March 22, 2006

Further thoughts on "The Affect"

As Mark Liberman notes, the recent New York Observer article on "The Affect" presents "a very mixed bag of phenomena" supposedly characterizing the speech of young upper-middle-class New York women, including "bits of Valley Girl, a few undissolved lumps of Larchmont Lockjaw, and a generous sprinkling of generally female-associated stylistic features." The grab-bag approach is evident from the very beginning, with the headline reading: "City Girl Squawk: It's Like So Bad— It. Really. Sucks?" The illustrative sentence starts off using like as a discourse particle and so as an intensifier (though in the text of the article like is only remarked upon as a quotative and so is not mentioned at all). Then the punctuation of "It. Really. Sucks?" is supposed to cue the reader to a particular intonational pattern: the periods between words suggest an emphatic prosody (as in "Worst. Episode. Ever."), while the italicization of "sucks" and the final question mark are intended to code the rising intonation commonly known as "uptalk."

The writer Jason Horowitz initially posits "The Affect" as a pattern that is distinct to a certain type of New York women ("what really identified this New Yorker was her voice"), but by the next paragraph he's hedging the localization, referring to "a distinct group of young women in the American Northeast." And by the time he gets around to expert testimony from linguists, he's given up on geographical specificity. Bert Vaux focuses instead on gender and age distinctions cutting across regions: "Some people think of it as a young-girls shift. The main features are taking place in many, many parts of the country." Vaux is further quoted in paraphrase:

Mr. Vaux, who conducted a survey of American dialects while teaching at Harvard, said that while the voice heard increasingly in New York was distinctive, it was not particular to the region.

Trying to pinpoint what made it unique, Mr. Vaux crossed off nasality, which he says is what humans always mistakenly identify as different in foreign speech. He overlooked "like," for which he said the speakers of Sanskrit also had a penchant. While he also emphasized that his was not a rigorous scientific assessment of the new speech, he noted that the accent involved speaking with a higher average position of the tongue dorsum and perhaps a slightly different configuration of the laryngeal muscles, yielding a slightly creakier voice than is normal in other accents.

The comment about Sanskrit is perplexing; most likely Horowitz is poorly paraphrasing a point Vaux was making about similarities between English like and the Sanskrit quotative particle iti. Fortunately, the next paraphrase gives some actual phonetic description rather than the impressionistic generalizations pervading the article. Vaux describes the type of phonation known as "creaky voice," which some dialectologists have been observing in young American women in many regions of the country. This is likely what Horowitz means when he says young New York women's "long, whiney vowels" have a "touch of an early-morning grumble." Gawker's comment on the Observer article refers to "the hoarse whine of Parliaments," using a typical characterization of creaky voice as the raspiness of a cigarette smoker (though it should be noted that not all users of creaky phonation are smokers — they may just sound that way).

As for "uptalk," that is neither a regional phenomenon nor a new one. Cynthia McLemore and others have been investigating final rises among young American women for more than a decade and a half now (see here and here for further discussion). Most trace the intonational pattern to "Valley Girl English" as popularized by the likes of Moon Unit Zappa in the early '80s, though it probably could be detected among speakers from southern California long before that. Some of the other phonetic characteristics that Horowitz is gesturing towards also probably have a Californian provenance, particularly the shifting and lengthening of vowels as studied by Penelope Eckert. The popularization of like as a quotative or discourse marker has also been traced to California English.

Despite the lack of descriptive precision in the article, it serves at least as a vague indication of what counts as stigmatized these days in American youth speech, particularly patterns coded as feminine and therefore frivolous. Again we have a popular media account attempting to instill linguistic anxiety in some readers (and instilling a sense of linguistic superiority among others). But never fear: as Horowitz describes, speech therapists run "accent elimination programs" to train speakers away from stigmatized patterns. If this article gets widely circulated, business will probably be booming in New York.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 22, 2006 01:26 PM