November 23, 2006

A linguist's thanksgiving

Over the three Thanksgivings that Language Log has been in existence, we've marked the holiday by noting the layered semiotics of the Macy's parade ("Same-sex Mrs. Santa: 'the semantics are confusing'", 11/27/2003), Thomas Jefferson's wisdom in refusing to proclaim a national thanksgiving day devoted to "fasting & prayer" ("Thanks giving", 11/25/2004), and the singularity of the American polity ("Life in these, uh, this United States", 11/24/2005).

This morning, as I counted my blessings, public and private, I thought about how many of them are transformed curses, and gave special thanks for all that blogging has done for me in this respect. For me as an individual linguist, it can only be frustrating and depressing to observe the conjunction of intense public interest and unprecedented public ignorance with respect to matters of speech and language. But as a writer for Language Log, I can join H. L. Mencken in viewing this as a "daily panorama ... of private and communal folly inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows".

In other words, it's not just another sad example of our educational system failing to provide an intellectual with the tools needed for the job -- no, it's a topic for a Language Log post!

Today's example is provided by Lawrence Henry ("To Accent or No", The American Spectator, 11/22/2006). Christopher S. Mackay brought this article to Geoff Pullum's attention, and Geoff mentioned it yesterday in the break room at Language Log Plaza, observing that it's "a feast of layperson's efforts to talk about phonetics without having the phonetics", and that it "it comes out with some very strange claims about accents and languages and sociolinguistics". One of our younger staffers, who has not yet entirely mastered Mencken's technique, remarked that "crap like that just makes my head hurt". But I agree with Pullum: it's a virtual Thanksgiving feast.

The first dish is Mr. Henry's version of the common opinion that an "accent" is what everyone else has:

Cursed with acute hearing, I have bequeathed my boy Bud unaccented speech. Bud talks…well, like Brian Williams. How did I do that? By making fun of local locutions and teaching Bud to hear.

If you look up accent in the dictionary, ignoring the stuff about stresses and diacritics, you'll find glosses like "a characteristic pronunciation, especially one determined by the regional or social background of the speaker"; "a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region"; "a way of pronouncing words that indicates the place of origin or social background of the speaker"; "the mode of utterance peculiar to an individual, locality, or nation".

In that sense, Brian Williams has an accent, just like Tom and Ray Magliozzi do. At least, that would certainly be the opinion of a resident of London, Melbourne or Cape Town. But Mr. Henry feels that Eastern Massachusetts pronunciation is a deviation from a neutral norm:

This has cost Bud in the court of peer opinion. His confreres at school seem to regard him as a snob for correct speech.

In fact, I bet they say that poor Bud has a "snooty accent". Or maybe they use some other adjective -- but I bet they don't say "ain't it odd how Bud has no accent?" Bud's dad continues:

Massachusetts is like that. If we lived in Texas, would I have equally mocked the local tendency to say "awl" for "oil"? Something in New England speech grates me wrong, and has made me a stickler for diction.

What kind of speech grates Mr. Henry right? Well, he tells us in his last paragraph:

I would rather my boys talked like Bobby Jones than Archie Bunker. If I could choose an accent for my own, which I no longer can, I would talk like golf announcer and former Amateur champ Steve Melnyk, like Jones, a Georgian. But I strongly suspect that, like me, over time, my boys will end up talking without any real accent at all. My son Bud has noticed that his classmates' accents are less pronounced than their parents'. Absent some temporary fad, like slurry or Valley Girl, that is the established trend. I am really not sure if that is to be mourned or rejoiced.

In fact, there's some controversy about what the "established trend" is. Perhaps some social strata are becoming more homogenized -- the youth of (say) Andover MA and Alpharetta GA may be more similar in their speech than their parents are, I guess -- but in other cases, there's evidence that some regional and social dialects in America are diverging. In any case, even if all Americans ended up speaking in exactly the same way, this would not be "speaking without any real accent at all", no matter how plain and flat the participants in this unlikely confluence felt the results to be. It would still be the characteristic pronunciation of a particular class, place and time, even if the class, place and time were "all native speakers of American English", "all of the United States", and "the middle of the 21st century".

