Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Last Bastion of PC Prejudice

Someone quite recently objected to a sports "color guy" pronouncing "Northwestern" as "Norfwestern" and wondered if he would be wrong to object to that in someone broadcasting to the public. Surely someone with a college degree who played basketball against Northwestern should know how to pronounce the name correctly was the thought he had. My problem with this complaint is that the complaint is basically racial in origin -- in Central Ohio, it is Blacks, rather than Whites, who would say "Norfwestern" -- whether the speaker meant it to be or not In fact, I don't think the person writing this is a racist per se. He has simply developed a prejudice against those who speak in an "uneducated" way. In fact the speaker is a college graduate. This sort of expression of prejudice bites my butt so I plan to rant a bit on the subject. First, some necessary background information.

"Norfwestern" arises as the result of a partial assimilation of the voicless fricative "th" sound to the following "w" sound, itself formed by pursing the lips. This "w" sound is a bilabial (two lips) sound and functions somewhat as a consonant in a word like "wed" but as a semi-vowel or a glide in "awake". The assimilation is partial because English does not have a bilabial fricative corresponding to "th," so the speaker used the closest thing to it, namely the voiceless labiodental (lower lip + lower row of teeth) voiceless fricative "f." Spanish has such a bilabial fricative so it is definitely a possible language sound. It just doesn't occur in English.

The "correct" sound in "Northwestern" also has a near total obstruction, but it is produced with the tip of the tongue inserted a short distance between the upper and lower teeth. Normally, we do not like to switch points of articulation between adjacent sounds (in this case, inter-dental "th" and then bilabial "w") if we don't have to and we often cheat. In casual speech, the word "Batman" is pronounced "bapman" with the alveolar (tip of the tongue making contact just behind the upper teeth) stop "t" assimilating the point of articulation of the bilabial "m." Virtually none of you will have been aware you say "Batman" that way. It is an automatic process that kicks in in casual speech.

Casual speech processes greatly affect pronunciation which is one reason it is hard to understand speakers of another language when one's exposure to the language is "academic." We learn words more or less individually but in actual speech they are run together. Pronounce the question, "Did you eat?" quickly the way you might say it to a close friend who has just dropped by your home as you have begun to eat. It could come out something like "ju-eet."

Casual speech processes are a major source of language change and therefore of dialect differences. It is interesting that people can get worked up over the "mispronunciation" of "Northwestern" but no one has ever seen my pronunciation of "get" as "git" as the sign of not having an proper education. Ditto the fact that I pronounce "pen" and "pin" in the same way. In short some "mistakes" are taken as signs that the speaker is of a different race or social class or ethnic group and others are ignored. We can put down others who are members of groups that we like to discriminate against by commenting on their "lousy" English. That way of acting is not politically incorrect (uncivil). Instead of saying, "Joe Blow talks like a Nigger, Spic, Kyke, Hillbilly, etc.," all of which would be major violations of political correctness (i. e., basic civility), Joe Blow can make fun or criticize howthis person talks. It is time for that crap to stop.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

Yep, us hillbillys are the worst for casual speech, I guess. Because it's all casual for us, also goats & chickens don't care how proper your speech is. This is why we are portrayed as idiots in formal settings.

11:12 AM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

It is very funny to hear how we actually speak. I just checked out what you said and you are right, I actually do say 'Bapman'. I consider myself to be a speaker of a fairly standard variety of North American English, so I was suprised a few years ago when a Lebanese coworker pointed out that I use glottal stops frequently to replace the 't' sound at the end of words. For example, I think I often say "wha:" instead of "what". She pointed out a number of instances that I can no longer remember.

You mention our prejudices, and I agree with what you are saying wholeheartedly about them. I might add in passing that our biggest prejudices are really about ourselves. It's true that I make judgements about how others speak (and act, and think). Often my judgements are based on wrongheaded notions about correctness, but I equally make invalid judgements about how I myself speak, act and think.

The whole topic is one I have given a great deal of thought to because I live in a land where language is everything. Here, language is a hot political matter affecting where we can work, where our children can go to school, and even the future of the country. We have laws here that dictate what language we can use on signs, what language we must speak in the workplace, and how correctly we must speak and write it. Part of this centers around a struggle for power between cultures, and a good part of it may be considered understandable, and perhaps justified. But the whole thing is tainted by nonsensical notions as to which dialectical varieties are good and which are bad. The people who are most fervent in their desire to preserve their culture are often doing more to preserve an idealized version of their culture. But in doing so, they ignore and disparage the very dialects at the heart of their culture. And these unconscious attitudes prevail to that point that it is very difficult to find formal training in the dialect that would allow you to understand the man on the street. So learners of their language often have a devil of a time understanding the language "the way she is really spoken." And our cultures stay apart.

