In late March, my daughter came home. She was born west of Glasgow and lived her first year and a half of life there with a wonderful foster family, also from area. Since late March she’s spent the vast majority of her days speaking only to me and my husband, who are American, living in Edinburgh. This post is about what’s happened to her accent.

When a child moves from one family to another the most important thing to help with the transition is to minimise differences between the two places as much as possible. We switched soaps and laundry detergents to the same ones that they used; we bought and served the same foods, in the same way; we changed our hourly schedule to match hers as best as possible. We learned the songs she knew and liked, and which of her toys and books were the favourites. Linguistically, my husband and I have done our best to use the same terminology that her foster family was using for the objects familiar to her: our default family terms now include nappy, pram, and dummy, to name just a few. But our accents are still distinctly American. Like my other American colleagues at the university, after years in Edinburgh we haven’t acquired any Scottish accent features except for the occasional unflapped /t/. I was worried, at first, that the difference in accents might be disconcerting to her, but happily we haven’t noticed any problems. Unsurprisingly, what we (and our friends and family) have noticed has been a shift in her own accent over the past few months. So I decided to measure it.

Although I’m a sociophonetician, I never planned to collect data for this comparison. Although I wrote down some of the words she knew, and their pronunciations, it was really more for the sake of proud parental documentation than for the sake of studying her accent shift. Our daughter is very verbal. She had about 100 words in spontaneous (initiative) production at the time she moved in (1;7), and then at least 250 words less than a month later (after which, I stopped counting). It was really this incidental fact that made it possible to even measure her production patterns, since all of the audio that these data come from family videos that were taken for the purpose of capturing a cute or funny moment and not for the purpose of linguistic analysis.

In the following plot, each dot represents the mean of all measured instances of a particular vowel class, and the ellipses are one standard deviation from that mean. The vowels are represented by keywords which are taken from Jane Stuart-Smith’s (2003) chapter, “The Phonology of Modern Urban Scots” from The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (rather than, e.g., Wells’s (1982) lexical set terms, which refer to vowel classes in RP). The exception is the BALL class which I’ve labeled that way simply because every instance of that class is the word “ball” (her favourite toy)! I only included vowel classes that have representative tokens in both the March and May recordings.

If you’ve never seen a vowel plot before, just know that the location of the vowel roughly corresponds to where that sound is produced in the mouth, and that vowels that are closer together on the plot are more similar to one another. The lines jutting out from the dots represent how the pronunciation of the vowel changes from the middle of the sound to the end of the sound. These plots were generated using the handy web-based suite, NORM (Kendall & Thomas 2010).


My daughter's vowels when she came home (on the left) versus two months later (on the right).

My daughter’s vowels when she came home (on the left) versus two months later (on the right).


What stands out to me the most in this plot is her vowel in BAIT. While this is raised and fronted in Glaswegian, it’s lower and backer in American Englishes, and you can see this in the plot. I should say that there’s a lexical bias here: in March, all of the tokens were from the word “baby,” while in May, the tokens came from the words “blanket” and “daisy.” But I tried to control for coarticulatory effects, and I’m also confident about this result because it’s something that I’ve noticed a lot, anecdotally. I was telling a colleague yesterday that the strongest holdout to her BAIT-retraction was in the song “Wheels on the bus,” which she came to us already knowing very well. The word “day” in the final line “all day long” has consistently had an /i/-like quality until just yesterday morning when we were walking through town and I heard her say /deɪ/ for the first time.

In the following clip you can hear this change in action. She and I are repeating the word “oops-a-daisy” over and over while playing with her toys. This is a word that she learned before coming to live with us on the 25th of March, and the recording was made on the 21st of May. When she initiates the first instance, the first vowel in “daisy” sounds distinctly /i/-like. But after I offer my own pronunciation, by the third instance that vowel sounds more like /eɪ/.


The other thing you can see suggested in the plot is that her BIT vowel seems to be raising — the Glaswegian one is lower than the American one, so this makes sense. Her May vowel space also seems more compact than her March one, but I would guess that that’s either an effect of language acquisition (her pronunciations are much clearer in May) or the stylistic context (the March recordings were taken from more high-energy, excited speech).

