July 10, 2005

They have ears, but they hear not

Well, I haven't gotten any answer about the bet. If I can't make the point with respect to Bob Stacy's voice, I'll have to make do with the voices of Tennyson, Yeats, HD, Churchill, Plath and Frost. But first, let me set the stage.

The tension between tradition and innovation raises valid and important questions, in language as in other areas of human culture. In linguistic matters, however, the people who are most passionately concerned with these questions are often deeply and bizarrely confused about what the traditions and innovations really are.

I invite you to imagine a concerned father who posts something like the following, to one of the many web forums dealing with wedding arrangements:

I'm worried about the institution of marriage. I like to see a bride wearing the traditional hollowed-out pumpkin on her head, not one of those new-fangled gauze veils. The groom should be dressed in a cloak of bright yellow felt, as of old. The ring-bearer should carry the ring scotch-taped to his upper lip, not resting on a cushion.

This would be easier if I could provide diagrams.

I know it's not always necessary or appropriate, but I feel that some ceremonies are sacred. This really hit home when my daughter came home telling me that her wedding advisor said that if you wear a hollowed-out pumpkin on your head, it looks stupid.

Is it time for me to give up on what I've learned about how a wedding should be performed?

What do you think would happen?

For my part, I hope and expect that the forum moderator would quickly and quietly delete this painful display of hallucinatory crankiness. If not, I hope that most of the other forum participants would take it as a bad joke, and politely ignore it. Those who responded would say things like "um, have you checked the level of your medications recently?" or "a hollowed-out pumpkin? Geez, what planet are you from?"

It's inconceivable that such a post would generate hundreds of responses along the lines of "It's not a lost cause as long as we keep fighting"; "Most people don't know any better. You clearly do. Live by example."; "There is a balance between upholding ceremonial tradition and having such specific standards that you can't possibly hope to be anything but disappointed. The gripes expressed in the question are incredibly minor, and yeah, you should probably let go a bit. Fight for something interesting and substantial like limiting tuxedos to weddings held after 6:00 p.m."; "The wedding ceremony isn't like a ripe apple which will rot if left on the windowsill. It doesn't 'deteriorate.' It changes. And it has been changing for a long time and will continue to change. And no single point in that history will be the 'best' point."

These positions are all reasonable ones, in the abstract, but adopting them in response to a complaint about the decline in bridal head-pumpkins could only happen in a play by a slightly second-rate surrealist. Unfortunately, this level of discourse is the everyday norm in matters of language. I'm serious -- please go check it out.

The problem seems to be that everyone thinks that everyone can plainly see what the facts about the sound, form and meaning of language are, since after all, everyone can speak and understand. On the contrary, untrained perceptions about language seem to be roughly as accurate as untrained perceptions about chemistry and physics are, and perhaps even more subject to effects of suggestion. Everyone can see what brides wear on their heads; but almost no one, apparently, can hear what people say.

Let's take the recent MetaFilter thread on the prounciation of the and a as an example. The premise, announced by snsranch, is that the correct pronunciation of these words is [ði] and [ei], rhyming with "me" and "bay", and that the reduced forms [ðə] and [ə] are a modern degeneracy that traditionalists should resist.

Without making any judgment whatsoever on the value of adherence to tradition, everyone should immediately see that this premise is completely false. As far as I know, all standard versions of English, in formal as well as informal registers, normally render the and a as [ðə] and [ə] whenever a word beginning with a consonant follows. When a vowel-initial word follows, the standard practice is to use a higher, more [i]-like vowel in the definite article (which is an instance of a more general phenomenon known as vowel-before-vowel tensing), and to use the form "an" for the indefinite article. Emphatic forms -- for example in case of contrastive stress, or a particularly strong emphasis on every word of a phrase -- are [ði] and [ei] before consonant-initial words, but these are rare.

This pattern is not some sort of new-fangled emblem of rebellious youth. I don't know the deep history of the pronunciation of the articles in English -- at some point they must merge with the common ancestor of German die and ein -- but I believe that in living memory, and in the memory of the parents and grandparents of those now living, all standard versions of both American and British English have followed the pattern described in the previous paragraph.

We have direct evidence of this, in the form of recordings going back more than a hundred years.

Here is Tennyson, reading the opening of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,

Listen to it!

There are three instances of the indefinite article "a", and every one of them is the normal reduced form [ə]. If Tennyson had read this passage with the emphatic form [ei], his listeners would have thought him insane, or at least deeply eccentric.

Now here is Yeats, discussing why he reads his poems in a style that some people find artificial:

I remember the great English poet, William Morris, coming in a rage out of some lecture hall, where somebody had recited a passage out of his Sigurd the Volsung. "It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble", said Morris, "to get that thing into verse". It gave *me* a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.

There are three the's and six a's in this passage. Please listen to them and ask yourself how they are pronounced.

Here is the American poet HD, reading a few lines from Helen in Egypt. Along with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, she invented modern poetry in 1905 in Philadelphia.

I drew out a blackened stick,
but he snatched it,
he flung it back.

"what sort of enchantment is this?
what art will you wield with a fagot?
are you Hecate? are you a witch?

a vulture, a hieroglyph,
the sign or the names of god?"

Again, please listen to the two the's and five a's. HD reads in a very formal style, with more British influence than might be expected for someone born in Bethlehem, PA, in 1886 -- but she uses the normal reduced pronunciations of those seven words.

Here is a passage from Churchill's famous "fight on the beaches" speech.

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle; until in God's good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Listen to Churchill, and then listen again, committing the linguistic sacrilege of imagining that he had pronounced all his 15 the's as [ði] (rather than just the two pre-vocalic instances "the air" and "the old") and his two a's as [ei]. Can anyone believe that this would have been a rhetorical improvement, rather than an unexpected, unnatural and bizarre intrusion?

Here is Sylvia Plath reading three tender lines from her poem Daddy:

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

Here is Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Using the emphatic pronunciations of the and a in these poems would not only sound bizarre and unnatural, it would also would also spoil the rhythm.

It's a bit depressing that so few people ever pay careful attention to the language that they've heard all their lives. It's nothing short of outrageous that those who can't spare the time to listen to how people talk are nevertheless so happy to carry on at length in public about it.

This is not an appeal for deference to experts. On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the many people who are so passionately interested in speech and language should be offered a basic education in the methods of linguistic description and the habits of analytic observation, so that they can explore and express their passion in an informed way.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 10, 2005 09:53 AM