I realize I am speaking too vaguely--just ranting, probably--but it is about an issue that is very important to me. I love language, but as much as I love it, I have a hard time understanding why so many of our prejudices center on it.

11:34 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sheer poppycock! There is nothing more to learn here!

1:08 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

j_g, I just visited your site. I see you have the Desiderata posted there. Nice message. :)

1:21 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

I dunno, the "th" to f thing is mostly a class thing in the UK. I used to do it when younger, with all words, partially because of environment, and also partially 'cause I had a lisp. 's my excuse anyway.(incidentally, if you're names like mine, Kieran, and people mock you for a lisp, they will say "kieranth" which is a small slice of genius really).

I have a friend who will reprimand people for pronouncing the words the American way. He is rather racist towards Americans anyway, for reasons unknown to me.

2:20 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

Your post cracked me up. I am glad to know that you pronounce "pen" and "pin" the same way, 'cuz I do too. A friend of my daughter's in high school was such a zealot about pronouncing "pen" correctly that it sounded like "pun" as a result.

In Southern Illinois you can tell usually what county a person comes from by the way they pronounce their words. I went to school up north with a boy from Southern Illinois who pronounced "church" like "chorch." I forgot what county he came from.

My husband's aunt, who had grown up in Mississippi, used to insist that she could not pronounce "oil" correctly. It always came out "oral."

When our son was in 8th grade, he developed this bad habit of mumbling. It was straight to the school's speech therapist for him. The speech therapist convinced my husband and me that if our son did not start enunciating his words, the muscles involved would atrophy and then he would be a mumbler for life. Funny thing about the speech therapist. She had a speech problem. She was such a zealot when it came to enunciation that all her "s" sounds had this annoying "sizzle" to them.

9:11 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Hillbillies rule!

I can still remember when I first became aware that there was something up with our dialect. I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework and my mother, who was working on some sewing on the rest of the table, asked me to pass her a "pin". Since she often made notes on her patterns, I really didn't know what she wanted. "Ink or stick?" "Ink."

CN: It makes sense that your coworker would catch something like that, since the glottal stop is a normal consonant in Arabic.

(OT: And yet like some Terminator MacArthur she keeps on coming back! With characteristic specificity: What is poppycock, LG's post or previous comments?)

10:56 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Pen, pin? I don't get it.

11:03 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Well, as another language guy (though by no means one of the same stature...I remember you as being taller than me, LG. "Which one's Dr. Geis?" "The big guy with the scary eyebrows."), if I may explain...

In the dialect in question the [ɛ] vowel (like in "pen") is neutralized to [ɪ] (like in "pin") before nasals ([m,n]). So word pairs like pen, pin, hem, him, Ken, kin, send, sinned, vents, Vince, etc., which should be pronounced differently, end up sounding alike, like the second word in each case. Usually context rules out any ambiguity and there's no confusion.

(And I went to all the trouble of typing that before realizing you were joking, right? D'oh. This'll learn me to blog-comment right after waking up from a nap, huh?)

4:21 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In reverse order, IbaDaiRon your analysis is right. The [ɛ]to [ɪ]rule is restricted in the way you suggest.

SusieQ, we hillbillies need to stick together. My fellow linguistic buddies at MIT did notice the phenomenon but they didn't make anything of it. It is, it seems, not a relevant social marker,

Mr. K, your observation is spot on. The social significance of a particular sound change varies from place to place. In Boston, [r]-dropping in words like "car" and "yard" is prestigious. In New York it is stigmatized. In the UK, it is how the Queen talks. This illustrates the deeper point, which I might have remembered to make if my blog had been more didactic than ranting in nature, is that where there are linguistic distinctions in an area, they are often socially interpreted.

Very insightful Copernicus Now. In the US, we have a Spanish-English difference that American Language Nazis wish to kill off (won't work) by making English the official language. The Canadians have had their issue with French and English, of course. In Belgium, we have a Dutch-French issue. Interestingly, in the latter country, as of some 15 years ago, more Dutch speakers were moving to French than the reverse because a very popular Luxembourg TV station was in French. In SubSahara Africa, there is hardly a Country that is not riddled with problems due to language differences. Interestingly, in some cases, colonialism had the benefit of providing the local people with a lingua franca that that was native to no one. It has political significance because of the colonial past but it does not provide any one group a linguistic advantage over the others.