There are other changes that I’ve noticed but which haven’t been audio recorded or which didn’t make it into these data. The one that stands out to me the most is her pronunciation of the word hoover, which had a distinct /i/-like vowel in late March and is now pronounced with an /u/. Unfortunately I don’t have any recordings of the earlier pronunciation (in fact, no recordings of the /u/ vowel all from March except for one exclamative “ooh!” which was too loud to measure).

Anyway, she starts nursery (AmEng: daycare) in September, so we’ll see what happens!

There are some frequent topics of conversation at the weekly coffee hour in my department: shop talk, the weather, and food. A lot of us often talk about food we can’t get in Edinburgh. Or what used to be unavailable, but now can be found at such-and-such shop. Or what we stock up on every time we’re back in the Old Country (and I’ll spare you the tangential thought about how reverse-directional migration makes phrases like ‘the Old Country’ very awkward).

I’ve just spent over a month visiting the United States. I left Edinburgh before the holidays started in order to present a paper at the ASA. After three weeks in various parts of Northern California I spent 11 days in various parts of Arizona. Now I’m in the Baltimore area, and on Sunday I fly back home to Edinburgh.

While here, I’ve eaten a lot. And having so much time to have so many meals made me think about how I prioritize food choices. There’s the must eats, those things I’ll seek out even if I just have one day in the US! And then, like a travel guide book, there’s those things I seek out if I have more time. Or a lot more time! And every time I visit, the list changes. But here’s the current list…

Must Eats:

Apple butter! (I know, it’s a little random, but I’m I huge fan.)
Breakfast burritos
Panera’s Iced Green Tea
Sonic’s Cherry Limeade
Trader Joe’s brand anything

Guilty Pleasures, given the opportunity:

Auntie Annie’s Pretzels
Boba tea
Jimmy John’s
Ranch dressing
Rice Krispy treats
Taco Bell
Whatever new gimmick the major candy bar brands have come up with

Foods we can get in Edinburgh but are better in the US:

Dim sum

Foods we can get in Edinburgh but which are cheaper in the US:

Gai lan
Red Vines
Seaweed salad

Specific Restaurants, if geographically possible:

La Mediterranee, Berkeley, CA

Macy’s European Coffeehouse & Bakery, Flagstaff, AZ

MartAnne’s, Flagstaff, AZ

Maya Quetzal, Tucson, AZ (get the Plato Vegetariano)

San Tung, Inner Sunset, San Francisco, CA (get the chicken wings)

Travel on, friends! :)

Macy's Coffeehouse, Winter 2008

Macy’s Coffeehouse, Winter 2008

Yesterday, I got my UK driving licence — on my first try (after 20 hours of lessons), and with only three minor faults, despite being a bundle of nerves and taking what felt like an hour just to parallel park. To celebrate, my friend Stephanie suggested I blog about it. So, in the ex-pat spirit of this blog, here are the Top Five Differences between the practical driving test in the UK and the ones in the US. (Caveat: I never even took a practical driving test in the US, because I’m from Arizona!) Limiting this to only five was a bit of challenge, so feel free to ask questions or list your own tips in the comments below. My list is pretty different from some of the ones out there that are just for Americans visiting the UK (who are just trying to stay alive on the road and not get a ticket, which is a different thing entirely). For more details pertaining to American ex-pats in the UK check out this site.

Before we get started, keep in mind that to pass the test you can accumulate no more than 15 minor faults. More than 15 minor faults, or just one major fault, and you fail. If, on the test, you do anything that causes another vehicle to alter what they otherwise would have done (e.g., if they have to slow down even slightly because of you), it’s considered a major fault.

1. Mirrors Are God

As mentioned briefly in my earlier post about the written/theory test, the UK driving test is all about mirror checks. You’ve gotta check your interior mirror, and then the side mirrors, before you do anything. Seriously, ANYTHING. Not just changing lanes, but before speeding up, slowing down, or turning on your turn signal. And what’s more, turning on your turn signal should always precede breaking. “Mirror, signal, brake” will become your little mantra for how to make any turn. Every time you diverge from that Order Which Rules All Things, you will receive a minor fault!

