Friday, June 29, 2007

I Heard You

One of the joys of being a linguist (*cough* former linguist) is that you're constantly surrounded by data. Turn on the tv, and you hear language. Call your mama on the phone, and you hear language. Somebody's rude to you in the supermarket... you get the picture. We are constantly surrounded by data for a potential linguistics paper.

Yes, we're analyzing everything you say. At least I do. And so does the Linguistic Mystic. All the time. Acutely.

I know immediatly some people are going to read this and assume we're constantly listening for grammatical errors, and judging people for their non-standard speech. We're not. Standard speech for linguists is both a) a myth, and b) a giant snore-fest.

What we listen for is variety. I listen particulary for dialect, both in terms of phonology and lexicon. Once, in grad school, I told my friend that her husband's dialect reminded me of someone I knew from Ephrata, Washington... He then explained that he grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, just 15 miles down the road, and everyone was filled with wonder. I'm sure that British or Italian people, who are much more dialect conscious, would think that 15 miles is a huge margin of error, but for rural Washington, where homogeneity is an expectation, that 15 miles is pretty good.

I have always analyzed language, since I was a kid. I remember sitting in the garage, in the back seat of my parents' VW Dasher, waiting for my parents to come drive me somewhere, and thinking about conditional sentence structure. For example, "If I had known you were coming, I would have gotten ready." I remember thinking about the grammatical words "had" and were" and "would have," and the grammatical meaning that they conveyed in the sentence. I think I was seven.

Also, in first grade, Ms. Slosson was teaching us reading with phonics (which is stupid by the way, English spelling is not phonetic, not even phonemic) and she asked me to spell the word "milk."

Fine, I said, M-E-L-K.

And she said, no, listen: miiiihhhhlk, miiihhhlk.

And I remember consiously thinking, ok, why is she mispronouncing that word? Obviously she wants me to spell it with an I... but nobody talks like that! Nobody say's [mIlk], we all pronounce [mElk].

So fine, I spelled it with an "i" for her, and she thought I was dumb for trying to spell it phonetically. She was a bitch anyway, I hated that Ms. Slosson, and she hated me.

I can't tell this to people, because they all insist they don't pronounce it [mElk] but let me tell you, anyone who learned English in the 1970s in Olympia, Washington has [I] and [E] in free variation. You will hear my generation and older making no contrast between pin/pen, windy/Wendy, milk/mElk, vanilla/vanElla...

I told this story to my mama and sister, and they insisted that they do not say [mElk], that [mElk] sounds dumb, that they always say [mIlk]. And then they demonstrate it for me, [mIlk], [mIlk], [mIlk]! Like I'm stupid! But then, when they're not consciously thinking about it, just talking about diary, they'll go and pronounce it [mElk]. Yes. YES.


One time, in Italy, we were watching tv at dinner, as we always do, and my host brother turned to me and asked me why "Singin' in the Rain" was spelled like that, what happened to the "g" on Singing?

I told him, oh, Americans don't pronounce "-ing" in casual speech.

And the other American sitting next to me, who was WHITE, said "what? I always pronounce the '-ing.'

So of course, my Italian host family watched the white American correct the pronounciation habits of the brown American who HAPPENS TO BE A LINGUIST. How do you tell Italians, sorry, I know more about his language than he does....

So only a few minutes later, he turns to me and says, "Ok, I'm gettin' tired, I think I'm goin' to bed."

So I was like, "Aha! You said, GETTIN' and GOIN'!"

And of course, he was like, yah, so what? It was totally out of his mind, he had moved on. So of course I had to explain it to him that he told the Italians that I had given them incorrect information about English, but that actually I was correct, and he was ignorant about his own pronunciation. It's like he wasn't even in the room.

Oh, he says, I guess I did. Huh.

And that was the end of it. But it didn't matter, because by the Italians thought I spoke some degenerate form of English.... me and Gene Kelly...


Anyway, the point is that people are not conscious of their linguistic performance. But I am totally listening. To everything. And so is the Linguistic Mystic. We're not listening for mistakes, we're listening for variation. And we can't really stop either, unless you stop talking. Asking us not to hear language variation is like asking you not to see the difference between orange and blue.

You don't have to feel self conscious about it. The only thing I ask is that when you ask us what we heard, and we tell you, don't correct us. We're right. We've been listening to you. And you haven't.


