May 03, 2004

Puzzling accent story of the day

Here's another argument for teaching the International Phonetic Alphabet in secondary school. Patrick Belton at OxBlog posts a story (attributed to Josh Cherniss) about a Yale professor "with a strongly Southern accent" who is said to have told the students in a course on Faulkner to focus their exam preparation on "Sarah Dang". This turned out to be the professor's way of saying "As I lay dying." I'm skeptical, unless his "Southern accent" was from the southern Ryukyu Islands.

We've recently featured several cases where otherwise perceptive people stumble when they try to think or write about speech sounds. Sometimes acute observations are wrapped in incoherent nomenclature, as in Leon Wieseltier's discussion of "g-dropping". Sometimes a writer seems to get confused even about how to categorize sounds, not just how to describe them, as when the New Yorker's Jake Helpern mis-describes Nelly's "herre" for here as "hurr", with the same sound as "thurr" for there. In Belton's OxBlog post, phonetic ignorance spoils a joke.

Perception across accents of American English can certainly result in mistakes. Bill Labov has some impressive demonstrations of Chicago-area speech in which "socks" sounds to outsiders like "sacks", "block" sounds like "black", "steady" sounds like "study", "head" sounds like "had", and so on. Various southern-states varieties of English certainly have similar potential to be misunderstood by outsiders. But the case that Patrick Belton describes doesn't make sense to me.

The claim is that the professor said "As I lay dying", but was heard as saying "Sarah Dang". An American southerner might elide the vowel in "as", but he'd still have a voiced [z] for the final consonant in that word; he'd have a monophthong [ɐ] for the pronoun "I", but there's no way he'd turn the [l] of "lay" into an [r]; he might also have a relatively monophthongal vowel [e] in "lay"; but he'd also probably pronounce the "-ing" ending as [ɪn]. So the whole thing would come out in the IPA as something like


which might plausibly have been heard as a pronunciation of the name "Zaleh Dayen", but hardly "Sarah Dang".

When Jake Halpern's New Yorker article falsely described Nelly pronouncing "herre" as "hurr", I imagine that was a slip of Halpern's memory. Nelly spells "here" in a non-standard way in the title of a famous song; he pronounces "there" (and other words in the same set) in a non-standard way, rhyming with (the general American pronunciation of) burr; the standard spelling of "here" and "there" makes them orthographic rhymes, so to speak; and Halpern just made up the rest, probably without realizing it, though obviously also without caring much one way or the other about phonetic accuracy.

I suspect that the "As I lay dying" to "Sarah Dang" story is similar. I can believe that some Yale students once had trouble understanding one of their professors; Josh Cherniss may well have been one of them; I bet that the rest is some amalgam of the original misperception with various layers of mis-remembering, story-telling and re-telling down the chain to Patrick Belton's post.

One sleep-deprived undergrad's slip of the ear? Maybe. His reconstruction of the experience, telling the story years later? Even more likely. An accurate account of cross-accent misinterpretation, by a whole class, of the sounds that a professor from the American south actually produced? I doubt it.

Of course, an audio clip of an American southerner -- or even a plausible imitation of a southerner -- saying "As I lay dying" in a way that sounds sort of like "Sarah Dang" would help convince me. There are lots of ways of talking that could be described as "southern", and maybe I'm not thinking of the right one.

[Update: the Oxblog post has been updated to change "Sarah" to "Sally", which makes the first part of the misunderstanding much more plausible.

It's still pretty hard to make sense of the "Dang" part. Here's a thought, though: maybe the speaker actually pronounced "dying" in the common, standard way, with a full rising diphthong and a velar nasal -- IPA [dɐjɪŋ] or [dɐʲŋ]. However, the listener(s) expected him to say "dang" (as in "dang nab it") in something like that way -- maybe more like [dʌæŋ] -- and so mis-interpreted a perfectly standard rendition of "dying" as a drawled, countrified southern rendition of "dang".

If that's the line of thinking that led to this story, then I'm even more convinced that somebody may have (re)constructed the whole thing long after the event, based on the same kind of half-remembered, half-confused associations that seem to have operated in Jake Halpern's New Yorker story.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 3, 2004 11:32 AM