2. You Drive Badly

When I started lessons the first thing I had to do was relearning how to drive. I drove a stick-shift for many years in the U.S. and had picked up all sorts of atrocious habits, like keeping the clutch in too often, like while making a turn from a main road into a side street, or while coasting into a red light. Keeping the clutch in results in reduced control over the car, and so doing so can result in a minor fault on the test. The other thing was that, like most Americans, I previously only used the handbrake to park the car. Silly me! As mentioned in my earlier post, you’re meant to use the handbrake at ANY time during the course of driving when the car is stopped. I have to say, now I kinda like it. Among other things, it’s definitely easier to start from a stopped position on a hill.

3. Drive in Reverse into a Side Street

Everyone hates the manoeuvres. Yes, manoeuvres, not maneuvers — these babies are distinctly British. There are four possible manoeuvres; on the test they ask you to perform one of them. Parallel parking and a three-point turn are easy enough for Americans; just make sure to use that handbrake, and stop and check your blind spot, at every. single. damn. point. of. the. turn. The third manoeuvre is to reverse into a parking spot — sort of weird for some of us, and an easy one to mess up on the first try, but not utterly foreign. It’s the fourth one that has all us Yanks scratching our heads: reversing around a corner. Many UK roads are very narrow, and so sometimes it’s not possible to do a three-point turn when you need to turn around. The alternative in such a case is to turn around in a side street. But you can’t legally drive in reverse on a main road, so you have to drive in reverse into the side street in order to get yourself turned around legally. The thing is, on the test, you have to do this while staying within 1-2 feet of the left kerb and without ever crossing into the side street’s opposite lane. Make sense? Yeah.

4. Position Left to Go Straight

You’ll get the basics of entering and exiting roundabouts pretty quickly. The challenge is doing so in the correct lane, and using the turn signals in the right way. If you’re turning left or right it’s obvious; just enter the roundabout from the respective lane; signal left for left, and right for right (but switch your signal to left as you pass the last exit before your exit… obviously, right?). But funnily enough, that thing which should be easiest — just going straight — is the most perplexing. To go straight, you need to enter the roundabout in the left lane, even if ‘lanes’ aren’t actually painted on the road. And this is true even if the exit to go ‘straight’ is actually positioned to your right as you enter the roundabout… which is potentially very confusing. Also, although you might be moving into the left lane in order to go straight, don’t signal left until you’ve entered the roundabout and passed the first exit. If you do, and if there’s a car there, and it looks like the driver of the car might possibly have been confused by your early turn signal, you will fail the test.

5. Drive on the Left, while Sitting on the Right

Those who haven’t studied for the test often make a big deal about this one, probably because it’s the most visible difference from outside of the car. But trust me, once you get behind the wheel this is by far the least of your concerns!

Good luck and happy driving! If anyone needs a tip for a good driving instructor in Edinburgh, let me know. :-)

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh (photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)


Four years on

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge  (Photo by Leong Weihao)

The Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County
(Photo by Leong Weihao)


‘This was Edinburgh, after all. One did not go about the place declaring oneself like some lovesick Californian.’

– p43, Love Over Scotland (a 44 Scotland Street novel), by Alexander McCall Smith


I moved from California to the UK, and started this blog, in September 2009; four years ago. Being a nerd, I’ve often thought about life in four-year, school-based chunks: four years of high school, four years of college. The six years I took for the PhD also feel easily divisible into the first four years (courses, Qualifying Papers, dead-end dissertation proposals, and getting an MA) versus the last two (the dissertation). In short, four years is the amount of time I associate with obtaining a degree.

So do I get a degree in UK living? No, surely not. I’m still too much of a lovesick Californian. And probably always will be. The difference now is that I have yet another beautiful place I honestly call ‘home’….


The Forth Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife  (Photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)

The Forth Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife
(Photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)


(That’s the trouble with ex-pat life. One is always homesick for somewhere.)

