I’m writing because of another little language acquisition oddity. I’m basically curious to hear if anyone else has known a kid who’s done the thing that my kid is doing. Let me say off the bat: I’m not worried about this at all. I just find it interesting, and frankly perplexing.

My daughter’s now 3;7. (Three years, seven months.) As a family we do that metalinguistic thing that people do when they’re priming kids for learning to spell where we talk about what letters and sounds are at the beginning of words. You know, like…

“‘Hat’ starts with…?”

“Hat. /hə hə hə/.”

“Yes! Aitch. /hə hə hæt/.”

Lately this language-loving kid has been designing her own knock-knock jokes around a similar idea, breaking down words into the onset consonant (always a consonant, sometimes consonant plus schwa) and the rest of the word. Here’s an awww-so-adorable example from half an hour ago:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“/lə/ who?”


The oddity is that, for months now, like, since whenever we started doing this kind of thing, my child has consistently — without fail — said that words beginning with /b/ begin with /p/, and vice versa. So she says that “Paula” starts with “B” and “Ben” starts with “P”. (Apologies for the lack of narrow transcription, but fwiw we’re just dealing with your general American English-ish p’s and b’s here, e.g., /p/ is strongly aspirated, /b/ doesn’t have any strong pre-voicing).

If you have at least intro level linguistics you’ll know that she’s reversing what might be basically called a voicing contrast (although phonetically that’s not exactly right; the Wikipedia link has a pretty good summary of why). So, what about /t d/ or /s z/ or other pairs with a voicing contrast? They seem fine; exactly as you’d expect. It’s just /p b/ that always get switched. For example, here’s what happened a few seconds after the previous example (note that she was looking at my ears at the time, and she’s been really wanting earrings)…

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“/bə/ who?”

“Pierced ears!”

This is a made up example but it represents the way she last long approached the basic game mentioned above:

“What letter does ‘big’ start with?”

“/bə bə bə/ P!”

“What letter does ‘pig’ start with?”

“/pə pə pə/ B!”

So this is a different thing, obviously, than if her responses had been “/pə pə pə/ P” and “/bə bə bə/ B” — maybe there are multiple things going on here, one about the sounds, and one about the letters. (Note: this is yet another reason why I do not do acquisition research!) She can currently recognize and name the capital letters P and B but she can’t write them and doesn’t talk about them as much as other letters. Neither P nor B start off any of her names nor ‘Mom(my)’ nor ‘Dad(dy)’ and so frankly we just don’t talk about them very much.

I think what gets me about this is how totally regular the pattern is. Where did this come from? Why only the bilabial plosives? I would love to hear your guesses. As I mentioned above, I’m not at all concerned about this in terms of her future spelling ability. She’s in Gaelic Medium Education and they don’t (need to) learn how to spell in English for a long time yet.

gaining balance


I don’t want to make too big a deal here, but I’ve got a little PSA. It’s about something I feel like I’ve always known, something I assumed everyone knew, something that I thought was common knowledge, common sense. But then, a few years ago, an elderly acquaintance said it, and I was stunned. I chalked it up to a generation gap or maybe a difference in education. But then, a senior academic also said it, and again I was stunned, and again I chalked it up to a generation gap. Although this time it was odd because he had said it about a member of his own family. And then, one day, one of my own family members said it — someone younger than me, even. I was floored, and I had lost my age-based explanation. It occurred to me that this is just something that some people have thought about and other people haven’t.

That probably applies to most things in life, but this is something that I have some personal investment in.

What I’m talking about is the use of the word ‘real parents’ to describe an adopted child’s biological parents.

