So much angst, so little time

For those who know me, I got what I asked for this morning: I turned on my local public radio station between the hours of 10 and 11 on a Sunday morning. That’s the time for our locally-produced show A Way With Words, hosted by Richard Lederer and Martha Barnette. What can I say, it was almost 11am, I was bored, and … well, I forgot.

I’ve never discussed this show on phonoloblog, so here’s the run-down: Richard and Martha discuss language matters (sometimes with a guest), mostly if not exclusively stuff about English grammar and English literature. The main attraction is that they also take (pre-screened) calls from listeners, most of which seem to me to consist of questions about word choice or word origins. According to the program description, it “offers a humorous and instructional joy ride through the English language”, though of course a lot depends on what you find “humorous” (Richard’s strange ability to turn almost anything into a pun) and “instructional” (the fact that listeners could probably answer most questions for themselves by consulting a dictionary or two).

Anyway, I heard the last call of this weekend’s show, which was from Karen in West Hollywood, a teacher at The Archer School for Girls. (Here’s a link to an .mp3 recording of that call.) Karen called to ask about the pronunciation of “angst”; according to Karen, she and everyone she knows says [æŋst], but a “pedantic friend” of hers corrected her and said: “actually, it’s [ɑːŋst]”. Furthermore, Karen “looked in the dictionary and indeed it says [ɑːŋst]”. So “the big question” for Richard and Martha was: “where is everyone getting the [æŋst] from?”

Richard’s initial reaction was to confirm (in the form of a pseudo-question) that Karen’s dictionary “only had the pronunciation [ɑːŋst]” — I imagine he was a little surprised, because I have to say I was, too. But then Martha asked: “Which dictionary were you looking at again?” (Note the skillful avoidance of ending a sentence in a preposition.) Karen replies: “It was in Oxford“, which I think we can assume means the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), either the full version or the compact one.

Now here’s where things get a little funny. Upon hearing Karen say Oxford Martha immediately says: “You’ve got it, because in Britain that is the preferred pronunciation” — where, presumably, “that” refers to what Karen found in Oxford, which she has just said is [ɑːŋst]. So Karen says: “Aaaaahhhh.” (This is a typical caller response to the wisdom so generously showered upon them by Richard and Martha.) But then Martha finishes her sentence: “[æŋst]”.

At which point I’m like: WTF? Martha doesn’t seem to have paid attention to what Karen has clearly said: that she and everyone she knows — most of them Americans, I’m guessing — say [æŋst] (with the notable exception of Karen’s pedantic friend), and that the pronunciation she found in Oxford — presumably the infamous British dictionary — is [ɑːŋst]. Martha continues: “And in this country, however, the preferred pronunciation, or at least the dominant one, is [ɑːŋst].” There’s then a sort of playful back-and-forth between Richard and Martha, at the end of which Richard says, “God, I’ve said [æŋst] my whole life,” which I think was meant to subtly alert Martha to the incompleteness of her response to Karen without directly stepping on Martha’s toes.

To be fair to Martha here, the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) does in fact list [ɑːŋst] as the only pronunciation, while the OED only lists [æŋst]. (See note.)

I think the following is a fair reconstruction of how Karen’s question was handled. During the pre-screening process, Martha looked in at least two dictionaries: a British one (probably the OED) that lists only [æŋst] and an American one (possibly the AHD) that lists only [ɑːŋst]. Martha took this difference between the two dictionaries to indicate widespread norms of pronunciation in the two countries, and completely ignored Karen’s specific claim that she and everyone she knows (save the pedant, but also including Richard) — most if not all of them surely Americans — say [æŋst]. In other words, Karen’s question is “why do so many Americans say [æŋst], when the dictionary I looked in says [ɑːŋst]?”, and Martha’s bizarre answer is essentially “your dictionary is British and the British say [æŋst], but Americans say [ɑːŋst]”.

This seemed to me to be a real opportunity for Richard and Martha to talk about variation in English pronunciation and the necessarily imperfect ways in which dictionaries reflect changing norms; their listeners would have learned something really linguistic from such a discussion. Instead, Karen walked away with the impression that she’s somehow been using a British English pronunciation for this word all this time; at the end of the call, Karen indicates that she will probably say [ɑːŋst] from now on, like a good American should.