Listening Back


Back in early 2008, my external hard drive died. I was in my 5th year of graduate school and just starting fieldwork for my PhD thesis. The following items were just some of the many files that were on that drive:

  • recordings of interviews with residents of Flagstaff, Arizona, recorded in 2002
  • recordings of interviews with Northern Arizona cattle ranchers, recorded in 2003
  • recordings of word lists and sentences read aloud by Twi speakers in Ghana, recorded in 2005
  • recordings of Condoleeza Rice from a project with Rob Podesva (et al.) that we’d started in 2006
  • recordings of participants in a Map Task from a project with Rebecca Scarborough (et al.) from 2007
  • recordings of matched guise stimuli for a perception experiment on /ai/-monophthongization that I never ran

and lots and lots of text-based documents in various formats that were all related to some aspect of my linguistics research (including the Plotnik-created vowel plot, above, which show the as-yet-unpublished and probably-never-to-be-published result that some urban Arizonans have a nasal /æ/ system).

Basically, those files comprised the entirety of This Is Your (Grad School) Life, up until that point. And they were gone… in an instant! Because no, these weren’t second copies, or back-up copies; these were the only copies. (PSA to everyone, everywhere: always back up your files!!! DO IT NOW!!!) Yes, the Arizona and Ghana interviews do still exist on tape or mini-disc; yes, my co-authors have copies of the Condi recordings and the Map Task recordings; yes, I changed my PhD topic for independent reasons and never needed those stimuli again. In fact, the latter three file types were much less important to me to recover than the first three, which I had so laboriously digitized in real time. And perhaps even more importantly, those text-based docs included countless hours of coding and writing. So, I paid the $1000, or whatever it was (the exactly price is blocked from my memory), to have my files restored. (The vowel plot above was one of those restored files.)

However, what I got back in return was a string of files organized only by document type and with no meaningful filenames. At all. So, for example, there was one folder with WAV files, and it looked sort of like this:

Some of the restored sound files from a hard drive that died in 2008.

This (blurry, sorry) image actually only contains the contents of a small subset of the original batch of files, because every now and then (since 2008) I’ve sat and sifted through those files, opening them one at a time and organizing them back into the right folders: an Arizonan here, a Ghanaian there… It is, in a word, ridiculously tedious. I do wonder if I should’ve just saved the money and redigitized from tape again. But it’s too late for that.

Today was the day that I finally finishing sorting the remainder of the unclassified WAV files. Yes, it only took me five years to finish! Because, you know, first I had a thesis to write. And then I guess I got distracted by the UK…? Anyway, hearing these voices today, voices that I hadn’t heard in five, seven, even ten years, was a remarkable feeling. Nostalgia, for sure, mixed with some wistful regret (“I haven’t done enough with these recordings”), but also mixed with a surprising degree of satisfaction (“I’ve done more work than I think I have”). In fact, the sense of accomplishment I felt was the same feeling I got the other day when filling out the paperwork for my annual review.

I know, “paperwork for an annual review” either sounds tedious or anxiety-provoking, depending on how you look at it. But trust me, pausing for an hour or so for reflecting can be incredibly motivating. “But I already know I haven’t done what I wanted to do” you might be thinking (because you, dear reader, are presumably my friend, and that is something I would expect a friend of mine to say, because my friends and I commiserate a lot).

Well, see for yourself.

Here are the main questions (edited a little bit) from the “Self Review Form” provided by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences:

A. Taking Stock

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities (e.g., knowledge exchange, academic service):

  1. Briefly list the main goals on which you have focused. Start with the bigger goals first.
  2. Summarise your primary achievements in the last academic year.
  3. Briefly list any aspects in which you encountered difficulties, and how you tried to deal with those (if you did/could). This is where you should identify aspects of your work situation that may have hindered your career progression.

B. Planning ahead

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities:

  1. Summarise your goals for the next academic year (and if you wish, for the longer term)
  2. List any areas you would like to develop or in which you would like to become involved (e.g., kinds of teaching you might prefer to do; new directions you might want to take your research; committee work you might prefer to engage in).
  3. Suggest if you feel you need any training, support or resources to help you in the future.

I invite you to try out these questions yourself! If you’re a postgrad/grad student, maybe you can talk through the answers with your supervisor, or another grad student. (In my department, junior academic staff are paired with senior academic staff to talk through the answers together.) Like spring cleaning, or laboriously sorting restored sound files into their proper folders, I think we can all use an annual review, whether we’re academic or not. New Year’s Eve and birthdays sometimes motivate reflection, but I find that it’s all too easy in those moments to focus on what’s been lost rather than what’s been gained.


