October 12, 2007

Louisiana vowels

A NPR Morning Edition story this morning by Melanie Peebles about gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal speaking in the little town of Gramercy, Louisiana, refers to the

... locals, who tend to draw out vowels in a speech pattern born of front-porch sitting

Ah, the slow pace of rural life made audible.

When I posted about this to the American Dialect Society mailing list, Charlie Doyle quipped:

And northerners talk fast because they sit uncomfortably on those little stoops.

The larger point here is that non-linguists tend to hold to a folk belief that differences between varieties, including geographical and social dialects, have a deep explanation.

So ordinary people are inclined to ask linguists why questions, like:

Why do Southerners speak with a "drawl"?

Why do some Middle Westerners say needs washed rather than needs washing?

Why do many Western Pennsylvania speakers say gum band instead of rubber band?

Why do kids introduce quotations with be like rather than say?

Why do working-class New Yorkers say dese and dose instead of these and those?

The answers that linguists give are rarely fully satisfying to the questioners.  Mostly, we explain the history of a variant, if we know it or can find it out, and we appeal to general mechanisms of change -- of sound change, syntactic change, semantic change, borrowing, lexical innovation, and so on.  So we say that the construction in needs washed is just a continuation of a pattern in the speech of Scots-Irish settlers in the U.S.  When pressed further, we explain that the construction makes syntactic sense: the subject of needs washed is understood as the object of the verb WASH, so the semantics here is a lot like the semantics of the passive, and we use the past participle form (washed) in the passive, so why not use it here?

At this point, our questioner is likely to say that that's all fine and good, but why did the Scots-Irish, and not other people, innovate this variant?   Why did only certain groups "simplify" the pronunciation of these to dese?  Why did Western Pennsylvania speakers of German descent carry over the German Gummiband as gum band, while abandoning most other items of German?  Why did people start using be like to introduce quotations only in the last century, if the construction is so natural and useful?

Any decent answer to these more detailed questions -- all of them questions about particular events, involving particular bits of language and particular people, at particular times and in particular places -- is going to involve some appeal to randomness or chance along the way, and most non-linguists just hate the idea that so many things might happen in language for no good reason.  (Actually, a great many people just hate the idea that ANYTHING happens for no good reason; there's a reason for everything, they say.)  So they take an an appeal to randomness as a confession of failure on the part of linguists.  And they cast about for other reasons: anatomy, the weather, geography, social customs (like front-porch sitting), group character (like the toughness of working-class New Yorkers), whatever.

People can be inventive.  Several times when I've noted, in the phonetics and sociolinguistics sections of introductory linguistics courses, the unrounded (indeed, often spread-lipped) variant of the vowel in good for many California speakers, especially young speakers along the SoCal coast -- a nice way of making unrounded high back vowels real for students who might not hear the actual vowel sounds of Japanese very well but who are probably familiar with the SoCal good vowel through its association with the "surfer dude" stereotype -- my students have offered their explanation for the phenomenon: the SoCal speakers smile a whole lot when they talk, and the SoCal good vowel is what you get when smile while producing the vowel.  My students largely remain unmoved by my objection that the vowels of dude and load are not similarly unrounded for these speakers, who mostly shift those vowels towards the front while preserving rounding in one way or another.  Or by my objection that there are plenty of other groups whose members are stereotyped as smiling an awful lot -- women, for example -- but who don't in general show the unrounding.  There just has to be an explanation; it couldn't be by chance.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 12, 2007 03:23 PM