It doesn’t take a long to see why the term ‘real parents’ is is problematic: if the biological parents are the real parents, then the adoptive parents must be something other than real. Fake? Imaginary? Artificial? While I quite like the idea of being a ‘surreal’ parent, especially because the parenting experience is so often surreal, I don’t think that’s the first implication that comes to mind (unfortunately).:)

I’m sure that none of the people who I’ve heard use the term ‘real parents’ actually thinks that I am less of a parent to my child than my child’s biological parents. And I’m certainly not going to deny that giving birth is any less ‘real’ than raising a child. (And wow if there isn’t a ton of realness involved in fostering, as well…!) The point is not who is more ‘real’ than who, but just that all parents are ‘real’ parents, and so using the term is not a good way to distinguish between different relations to a child. Different families will have their own ways of referring to these relationships, too, but I’ve personally not met a someone who had been adopted who refers to their own biological parents as their ‘real parents’. (That said, I would also not be surprised if I was wrong about that; please leave a comment below if you have some counter evidence!)

Implications of fake parenting aside, the use of the term ‘real’ can lead to confusion. Imagine if someone were to ask me, “Are you her real mother?” How should I answer? I could say “yes” based on the fact that my daughter calls me “mom(my),” thinks of me as her mother, is legally my child, and will be parented by me for the rest of my life. Or I could infer what they’re asking and answer “no” because I’m not her biological mother. Both are right and both are wrong. Similarly if someone were to ask me, “Have you met her real father?” I could truthfully say “no” if I were to infer that they were asking about her biological father, or I could truthfully say “yes” since I’m married to the person who she calls “dad(dy)” and who parents her daily and will parent her for the rest of his life. Regardless of whether or not the term ‘real parent’ is insulting, at the very least it is potentially ambiguous and confusing.

But then why is it so pervasive? Why am I apparently in the minority?

I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a few weeks now after hearing Ira Glass use the term ‘real mother’ on an episode of This American Life. Again, I was stunned. I went to Twitter and Facebook anticipating an outcry and actually only found a handful of tweets and a couple posts calling him out on it. It also turns out that the episode was a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired in 2002. So I did a wider Google search for any reactions to the episode prior to 2015 and found some discussions from 2010, after it had also been rebroadcast, including this blog post which basically says the same thing I’m writing now. But, all in all, very little in the way of discussion on the interwebz. So are we-who-blog-on-this-topic in the extreme minority? As someone who works on language variation and change, my first thought is to consider this a particular example of language change in progress, one in which with those of us in the ‘adoption community’ are hanging out at the beginning of the S-curve. (I may have adopted only recently but I’d thought of myself as a future adopter for most of my life.)

So… to Google Ngrams!

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ parent

At least when we look at the data from Google Books, we can see some evidence of change, namely an increase in the ‘biological’ and ‘birth’ terms, and maybe a slight decrease in the ‘real parent’ term, although actually not by that much. The big jump for the former two is not surprising, really. What is a little surprising is that ‘real’ has been outpaced by both ‘birth’ and ‘biological’ since the 1960s, which maybe explains why I had the impression that it was common sense. On the other hand, there’s no information within the Ngram search about domains of use; perhaps all these authors are people involved with adoption talking amongst themselves. It’s also not totally clear why ‘biological’ is so much more frequent than ‘birth’. For that, let’s consider gender.

Starting with moms:

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ mother

(Note that this probably includes instances of the use of ‘real mother’ meaning ‘big’ as in “a real mother of a car” http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/mother_1)

In contrast to the ‘parent’ chart, ‘birth’ is much higher than ‘biological’ for references to mothers. This is interesting to me because I’ve seen online discussions that expressly disfavor the term ‘birth mother’ because it’s felt to be too dismissive of the actual relationship, focusing too much on the first and ignoring both the nine months leading up to the birth as well as, in many cases, the caregiving that the biological mother did post-birth. At the same time, to just talk about ‘biology’ is could presumably also be felt to dismiss those same emotional or caregiving aspects of the relationship, but for some reason, ‘bio mom’ is what I most often see in online discussions that I’m a part of.

