A NPR Morning Edition
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
Why do Southerners speak with a "drawl"?
Why do some Middle Westerners say needs
washed rather than needs
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
? 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
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
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
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
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