November 28, 2003

Deep in the Hawt of Texath

A piece in today's NY Times on the etiology of the Texas twang was sounding pretty reasonable for the genre, until I came on the following:

The opposite syndrome, known as r-lessness, which renders "four" as "foah" in Texas and elsewhere, is easier to trace, Dr. Bailey said. In the early days of the republic, plantation owners sent their children to England for schooling. "They came back without the `r,' " he said. "The parents were saying, listen to this, this is something we have to have, so we'll all become r-less," he said. The craze went down the East Coast from Boston to Virginia (skipping Philadelphia, for some reason) and migrating selectively around the country.

That would be Guy Bailey, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who sounds here as if he's ignorant of the foundational research by Kurath and McDavid and others that established the connection between American dialect features and patterns of early settlement -- or maybe he's just unwilling to let go of a good tale.

The idea that American r-lessness arose because rich families sent their children to England for schooling is pure nonsense, of course -- there's no evidence that this was a widespread practice in either New England or the South, or for that matter for any r-lessness craze in American history. And in any case, that sort of story isn't required to explain r-lessness, given both the history of settlement and the role of autochthonous changes, as elaborated by Labov and many others.

But people seem to enjoy these anecdotes about the origins of linguistic features, like the classic story of the lisping King of Spain. That testifies to the popular tendency to think of language as a superficial social practice that changes in response to the sway of fashion, the same assumption that makes it easy to believe that systematic syntactic and phonological changes arise out of mere carelessness or affectation. The Times reporter couldn't have known any better, of course. But what was Bailey thinking of? Posted by Geoff Nunberg at November 28, 2003 09:46 PM