Now let’s look at dads:

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ parent

Since mothers are the ones doing the birthing, that particular gender difference isn’t too surprising, but at least now we can maybe see why ‘biological’ outpaced ‘birth’ in the ‘parents’ graph. I’ve personally found the term ‘birth father’ awkward when I use it with my daughter, for that very reason. Unfortunately, ‘biological father’ is just such a mouthful for a 3-year-old! Maybe that’s why some people fall back on saying ‘real father’ — it’s short and easy! But then again so is ‘bio dad’, which I might use when my kid’s older and can understand what’s meant by ‘bio(logical)’. On another note, I wonder what accounts for the steady increase in the use of ‘real dad’. I would love to know more about the kind of texts that that term appears most often in. Has there been a rise in plots of novels that hinge on revealing that someone’s father is not really their father, for example? But now I’m getting sidetracked.

EDIT: An astute observer and Ngrams user suggested on Facebook looking up the also-somewhat-problematic term “natural parent/mother/father” as well, which shows an interesting recent downward trend. That’s actually still the term used by my own family’s adoption agency. Anyway, I decided to just present all the terms together into one plot. (I also tried “first parent/mother/father” but it wasn’t frequent enough to make it onto the chart.) Interesting results overall: people talk about birth mothers, biological fathers, and then real mothers and fathers:

A comparison of referring terms

In short: Adoption is complicated! Referring terms are complicated! But what I do know is that parenting is very real, regardless of the way in which a parent becomes a parent.

My daughter on Christmas Day, 2015

My daughter on Christmas Day, 2015

PSA over. Thanks for reading, and for letting me be real.:)

This is for you, NWAV44!

The biggest annual conference in variationist sociolinguistics, NWAV, is taking place right now in Toronto. There was a time in my life when I would’ve never missed an NWAV, but this is the second year in a row that I’ve had to skip out.* It’s not worth explaining why, but suffice it to say that I’ve been looking for any upsides to staying at home while everyone’s off conferencing it up in Canada. The biggest upside, of course, is that I get to hang out with my little family, which features one particularly awesome little girl who I’ve blogged about before (like, a lot). In fact, I’ve blogged about her so much that people are starting to get the impression that I actually work on language acquisition (I don’t)! What I do work on is sociophonetics. This is a post that combines both topics.


This time last year, my daughter was occasionally watching Dora, The Explorer. Unlike a lot of other American animated shows we get in the UK, this one was never dubbed, but was shown with the original American voices. For those of you who haven’t endured this show personally, one of the characters on the show is a fox named Swiper. I guess he’s the only ‘bad guy’ on the show, although he’s more mischievous and naughty than ‘bad’. His catchphrase is “Oh, man!” which he says if Dora and Boots succeed in stopping him from pulling off a heist. You can see an example of it here.


Back when our family watched this show we would joke around about it, imitating Swiper’s catchphrase, and in particular over-emphasizing the quality of his tensed, pre-nasal /æ/ vowel, a feature which is typical of many Northern American English varieties but not UK ones. (The symbol /æ/ refers to the sound in words like bat, ban, trap, etc.) We would all take turns pretending to be Swiper and say “Oh, man!” with extra tensing, extra nasality, or both. (For a cool phonetic analysis of the relationship between nasality and tensing, or the lack thereof, I recommend this paper by Paul De Decker.)

And then many months passed during which time we did not watch Dora. Our kid went from about 2 years, 5 months old to 3 years, 2 months old.

Tonight is a Friday night, and since we are not opposed to having our child sleep in on Saturday morning if at all possible, we are a bit looser with the evening routine than most nights. This includes a little extra TV-watching. So tonight at dinner, I was mentioning all the shows that we haven’t watched in a very long time, to see if she’d be up for trying any of them again. When I mentioned Dora, this is what happened:

  • Me: “How about Dora The Explorer?”
  • Kid: “Dora! I don’t like Swiper.”
  • Me: “Yeah, you don’t like Swiper.”
  • Kid: “He says me an.”
  • Me: “He’s mean, huh.”
  • Kid: “No, he says me, an.”
  • Me: “Me-an? No he doesn’t…”

This went on for a few more turns before finally, “Oh! You’re saying that he says ‘Oh man‘!

