houses in Mold and Wrexham.

    4. Agreed. Gabriel's claim about a difference in syllabification is simply wrong. The two are exact homophones for me and for Daniel Jones. That's why in LPD I syllabify tortoise as ˈtɔːt.əs.

    5. In my speech they are distinctly syllabified, but I'm willing to admit that that's not usual.

  10. A few weeks ago I spent some time trying to listen to how the people around me say the first consonant of "they" and "them". And anecdotally I can report huge variation. 'em is probably the most common, but it can be a clear "th" and even "h" or "z". This is south- east London with most speakers nearer to Cockney than RP. (some of the observations made at a Millwall football match)

    Also I read the original joke as "bury them". For me "them" is the normal and unmarked singular pronoun if I don't know the sex of the person I'm talking about. Sometimes even if I do. I've heard people in the pub I'm sitting in now say things like "My brother's girfriend came to Christmas dinner and they...". (That's an exact quote)

    1. How do you know that "they" refers to only one person, not both of them?

    2. There isn't enough context to say. But although singular they is used to solve problems of indefinite gender reference, it is also very commonly used where the gender is known. The paradigm case of this is the wall-inscription They are a genius, referring to the author of an earlier wall-inscription, the point being that both inscriptions were in a public lavatory for men only. "You don't understand. As a tailor, he was known; as a soldier — mnyeh!" (Punchline of a joke explaining why the Israeli Tomb of the Unknown Soldier supposedly has the name and details of its occupant written on it.)

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