March 22, 2006

The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO

Lane Greene sent in a link to Jason Horowitz's 3/27/2006 New York Observer piece about the "City Girl Squawk" of "proudly upper-middle-class girls who love nothing more than to linger on a vowel".

It's an interesting story, whose premise is that "a distinct group of young women in the American Northeast are speaking with warped syllables that are a linguistic love song to their own exclusive milieu". Horowitz dubs this mode of speech "The Affect", apparently on the theory that it's affected, in the sense of being artificially adopted as a symbol of upper-middle-class identity.

There's been a recent flurry of media interest in the "Northern Cities Shift", a set of sound changes taking place in a belt of American cities from Rochester to Chicago. The NCS has been extensively documented by sociolinguists like Bill Labov and his students. For his discussion of the Affect, Horowitz consulted linguists Bert Vaux, John Singler, Walt Wolfram as well as Bill Labov, and he provides plenty of evocative examples. It's nice to see so much recent popular interest in linguistic variation and change.

And Horowitz might be on to something with his "Affect". However, the examples in his article are a very mixed bag of phenomena, ranging from some fragments of the Northern Cities Shift itself (his example of "ob-juhk-tion" for objection") to bits of Valley Girl, a few undissolved lumps of Larchmont Lockjaw, and a generous sprinkling of generally female-associated stylistic features, such as the modulations of duration and pitch sometimes rendered by typographical devices like italics and repeated letters.

Often, it's hard to figure out what linguistic features he's really talking about. He gives his examples in an exaggerated sort of "eye dialect" whose interpretation is often pretty clear ("ob-juhk-tion" for objection) but is sometimes baffling. What is "li-yike" for like supposed to mean, for example? Just a drawn-out diphthong? or is it really supposed to correspond to something like IPA [laiˈjaik] ? I think it must be the drawn-out diphthong, because the re-articulated version doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard in English except as a speech error. But in that case, Horowitz's spelling doesn't make much sense -- so maybe he means something different entirely that I haven't thought of.

All too many of his examples are effective not because they highlight special features of pronunciation or word choice or even speech style, but rather because of the content and context of what's said:

They can turn any item on a menu into an ancient Greek’s ritual lament (Stooooohhhleee owwrindge and taaaahnick!). They can separate emphasis from meaning, transforming the most straight-faced declarations into squeaky questions (“I haiiiiight haaaahr soooh maaaahch?”).

To be sure that we don't miss the point, Horowitz clues us in with phrases like "whining sorority girls" and "stigma of stupidity, juvenilia and shallowness". The linguistic characteristics are framed by details of dress, appearance and behavior, and described with evaluative words like "lazy" and "grumble":

“I laaaaahv a diiiiivey baaaaaahr,” said a girl with a voice that could crack the ice in her vodka tonic. It was her third drink. She was sitting with a friend at Duke’s (the “divey bar”) on 19th Street off Park Avenue South, wearing a periwinkle scarf around her neck and zebra-print shoes on her feet. She was in her late 20’s, had thick, dark eyebrows and straight, shiny brown hair worn in a long ponytail. She looked like a million other girls in New York: attractive but not pretty, stringy but not skinny, smart but not all that intelligent. [...]

More than the pearls or the diamond-stud earrings, what really identified this New Yorker was her voice: those long, whiney vowels; that touch of an early-morning grumble; that lazy, whistling “s” and glottal stop that hushes the “t,” even in such cherished words as “bachelorette.”

I spend a lot of time among upwardly-mobile college-age Americans, both male and female, and I recognize some of the ways of talking that Horowitz sketches. But it seems to me that he's talking about a diffuse collection of features, with many different sources and a complex pattern of connections to geography, class, gender and communicative intent. I also suspect that his description is subject to the "seductive effects of selective attention" that Arnold Zwicky has repeatedly warned us about: "the Recency Illusion (if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently) and the Frequency Illusion (once you notice a phenomenon, you believe that it happens a whole lot)." And especially the "out-group illusion":

... people pay attention selectively to members of groups they don't see themselves as belonging to and so locate phenomena as characteristics of these groups.

Arnold's advice is worth quoting again, in bold face and big letters:

The point here is that your impressions are unreliable; you need to find out what the facts are.

But this takes more time than a journalist usually has, and all that extra time might just spoil a good story -- a story that lets everyone feel superior to all those uppity young women in the bars off Park Avenue South.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 22, 2006 12:23 PM