Did Yale unflatten Jennifer Beals' A's?

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Coby Lubliner was puzzled by this passage in Ginia Bellafante's review of Jennifer Beals in Chicago Code ("Stirring Chicago's Corruption Stockpot", NYT 2/6/2011):

On cable we might also have received a police superintendent with the creased skin and poor muscle-to-fat ratio to actually look like a bureaucrat. At 47 Ms. Beals remains ageless and stunning, but her placid beauty could not suit the character, Teresa Colvin, any less than if producers had scoured juice bars looking for a pretty server of antioxidant smoothies. It is hard to endure as Ms. Beals tough-talks her way to the appearance of managerial self-confidence and harder still to bear witness to a Chicago accent she can neither master nor even momentarily sustain.

Did she grow up in Dallas? No, Ms. Beals, alas, is from Chicago. Whether she once spoke with flat A's and ditched them at Yale, where she studied in the '80s, is hard to know, but there seems little hope of her ever authentically retrieving them.

Coby asked "Can you explain what is meant by ditching flat A's at Yale?"

The "flat A's" business has several parts.

First, it's a common journalistic practice to characterize American accents in general, and midwestern accents in particular, as "flat".  What this means, if anything, is not clear to me; in an earlier post, I suggested that

… the references to "flat American accents" don't describe anything at all about the intrinsic quality of the sounds, but are pure social evaluation: "wanting in points of attraction and interest; prosaic, dull, uninteresting, lifeless, monotonous, insipid". The American middle classes have always had self-esteem problems.

[Though I should add — and did, at some length in response to a comment below, that lots of accents are described as "flat", and midwestern accents are described as lots of other things; so that as Amy Stoller says, "Unless we are talking about pitch, "flat" is useless as a descriptor. […] the use of "flat" in these contexts is often code for 'different', 'unpleasant', and 'inferior'."]

Second, Chicago participates in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, several aspects of which involve vowels that may be spelled with an 'A': raising and tensing of /æ/, fronting of /ɑ/, and lowering of /ɔ/. Whether it's sensible or helpful to characterize any of these changes as "flat" is not clear to me, but here's a short passage from an interview with a young Chicago woman in which some of these features are exemplified:

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You can hear a caricatured working-class Chicago accent here:

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But listen to  Mayor Richard Daley's 2009 State of the City address here:

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or a Rod Blagojevich press conference here:

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These Chicago natives talk like (a certain kind of) Chicagoans — politicians don't prosper by sounding like outsiders — but they're a lot closer to a middle-American mainstream than to the local extreme, much less the caricature.

As for the idea that Ms. Beals "ditched" her A's at Yale (i.e. discarded them), it's certainly true that people tend to accommodate to the speech of those around them, and that upwardly mobile people tend to accommodate upwards especially vigorously. But given that her mother was a schoolteacher, and that she attended the Francis W. Parker school in Chicago, according to her Wikipedia entry, I'd guess that she didn't really have a lot of accommodating to do in New Haven. And even if she did, it would be surprising to find that someone who mastered a new variety at college was unable to revert to her linguistic roots whenever she chose to.

You can hear Jennifer Beals here speaking in her own voice about Chicago Code:

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and as Superintendent Teresa Colvin in the pilot episode here:

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I don't hear a lot of Northern Cities Shift or other specifically-Chicago speech characteristics in Ms. Beals' interview. Maybe there's a little more in her opening voice-over for the pilot, but it's certainly not as strong as in the clip from a female college student at the top of the post, much less the caricature of the Chicago accent. On the other hand, Daley and Blagojevich don't sound all that different from her Chicago Code character.

Apparently Ms. Bellafante wanted Ms. Beals to sound more like the caricature  — but it's hard to tell, since all we have is the impressionistic accusation of inadequate A-flatness. I haven't been able to find out where Ms. Bellafante is from, so we don't know whether she's a Chicagoan who feels her home town is being misrepresented, or an outsider disappointed that the show doesn't align with her stereotypes.



65 Comments

  1. Lance said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Is that young Chicago woman the same one Bill Labov uses to illustrate the Northern Cities Vowel Shift ("the bosses with the antennas")?

    [(myl) I'm not sure. I got the clip from Bill a number of years ago, when I was putting together a gallery of short examples of different American speech patterns for Linguistics 001.]

  2. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    She would never have gotten cast on NYPD Blue! (Data pointed out by Labov.)

    [(myl) That's an interesting case, because (as you imply but don't say) Dennis Franz deploys a semi-caricatured Chicago accent in playing the role of a cop from Brooklyn.]

  3. pjharvey said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Could flat simply mean 'not distinctive', rather than bear any of the negative connotations of being 'dull' or 'uninteresting'? A 'flat' accent is thus one that does not distinguish it as coming from a certain region or city, but is rather general in features.

    [(myl) Not in this case, since Bellafante's complaint is precisely that Beals' accent is too general-American and lacks the specific and regionally-distinctive features (apparently such as /æ/-raising and /ɑ/-fronting) that she associates with Chicago.]

    I could certainly envisage a 'flat' accent still having peaks and troughs in its pattern, but nothing that marks it as distinct. The pattern could then be normalised, a flat line representing the flat accent. From that, any other accent that differs from this norm is thus shaped and has distinguishing characteristics, regardless of whether the distinguishing feature flattens a local peak or trough of the flat accent.