Kathryn said...

You have just explained why those online "What accent do you have" tests are bunk. I have tried and tried them and they never work. I probably don't choose the option "pen=pin" or whatever because I am thinking about how I would like to say the word, rather than how I actually say it all the time in conversation. Thanks for clearing up that mystery. Almost no one ever figures out where I am from based on my accent although I think that is bias-based rather than actual knowledge of accents. I am from west TX and here in NC nobody guesses that. When told where I am from they usually act very surprised and insist I must have copied my accent from newscasters. jerks. I tell them not everyone in west Tx talks with a fake tx accent like the shrub.

Orange said...

JP, JP, JP. If you wrote blog entries like this every day, you would have to be my secret blog boyfriend. Love it! Fascinating stuff, and I can't get enough of it.

jp 吉平 said...

It's funny that people hold newscasters up as the standard of American English. To me, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings all had regionally-tinted pronunciation. When I was in the Michigan, they LOVED to repeat that journalists went to to the Midwest to learn a more broadcastable dialect... which may have been true in the 1930s and 1940s! Now, I can spot a Midwesterner from 50 paces by their /a/ and /o/ vowels.

I thought I *was* your secret blog boyfriend already!

I fully expected people to not like this post, even to feel threatened that somebody is listening to their language at a level that's invisible to most of them.

I just want to reiterate how not interested in speaking or hearing "perfect" Standard American English.

I myself make no attempt to vary from the English I learned in Oly. So for me "pop" is different than "soda," and the words "root, roof, book, and cook" all have the same vowel sound, and I don't care who thinks I sound like a hick.

I say some archaic past tenses, like dreamt (dreamed), snuck (sneaked), lit (lighted), shat (shitted), swept (sweeped). I know that as a kid I used to say more of them, like learnt (learned).

At the UM, my students got really uncomfortable when I pronounced "root" to rhyme with "foot." They asked me to change it so that it rhymed with "boot," and I was like, I'm not from here, I'm from Seattle. They were annoyed that I had no desire to speak their brand of English.

I don't mind if your "root" rhymes with "boot." More power to you. But I'm just not going to assimilate anymore.

Tita said...

Yes, fascinating stuff, dude! If you ever hear me speak, you'll hear "dude" at least 8 times. And for this I am both apologetic and not. Cool post, write more please.

Chadwick said...

Do you think the northwest is worse than other regions for dropping the 'g' in 'ing' words?

Yep, 'i' and 'e' sounds are pretty interchangeable in daily conversation.

jp 吉平 said...


Linguists avoid calling regional tendencies "better" or "worse."

I'm from here, so it sounds unnatural to me if people DON'T drop the occasional 'g.' If I heard someone pronouncing every single '-ing,' I would tend to see that as an affectation, rather than a regionalism.

Interestingly, dropping every single 'g' on from every single '-ing' word in every context is one of the hallmarks of a George W. Bush impression.

The dropped 'g' phenomenon belongs to most American regional dialects; Brooklyn/Bronx, Jersey, deep South, Texas, Midwest, Great Plains, California...

Northwest dialect tends to be harder to pin down, due to migration patterns, and changes with every generation. A recent dissertation documented the use of creaky voice in Seattle high school students; I'll demonstrate it for you one of these days, and then you'll start hearing it everywhere.

bitchphd said...

Can't go along with you on the idea that teaching kids to read phonetically is dumb. If it means throwing all the weird phonetic symbols at 'em, yeah, but the basic "sound it out" rule is totally the way to go. You just gotta explain a li'l bit of junior linguistics to them when they ask you why so many words don't sound the way they're spelled--"well, honey, English borrows from a lot of languages, and the way we pronounce words has changed over time...."

jp 吉平 said...

Dr. B,

Teaching kids to sound stuff out is awesome; however, that phonics program that you and I did is so limited... it is not the literacy panacea that that no-child-left-behind people shriek about.

Also, I must insist: spelling has nothing to do with linguistics or junior linguistics. Spelling is a convention, and linguistics is a grand and noble science.

Finally, the SCOTUS stuff makes me want to go to DC and puke on somebody's shoes. Is that harassment? Maybe they'll make it up when Kennedy votes to close Guantanamo Concentration Camp.