Archive for Sociolinguistics

Language and identity

Rebecca Tan, "Accent Adaptation (On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English", The Pennsylvania Gazette 2/18/2016:

The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud. […]

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve taken this whole language situation a tad too personally. Till now, I have kept my Singaporean inflection close at hand, for fear that attempts at Americanisms will be wrong—or, worse, permanent. Yet I am beginning to feel myself grow tired of this stage fright, tired of this senseless preoccupation with the packaging of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Away from all these theatrics, the simple facts are that I am 9,500 miles away from home, and will be for four more years. I came here looking for change, and the words forming in my mouth to accommodate that change are not jokes, lies, or betrayals. They are real, not strange, and they are mine.

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Stigmatized varieties of Gaelic

St. Patrick's Day was last Thursday, but this afternoon I saw someone wandering around in a sparkly green top hat.  In that spirit, I offer a post about perhaps-fictional attitudes towards a variety of Scottish Gaelic.

The content comes from Ken MacLeod's novella The Human Front, which the publisher's blurb calls "a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization". We learn that "the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species". The protagonist tells us that

My mother, Morag, was a Glaswegian of Highland extraction, who had met and married my father after the end of the Second World War and before the beginning of the Third. She, somewhat contrarily, taught herself the Gaelic and used it in all her dealings with the locals, though they always thought her dialect and her accent stuck-up and affected. The thought of her speaking a pure and correct Gaelic in a Glasgow accent is amusing; her neighbours' attitude towards her well-meant efforts less so, being an example of the the characteristic Highland inferiority complex so often mistaken for class or national consciousness. The Lewis accent itself is one of the ugliest under heaven, a perpetual weary resentful whine — the Scottish equivalent of Cockney — and the dialect thickly corrupted with English words Gaelicized by the simple expedient of mispronouncing them in the aforementioned accent.

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Pygmalion updated

Peter Serafinowicz has updated George Bernard Shaw's dictum that "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him", by re-voicing Donald Trump to demonstrate that emotional reactions to British accents are easily evoked in Americans as well. There's "Sophisticated Trump", posted on YouTube 12/17/2015:

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Jeopardy gossip

The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

"Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

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UM/UH accommodation

Over the years, we've presented some surprisingly consistent evidence about age and gender differences in the rates of use of different hesitation markers in various Germanic languages and dialects. See the end of this post for a list; or see Martijn Wieling et al., "Variation and change in the use of hesitation markers in Germanic languages", forthcoming:

In this study, we investigate cross-linguistic patterns in the alternation between UM, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel followed by a final labial nasal, and UH, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel in an open syllable. Based on a quantitative analysis of a range of spoken and written corpora, we identify clear and consistent patterns of change in the use of these forms in various Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese) and dialects (American English, British English), with the use of UM increasing over time relative to the use of UH. We also find that this pattern of change is generally led by women and more educated speakers.

For other reasons, I've done careful transcriptions (including disfluencies) of several radio and television interview programs, and it occurred to me to wonder whether such interviews show accommodation effects in UM/UH usage. As a first exploration of the question, I took a quick look at four interviews by Terry Gross of the NPR radio show Fresh Air: with Willie Nelson, Stephen KingJill Soloway, and Lena Dunham.

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What does "vocal fry" mean?

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, "LOL Vocal Fry Rules U R All Dumb", Jezebel 7/30/2015:

This week, in shit-hot stuff happening on the internet, once-great feminist pundit Naomi Wolf wrote a column about how vocal fry is Keeping Women Down, and then other women across the internet rebutted her, rightly positing that when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads. […]

Vocal fry, as interpreted via California’s finest Calabasians, is a weapon of the young, disaffected woman, not a way to connote that they don’t care about anything, per se—just that specifically, they do not care about you. It is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You—dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment—and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance. It’s a way of communicating to you “We have this handled,” and also “Get off my dick.” It’s a proscenium of absolute dismissal and it is one of the most beautiful mannerisms millennials possess.

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The great creak-off of 1969

In a comment on yesterday's post about Noam Chomsky's use of creaky voice ("And we have a winner…", 7/26/2015), Tara wrote

At the risk of sounding like I missed the joke: creakiness in a speaker Chomsky's age is much more likely to be physiological in origin than stylistic. I checked older footage of Chomsky, and he does seem to have been quite a bit less creaky in the 60s than today. But more importantly, listen to William F. Buckley in the same recording! I suspect that Noam has been out-creaked.

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Open Letter to Terry Gross

Sameer ud Dowla Khan, a phonetician at Reed College, has written an open letter to Terry Gross, which starts like this:

While I am a loyal fan of your program, I’m very disappointed in your interview of David Thorpe and Susan Sankin from 7 July 2015. As both a phonetician who specializes in intonation, stress patterns, and voice quality, as well as a gay man, I found the opinions expressed in the interview to be not only inaccurate, but also offensive and damaging.

You can listen to that interview, and read the transcript, on the Fresh Air web site — "Filmmaker And Speech Pathologist Weigh In On What It Means To 'Sound Gay'":

Is there such a thing as a "gay voice"? For gay filmmaker David Thorpe, the answer to that question is complicated. "There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice," Thorpe tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But, he adds, "there is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype."

In his new film, Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe searches for the origin of that stereotype and documents his own attempts to sound "less gay" by working with speech pathologist Susan Sankin.

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NYC rhoticity

"Can you spot wealthy New Yorkers by their ‘R” sounds?", Improbable Blog 6/19/2015:

Is it possible to gauge how wealthy a New Yorker might be just by the way they pronounce their /r/ s? A new paper in the Journal of English Linguistics investigates whether variations of rhoticity [viz. the prevalence, or lack of, the /r/ sound in speech] in wedding-consultants’ speech could be correlated with the amount of money a bride states she is willing to spend on her wedding dress. That is to say, the amount of money she has at her disposal, used as a measure of her (perceived) social status. The paper, in the Journal of English Linguistics, June 2015, 43: 118-142, can be downloaded here for US$30: Maeve Eberhardt & Corinne Downs, "'(r) You Saying Yes to the Dress?' Rhoticity on a Bridal Reality Television Show", Journal of English Linguistics 2015.

Or you can deprive Sage Publications of their  $30, and get a report about the same research for free in an earlier version: Maeve Eberhardt & Corinne Downs, "A Department Store Study for the 21st Century: /r/ vocalization on TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress", NWAV 2013.

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On American r-lessness

James Fallows has been superintending an interesting discussion at the Atlantic about how strange early twentieth century American announcers sound to us today (There are five articles in the series so far, listed with links here). The comments on his articles suggest that we need make certain distinctions.

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James Fallows' Announcer-Speak series

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Joshua Fishman (1926-2015)

Joshua Fishman, a founder of the field of the sociology of language and a highly influential scholar of language planning and bilingual education, died last night at his home in the Bronx at the age of 88.

The following remembrance, written by Ofelia García (Professor in the Ph.D. programs of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York), has been shared on Facebook and the LINGUIST List.

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Lots of planets have a Middlesbrough

A week ago, Bob Ladd pointed us to a Guardian story about British sociolinguistic prejudice ("Viewer offered BBC’s Steph McGovern £20 to 'correct' her northern accent", 11/25/2014). Steph McGovern is from Middlesbrough, and back in February of 2013 ITV News had one of its posher presenters trying to fix up Middlesbrough resident's pronunciation in real time:

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