Postural accommodation?

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In reading about the decision at London's Middlesex University to delete its department of philosophy, I came across this video clip, "WBL gives companies the edge", presented by Professor Edward J Esche, Dean of the School of Arts & Education:

I don't know a lot about British varieties of English, so my first reaction to this clip was "wow, there's some place in England where they talk a lot like midwestern Americans — I wonder where that is?" Then I listened again and thought, "no, this guy must be an American who's picked up some features of British speech — failing to flap and voice the word-final t's in "quite a few", "out of" "quite a bit"; r-lessness in "their staff" and "of course" (though r-fulness is retained in "work" and "therefore"); the stressed vowel in "often" and "problem"; something about the dynamics of his falling pitch-accents; etc."

I still wasn't sure. So I checked, and sure enough, Prof. Edward J. Esche "was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States of America, in 1953 and immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1982". His undergraduate degree is from Southern Methodist University, which is in Dallas TX, but he doesn't seem to have retained any Texan features, or at least none that are apparent in this clip.

The first time that I listened to this clip, of course, I was influenced by the context — this is the dean involved in a controversy at a British university, so I naturally assumed that he was British. But I think that I was also influenced by his posture.

I can't quantify this feeling. I can't even express it very precisely. But there's something about the way he sits, the angle of his head, the fact the arm nearer the camera is immobile while he gestures with the other arm, that says "British academic" to me.

Since Prof. Esche's research interests "Include the Editing and Stage History of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, and Modern Drama in English", it's not implausible that he should be deploying body-language suited to his station. On the other hand, I freely admit that my perception is colored by the context, unsupported by any other evidence, and quite possibly complete nonsense.

Does anyone know of any empirical investigation of this sort of thing? (Where by "this sort of thing" I mean something like regional variation in posture among cultural subgroups.)


  1. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    It's all down to the central spike featured on all institutional British chairs.

    (I think the most remarkable speech feature is the undoing of the AmE LOT-PALM merger that you note above. I wonder if he learned that short [ɑ] one word at a time, or is somehow generalizing from the spelling.)

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    The /au/ in "out" and "encountering" sounds Canadian, and "workplace" seems to me to suggest Irish. As for the posture, it reminds me of a bartender telling a regular patron the latest joke about some scandal-prone celebrity, though Professor Esche's tone doesn't have that "just-between-us" quality. But in a promotional spot, wouldn't his delivery have been shaped by the director in the studio, rather than his independent choice?

    [(myl) I don't think that this video was shot in a studio — from skimming some of the other videos on the MDX Play site, it looks like videos are generally shot in their subjects' offices, labs, work rooms and so on. I also see a wide variety of postures and framing choices, FWIW.]

  3. Picky said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    Fascinating. I watched it without sound and (though it's hard to wipe the brain clean of your comments) he looks absolutely 100pc British to me. Perhaps it's that look of awkward social unease …

  4. IrrationalPoint said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Would sociolinguistics work on stance and style provide the framework that you need? Perhaps I'm not understanding your question exactly.


    [(myl) The question wasn't about frameworks, which are easy enough to imagine, but about concrete empirical results.]

  5. John Wells said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    My immediate reaction was indeed that he was American. His NURSE vowel in work and learning is an [ɝ] of a type that is unusual in Britain but mainstream in the US. His long but not fully open [æː] in staff is I think unknown in Britain. And no one in Britain except the Queen has said often with the THOUGHT vowel since about 1950.
    A fascinating mixture.
    But I have no comment on body language.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    I get just music in firefox and have to use IE to get the words.

  7. Meghan said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    I watched without sound too but thought he seemed more American without sound than with…

    Would the literature on L2 acquisition of gesture be relevant?

  8. Maggie said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    Not off the top of my head, but when my finals are over I'll see if I can track down some readings I did for an anthropology class on the phenomenological study of dance. That's a good place to look for cool interpretations of culture-specific movement. I'll get back to you :)

  9. Ellen K. said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    John Cowan, I'm American, and I have different vowels in LOT and PALM.

  10. Steve Harris said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    I watched the clip without reading the words below, so I was paying attention to the substantive content, not the presentation. Even so, my reaction was very similar–why is this midwestern American accent coming out of what ought to be an Oxbridgian position? But it's not quite American; for me the most Brit-sounding word was "student", pronounced as though spelled "styudent".

    (That, of course, was the "received" pronunciation for long u in my 50s childhood, midwestern American though it was. I wondered often at the time how people could be so stupid as to pretend that "stupid" and "music" were pronounced similarly. I put it down to the same willed deafness that insisted "fire" was monosyllabic and that there was no "tea" sound in "baby". Now I just view it as a piece of the conservative sentiments in teaching language structure generally. Um, they still do teach grammar in schools, I presume? Is sentence diagramming still holding sway?)

  11. Tom said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    My immediate reaction as a Brit was "American who's been living over here for at least a decade". But that was definitely coloured by the fact that surnames like "Esche" are far less common here than they are in Wisconsin.