  4. KevinM said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    Yes, but when you're seeing Jennifer Beals, can you be positive you're hearing Jennifer Beals? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_Jahan

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Does that labialised /r/ correspond to a particular American accent or is it just a characteristic of Ms. Beale's speech? She has it in both clips.

    [(myl) I'm not sure what you mean — her /r/'s sound pretty generic-American to me.]

  6. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Any description is going to be metaphorical. Sometimes accents are described as "broad." Unless you're specifically talking about pitch or intonation, "flat" is just a convention.

    [(myl) All word-meanings are conventional. The question in this case is what the conventional meaning of words like "broad" and "flat" are, as applied to accents, assuming that they have any useful meaning at all. After looking over a fairly large sample of journalistic uses of "flat" to describe accents, I concluded that it's generally a term of social and cultural evaluation, and not any attempt at a description of sound qualities. (Though I admit that in some cases it seems to mean almost nothing at all.)

    Do you have any evidence that points to a different conclusion, or are you just unhappy with the whole idea of trying to figure out what people mean when they use a word?]

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    Actually it's in the caricature as well, though only on through at the end which comes out something like [tʰɹ̥ʷuː], so maybe that's an effect of the vowel.

    [(myl) At least in North American varieties of English, essentially all pronunciations of /r/ involve constrictions at three points in the vocal tract: in the pharynx, in the middle of the oral cavity, and at the lips. That's because the main acoustic cue is the lowering of the third formant, which corresponds to a standing wave whose wavelength is 4/5 of the length of the vocal tract, and constriction at a velocity antinode of a standing wave lowers the frequency of this standing wave, and … well, you can read all about it here. As a result, essentially all these pronunciations of /r/ involve a labial constriction and are thus "labialized".

    It sometimes happens (in some children's speech, in certain speech pathologies, and stereotypically in the speech of upper-class Englishmen) that the pharyngeal and/or lingual components are weak or absent, so that /r/ becomes nearly [w]. Hence Elmer Fudd's "rascally wabbit".

    But I don't hear any of that in Jennifer Beals' speech, and so I'm puzzled as to what you're getting at.]

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    @MYL –

    I'm hearing it particularly at 0:23 in the clip in her own voice ('trying'), and in the character clip very strongly at 0:06 ('history') ad also at 0:22 ('trash').

    [(myl) I still don't get it. Here's a spectrogram of the instance of "history" you cite:

    It's got exactly the lowered second and third formants that are expected for a North American /r/ in between two high front vowels. And it sounds to me like a perfectly ordinary instance of its type as well.]

  9. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    Yes, Mark, there was an interview with Labov about the time the Phonological Atlas came out where he pointed out that you could tell Franz wasn't from New York every time he said, "What happened?" The broadcasters cut to an awesome medly of six or seven short clips of Sipowicz saying "What happened?" I was looking for a copy on the web, but I couldn't find it.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Okay I'm probably hearing things, thanks for taking the time to explain, and for the Pynchonian link.

    [(myl) Well, I'm sure that you're responding to *something* in her pronunciation, I just haven't figured out what it is yet. There are several different kinds of /r/ that are very hard to tell apart, at least for speakers of the language varieties that use them. It's been discovered recently that some Americans use mostly "bunched /r/" (where the tongue tip is down and the tongue body is bunched and raised) and others use a "retroflex /r/" (where the tongue tip is raised and somewhat retracted), and others (maybe most) use a mixture of the two strategies depending on context and perhaps the phase of the moon. And no one seems to be able to hear the difference.

    And it's a standard observation among child-language researchers (and parents) that sometimes if you imitate a child's pronunciation, you'll get the response "no, silly, it's not wabbit, it's *wabbit*". No one is quite sure whether this reflects an asymmetry between production and perception, or a subtle production difference that the adults have lost.

    I favor the perception/production asymmetry account myself, but given the well-known insensitivity of adult speakers to certain unused phonetic dimensions (like the problem of Japanese speakers with /r/ and /l/), the "subtle production difference" theory is not at all implausible.]

  11. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    What I meant was that when people talk about Midwestern accents, they always call them "flat." In other words, "flat"="Midwestern." If you don't know what a Midwestern accent sounds like, then "flat" isn't going to communicate much to you, but if you do, then it'll be instantly understandable. Most Americans do. In Ireland, it might not make much sense, but within the context, it does.

    In other words, I don't think the TV critic was engaging in weak thinking or bad writing. "Flat" is the standard term to refer to that accent.

