Monday, 28 February 2011

On talking among(st) yourselves

A correspondent writes from the USA to say he's noticed British English words and phrases increasingly entering public and written discourse. He gives as examples He was sacked instead of He was fired, gone missing, and such slang words as snarky. In particular, he says he's beginning to hear amongst rather than among, and wonders whether there's a difference between British and American English in this respect.

There certainly is. A table in the Quirk Grammar (9.21) shows amongst occurring ten times more frequently in British English, and this is confirmed by later corpus studies. In the huge COCA corpus (Corpus of Contemporary American English) we find 2405 instances of amongst compared with 144,461 instances of among - 1.7 per cent. This compares with 4449 instances in the British National Corpus compared with 22,385 of among - 20 per cent. On the other hand, those 2405 US instances spread pretty evenly over the past decade, so there's no evidence of any kind of very recent dramatic increase. I'd be interested to hear what US readers of this post think.

In the UK, my impression is that all the -st words are reducing in frequency. They began as a development of an ending attached to the base form: among + an -es genitive. We see that ending still in besides. Then in the 16th century, people evidently felt this was related to the -est superlative form, as gradually we find the -st ending used. We see it also in against, where it's the standard form, and in amidst (vs amid) and whilst (vs while), where usage varies. Fowler thought that these differences might be explained with reference to pronunciation - the -st forms would be used when the following word began with a vowel - but this isn't supported by the large corpus collections. The variation in standard English seems to be primarily stylistically conditioned: some people like the sound of whilst; others hate it. There's also a chronological factor: the -st forms tend to be found in older texts and among older people. And there's a great deal of regional dialect variation too.

The OED makes an interesting point about amongst, suggesting a semantic nuance not found in among: 'generally implying dispersion, intermixture, or shifting position'. So, I walked amongst the crowd would suggest a rather more active moving about than I walked among the crowd. If this is so, then I'd expect to see an increase in the proportion of amongst usages in contexts where these notions are dominant; and a quick dip into Google suggests that this is the case. With among(st) a group the proportion of amongst usage rises to 12.6 per cent; with among(st) the waves it is 45 per cent. With talk among(st) yourselves, the usage actually reverses, with amongst being four times as frequent. If there is a trend in US English to use amongst, semantics may well be an influential factor.

13 comments:

Peripatetic Scribe said...

As a British public school educated (but now rapidly ageing)individual, may I also suggest that amongst my peer group the "st" ending was de rigeur and taught as a requirement. Sadly, in my humble opinion, this style is becoming less seen or heard.
Peripatetic Scribe

DC said...

As I said: 'older texts and older people'!

mollymooly said...

Slight overfractionation: 2405 / 144461 = 1.66%

Oddly, "amongst" and "amidst" are British whereas "unbeknownst" is American.

DC said...

Oops. Thanks. Now changed in the post.

Richard said...

I don't consider myself that old (mid-30s) and I'm from the north of England. I much prefer whilst to while and strangely I was thinking about the difference between the two this afternoon. I had a feeling that there was perhaps something old-fashioned about the -st ending. I can't really say why, but I prefer whilst and amongst!

Adrian said...

I'm probably mistaken, and I'm sure it's just something I've become more attuned to, but I get the impression that in formal circumstances, people are tending to use "whilst" more often. When used in the figurative sense this doesn't bother me, but I really can't see the point of using it in the temporal sense. For example "Keys cut whilst you wait" strikes me as mildly ludicrous.

vp said...

As a Brit who's lived in the US for 13 years, I now find that all usages of "whilst" sound like a desperate attempt to strive for excessive formality.

Somewhat similar to the Use of capital letters for important Nouns that I also observe sometimes in British usage.

I don't remember feeeling this way when I lived in Britain.

Sarah said...

I'm fascinated that people associate the "st" versions with formal or posh speech. I've always associated them with northern English speech. My father's family were southern upper class and never used these forms. The other side were from Yorkshire and always did.

stroppyeditor said...

I don't know why I should think this, but 'whilst' feels somehow better suited to contrasts ('I like Italian food whilst you prefer Indian') than for simultaneity ('my pizza arrived whilst you were ordering your curry').

To me, the latter seems over-formal and would be better as a 'while', but the former would be fine either way.

Is that just me, or is there something to it?

DC said...

You're referring to the 'adversative' sense of whilst, where it approaches the meaning of 'whereas' or 'on the contrary' - but it applies to while also. There may be a frequency bias, indeed, but I don't know of any study which has analysed it in this way.

jrsd said...

As a newspaper and magazine subeditor (in the UK) for many years I was in the habit of correcting/changing "whilst" to "while" and "amongst" to "among". And now I see the Guardian and Radio Times style guides (among others)specify the shorter versions. Perhaps it's a journalistic thing -- always prefer the shorter version because it might save a line here or there.
But I've always felt that "whilst" has a fussy officialese(-ish!) feeling, rather like the use of "prior to" instead of "before" ...

nick said...

I've always associated 'whilst' with the adversative sense, 'while' with the temporal, and this is the way I naturally use them. I don't think I was ever formally taught this, so it must be something I've unwittingly picked up from somewhere...

Anonymous said...

As a teacher of English in Norway I have this year noticed a remarkable preference among (sic!) my students for "amongst". Most of them are near-fluent in US English, but they can't explain where the "amongst" comes from. But 18-year olds are incredibly adept at picking up unconscious trends, so who knows?