Monday, December 18, 2017

Brussel(s) Sprouts

YouGov has come out with a perplexing, Christmas themed1, survey. "Sorry Britain," they say, "but you've been saying 'Brussels sprouts' wrong." Apparently 77% of respondents think the little green cabbage looking vegetables are called "Brussel sprouts." But as they point out, these vegetables get their name from the capital of Belgium, Brussels, and are original called "Brussels sprouts."

Ok, there's a lot going on here. First of all, what does it mean for 77% of the speakers of a language to "get it wrong"? If not only most, but the vast majority of people in the UK think these vegetables are "Brussel Sprouts", then what other basis is there for determining whether or not that is correct? Of course, we could turn to etymology, but that kind of approach to determining "correct" language is going to produce really weird results. Imagine this takepiece, if you will:
When you got dressed this morning, did you put a shirt on the top half of your body and skirt on the bottom half? If you agree with 100% of English speakers that these are two different words for pieces of clothing, you're not alone, but you're all WRONG! "Skirt" and "shirt" both come from the Old Norse skyrta! Why did people start ruining the language and mispronouncing skyrta to mean different garments? The Oxford English Dictionary says this an "unexplained difference of sense," probably because when you say "shirt" and "skirt" differently you stop making sense!
Pretty nonsensical, right? What's more, a shift from "Brussels sprouts" to "Brussel sprouts" is a very natural kind re-cutting of word boundaries that has happened many times in English. Oxford dictionaries has a nifty blog post about some of these cases involving "an." For example, when you set out to make your next big meal (maybe even a big Christmas dinner), you might tie on your kitchen apron. But the word used to be "napron". Getting from "napron" to "apron" wasn't just a case of people forgetting to put the /n/ at the beginning. Unlike with writing, when you speak, there's no spaces between your words. If you said:
I put on a napron.

It would come out of your mouth something like
I put on [əneiprən].
And then, a listener would have to figure out where the boundaries between the words are. But there's a two different options that could both work.

If you go with the first option, you decide that what what has been said is "a napron". But if you go with the second option, you decide what has been said is "an apron". At some point over the course of English, enough people went with the second option and the word became "apron." Are we all doing it wrong?

But the weirdest thing to me about YouGov's tweet was that they say we've been saying Brussel(s) sprouts wrong. First off, they only surveyed people about how they spell the vegetable, not how they say it. And second, if one person was saying "Brussels sprouts" and another was saying "Brussel sprouts," how would you even tell the difference?

I actually recorded myself saying "Brussel sprouts" twice and "Brussels sprouts" twice. Do you see a glaring difference in the offending [s]?

Ok, one of the "Brussels sprouts" [s] is about 60 milliseconds longer than the rest, but the point is that people don't speak letters out loud. We regulate our breathing and move our tongues around in a way that bears no resemblance to an "s", or "s s" as it's written or typed on a page. Asking people how they spell these words doesn't really tell you about how they pronounce them, and even if someone intended to say "Brussels sprouts," it would probably be indistinct from "Brussel sprouts" anyway.

Anyway, in closing, roast your Brussels sprouts, don't boil them. They're better that way.

1 That is, Christmas themed in the UK, where Brussel(s) Sprouts are part of the traditional Christmas meal.

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