April 05, 2004

The inner necessity of phonetic metalanguage

From an exchange on Slate between Jeffrey Goldberg and Leon Wieseltier about Wieseltier's guest spot as "Stewart Silverman" on The Sopranos, another argument for elementary education in linguistics.

Goldberg: ... Your enunciation of the word "motherfucking" was perfect. I smell Emmy.

Wieseltier: ... I am delighted that you recognize the sociolinguistic analysis that went into the enunciation of my searing expletive. These things are not as easy as they seem. Needless to say, when I first read my lines I discovered parts of myself I never knew existed. As I pondered the character of Stewart Silverman, I began to grasp the inner necessity of the hard "g" in my "motherfucking." Our Italian-American brothers and our African-American brothers might surrender the concluding letter of the exclamation, so as to establish some integrity on the street.

But Stewart Silverman lives in perfect horror of the street. He doesn't even park on the street. ...such a fellow is a long way from authenticity. And so he would land very hard on that "g". He didn't go to BU for nothing. This is a man who is this week boasting to anybody who will listen that he once flew into West Palm on the same plane as Peter Bacanovic. In sum: motherfuckinggg.

So Wieseltier knows what sociolinguistic means. And his analysis of the relevant aspects of the sociolinguistic difference between "-ing" as [ɪŋ] and "-ing" as [ɪn] is not only vivid, but also accurate as far as it goes. So it's too bad that he doesn't know that there's no "g", hard or soft, anywhere in the picture: the more informal (and older) version (often spelled -in') has a coronal nasal [n], where the more formal (and innovative) version has a velar nasal [ŋ]. People often talk about "g dropping" because of the orthographic conventions; Wieseltier compounds the error by suggesting that a retained (orthographic) "g" must be "hard" -- though the usual ordinary-language meaning of "hard g" is the sound of the first "g" in gorge, as opposed to the "soft" (i.e. palatalized) sound of the second "g" in the same word.

The sad truth is that even if Wieseltier had a clue about the phonetics, there's no good way to talk about it that his audience would have understood. He could have said "...the inner necessity of the "-ing" in my "motherfucking", I guess, but that's just perfoming the morpheme, not talking about its performance. Even highly-educated Americans have no metalanguage for talking about the sounds of English, except for ambiguous and inconsistent references to the ambiguous and inconsistent orthography.

I should say that I have not seen the Sopranos episode in question, and so it remains possible that Wieseltier actually enunciated a voiced velar stop [g] at the end of the cited word, as a sort of spelling-pronunciation hypercorrection. But I doubt it.

[Update: more on this here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 5, 2004 10:50 AM