Apparently the raised, tense quality of that vowel in ‘man’ was so extreme that her (British) toddler brain had processed the vowel nucleus as /i/ (as in me, bee, fleece, etc.), either as the onset of an /i/-/æ/ diphthong or as a distinct word from ‘an’. That’s kind of cool. But even more so is the fact that she used to joke around saying “Oh, man!” just as much as my husband and I would, and I never perceived her as producing anything phonetically different from what we were doing. In other words, back then, she never produced it as ‘me an’. So her production imitation was spot-on, but when recalling this form from memory she didn’t recall the phonetics (an unusual pronunciation of the correct vowel) but rather the phonology (the structural elements of the system that are phonetically closest to the phonetics).

All this from a few seconds at dinner. But which I might have missed, had I been at NWAV.

Just for fun, I will leave you with this amusing Dora spoof from SNL. Thanks to my childhood bestie and mother of three, Aubrey Brown, for telling me about it.

*P.S. Even though I’m not there, my name is on a poster that’s being presented at NWAV later today. Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson and William Cotter (both at the University of Arizona) are collaborating with me and Mirjam Eiswirth (University of Edinburgh) on a project on Arizona English. The poster title is, “Northern Arizona: Sound Change and Dialect Contact.” My previous work on Arizona English is here: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~lhlew/arizonadialect.html

Nothing highlights Quine’s gavagai problem like trying to learn a new language through books written for babies.



My daughter has been attending Scottish Gaelic immersion preschool for just over a month now. I don’t know any Gaelic myself, and when she came home with some children’s books in Gaelic (courtesy of the awesome incredible fantastic amazing Bookbug programme), she wanted me to read the books to her. Presumably, learning a language via children’s books is not a bad idea; isn’t language learning one of the reasons we read to them? But since everyone in our house is a beginner, I looked into possibly getting the Bookbug’s ‘baby’ books and ‘toddler’ books, so I could personally work up to the ‘preschool’ books she brought home. And thanks to the amazing generosity of the Scottish Book Trust, today I got to try to teach myself Gaelic using a very simple baby book.


Turns out, I can’t figure out the meaning of half the words in this one book without a dictionary (there are only ten words in the whole book, besides ‘bèibidh’). Take the first image in this post. Bèibidh is just ‘baby’. But what might ‘brèagha’ mean? Or the image directly above this paragraph; what do you think ‘snog’ means? Take some guesses. I’ll tell you later. Don’t worry about the pronunciations, by the way; Gaelic Bookbug is so brilliant, they have audio books you can read along with (the book in question is Fìor Chiad Leabhar nam Bèibidhean Beaga)


To be clear, I adore the Bookbug programme and am in no way whatsoever complaining about the quality or choice of books. This is how good books for babies are written! I just never really noticed before, or perhaps I should say I never personally felt so acutely before, the gavagai problem.

Why? Because adult second language textbooks aren’t structured like baby books. (I imagine this is the kind of thing that language acquisitionists think about all the time; my apologies to the experts.)

Okay, any guesses for ‘toilichte’, above? For what it’s worth, here were my guesses for all three:

  • brèagha:  bending, or playing, or maybe happy
  • snog:  shy, or sweet, or maybe naked (thumb-sucking seemed too complicated)
  • toilichte:  clapping, or maybe something like warm or cozy

And here are the definitions from one dictionary I have:

  • brèagha:  beautiful, fine, lovely
  • snog:  nice, lovely, attractive, likeable
  • toilichte:  pleased, happy, glad

See what I mean? To be fair, if I had to find photos of babies to exemplify those words, I’d have a hard time! Because gavagai, of course.

This is a brief addendum to my previous post from two weeks ago about my daughter’s emergent and idiosyncratic typology of language types. Today she mentioned a new one: English. And what it seems to mean is ‘speaking correctly’.

We were reading books at bedtime. The books we were reading were among the ones that she has memorized. They’re particularly short and simple and, therefore, boring if read straight off the page. So, one way to keep it fun is to change up the words to say new, silly things. For example, instead of saying, “That’s not my panda, its ears are too fluffy,” it’s more fun to say, “That’s not my panda, its ears are too bubbly!” Anyway, we did this for a few books until at one point I was going a little overboard with it and she said in a breathless, laughing-too-hard voice, “No, stop! Speak English!