8:19 AM

Blogger thinking girl said...

LG -

your post reminded me of a little game my ex and I used to play, involving keeping a running tab of all the words that people mispronounced that drove us nuts, or just plain made us laugh (not that we ever corrected anyone!). the list included FUSStrated, liBERRY, probALLY, WOOFville (a small town near where I live that is actually called Wolfville), and "other" pronounced as "udder".

perhaps we were being a bit snobbish, yes? your post, while making me smile, also made me feel guilty for being elitist.

Words and language have always been important to me, and I guess I have felt that everyone ought to be careful about how they speak in order to facilitate better communication. In truth, only very rarely does a mispronunciation of this sort lead to a communication breakdown (I do remember working with one guy that I could not understand because of his very strong Newfoundland accent, his Newfie slang - which we call Newfanese - and his habitual mumbling. I was constantly telling him I didn't understand him and he had to speak louder and slower!) So while FebUary will always drive me a little crazy, I'll remember this post!

12:58 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thinking Girl, there is no single way of pronouncing English that has any merit over the rest. Every section of the country has a different way of prouncing some words, to say nothing of differences between any given dialect of American English and the multiplicity of dialects in the UK, Nigeria, S. Africa, Australia, India, etc. There is much less variation in syntax, of course.

When there is a fair amount of variation and people are speaking casually, even fairly closely related dialects become difficult to understand. Most people though have a more standard version of their speech they can use with foreigners. Otherwise we would be lost in a place like Scotland. After spending 2+ months there functioning pretty well, my wife and I sat near two guys jabbering away in some language I didn't recognize. I spoke them them and out came standard Scots English. I was amazed. I wouldn't have thought it was possible not to recognize that someone was speaking English.

2:36 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. I have a friend at work who is a Chicano. We talk football a lot and every time he says Pittsburgh, he pronounces it "Picksburgh". I just smile and giggle to myself. The other day we were discussing something like old jobs and he ways trying to say intraveneous and he said "introvenus". Personally, I find it all to be sorta funny.

3:46 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Hey, LG, like, I learned from the Master, no?

I did the Japanese Language School at Middlebury one summer while still at OSU. After the final closing ceremony and we were released from our vow of Japanese or silence, I was standing around talking with some friends and they all kept cracking up. When I asked what was so funny, they said, "Your accent. We had no idea you were such a hick."

Thinking Girl's Newfoundlander & LG's lingua franca reminded me of a guy at the university in Tsukuba who came from some small town in the Australian outback; none of us could understand a word he said, even the other Australians. We all ended up speaking to him only in Japanese.

Finally, re Pittsburgh/Picksburgh: my father was from a town called Catlettsburg (KY) but I grew up saying it like "Catlicksburg". So, PF, it's not just a chicano thing!

4:42 PM

Blogger Bird said...

I have nothing of relevance to add, nothing insightful - just an expression of delight in the orignal post and the comments. Yippee!

8:32 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

L_G, I was inspired by this post to do a post of my own on the matter of how we tend to split the world into them vs. us. Probably not my best writing, but I think the subject is interesting on its own.

12:11 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Los Angeles columnist Jim Murray lampooning Ohio State people in 1968 because they (not me - I'm from northern Ohio and speak accentless English) pronounced our own hometown "Clumbs". Tomato, Tomahto, we still kicked USC's butt in the 1969 rose bowl.

12:52 AM

Blogger A Shave and a Haircut said...

Those men you overheard in Scotland probably weren't speaking English, but Scots. They'd probably be exasperated to hear you refer to it as English, and they might be infuriated to hear you imply that it's "non-standard" English (or even non-standard Scottish English).

As you experienced, Scots is (in every practical sense) a different language, and it's certainly dignified that way here.

(an American living in Scotland)

6:16 AM

Blogger A Shave and a Haircut said...

To clarify--Scots is not dignified as an equal language except in the hearts of many Scots. Dignified or not, it is regarded as a separate language here...


6:27 AM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

"Those men you overheard in Scotland probably weren't speaking English, but Scots."

Actually, I had a similar experience to L_G, and I am pretty sure my interlocuter was speaking English.

I worked in a hotel for several years where we had a number of repeat guests who would stay months at a time. There was one particular who had been such a fixture that I thought I knew him.

One day, after supposedly knowing him for years, he came to the front desk to make a request. I greeted him with all familiarity, but was taken aback when he asked me a question. I didn't have a clue what he said.