This post might not have ended up the way you expected it to, being that it turned all self-help-y, so I’ll leave you with a short but funny little story about urban/rural dialect differences in U.S. English and the misunderstandings they can lead to. (Note: you might want to listen to this once through before letting the kids hear it…!)


This is just one of the gems I discovered today, and the last time I heard it was probably ten years ago!

Listening back on life is awesome.

This: http://english2english.tumblr.com/

(h/t Stephanie Shih)


It had me at its header (the grey bridge theme). So simple! So clever! The posts themselves range from silly to linguistically insightful, the latter being the kind of things I might use for teaching purposes (like Kara Becker’s page of artifacts; also Lynne Murphy’s blog, on the off chance you’re not already familiar with it).

One thing I like is how the Canadians sometimes enter the picture (cf. “In hospital” versus “In the hospital”) as if they, themselves, are the bridge. I know it’s massively oversimplified, but I’m fond of saying that Canada is what the US would look like if we’d lost that one war; that “Happy 4th of July” amounts to “Thank God we’re not Canada.” (Yes, they love me at the July 4th parties…)

Anyway, I suggest you now leave my blog and go check it out!

After three and a half years in a place, you get a false sense of familiarity. You’ve settled into your job, your home, your daily routine and (of course) the ambient local dialect; the accents are much more intelligible and previously unfamiliar words are now familiar. But then you decide, “Hey, I should get my driver’s license driving licence,” and suddenly the world goes upside-down again.

In a few weeks I’m taking the theory (written) portion of the UK driving test. Studying for it has been a little frustrating and, occasionally, very amusing. Below are a dozen examples from the practice tests on Theory Test Pro. I’ve grouped them according to six themes that vary with respect to my source of amusement or frustration.

Theme 1. British terms that are just inherently funny.

To begin with, there’s the puffin (and pelican, toucan, and zebra) crossings:

These animal names are supposed to be mnemonics, and while I actually do find most the other ones vaguely helpful, “puffin” (pedestrian user-friendly intelligent crossing) is just not. I have this image of a bunch of guys sitting around a conference table with a list of animal names, trying to squeeze out a very awkward acronym and, well, succeeding.

Want another funny term? Well, there are many, but how about the ‘immobiliser’?

(The correct answer is ‘immobiliser’.) Superhero weapon, anyone?

Theme 2: Elements of British culture are charming, and this shows in their test questions. The best examples are the questions about sheep and horses:

(The correct answer, fwiw, is to stop. Posting this one on Facebook led to a rather long comment thread, including comments several people who had experienced this exact scenario. There are a lot of sheep in this country, people!)

Okay, this next one isn’t exactly ‘cultural’ (or maybe it is, I don’t know), but I find it similarly amusing that obtaining a UK driving licence entails having to learn the maximum speed limit of wheelchairs and scooters:

I was most interested to learn that they even have a speed limit.

Theme 3. The actual rules of the road. These are less funny, and more flabbergasting. One is that Brits use the handbrake a lot more than Americans do; in fact, more than the foot break.

I actually don’t think this is such a bad idea, but it will take some getting used to when I start driving lessons. Another rule is that you are supposed to use your mirrors a lot more often:

Again, this makes some sense, but I don’t know of any American state driving test that insists that you check your mirrors first before braking.

Okay, but the rule that really gets me is this: there is no right-of-way rule in the UK!

I simply do not understand this. If you do, please leave a comment and explain to me why this is a good idea!

Theme 4: The UK has some weird road signs. I won’t even get into the fact that a red circle means the same thing as what a red circle with a line through it means in the US. Here are just a few of the tougher ones:


9zebracrossing 10twowaytraffic
Theme 5. Pure silliness. As is the case with all good multiple choice tests, there are the questions that you know the test-makers had a little fun with.

(For me, the lower left answer conjures up the image of Hell’s Angels in neon.)

Theme 6: What? Lastly, there are questions that are just flat-out perplexing:

My husband‘s guess for this one is that you’re not meant to signal to the pedestrian (which is what my incorrect guess was), but rather that you’re meant to signal to the hypothetical car that is behind you; the hand signal is meant to warn that driver that you’re slowing down unexpectedly (for zebras…!).

Please leave a comment if you actually understand what’s going on here.

And please wish me luck on my test.


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