  12. Rubrick said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    [(myl) The question wasn't about frameworks, which are easy enough to imagine, but about concrete empirical results.]

    In that one brief comment you've managed to encapsulate a great deal of the problem with the social sciences and liberal arts.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    @Rubrick: Elaborate, please.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    @John Cowan: When I try to imitate British accents, I can easily remember that words spelled with "o" that we Americans pronounce with our "short o" (Wells's LOT class) and some of us with our "aw" (THOUGHT) get the British "short o". However, there are words spelled with "a" that I have to know individually. I can remember that Lawrence is in LOT and water is in THOUGHT, but I can never remember where want goes.

    Prof. Wells says, "The least satisfactory keyword is PALM," and I feel sure one reason for that is what Ellen K. said: for many of us palm has the THOUGHT or CLOTH vowel. (Pronouncing the "-alm" monosyllables with /l/ has also come into style, and I'd guess without data that less than half of Americans pronounce palm as /pɑːm/.)

  15. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    Dare I point out that that studying philosophy is more useful, from an intellectual point of view, than studying "the Editing and Stage History of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, and Modern Drama in English"?

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    @ John Cowan: As an approximate contemporary of Prof. Esche who has been on this side of the Atlantic approximately as long as he has, I can confirm that the PALM/LOT merger is one of the easiest for a North American to undo, mostly on the basis of the spelling, though perhaps also, as Ellen K. points out, because not all North Americans have the same vowel in PALM and LOT (I did, though I also had and have a robust LOT/THOUGHT contrast, which may make it easier). The TRAP/BATH distinction is much harder to master, and Esche doesn't (listen to answer near the end of his spiel, and, as John Wells points out, to staff).

    @Mark and others: Not consistently flapping intervocalic T also seems to be pretty easy for long-term NAm residents in Britain – in my experience, it's one of the first things they clean up if they're accommodating at all – but at the same time, consistently not flapping is very difficult. This may be partly because plenty of middle-class Southern English accents sometimes voice intervocalic T as well.

  17. peter said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Adrian Bailey (UK) said (May 2, 2010 @ 3:56 pm):

    "Dare I point out that that studying philosophy is more useful, from an intellectual point of view, than studying "the Editing and Stage History of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, and Modern Drama in English"?

    I think it is much too early to tell which subject will prove to be more useful. Playing with the idea that -1 had not just one, but three, imaginary square roots led William Hamilton in 1843 to develop the mathematical objects he called the Quaternions. A mere 150 years later these abstract objects turned out to be useful for concise representation of motion in computer animations, robotics, and spacecraft control.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    When I try to imitate British accents, I can easily remember that words spelled with "o" that we Americans pronounce with our "short o" (Wells's LOT class) and some of us with our "aw" (THOUGHT) get the British "short o".

    I meant CLOTH, not THOUGHT.

  19. Acilius said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    The first thing that comes to my mind is a 1985 article by John Devine, "The Versatility of Human Locomotion."

  20. David Beaver said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    I'm amazed that nobody has said what jumped out to me visually when I first saw this: whether he's actually sitting or standing, this is a leaning-on-a-lecturn position, thus combining the formality and distance of a stereotypical Oxbridge professor, with the informality and proximity of a young-modern-trendy-regional professor, where young-modern-trendy-regional should be qualified with "in the sixties".

  21. Terry Collmann said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    Never mind the accent, would Professor Esche give himself away instantly as an American by saying, as Acilius just did, "a 1985 article"?

  22. acilius said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    @Terry Collmann: Yes, I suppose that may be an Americanism. That might come in handy if I ever have to visit Arizona and don't have my papers in order.

  23. Lazar said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I don't have sound available at the moment, but can we tell anything about his treatment of "Mary-merry-marry", "serious-Sirius", "Tory-torrent" or "hurry-furry"? I think these pre-/r/ distinctions can be one of the trickiest entry barriers for an American trying to brittify themselves, unless they're from the northeast.

  24. Chandra said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    @rootlesscosmo: The "ou" in "out" is not pronounced the same way in Canadian English as the "ou" in "encountering" (/^u/ in the former, /au/ in the latter), as Canadian raising only happens before voiceless consonants.

    But I do agree that there was something Irishy about his treatment of "workplace".

  25. Chandra said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    …I meant to specify "voiceless stops" in that last post, not simply consonants.

  26. Paul said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Is there any truth in my feeling that Americans are more likely to give their names with a full first name and a middle initial, at least in a formal setting? To me "Edward J. Esche" says "American" in a way "Edward Esche" or "E.J. Esche" don't (necessarily). I'm British, and I'm happy to go by {first name + surname} or {two initials + surname}, but {first name + middle initial + surname} looks weird.

    @Steve Harris: before I saw your comment, I thought "student" was one of the words which gave away the fact that he's American! It doesn't sound to me like there's much of a [j] in there, and certainly none of the affricated release of the first plosive which is quite common for many British speakers.

  27. jenn said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    I didn't think anything of his posture, but my ear really fixed on his cadence.