It was pretty embarassing when I asked him to repeat him self over and over and still couldn't make heads or tails of what he was saying.

8:17 AM

Blogger Jagosaurus said...

We spend a great deal of time in my family discussing variations in pronunciations out of interest and not out of a need to denigrate. As I am hardcore hillbilly, it might not surprise anyone to know that I try to be a bit more forgiving about the variety of ways people pronounce words. Depending on who you talk to, I attended either "Clempsun" or "Clemzen" University (Clemson), do not like greasy (or is that greazy?) food, cain't pronounce "can't" without the i, am completely unable to pronounce "pen" and "pin" differently, and tend to believe that how the natives pronounce a word, particularly if it is a name, is the way you should pronounce it too.

9:05 AM

Blogger AndyT13 said...

When playing at a party the Welsh gent who booked the band kept yelling "ten doughnuts"!
We'd nod uncertainly and smile. Only after many such exchanges did it become apparent he wanted us to turn down. "Turn down it." :-)

To your rant: I don't think it's unreasonable to wish for those speaking in the public sphere to employ "the king's English" if only for clarity's sake. National anchor people go through lots of training to lose their regional dialects. However, in sports let's face it, the people are often former sports players themselves. If they were rocket scientists they'd be doing something else so it might be fair to cut them some slack (the soft dummy-ism of lowered expectations?). I don't think this is so much a racist thing. Youth culture is inundated with 'idiot-speak'. You don't have to be black to sound dumb. It might be argued that disdain for education has become a badge of honor in black popular/youth culture but at this point it's spread (through ignorant sounding celebrities) to every corner of American culture. The boundaries of racism and classism get a little blurry here but when someone sounds ignorant (whether it's Eminem or Fiddy Cent) it's probably they're ignorant, not black. Is the notion that national broadcast TV ought to be held to a higher standard (i.e., NOT casual speech) classist? Maybe so but it seems to me that, with the dumbing down of our culture, ignorance and all it's trappings ought to be reviled no matter what the source for the good of society and the cause of such revilement be damned. So there. It's rare that I disagree with you so please take this in the spirit of respectful debate. Cheers!

12:04 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

I would be willing to bet that the easy-to-understand sports guy on TV who says "Norfwestern" instead of Northwestern is not the cause of, nor even an example of "...the dumbing down of our culture...", nor of "...ignorance and all it's trappings...". But he sure does seem to be taking the rap for those nasty things.

Ahh!! Ignorance! Morale decay! The decline of civilization as we know it!! Death in the streets! It's all his fault. Help! Somebody stop him! And those like him!!

12:10 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:22 AM

Blogger Rosa said...

Ah! I just found this post after spending an evening teaching Japanese students to do things like drop the t's from their speech in order to sound more "natural."

This was my example. The sentence was: "Otherwise I would have lost a lot more money." And I had them practice "Otherwise, I woulduv losta lo["Think the t here, don't say it."] more money."

Was I wrong? Now my conscience hurts!!

4:18 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Brenda, IMO you need to do two things. One is to teach your students to pronounce things correctly in isolation so they know what sounds the words are comprised of. The other is to help them cope with casual speech, which would include speaking casually. To all of us encountering a foreign language being spoken by native speakers is that it is very hard to slice it up into a recognizable sequence of words. I would focus more on that than on teaching them to pronounce English casual. Could be that either focus could give the same result -- an ability to handle casual speech.

9:37 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I just noticed the reference to Japanese students. LG, if I may add to your first suggestion: When teaching words in isolation, make sure the students get the idea of unreleased final consonants. (I think you already do, Brenda, based on your "Think the t here, don't say it." I always tell my students, "Move your mouth like you are going to say it, but don't.") Otherwise their native CV syllable structure jumps in and you get extra i, o and u vowels on the end of everything. ("Azawizu I oodo habu losto ay lotto mowa manee.")

I don't know what sort of status they have now in pedagogical theory, but I've found from personal experience that pattern drill repetitions really do work. Students hate them of course.


1:47 PM

Blogger Claire said...

just re the pin/pen thing, in the South it's not necessarily restricted to just before nasals. Many of my students have a git/get merger too. And context doesn't always disambiguate, at least for me. I was buying lunch at Rice recently and the guy behind the checkout had to tell me 3 times that there was a [pɪn] on the counter before I realised he wasn't telling me this so I wouldn't prick my finger, but so I could sign the credit card form. (I'm Australian and do not have this merger.)

7:54 PM


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