    [(myl) It's true that people sometimes talk about a "flat midwestern accent". But if "flat" just meant "midwestern", this would be like saying "midwestern midwestern accent", and I don't think it is. In fact, many other sorts of accent are often characterized as "flat". A quick web search for "flat * accent" turns up

    that flat Mancunian accent that makes him sound like Ashley in Coronation Street
    … the flat-vowelled accent of the south-east [of England]
    the really flat Ostraylian accent
    the flat aussie accent.
    a flat Mullingar accent
    That horrible flat 'Souf Effriken' accent
    a flat Brooklyn accent
    the flat Dublin accent
    a flat Geordie accent
    the flat cockney accent
    I myself have a flat Yorkshire accent
    His heavy flat Lancashire accent
    this expansively flat and lulling American accent
    a flat Macclesfield accent
    the flat estuary accent from East London
    a flat Nottinghamshire accent
    a flat Bronx accent
    a flat California accent
    The sharp distinction between the flat New England accent and the "southern drawl,"
    that lazy, flat, New Orleans accent
    her flat New Orleans accent
    Over 6 feet tall, with frosted hair and a strong, flat Texas accent
    His flat Boston accent gives his character depth and emotion

    and on and on. We could make a similar list for "flat * vowels". As for whether "when people talk about Midwestern accents, they always call them 'flat'", that's not true either. "Her|his * midwestern accent" turns up perky, twangalicious, thick, dumbass, broad, soft, vacant, stupid, deadpan, obnoxious, hyper-precise, warm, dry, nasal, pinched, angular, etc.

    As for frequency, the 400-million-word COCA corpus has three instances of "flat X accent", one each for X = Minnesota, Bronx, and Boston. So talking about "flat A's" conveys essentially zero information about either regional origin or acoustic characteristics. And in particular, claiming that "flat accent" just means "midwestern [US] accent" is a non-starter.]

  12. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    *In Ireland, say, it might…

    As to why the word "flat" has come to be used, your guess is as good as mine. I don't think the answer lies in phonological analysis, though I could be wrong. Maybe there is something objectively "flat" about it. Maybe there's something objectively "broad" about a Boston "brogue." There doesn't have to be anything objective about these terms for them to be useful, though, because, as I say, they're just conventional.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    Well I'm sympathising with the child, because to my ear she's virtually saying 'hist'wy' at 0:06!

    In terms of the context for whatever it is I'm hearing, it's strongest after /t/ (that 'history' [Colvin 0:6] I think qualifies since the second vowel is somewhat reduced, and 'through' [Caricature 0:10] since the /θ/ is close to [tʰ]). It's not consistent though – I don't hear it in 'trunk' [Caricature 0:09].

    Re [β] in Pynchon's pitchuhv etc., the same (or a very similar) phenomenon occurs in certain older generation Cockney accents. It's stereotypically associated with East End Jews (a relative of mine is referred to in writing by his grandchildren as 'gvaindad'), but not I suspect confined to that demographic.

    I've always heard it as labio-dental but could (evidently!) be wrong. I'm trawling the web for an example, but not even actors playing Fagin seem to do it. Actually I wouldn't be surprised if Pynchon, with his incredible ear for accents, didn't reproduce it somewhere in the East End scenes in GR.

  14. Chris said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    For what it's worth, I'm picking up on the same thing Pflaumbaum is. It's there in Beals' "own voice" clip when she says "trying" at 0:27, but not when she says "trying" at 0:04.

    What it is that I"m hearing I have no idea.

  15. Chris said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    I agree with Pflaumbaum. All the Chicago speakers sound like Elmer Fudd (on some words). Well, they're doing something that I'm interpreting that way, certainly.

    First clip: "bweakfast". And is the restaurant Rag's or Wag's?
    Stereotype: He says "twue" for "through". But eg "trunk" sounds normal.
    Daley: "wecovery" and "pwogwamme"
    Blagojevich: "pwofessional"
    Jennifer Beals doesn't do it at all, maybe a hint in the second clip.

    BrE (RP/estuary), as I suspect Pflaumbaum is too based on the comments about Cockney relatives.

  16. Amy Stoller said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    As a dialect coach, I find myself irritated on a regular basis by the use of "flat" to describe speech sounds. Unless we are talking about pitch, "flat" is useless as a descriptor. It's more than bad enough when used by television critics, who usually have not the slightest idea how much work, and of what kind, goes into either casting selections or the creation of a performance. But it gets worse.

    I hear it from clients all the time, usually in reference to their own speech, sometimes in reference to others', and then I have to work with them to determine just what it is they mean.

    The worst, though, is when I hear it from fellow voice and speech practitioners, who really should know better. There are many useful ways to describe vowel sounds, resonance, and intonation, and "flat" is not one of them (except perhaps as a passable synonym for "monotonous").

    Generally speaking, I find the use of "flat" in these contexts is often code for "different", "unpleasant", and "inferior." It's about as annoying (that is to say, very) as the frequent, equally non-specific and non-helpful, use of "nasal" and "twangy."

    Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

    Incidentally, Dennis Franz was a well-known Chicago actor before he hit the big time. So far as I know, he comes by his Chicago accent honestly. And while most New York cops are from the NY metro area, not all are. Sipowicz's accent in NYPD Blue never bothered me for a minute, and I'm very picky about how my home town is represented on film and television.

    And I can name you several of my colleagues who can easily hear the difference between a bunched (or "molar") r and an apical-alveolar r. I'm getting better at it myself, although I'm nowhere near as good as they are.

  17. Amy Stoller said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    P.S. "Nasal" is a very good descriptor, of course, when used accurately. But John Q. Public and Jane Doe use it with no notion whatever of its actual meaning. Grrrr.

  18. Chris said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    Confusingly enough there are two different "Chris"s here. I'm the second one, and I'm not sure if I agree with the first one about Beal's clip. If it's there it's certainly much less pronounced than the others.

