Orphan, Often, Brits and Yanks

I have just been reading, with a distinct feeling of wondering if I'm still on the same planet, various web pages on which Americans make comment on the "orphan/often" pun in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance".

Such a feeling is, of course, not unusual when dealing with American culture. Two examples that spring to mind are: the incongruity of otherwise apparently perfectly reasonable and civilised people considering Republicans as reasonable and even desirable candidates for political power (Americans: from the perspective of this side of the pond, the Democrats are most definitely right-wingers, while the Republicans make Hitler look not only moderate, but also sane); and the difficulty I had on reading works by EE "Doc" Smith in understanding that the business practices he ascribes to various Earth-based corporations and individuals are not, as I thought, preposterous hyperbole used in a ham-fisted attempt to portray a cardboard pastiche villain, but in fact are closely based on real life American businesses and in some cases on Smith's personal experience. Still, that's neither here nor there. What I'm really on about on this page is kind of the other way round - an American misperception of something of British origin; specifically, this:

GENERAL: Tell me, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
PIRATES: (disgusted) Oh, dash it all!
KING: Here we are again!
GENERAL: I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
KING: Often!
GENERAL: Yes, orphan. Have you ever known what it is to be one?
KING: I say, often.
ALL: (disgusted) Often, often, often. (Turning away)
GENERAL: I don't think we quite understand one another. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan, and you say "orphan". As I understand you, you are merely repeating the word "orphan" to show that you understand me.
KING: I didn't repeat the word often.
GENERAL: Pardon me, you did indeed.
KING: I only repeated it once.
GENERAL: True, but you repeated it.
KING: But not often.
GENERAL: Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said "orphan", did you mean "orphan", a person who has lost his parents, or "often", frequently?
KING: Ah! I beg pardon - I see what you mean - frequently.
GENERAL: Ah! you said "often", frequently.
KING: No, only once.
GENERAL: (irritated) Exactly - you said "often", frequently, only once.

Americans are (understandably) somewhat confused by this passage - but it seems they have a strong tendency to explain it to each other by asserting that "in British English" - by which they mean current British conventions of pronunciation - the words sound the same. Er, no. They don't.

Most of Gilbert's writing has aged very well - after all, much of it consists of poking fun at human stupidity, which is a regrettably unchanging characteristic. This passage, however, has not - these days, it is little less baffling than the "strategy/sat-a-gee" bit in the Major-General's patter song which precedes it. For a modern audience - a modern British audience - both bits of word-play only "work" with the assistance of some heavy-handed hamming-it-up to get the point across (though it is not too serious a problem, as most of the audience will have seen the play 50 times over already and know it backwards in any case.) Though it is interesting that a fine opportunity to cue the audience to what is coming occurs a few lines earlier where the Major-General says "The Pirates of Penzance! I have often heard of them" yet I don't recall this having been emphasised for the purpose.

The "orphan/often" pun/confusion does make sense in terms of upper-class British pronunciation at the time the play was written - the pronunciation that would have been considered "correct" by audiences of the time. They would be entirely familiar with the habit of pronouncing "o" as "or", so that "off" becomes "orf" and rhymes with "wharf", and also with the habit of missing out the "t" in "often" - under which transformations, the two words do indeed sound the same.

These days, however, the only people who pronounce "off" as "orf" are people who were born with a silver plate up their arse, or who aspire to emulate the argiropygous classes. The base canaille (that word is French) not only pronounce it as "off", with the same "o" sound as "pot", but have lost any casual familiarity with the "orf" pronunciation - people do still know about it, but it is not the sort of thing that comes automatically to mind; some form of cue is needed. So in order to provide such a cue, it is common for the actors to ham up the immediately preceding dialogue and perform it in exaggeratedly emphasised upper-class accents to make sure the audience are thinking in terms of old-fashioned posh speech by the time the pun comes along.

Farmer Palmer mug

Farmer Palmer

(The above paragraph is not quite accurate. "Off" being pronounced as "orf" is also a feature of the stereotypical "yokel" accent, as exemplified by the Wurzels or Farmer Palmer. However, this has nothing to do with the matter in hand.

It does, however, raise another point which seems to confuse Americans. Do take note that in England people do not generally feel compelled to roll an "r" just because it is there. It may be merely a pronunciation modifier for the preceding vowel, much like the "e" which performs a similar function in respect of "mat" and "mate". The words "Fawkes" - as in our very own home-grown religious terrorist, Guy Fawkes - and "forks" sound identical; the two words "Farmer Palmer" differ in sound only in the initial letter.)

The elision of the "t" in "often" is another point which seems to be commonly explained by Americans as being typical of British pronunciation. Again, not so. The usual pronunciation is "off-tun". "Offun" is a lazy habit characteristic of people who can't be arsed to avoid slurring their words.

So there you go. To a modern English audience, the "orphan/often" pun is just as contrived and awkward as it is to Americans. Under normal circumstances of everyday speech, the two words are no more likely to be confused over here than they are over there.

Perhaps the confusion is in significant part due to the non-representative accents of British characters in American films. Such characters do seem to have a tendency to speak with the accent of a toff, and maybe this is where people are getting their ideas from. In reality most Brits do not sound anything like that. Far better to get your ideas of British pronunciation from watching British films and TV programmes - and a fair selection of them, too, because of the wide variety of regional accents and the short distances over which they change. Scouse vs Lancashire, or Yorkshire vs Geordie - by American standards the regions are so close together as to count as pretty much the same place, but the accents are so different as to be almost like different languages.

Finally - since I've mentioned it, and despite it being a completely different effect - the "strategy/sat-a-gee" thing doesn't work any more either. Neither "gee" meaning "horse" nor "sat" as a transitive verb feature in modern English. The reduplication "gee-gee" is sometimes used as an infantile word for "horse" by small children, or by people who are sufficiently infantile to throw away their money under the false belief that statistical observations concerning the relative speed of horses do not apply to their own observations, but the single syllable on its own carries no equine connotations at all; "gee" carries no meaning other than as a mild exclamation, a euphemism for "Jesus". "Oh, gee, look at that." The Major-General can't expect to sing "sat a gee" and have people know what it means, so it's not uncommon for him to go "...er ...um ...rode a horse!" instead, and the whole song grinds to a halt while one of the other characters suggests to him that "sat a gee" would make it rhyme, or something like that.

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