Of course this one anecdote doesn’t mean that she thinks ‘English’ means ‘speaking correctly’. When I stumble over what I’m trying to say or say the wrong word for an object, she doesn’t tell me to speak English. So it’s probably more likely to be her new word for what I called ‘unmarked’ my previous post, meaning something like ‘speaking normally’. It’s probably the context of reading out loud that especially made it seem to me like it had a twinge of ‘speak it the proper way’. Or maybe it’s just me making a big deal out of nothing because I’m a sociolinguist and I’m sensitive to contexts in which ‘English’ becomes equated with moral judgments of that which is ‘good’. Or (and I doubt this is true, but I like it) maybe what she means by ‘English’ is ‘calm and predictable’!

Anyway, the next thing to find out is if ‘America’ can ever be ‘English’…

My daughter is now 2 and 3/4 years old. This post is about what currently seem to be her three conceptual categories of language: unmarked, Spanish, and America.

‘Unmarked’ is just my way of referring to aspects of language she doesn’t talk about; things that are just normal and unnoticed by her. I could blog about the interesting things that seem to be unmarked, to her, but that’s for another day.

‘Spanish’ is her word for any unintelligible language, anything she can’t understand. She’s been using the term for months now, and I’ve recently started explicitly pointing out when we overhear Spanish versus other languages, to (teach her and) see when she figures out that Spanish is something specific.

And, last but not least, there’s ‘America’. She has heard me describe certain words and pronunciations as American. Like the time when we were in the supermarket car park (parking lot) and I was really angry and I said, “You need to get in the cart, now!” and she looked at me, confused, and said, “Why did you say ‘cart’?” and then I had to explain that when Mommy gets angry, Mommy uses American words.

Me, when I'm angry. (Linguistically.)

Me, when I’m angry. (Linguistically.)

Tonight when I was putting her to bed we were talking about one of her nursery friends, Leon. Before nursery this morning she had said, “What?” with a particular intonation and pronunciation that led me to say, “You sound just like Leon when you say that.” (A few months ago there was a conversation between the two kids that had entirely consisted of my daughter jabbering incomprehensibly, to be funny, and Leon saying, repeatedly, “What?”) Anyway, this evening, she said to me, “Leon didn’t say ‘what?’ [today].” I then explained that someone only says that if they can’t understand you. She then said something that I can’t quite remember about Spanish. “Right,” I said, “Like if you were you speaking Spanish.” Then she said, “I not say America.” “Well, you do sound a bit American,” I said. “Mm-hm,” she agreed.

Just under a year ago I blogged about the linguistic consequences of my daughter’s transition from a Scottish family to our family. Now, I am here to tell you that the inevitable has happened. And it kinda breaks my heart!

The first obvious sign was a few weeks ago. My kid was talking to herself and I heard her say, “I’m an American girl.” Since I’ve gone to more pains than most parents (because of our circumstances) to say, “You are Scottish,” I assume that she was described as American by one of her nursery teachers, and I assume that they said that not so much because of her parentage, but because of her accent. She pretty much has an American accent now, or at least the kind of funny slight-hybrid accent that other children-under-5 of American parents in Edinburgh have (yes, I know a lot of these kids). What I mean is, for example, she says tomato in a British way and she hypercorrects flapped intervocalic /d/ to a released /t/ for words like ladder and pedal. But otherwise, she really sounds like she’s growing up somewhere in the US (if you ignore her lexicon).

Alright, fine. This is not surprising. The people I’ve mentioned this to all say, “Oh, just wait until she starts primary school.” Fair enough.

The break-my-heart moment came the other day when she and I were riding in a taxi. Taxi drivers in Edinburgh are the most reliable place to find (a) strong accents and (b) people willing to talk a lot. So, we got into the taxi and started off and the driver started chatting about the weather. My daughter then turned to me and whispered, “He’s speaking Spanish!”