  19. Amy Stoller said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    P.P.S. For what it's worth, I've just listened to the clips, and there's nothing in Beals' speech that I would characterize as fitting in with the old idea of Ivy League speech, which admittedly is usually to based on Harvard rather than on Yale. Regardless, she doesn't sound Northeastern to me. I doubt whether I'd have pegged her speech pattern as specifically Chicagoan even from the voiceover opening of Chicago Code if I didn't hear the reference to Chicago, but I'd certainly have guessed it was mid-western.

    I suppose there may be a hint of labialized r in Daley's speech, but I don't hear it in the others. Could be my computer speakers minimizing the effect.

  20. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    @ Marc – 'broad' is completely different from 'flat' though, it has a clear meaning when referring to accents: strongly marked (in the non-linguistic sense), and usually working-class (hardly any relevant google hits for "broad R.P."). Whereas 'flat' doesn't seem to mean anything, except maybe 'with vowels that are different from mine'.

    @ Chris (2): yes, RP/Estuary with random bits of Mancunian floating around.

    @ amy – did you see this LL post and comments (especially Prof. Pullum's)?

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2788

    Re the 'bunched /r/', try as I might I cannot seem to get anywhere near an /r/ with the tip of my tongue pointing downwards.

  21. Ellie said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    I hear it too – a very subtle twying or tvying. My highschool chemistry teacher was not so subtle and pronounced all of her r's as v's – "Chemistvvvy" – and Beals' occasional pronunciation reminds me a tiny bit of that.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7q1NOvO-SE

    This example is just the first Beals interview that popped up on YouTube. Many of her r's sound normal to me, but there's a hint of voiced labio-dental fricative in there, and her bottom lip seems to be near her upper front teeth on those same occasions. Look at "script" and "trying" at 0:12 and 0:14.

    And for what it's worth, I like her Chicago accent – it's subtle but authentic from the clip provided from the pilot. Sometimes the "Deez Darez Doze" South Chicago gets to be too much even when it comes from a native speaker.

  22. FM said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    MYL says: "And it's a standard observation among child-language researchers (and parents) that sometimes if you imitate a child's pronunciation, you'll get the response "no, silly, it's not wabbit, it's *wabbit*". No one is quite sure whether this reflects an asymmetry between production and perception, or a subtle production difference that the adults have lost."

    I'm a native speaker of Russian, and it took me a while to get the rolled [r], which until I was about 7 I substituted with something like [ɰ]. The adults in my life heard, or at least reproduced, it as /ɫ/ and while I feel like I knew that correcting them would be useless, it always annoyed me. I think a lot of "Elmer Fudd"-style accents (especially the upper-class British one) also use [ɰ], though I'm not positive.

    Another similar phenomenon is described here: http://riowang.blogspot.com/2010/05/druth_27.html

    My best guess in that case is that the child pronounced the name as [ɾut] and native Spanish speakers who are not used to hearing [ɾ] at the beginning of a word reinterpreted as /dɾut/.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    I went to law school in Chicago and a high percentage of my classmates were natives of the area. Their pronunciation fell across a quite wide range. I can recall one woman (Irish-American, grew up I think on the Southwest Side) who had the Chicagoan A's to an extreme (almost as if she were an outsider trying to caricature the feature). But I also had at least two classmates who'd gone to high school at Parker (like Ms. Beals) who had virtually no noticeable regionalisms in their pronunciation. Of course, they were back in Chicago after spending time at fancy private colleges in the East, so that doesn't disprove the Bellafante Hypothesis.

    On the other hand, I was at the same college as Ms. Beals at about the same time (although I don't think I ever had occasion to speak to her) and I really don't recall any obvious large-scale pattern of people coming in with discernable regional accents but coming out four years later fully assimilated to some sort of national prestige norm (which isn't to say there weren't some individuals whose speech moved around as dictated by affectation, pretension, or simply experimentation with trying out new identities). Maybe generations earlier there were students who came to New Haven sounding like Gomer Pyle and left sounding like Thurston Howell III, but if so that era was over by the time Ms. Beals and I arrived. Unfortunately my sample size of undergraduate contemporaries who had noticably Chicagoan vowels and who I consistently conversed with over all four years = 1, but I think she graduated with pretty much the same vowels (regional, but not nearly as extreme as the law school classmate mentioned above) she'd matriculated with.

    Of course, there are some lines of work in which people who start with regional accents can and do for professional reasons successfully change their speech to some sort of approximation of a national prestige norm, and one of those at least used to be the occupation of actor/actress. I have no idea whether Ms. Beals has done so or ever had the sort of old fashioned "elocution" stage-actor training that could prompt that sort of change of accent, but it seems at least as plausible as the fancy-Eastern-college hypothesis, even if one assumes without evidence that in her childhood she had notably Chicagoan A's.

  24. Amy Stoller said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: No, I didn't – when it was posted, I was deeply engaged in working with Anna Deavere Smith on the 20 different idiolects she was working to embody in Let Me Down Easy. I'll try to give it some attention later.