There are two real mysteries remaining here, neither of which was addressed. The simple (by which I mean “easily answerable”) one is: what was the “Oxford” from which Karen got the [ɑːŋst] pronunciation? Two possibilities come to mind: she’s wrong that it was Oxford and it’s some American dictionary instead, or she looked at the compact OED‘s lame /angst/ transcription and misunderstood — or possibly didn’t consult — the pronunciation guide. The more complex and interesting mystery, which I feel it was incumbent upon Richard and Martha to discuss more fully, is: why do American dictionaries list only [ɑːŋst] when so many Americans seem to say [æŋst] instead?

The call then ends in a typical sort of way for the show: Martha makes a spurious etymological argument that has little bearing on Karen’s question, Karen thanks them (for nothing, in this case), and Richard makes a terrible pun: “Well, all I can say is, ‘[æŋst] for your call.'”

(You can see why I dislike this show, though not enough to want to kill or maim anyone …)


Note

Incidentally, the OED link in the text is to the freely-accessible compact version; the pronunciation is somewhat unhelpfully printed as /angst/, but it’s clear from the pronunciation guide that /a/ = [æ] and that /ng/ = [ŋ]. The full OED more helpfully uses (ˈæŋst); if you have access, you can see the entry here. If you think that’s confusing, the AHD uses ängkst, but again the pronunciation key makes clear that ä = [ɑː]. (back)

8 thoughts on “So much angst, so little time

  1. Bob Kennedy

    How frustrating that show must be to listen to. Personally I’m willing to forgive when journalists get a little mixed up about language stories. But when a radio host who claims to be an expert treats their subject with such flippance, I’m annoyed.

    I did a little search on how to pronounce angst, to see what attitudes might be out there:

    This fella, angstfully, sees the [æ] pronunciation as a corruption: “All these are considered acceptable by dictionaries. Clearly the dictionary makers have given up and have caved in to the inevitable decline of everything.” Clearly he never read the foreword to any dictionary, nor has he met a dictionary maker.

    This guy seems more open-minded, and meanwhile his self-reported description is indicative of a California accent:
    “it is also often (espeicially in modern times) pronounced with a long ‘a’ like in the word ‘day,’ which is also how I pronounce it”.

  2. Ben Zimmer

    What you call the “lame transcription” used by the Compact OED is actually (AIUI) based on a conscious decision by the Oxford folks to keep up with changes in RP pronunciation over the past few generations. They have decided that [a] represents the RP “cat” vowel more accurately than [æ]. You’ll see this in the Compact OED, the New Shorter OED, and recently drafted entries of the OED online (see, for instance, the entry for “man”, which gives “Brit. /man/, U.S. /mæn/”). The OED entry for “angst” has not yet been fully revised, but when it is I’d imagine it will have /aŋst/ to match the other Oxford dictionaries.

  3. Adam Ussishkin

    I listened to the couple minutes of the show with the ‘angst’ question. Based on that, the show reminds me of the language-related section of the Atlantic Monthly: somewhat interesting, but completely off-base overall. By the way, I just noticed a little NPR piece relating to linguistic norms that might be worth checking out.

  4. Pingback: phonoloblog » Language use on NPR

  5. David B Norvell

    Dear Pronunciation Staff:

    I was introduced in highschool to the pronunciation for angst as the a in father. Do I need to include the umlaut “aegst”? Or are both acceptable? Is there a preference?

    Thank you,

    David B Norvell
    yogabksi@aol.com

  6. Pingback: There’s a pattern here to see » Blog Archive » AWWW …

  7. TungstenCarbideBand

    What you call the “lame transcription” used by the Compact OED is actually (AIUI) based on a conscious decision by the Oxford folks to keep up with changes in RP pronunciation over the past few generations. They have decided that [a] represents the RP “cat” vowel more accurately than [æ]. You’ll see this in the Compact OED, the New Shorter OED, and recently drafted entries of the OED online (see, for instance, the entry for “man”, which gives “Brit. /man/, U.S. /mæn/”). The OED entry for “angst” has not yet been fully revised, but when it is I’d imagine it will have /aŋst/ to match the other Oxford dictionaries.

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