August 15, 2007

The sound of surprise

A guest post by Cynthia McLemore.

David Brooks met an East Texas truck driver at a diner in Virginia, and describes him like this:

I don't know what came first, the mystique of trucking or the country music songs that defined the mystique, but this trucker had been captured by the ethos early on and had never let it go. He wore the right boots and clothes. He had a flat, never-surprised way of talking. He didn't smile or try to ingratiate.

Now that's the guy you want to sit next to on a commuter train. He's not likely to distract you from your Harper's with a bunch of attention-grabbing pitch peaks aimed at some wireless target:

Well we were TALKing about going to SPAMalot, but we....

And I bet he wouldn't be as likely to mistake the close connection between two cell phones for the real physical distance between one in LA and one in NY, and shout:

LISten, CHARlie, I MADE reserVAtions for us at the ContiNENtal.

Maybe he wouldn't even raise his voice -- volume and pitch -- in anger:


Because when you've traveled mile after endless mile of flat gray road, maybe you know that every little bump eventually resolves into more of the same. His son is probably a very calm person. Instead of

Bud, MOVE! That's a SCORpion, honey, brush it OFF!

He'd probably just lean over and wordlessly flick it away.

My model of traditional American macho is a Texas variety -- farmers, engineers, and, yes, my grandfather worked as a cowboy. Macho male storytellers in Texas can surprise you in the middle of a yarn with a big bunch of intonational activity -- flat, flat, flat, WILD, WILD, WILD, whew, The End -- that kind of thing. I've heard recordings of men from rural West Texas, men in boots and cowboy hats, using the same intonational structure for narratives as the sorority girls whose speech I studied in Austin. Of course it's hard to see the similarity until you look at the pitch tracks.

Truck drivers encounter hills, valleys, overpasses, underpasses, sharp turns, and winding, winding roads, right? After the third or fourth time you meet a variation, I guess it's pointless to get excited about it, play with it in your sound structures, analogize to your thoughts and feelings. Then again, the mind is a restless, tricky, symbol-making thing.

One of the best surprises I got as a grad student was from an African Fulbright scholar who'd recently arrived in Austin. He was puzzled. He'd lost something precious to him, he said, and when he told the Fulbright office director, she said:

Oh NO! you DIDn't!

Struggling with the new language and culture, he'd stripped away the pitch peaks and heard:

oh no, you didn't.

Why would she contradict him? Did the intonation convey surprise? But why did she negate what he said?

My Fulbright friend was delighted to delve into these issues, buoyant in his new cultural immersion, and thrilled to discover that someone you hardly know would get into your head and express what they think you're thinking or feeling -- i.e. empathize, feel your pain, try to hold off the sting of your loss. We just sat there loving language for a while after we'd traveled down that winding road of shared thought.

Maybe truck drivers with flat intonation liven up at the end, when they get where they're going? The dog! Brooks said that guy travels with a dog. Maybe it barks and whimpers and warbles and wails.... maybe it even sings to C&W.

[Guest post by Cynthia McLemore]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 15, 2007 02:37 PM