    In case anyone's interested, my current roster of projects has me working on, or prepping to work on, Liberian, Bulgarian, Indian, Japanese, French, and African-American Texas Cotton Country accents and dialects. It will be something of a relief to go back to Irish, but of course I will want to be more specific as to what kind of Irish when the last of my projects finally rolls around. So I really shouldn't be hanging around on LL when I have so much work to do. But the chance to sound off about "flat" was irresistible.

  25. Tom Recht said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    Not to sidetrack the discussion, but I find myself completely unable to parse the following clause:

    "her placid beauty could not suit the character, Teresa Colvin, any less than if producers had scoured juice bars looking for a pretty server of antioxidant smoothies"

    I think I get the idea (an ageless and stunning police superintendent is as improbable as a pretty smoothie-server?), but the syntax doesn't compute at all. That "than" seems to be superfluous, for one thing; but even without it I don't think this sentence means what it thinks it means.

  26. Amy Stoller said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    Re making bunched r when it doesn't come naturally:

    I'm not yet very good at doing it in word-initial position, but I'm getting better. For anyone who wants to learn it, here are a couple of ideas worth trying:

    Make a very retracted vowel "Pirate R" and come out of that into a word that begins with a consonant r. You'll be adding a vowel to the beginning of the word at first, but eventually you can go straight to the consonant. Or you can pretend you're a dog saying urrrrrrrRuff!

    You may already make a bunched r without realizing it, following g and k. Trying saying green or cream. Do you really make an apical-(post)alveolar r in those words? (I find that sometimes I do, but sometimes I make the bunched r.)

    Eric Armstrong, Phil Thompson, Dudley Knight, are you out there? Maybe you can help!

  27. mollymooly said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    My favorite rant about lay phonetic description fails is Larry Trask's 4th definition of "guttural" .

  28. Chris (2) said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    I followed up on my "Danny's or [W|R]ag's" question.
    What do you think she says? Then read on…

    If you thought "Wag's", Google thinks that there is such a thing as the "Rag Food Market" in Chicago. I assume that's what she's referring to.

  29. mgh said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    this is probably a personal eggcorn but I thought "flat" was onomatopoietic referring to some vowels – for example, with a flat accent, the "a" in Chicago would be more like "flat" than like "cog".

  30. Chris C. said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    @ Tom Recht: I read it this way: "Beals' placid beauty makes her as unsuitable for the part as a pretty smoothie server would be," with the implication that a pretty server server must be a young, bubbly person and not at all like a police superintendent.

    I am the first Chris and I have appended another letter to avoid confusion with the second Chris.

  31. Steve Harris said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    What struck me most noticeably about Beals' voice-over was the pronunciation of "Chicago", with the second vowel being like the "ah" doctors ask you to make when examining your throat (also how I–raised in St. Louis–pronounce "cog", "cod", "cot"), as opposed to the "aw" sound (as in "autumn", "saw") that is more familiar to me in the name of that city.

    Mind, I spent six years of young adulthood in Chicago and still continued to pronounce it my St. Louis fashion (Chi-caw-go). The Chi-cah-go pronunciation is not universally heard in the Windy City, though it is common.

    In short: Beals' character sounds authentically Chicagoan to me.

  32. FM said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    I live in Chicago but grew up in California so I don't usually distinguish the "caught" (/ɒ/) and "cot" (/ɑ/) sounds in speech and don't know which one is supposed to go in "Chicago." (I think, actually, that I [inconsistently] use a "learned a", the vowel I pronounce in foreign words which is further front than the vowel in 'hot'.) I read somewhere, though, that there's a class division in the Chicago area where lower-class people (consistent with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift) say Chic[a]go or even Chic[æ]go and upper-class people (as you can hear in Mayor Daley's speech) overcompensate by saying Chic[ɒ]go or even Chic[ɔ]go.

  33. GeorgeW said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    Is it not possible that intonation in different varieties of speech (language, dialect, accent) differ such that the pitch contours in the speaker's variety are less than in the hearer's and it would actually sound 'flat' to them?

  34. Marc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    I never said people don't use it with other accents, just that the conventional association is with midwestern accents, which obviously presupposes a US context. In other countries, "flat" might be associated with a particular region's accent, which seems to be the case with Manchester and Dublin accents. In terms of population vs. hit count, I think those two hit counts are probably equivalent to the 21,000+ for "midwestern."

    Anyway, Google shows that what I said is far from being a non-starter. Note that the highest hit after "midwestern" is for "american," and of course the midwestern accent is considered the "standard" American accent, and the highest US hit after that is for a Brooklyn accent, which I would ascribe to cultural prominence of New York, so there's going to be lots of books, etc, overweighting that hit.

    I used the list your provided and googled with quotes around the phrases.

    flat midwestern accent 21,800
    flat mancunian accent 3,920
    flat australian accent 363
    flat aussie accent 254
    flat mullingar accent 2
    flat south african accent 41
    flat brooklyn accent 1,120
    flat dublin accent 1,370
    flat geordie accent 32
    flat cockney accent 51
    flat yorkshire accent 273
    flat lancashire accent 48
    flat macclesfield accent
    flat american accent 15,800
    flat estuary accent from east london 5
    flat nottinghamshire accent 2
    flat bronx accent 42
    flat california accent 107
    flat new england accent 105
    flat new orleans accent 9
    flat texas accent 133
    flat boston accent 653

  35. Brett said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    @Angus Grieve-Smith: I figured that Franz's character on NYPD Blue was named Sipowicz specifically because of the actor's Chicago accent, since the second city is known for its large Polish population.

