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Bloggingheads, home of the "diavlog," is now featuring a discussion that I had with fellow Language Logger John McWhorter about a whole range of linguistic issues, from lexical chunking to pop-Whorfianism to Obama's Indonesian skills to the language of Mad Men. Something for everyone!

[Update, 9/18: The segment of our talk on "Mad Men" has now been excerpted on the New York Times website. Careful viewers will note that the clip ends just before my discussion of the word shithead. Can't slip one past The Gray Lady.]


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    It struck me as curious that John McWhorter pronounces his surname as though it rhymed with 'water' rather than, say, 'converter'. I had thought that the syllable 'whort' would be pronounced as in 'whortleberry'.

  2. Mark F. said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    Wow, it sure is hard for people with different accents to describe pronunciations in words. I would have said he rhymed it with quarter; the first syllable of my "water" rhymes with my "hot", with the vowel in both cases being completely unrounded.

  3. Dan T. said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    I use rhyming vowels in "water", "daughter", "slaughter", different from the vowel in "hot", "pot", "slot".

  4. Elliot said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:07 am

    didnt know zimmer was such a cutie. he and erin mckean should get married and make dictionaries of baby names.

  5. Faith said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    @Elliot Tastes differ, I guess. I was thinking McWhorter was a hottie.

  6. Tom Saylor said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 6:14 am

    More surprising to me was Ben Zimmer's pronunciation of Mark Liberman's last name as "LEEberman" at 42:57. I'd always imagined it was pronounced "LYEberman."

    Fascinating conversation. I wish I could hang out with those guys.

  7. Dan T. said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    LEEberman, LYEberman… either way, it's not like Libertarian.

    [(myl) Except that it is. In broad IPA, [ˈlɪbɚmən].

    I don't know the history of the various different ways of spelling this name, but one way for the vowel of the first syllable to end up as 'i' is for it to be transliterated from cyrillic. That's presumably the history for Anatoly Liberman and for Avigdor Liberman (neither of whom is related to me, as far as I know).

    As for the pronunciation, my father's grandfather or great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. around 1870 and settled in St. Joseph MO, where trisyllabic laxing took its toll. By the 1890s, when my grandfather was born, everyone in that branch of the family pronounced the name with [ɪ] (which is indeed the first vowel in libertarian) rather than [i] (as in, say, legalism) much less [aj] (as in library).]

  8. Andrej Bjelakovic said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    A part of my world just shattered.
    You shall always be in my mind Mark [ˈli:bɚmən].

  9. Xmun said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    In broad IPA, [ˈlɪbɚmən]

    Please explain the difference between the two schwas, one slanted, the other not. There's no slanted schwa in the vowel tables of McArthur's Oxford Companion to the Eng. Lang. or Crowley's Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 3rd edn.

    I think I can guess the answer, simply by saying the name in my head and hearing a slight difference, but I'd appreciate a proper explanation.

  10. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    @Xmun: The ɚ represents the single sound resulting from schwa+r in rhotic speech. AFAIK it's peculiar to American linguistics, or at least rare outside it.

  11. tablogloid said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    I was 18 years old in 1965. I would never use the f word at home but it was omnipresent on the street. As for the wanna', gonna' didya' thing the evidence is overwhelming in its favor in old Hollywood movies and television of the early 1960s. Candid Camera was on then too.

  12. Ozzie Maland said,

    September 18, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Re: Spelling of NYT epithet
    AmE has the spelling of the whitish black color as GRAY. But there are many Anglophiles, so Google Fight gives the Brit orthography a slight edge:
    Gray Lady \15000 results \Grey Lady\15500 results
    I support Ben Z on this one, especially since many or most of the Brit spellings found are from BrE countries and do not refer to the NYT.
    Ozzie Maland \Walnut Creek, CA

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 18, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    Nice to see you, Ozzie.

    I thought John McWhorter pronounced his name with a General American "aw" vowel, the kind you can hear in Merriam-Webster sound files, which I think is lower and farther forward than what most of us use in hoarse quarter-horse, etc.

    But you shouldn't trust me. In a tragic case of perceiving what I expected to perceive, when I heard MYL say his name I didn't notice that it wasn't [ˈlibɚmən].

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    Actually, it reminds me of how some Philadelphians and other Northeasterners I knew in college pronounced order, something like "awder" [ˈɔ̞dɚ]. It's probably the height of hubris even to talk about Philadelphian pronunciation here, but my theory is that the first /r/ is lost because of dissimilation (more widespread examples in America are surprise, library, etc.). The vowel in or occurs only before /r/ in most American dialects, so the loss of the /r/ triggers a change in vowel quality to something that occurs before other consonants. Maybe?

    Prof. McWhorter says important at about 8:39, and the vowel sounds different to me from the one in his name. I wonder how he says corner and quarter, two other words that some Northeasterners drop the first /r/ from.

  15. Kylopod said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    I haven't finished listening to the piece yet, but I'd be curious if McWhorter could publish his list of idiomatic expressions he uses to help himself learn a foreign language. It might be helpful to others.

  16. Michael said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    McWhorter says something to the effect of "if we only had one language, I don't think people would say 'Gee, I wish we had 6,000.'" Every single generation defines itself in opposition to those preceding it by its unique idiom. Every social group (even very small social groups, like my circle of close male friends in undergrad) has a unique set of linguistic "chunks" used as shibboleths to define its borders and contrast itself with others. In this way, I would say EVERY SINGLE person in this hypothetical monoglot world would want at least one other language, one idiolect to call his or her unique own. Also, read Lucy; he has proved the habitual thought stuff, and see Silverstein on Whorf for a much better presentation of the Sapir-Whorf than Deutscher's.

  17. Mike Medley said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    Would the work of Anna Wierzbicka be a good example of what Zimmer characterizes as the weak version of the Whorfian hypothesis? I am thinking especially of her book ENGLISH: MEANING AND CULTURE, where she rather convincingly outlines the panoply of resources that English has for carefully parsing degrees of certainty (in being very reserved about claiming to know or express "the truth") and in respecting the autonomy of other individuals (so as not to infringe on their rights of self-determination). One could say that she is simply expounding for us how the resources developed by English reflect the cultural and epistemic tendencies of British speakers (and their American & Australian cousins). But as we acquire English, aren't we also being socialized by the language resources available to us to continue respecting these cultural tendencies?

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