May 16, 2004

More on journalistic ignorance of linguistic description

Eric Bakovic emailed to point out that Bob Mondello's review of Troy on NPR includes the following characterization of Brad Pitt's speech:

"As with most sword-and-sandal epics, go indoors and everything's suddenly about statuary, and torches, and an international cast that's trying to reach common ground on accents; here the kings hail from Scotland and Ireland, and the followers from London's West End and Australia. Happily this makes Pitt's Achilles sound like the outsider he's supposed to be, even when he remembers to round his vowels..."

I haven't seen Troy, and don't have access to a sound track, so I don't know what Pitt actually does to accomodate his vowels to his transnational surroundings. However, I'll bet that it has nothing to do with what linguists call "rounding", in which the orbicularis oris (and some other facial muscles) are used to constrict and protrude (i.e. "round") the lips, thus lowering the vocal tract resonances known as formants.

Instead, Mondello is using "round" in an evocative way, as Arthur Rimbaud did when he assigned colors to vowels:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes

But there are some key differences here. I don't mean that Rimbaud is a dead French poet, while Mondello is a live American movie critic. I mean that Rimbaud was working out a systematic metaphorical (or synaesthetic) correspondence between (nouns for) vowels and (adjectives for) colors. Mondello, on the other hand, is just thoughtlessly mis-using one verb, originally a term for shape, that already has a standard meaning in the domain of vowel sounds. 19th-century French phoneticians didn't use rouge and bleu as technical terms for vowel "color" -- nor do they now -- but they did use the term arrondi ("rounded"), and in the vowel charts of the International Phonetic Association, since the first one was published in 1888, vowels have been presented in the traditional rounded and unrounded pairs, with a specific meaning that is not Mondello's.

Being a transgressive kind of guy, Rimbaud would have been happy enough to subvert the IPA's terminology if it had served his ends. But Mondello is not subverting anything, he's just ignorant.

Let's add this to the pile of evidence that American education needs an infusion of basic descriptive linguistics. As I wrote in reference to another case:

Leon Wieseltier is the Literary Editor of The New Republic magazine. He's not just an acute observer of social relations, he's also highly educated and well read. He knows the word sociolinguistic, for instance, and he's not afraid to use it. But as I pointed out at the time, Wieseltier shares a blind spot with most other intellectuals today -- he can't describe the basic facts of language in a coherent way, because he doesn't know what the basic descriptive vocabulary means. We've seen other examples of this same problem recently, when intellectuals were discussing passive verb forms, or the structure of arguments, or hiphop vowel sounds.

This is not their fault -- not the fault of people like Wieseltier and Mondello -- except in the limited sense that public intellectuals have some responsibility to try to learn the elementary science and scholarship of fields that they comment on. Instead, it's the fault of the American educational establishment, which has almost entirely abandoned its responsibility to teach the basic terminology and skills of linguistic description. It's also the fault of the field of linguistics, which has devoted little effective effort to basic education on a large scale.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 16, 2004 08:51 AM