    @Amy Stoller: I always wanted to believe (in spite of my good sense telling me otherwise) that Anna Deavere Smith's ability to replicate individuals' idiolects was just an innate talent, as if she just had to listen to them talk for a while before, chameleon-like, becoming them. Now you've burst my illusion.

    @Tom Recht: In addition to the meaning Chris C. pointed out, I took the mention of finding a smoothie server for the part as a possible allusion to the urban myth that Beals was not cast through normal channels for her breakout role in Flashdance. Rather, as the story goes, she was a young, pretty girl who caught the eye of a producer somewhere, and she got the part on this basis alone. (I think a version of this tall tale once appeared as the wrong answer to a question about Flashdance on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.)

    @Steve Harris: I have observed that people's pronunciations of place names (and proper names in general) often display different accents from the same people's normal speech. There are a couple natural reasons for this. I know that I pronounce "Chicago" or "Concord" in much the same fashion as residents of Illinois or Massachusetts, because I have relatives who live near Chicago, Illinois and Concord, Massachusetts. Over the years, my conversations about the communities in question have been mostly with people who lived near those places, and so I picked up their pronunciation of the names. There is also the fact that somebody with a particular regional accent (which they have mostly lost) may still make a conscious or semi-conscious point to pronounce the name of their home city or state the "right way," as residents do.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    Interestingly enough, the Trask dictionary linked by mollymooly also has a technical phonetics definition of "flat" as used in the Jakobson-Halle Feature System which, um, is not something I know anything about on account of having completely avoided phonetics/phonology back in my student days in favor of cool stuff like ergativity and wacky tense/aspect systems. I have no idea whether any of the wide variety of accents variously referred to as "flat" (and if so which) actually display this feature.

    When I try to pronounce e.g. the word "flat" with a stereotypical Chicagoan vowel (which a lot tenser and maybe a little bit raised from how I pronounce the word in my native dialect), my mouth genuinely feels (or so I convince myself) like it's in a "flatter" configuration (I guess I'm perhaps implicitly contrasting it to "open" or "rounded"?). So as applied to Chicago (not necessarily any of those other places turned up by myl's googling), it seems descriptive for me. But this may well be as it were a back-formation from the preexisting description of the accent as flat, and I might not have come up with flat as the plausible way to describe that mouthfeel had I not been prompted by that cliche.

  37. Nijma said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    Danny's or [W|R]ag's

    The restaurants in question are Denny's, the coffee shop chain ("always open"), and Wag's, the Walgreens lunch counter. I haven't seen either one in Chicago for a long time.

  38. Nijma said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    The "caricatured working-class Chicago accent" in the second recording sounds like someone is trying to conflate two different ethnic, or maybe neighborhood accents, a Cicero "gangster" accent and an eastern European (Polish or Lithuanian?) accent. I used to work with a guy from Cicero (computer repair) and another guy who could do the "gangster" accents. If a customer got difficult they would act sort of nervous, and politely and unconsciously (?!) lapse into the accent–clipped syllables, /t/ instead of /th/, and a very short duration "yeh" instead of "yeah"–whereupon the customer always got the message and had no further questions. When there was an intractable customer, the unofficial description given in the office later might be "so-and-so went out there and gangstered 'em".

    One difference I noticed between Jennifer Beals and the "young Chicago woman" (if she's still alive) is that the woman in the first recording drops the -g in -ing. She says somethin' where Beals says driving and growing.

    I haven't heard midwesterners refer to their own accents as "flat" but I have heard "midwestern twang".

  39. Tom Recht said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Chris C., Brett – thanks, that interpretation makes a lot more sense than mine; but the "than" is still out of place, isn't it? Shouldn't it just be "her placid beauty could not suit the character any less if producers had scoured juice bars…"? (Which would still only make sense if you take "her" to refer to "whoever would have got the part in that case", rather than "Jennifer Beals", which is its only syntactically possible referent.)

  40. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    I know two people who seem to pronounce my name as "Valph." One is an 80-year-old woman who grew up in the Sudetenland and post-war Munich and came to the U. S. about 1950; the other is my primary care physician, who is about 45, from India, and came to the U. S. in 1997.

  41. Clint said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    @Pflaumbaum

    There are a few UK accents that seem to have a labiodental approximant in place of /r/ in some positions. I haven't taken the time to look at a spectrogram. Are these examples like what you're talking about? (At least one token comes up in the first few seconds of both videos.

    Rik Mayall
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMQNH9G5nbI

    King George VI
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAhFW_auT20

  42. Doug said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    I think it's relevant that the review referred not to a "flat accent" or to "flat vowels" generally, but rather the "flat A's".

    As you probably know, "flat A" is a traditional way of referring to the "a" sound in the general US pronunciation of word like "cat" and "flat" and "back." (Commonly this is assumed to be the IPA ae ligature.) It's usually discussed in contrast to the "broad A" of the general US pronunciation of "father" (commonly represented as script A in IPA.)

    It's handy to have these terms because there is a class of words (including "bath", "pass" etc.) that have "flat A" in most of the US but are pronounced with "broad A" in some British varieties and also, I think, in parts of New England.

