June 03, 2004

Wait, wait, don't transcribe me

An unusual number of occurrences of words like home (and other words with the same vowel) during the NPR news this morning enabled me to spend some concentrated time confirming something I had vaguely noticed before about the distinctive and much-admired speech of Carl Kasell. (I'll need to transcribe a few words in the International Phonetic Alphabet in what follows; the symbols should show up all right if your browser handles HTML codes in the region above #256.) The standard wisdom about American English that I've been teaching in my phonetics class is that a word like home would be pronounced [hoʊm]; but Carl Kasell (not that I want to make him feel self-conscious about this) doesn't have anything like that pronunciation. Paradoxically — since he is so much a standard for American speech that NPR runs a weekend call-in news quiz show ("Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me") on which the prize for winning listeners is getting Carl Kasell's voice on their home answering machine — his speech is actually quite idiosyncratically distinct from what is commonly thought of as standard. His pronunciation of home is [hɔːm]. (For phoneticians whose browsers have let them down: he uses Cardinal 6 instead of a diphthong beginning with Cardinal 7.)

Cardinal vowel number 7, transcribed [ɔː], is not normally found in standard American English pronunciation except where the r-sound [ɹ] follows; thus horn is pronounced [hɔːɹn]. Most British English dialects don't have [ɹ] after the vowel of a syllable, so for them horn is pronounced [hɔːn]. Carl Kasell has that vowel in home and phone and go and coast, etc. Those who win his voice on their home answering machine will find his is telling their friends that they're not [hɔːm] right now.

Their friends probably won't mind, though. It's odd, but sometimes personal idiosyncrasies of speech go completely unnoticed, especially from prestigious people. People get all excited or furious about some minor phonetic aspects of speech like alleged mispronunciations of George Bush or Brad Pitt (not that people know how to describe the facts them very well), but then they will completely miss salient features of the speech of other people in the public eye or ear. Perhaps people don't hate Carl Kasell as much as they hate George Bush or Brad Pitt.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 3, 2004 01:29 PM