    I remember seeing an Internet comment regarding actor John Barrowman — "That's the worst fake American accent I've ever heard!" — and I was a little surprised by that, because his accent really is authentically from the Chicago 'burbs. But there's a cadence to his voice, a musicality or a clip that gives him away as distinctly not-from-the-US, as well. (Sorry — this is all really far removed from anything I've ever studied, so if there's a precise term for what I'm describing, I don't know it.) Actor Cary Elwes also does a pretty good accent, but his cadence — the inflections, the lilts and dips — makes him sound ridiculous. Er, not that Professor Esche sounds ridiculous! But it's as if his accent and cadence are mismatched somehow, and my untrained ear can only seize on that.

  28. Frans said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    Could someone perhaps clarify what sounds Midwestern about the way the guy speaks? The intonation? I've got to say I didn't get any kind of American vibe from this guy at all, though after reading the rest of the entry and listening again I've decided that student sounds fairly regular to me (i.e. not British) and perhaps some rs here and there probably sound too rhotic. He also doesn't seem to have much aspiration, but I know plenty of natives who don't have that nearly as strongly as RP either.

  29. Army1987 said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    The idea is that −1 has infinitely many linearly indipendent square roots; it has two square roots (+i and −i) in the ‘ordinary’ complex plane and infinitely many (xi + yj + zk for any real x, y, z such that x2 + y2 + z2 = 1) in the quaternion space.

  30. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    Paul: I am British, and I do go in formal contexts by first name + middle initial + surname, but that is because there is another person with my first name and surname working in vaguely the same field.

  31. Steve Harris said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:35 pm


    You're quite right, it's not "student" that sounds Brit to me; I'm puzzled now why I thought that to be the case. I'm guessing that I got a subliminal impression of "something Brit-sounding" and decided in retrospect (without re-listening) that it must have been "student"; rather curious train of thought.

    The rhoticism is what marks it as American to me, and the vowel in "staff". What marks it as not-really-quite American, with some Brit twinges? I'm having difficulty placing it now; I think maybe "quite" (the t-sound) in "quite a bit" (though not in "quite a few"), and perhaps "to" having a bit of [j] in there. But I'm guessing here, these aren't even features I'm sure are characteristic of RP.

  32. Bobbie said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Let's get back to his non-verbal behavior. I've watched the clip several times without sound and do not see anything that seems very British in his mannerisms. He tends to gesture quite freely with his right hand, possibly more than a British professor might. His leaning on the lectern also conveys a certain casualness which may be viewed as more American than British…..

  33. Ellen K. said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    Paul, regarding names and initials:

  34. Buck Ritter said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    David Beaver's point about the podium lean is well taken.

    Tony Blair was very fond of affecting this kind of posture.

  35. Paul said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    Ellen K: thanks for the link to that blog. Strangely, I don't have the "that person must be American" feeling for *first* initial followed by a full middle name, as discussed there, but I suspect this might be an illusion on my part since some members of my (British) family use or used names of that form.

    There's a comment in that blog about computerised registers forcing the use of first name plus middle initial: perhaps the inflexibility of the programmers helps to reinforce the usage. I briefly had a Spanish bank account whose computers reinterpreted my {first name + middle name + surname} as {first name + first surname + second surname}, so I sympathise.

    Back to Prof Esche: it's interesting how Mark's original piece and some of the comments show Americans thinking he's British and then noticing some possible remnants of American English in his usage while British people (like me) assume he's American and then perhaps notice the odd British variant. In these days of increased mobility perhaps the idiolect is gaining ground on the dialect.

  36. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    I can never remember where want goes

    Depends on your region. Mine rhymes with "shunt".

  37. Terry Collmann said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    Acilius: "I suppose that may be an Americanism" – you may as well have Old Glory tattooed on your head, mate. Putting date reference before noun, as in (I quote from a genuine example) "a 2004 ambush", which in BrE would always be "an ambush in 2004", is a genuine shibboleth.

  38. David Beaver said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    @Buck Ritter: Wow, yes, I should have seen this: one arm on a podium or dispatch box is a standard British parliamentary posture, seen all the time in Prime Minister's Questions. The telegenic Blair of course made great use of physical posture in parliament and elsewhere, so it seems apropros to mention him, but the stance is not unique to him:

  39. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Putting date reference before noun, as in (I quote from a genuine example) "a 2004 ambush", which in BrE would always be "an ambush in 2004″, is a genuine shibboleth.

    There are twenty or so examples of date before noun in the British National Corpus.

  40. Breffni said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 3:26 am

    There are twenty or so examples of date before noun in the British National Corpus.

    You could also Google, for example,

    "2002 bombing" site:*


    "1995 hit" site:*

    Indeed, going back to Acilius's original, "1985 article" gets you hits from LRB, Prospect Magazine, the Daily Mail and the Independent.

    It's common enough in Irish journalism too.

  41. Acilius said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    @Stephen Jones and Breffni: Drat! And here I was hoping I'd found a way to prove my US citizenship without having to carry a passport.

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