“What?!” my inner voice said (just like Leon). I mean, most of her nursery teachers are Scottish, we keep in touch with her Scottish foster family, and we do have Scottish friends!!! (Okay not many, but we try!!!) Not to mention the exposure she gets just being about town and hearing people. But despite all that, my wee Scot thinks Scots is unintelligible!

I’m guessing this wouldn’t have bothered most parents. But I’m not most parents; I’m a sociolinguist. (Poor kid…)

‘Progress is not an illusion. It happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.’ — George Orwell

The testing room was overheated. I walked out of the testing centre with sweaty palms, my winter coat slung over my arm. Soon enough I realised that it was actually cold outside, and starting to rain. I moved my backpack to my hand and put my coat on while walking. A woman walking past looked at me doing so and smiled in a knowing, ‘shame it’s still coat weather’ kind of way. People here talk about the weather so much, it’s part of the non-verbal communication, too.

I continued on in a post-anxiety daze for about five minutes before I came upon the Grassmarket. Stepping across the road, the Edinburgh castle rose dramatically in the view to my left, ancient and ostentatious. In that moment, in that space of eclectic locals, tourists, and wayward students, I suddenly felt very un-British. The last six years felt like a brief moment in time, and it seemed absurd that I was carrying a piece of paper that officially claimed that I knew enough about Britain to be British.

What a silly concept.

The test was harder than I’d thought it’d be. I’ve been studying so much, taking every practice test available online, in some cases twice, typing up my own personal timeline of UK history, memorising the table of different court types that my husband wrote up before his test. I’ve taken practice tests just before bed, I’ve taken practice tests right after waking up. I was sure that I was overstudying. But when it came to the test, there was still one question I had definitely never seen before, and a couple others that gave me serious pause.

The question I did not know the answer to was something like: ‘What was invented in the 1930s by Frank Whittle?’ There were four possible answers, one of which was so implausible that I don’t remember it now. The other two wrong ones were ‘ballpoint pen’ (interestingly, they didn’t say biro) and ‘personal computer’. I guessed correctly: ‘jet engine’. By far the easiest question on the test was something like: ‘When is Easter?’ (the answer being ‘March-April’). Of the remaining 22 questions I would estimate that there were at least seven that I would have had no idea of the correct answer without having studied. (In other words, I would’ve failed the test if I hadn’t studied at all and hadn’t guessed correctly.) Interestingly, or perhaps frustratingly, there were no questions about courts, the royal family, sport, music, religion, or television — all topics which feature heavily in the study guides.

So, that’s yet another hurdle down towards the goal of being able to live in my place of residence indefinitely. It’s the closest I can get to getting a degree in UK living. This follows three separate Tier 2 visa applications (and fees) and precedes the most complicated application and by far the most expensive set of fees, yet. Meanwhile, we’ve adopted a wee British citizen, bought a home, and gotten our driving licences. My default spelling convention when I type is now British, and my default lexis in the areas of either academia or childrearing is most definitely British as well. And yet there’s something about this test for Indefinite Leave to Remain that makes me feel so incredibly American. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly aware of my English language privilege compared to the other kinds of people taking the same test, or the closely related privilege that comes with my American cultural knowledge. Or maybe because I’ve just wasted quite a bit of my personal time to pass some ridiculously challenging hurdle in order to prove to the British state that I’m good enough for them. Then again, there’s a quality of that experience that makes me feel rather British, too.

As I type this, I am sitting in my favourite Turkish cafe, across the street from my office building. It’s late afternoon but I’m treating myself to a glass of wine (something I’d never do in the US) and eating some Scottish salmon… on a bagel. One of my favourite songs of all time just came on: Golden Brown by The Stranglers. Lest this be some kind of British ‘sign’, let me tell you that it was then followed by a song that brings me right back to the sights and smells of my early childhood: Jump by the Pointer Sisters. And that’s me in a nutshell, folks.

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse


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