The second dish in this feast is Mr. Henry's presentation of the Law of Least Effort, prepared in a delicately-flavored reduction of the notion that standard speech is also the most highly optimized, and garnished with sprigs of eye-dialect:

Many of the characteristics of regional accents are very labor-intensive. Speech usually elides toward the easy. It is much easier to say "and" than the tortured New England "ee-und," much easier to say "ahn" than "oh-wahn" ("on"). Why do these pronunciations persist?

Now, we know that Mr. Henry knows that eastern New England speech is r-less, because he mentions it in the context of an interesting discussion of dialect ideology:

I overheard a girl from Charlestown, who was taking a speech class, say that she had a hard time saying the terminal "r" in "brother" or "sister," instead of her accustomed "brothuh" or "sistuh." "It sounds unfriendly," she objected.

To my ears, au contraire, Eastern accents sound thuggish, threatening, and aggressive. TV and radio commercial producers use those accents to suggest savvy, but usually in a working class character, like a plumber. My wife finds Southern accents threatening, in a macho sort of way. In commercials, those cultural markers, Southern accents signify much the same thing as the working class Easterner: savvy about something nitty-gritty, like motor oil.

But curiously, it doesn't occur to him to wonder why Brian Williams doesn't drop all those complicated final-r-related lingual contortions, in favor of the New Englanders' simpler and much less labor-intensive schwa. And why do "accentless" Americans insist on all that back-to-front and low-to-high tongue motion in words like "hi" and "bye", instead of the restful, open monophthongs of Sourthern States English?

For dessert, you won't be able to resist at least a taste of Mr. Henry's verbs. His accent may be American standard, but his use of verbs is distinctly innovative. For instance, he'll take a verb that usually comes with a prepositional complement, and use it as a plain transitive. His last sentence, for example -- "I am really not sure if that [trend] is to be mourned or rejoiced -- implies that it's possible to rejoice a trend -- in this case, the alleged trend towards phonetic homogenization -- rather than to rejoice at a trend, or rejoice because of a trend. And as we noted earlier, he says that New England speech "grates me wrong". This seems to be a blend of "grates on me" and "rubs me wrong", but whatever the source, it creates a distinctly non-standard relationship between the grater and the writer.

And now, it's time to turn from these linguistic delicacies to preparations for the physical feast.

[Daniel Ezra Johnson writes:

i know you've moved on to gustatory pursuits today, but i thought i'd note that the 'phonetic' spellings in henry's piece were a) surprisingly on-the-money, as i hear eastern massachusetts speech, and b) not at all fairly called 'eye-dialect', as i understand that term.

Well, the OED glosses "eye dialect" as "unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech", which seems close enough in this case. And I agree that Mr. Henry does a creditable job of representing pronunciations, whatever you call the method he uses.]

[From Peter Howard:

Your recent post reminded me of a conversation I had with an audience member after a Joy of Six poetry performance in New York. At the time, one of our number was a San Francisco native; the rest of us were from various parts of England. I was asked, "Is Wayne an American?" and I confirmed that he was. "I thought he must be." came the reply. "He's the only one of you who doesn't have an accent."


[And another amusing anecdote from Jay Cummings:

This article reminds me of the time I was in Brookhaven, NY, along with 3 of my colleagues. Two were a German Jew and a middle class Englishman, both of whom had lived long in the US, but strongly maintained (to my ears at least) their native accents. The other was a Texan, similarly unchanged in accent despite having lived in southern California for many years. And then there was me, a Minnesotan descendant of Swedes, Norwegians, Germans and English.

We were at a restaurant in town that featured a number of Greek dishes on the menu, and an obviously native Long Island staff. The waitress came to take our orders, and after I chose my entree, she asked me if I would like a Greek salad or a tourist salad with the meal. I did not know what a tourist salad was, but I didn't really like Greek olives and feta cheese, so I asked for the tourist salad, and she wrote this on her pad without comment. She left for the kitchen.

We looked at each other, and the Texan asked me what a tourist salad was. I replied I didn't know, and none of the rest of us had any idea either. Then a short time later, it dawned on me, and I laughed aloud, Oh, she meant a _tossed_ salad!" We all chuckled a bit, and the waitress returned with our beverages.

To explain our laughter, I mentioned that we had not understood her accent, and had just figured it out. With great amazement she stared at us and said, with perfect justification I think, "Youse gennelmin think _Oi_ have an accint?"


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 23, 2006 11:03 AM