    So my initial interpretation was that Bellafante thinks some of Beals' "short A" vowels have moved from the usual midwestern American "flat A" position to something more like "broad A."

    My understanding of the NCVS is that the Chicago "short A" is now rather unlike the old "flat A", but it's moved away from "broad A", not towards it. So Bellafante could still consider the Chicago version to be "flat".

    Or, it may be that her recollection of the whole flat vs broad situation is unclear, and all she knows is that "we use flat A around here" and so any "A" pronunciation that sounds not-Chicago to her gets classified as not-flat. She might even assume that "flat A" refers specifically to the shifted Chicago NCVS pronunciation and not the older general US pronunciation of "short A."

  43. Carl Burke said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    "Wag's"? That surprises me. None of those R's sounded like W's to me; I clearly heard "Rag's" (even if that was incorrect).

    The most startling bit to me was Daley's pronuciation of the a in Chicago as the vowel in 'caught', rather than 'cot' in line with the other clips. But I'm originally from Rochester, so I'm sure that affects my perception.

  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    @ GeorgeW – if your pitch contour hypothesis is right, it's surprising to see references to the 'flat Geordie accent', as Geordie is marked by unusually large pitch variations.

    Funnily enough, the Wikipedia entry for 'Manchester dialect' has this somewhat confused claim of supposed non-flatness:

    A major feature of the Mancunian accent is the over-enunciation of vowel sounds when compared to the flattened sounds of neighbouring areas.

    I wonder if the sense of 'flatness' comes more from the sardonic, dead-pan wit associated with the city than any specific feature of the accent.

    If anyone wants to know how the Mancunian accent sounds, don't go by the character Daphne in Frasier. She's meant to be from Manchester but the actress is a Southerner and her accent's miles off.

    South Manchester (the interviewee): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH6-mmYAaEU

    Bury (North Manchester): http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/teams/m/man_utd/9385692.stm

    For Geordie, this site gives quite a few samples:

    http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/geordie/vowel-sounds/

  45. fred lapides said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    I thought it had referred to grade inflation at Yale.

  46. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Did Yale unflatten Jennifer Beals’ A’s? [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    […] Language Log » Did Yale unflatten Jennifer Beals' A's? languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2957 – view page – cached February 10, 2011 @ 9:17 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and Tags […]

  47. Brett said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    @Tom Recht: The meaning was completely transparent to me, but it also certainly sounded odd, and I agree with you that there's an error there. I think that I parsed it as: Her placid beauty could not suit the character, Teresa Colvin, any less than[,] if the producers had scoured juice bars looking for a pretty server of antioxidant smoothies, [her beauty would have suited the character.] But I have no idea if this was what Bellafante was thinking when she wrote this. If it was, she may have excised the last bit, thinking it was redundant (which it isn't, because the the two her's have different referents) and hence unnecessary (which it may nonetheless be, since the meaning was probably clear to most readers, even if the sentence was ungrammatical).

  48. maidhc said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

    I've only heard the term "flat" applied to vowels, not consonants, as in "flat A". Flat vowels are not peculiar to Chicago, but are found from upstate New York westward through at least some parts of Illinois (I haven't spent enough time in places like Iowa to be able to say). It's not the same as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (which is found in Chicago).

    I don't know where the term "flat" comes from, but it's used by speakers of that dialect to describe their vowels.

    The best way I can describe it is to say "I had a cat in a box" with flat vowels would sound to me like "I hed a cet in a bax".

    It's not the same as any of the various accents of Chicago, nor the distinctive downstate Illinois accent.

    I've noticed similar vowels in some Beach Boys songs, but I can't think of which ones.

  49. Nijma said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    None of those R's sounded like W's to me; I clearly heard "Rag's" (even if that was incorrect).

    I listened to it several more times and I can't hear "rags", but after 30 years in Chicago maybe I'm more used to the accents (and the restaurants.) Her r's don't sound consistent to me. The "r" in "ritual" sounds more like a real "r" to me, the "r" in "Friday" is almost too fast to hear, and the "r" in "Saturdays" is nearly nonexistent . (I can't talk like that myself; I probably sound more like Beals, who sounds to me like she's from Minneapolis.)

  50. AJD said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    Maidhc, what you're describing is the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

  51. m.m. said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

    Amy Stoller said,

    As a dialect coach, I find myself irritated on a regular basis by the use of "flat" to describe speech sounds. Unless we are talking about pitch, "flat" is useless as a descriptor. It's more than bad enough when used by television critics, who usually have not the slightest idea how much work, and of what kind, goes into either casting selections or the creation of a performance. But it gets worse.

    Generally speaking, I find the use of "flat" in these contexts is often code for "different", "unpleasant", and "inferior." It's about as annoying (that is to say, very) as the frequent, equally non-specific and non-helpful, use of "nasal" and "twangy."

    Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

    Yes. When people try to describe variation in the south, it's always "twangy".

    mollymooly said,

    My favorite rant about lay phonetic description fails is Larry Trask's 4th definition of "guttural" .

    Love it.

    A meaningless label typically applied by the linguistically unsphisticated to any unfamiliar language or speech variety that doesn't sound like Italian.

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    @Carl Burke: "Chicawgo" is a stereotypical identifier of people from Chicago, as opposed to people from the burbs, who say "Chicahgo", maybe raised and fronted almost to "Chicaggo". Somebody here probably knows whether this is real and if so, whether the isogloss coincides with the city limits.

    Speaking of which, I'd often take "flat" accents to indicate mergers and lots of schwas (or monotony or lack of resonance), which seems to be what the Wikipedia sentence is talking about (or at least near-mergers, the opposite of "over-enunciated"). Then "flat A's" in Chicago would be merged like the way I hear Mayor Daley's—the accented vowels in his "economy" and "expand" sound the same to me, and the same as in the stereotypical character's "sausage".

    @Doug: I've heard broad A for the "father" vowel, but I've never heard flat A for the "fat" vowel, which I grew up calling "short A". Of course, it might be traditional anyway.

    @Marc: Aside from broad A, I understand a broad accent to mean one that's undiluted, uninfluenced by the standard.

    On the variable meaning of flat, I can't help pointing out that one of the great poems in English begins "To speak in a flat voice/ Is all that I can do."

    And David Sibley gives descriptions of bird vocalizations like "Song of high, sharp, flat notes…" (Vermilion Flycatcher). I think "sharp" may mean lots of high overtones and "flat" may mean unchanging in pitch, but together they strike me as incongruous.

    @Brett: I pretty much agree with you. Maybe …her placid beauty could not suit the character, Teresa Colvin, any less than [the face viewers would have seen] if producers had scoured juice bars looking for a pretty server of antioxidant smoothies.

  53. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 5:49 am

    @ maidhc

    I've only heard the term "flat" applied to vowels, not consonants

    Yes I believe when it comes to consonants the meaningless adjective of choice is 'hard'.

    So to summarise the various definitions of 'flat' given in this thread:

    Non-distinctive
    Mid-Western (when used in US)
    /ɑ/ > /a/ or /æ/
    Mouth position 'feeling flat' (in contrast to open/rounded)
    /ae/
    /ae/ > /ɛ/, /ɑ/ > /a/ (?)
    Lots of (vowel) mergers and schwas
    Monotony or lack of resonance

    @ Clint – yes both of those are examples: the King George one is characteristic of a certain kind of very upper-class RP, whereas Mayall's I think is meant to be a speech impediment, a rhotacism particular to his character. My query was exactly that, in fact: whether it was a feature of Beals' particular speech or her accent in general. Though it seems from the spectrogram that it's not the same kind of thing as the RP/Elmer Fudd ones, if indeed there's anything going on with her /r/'s at all.

  54. GeorgeW said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 5:57 am

    @Pflaumbaum: "if your pitch contour hypothesis is right, it's surprising to see references to the 'flat Geordie accent', as Geordie is marked by unusually large pitch variations."

    If it is right, one would have to measure the intonation contours of the speaker and the hearer to determine if there is a relative difference. I suspect, as noted in the post and comments, that the 'flat' claim is often without any phonetic meaning. But, I am also wondering if it sometimes is based on reality.

  55. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 6:02 am

    Oh yes I forgot George's 'relatively even pitch contours' suggestion in the above list.

  56. Leo said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 6:37 am

    Pflaumbaum – in a Northern England context, isn't "flat vowels" sometimes a term for the monophthongs and , where Southern English has and əʊ? (Lexical sets FACE and GOAT.) That is certainly what some people seem to be getting at.

    Google Books has plenty of findings for both "flat vowels" and "flat consonants", and there are some serious titles in there, along with the impressionistic journalists' descriptions of "the flat vowels and harsh r's of her [Afrikaans] accent" etc etc.

  57. Doug said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    @ Jerry Friedman:
    "I've heard broad A for the "father" vowel, but I've never heard flat A for the "fat" vowel, which I grew up calling "short A". Of course, it might be traditional anyway."

    This use of flat is common enough that it's in the American Heritage Dictionary, and also on Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonological_history_of_English_short_A

  58. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    @Doug: Thanks, I learned something. Among on-line dictionaries, that meaning is in Merriam-Webster and the World English Dictionary as well as the AHD, but not in the Random House Unabridged or the OED. (Do you want to e-mail them?)

    So now I think it's likely that Bellafante knew that meaning and meant that Chicago accents have /æ/, or something like it such as /a/, where she expects another sound, presumably /ɑ/. If so, she was apparently right—that's part of the NCVS—except that pronunciation may not be as universal in Chicago as she thought.

  59. Joyce Melton said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    It's sort of foolish of the reviewer to criticize the accent of a native as not sounding native. As if there were only one Chicago accent. Even Los Angeles has a half-dozen different authentic native accents.

    Being a Southerner (Arkansas) I've always heard Northern accents described as "flat" by which I took it to mean the close-sounding Midwestern vowels that are higher, tenser and more fronted than the typical Southern equivalents. Maybe that was just me trying to make sense of a basically nonsense description.

    Another meaning of "flat" I seem to have deduced is having a reduced number of vowel sounds; if someone does a vowel merger that you don't do, their speech is going to sound flatter to you.

    I've also heard Midwestern speech as being "filled with a's as flat as a Kansas prairie". That seems to refer to the tense, front mid-vowel represented by the ae ligature in IPA.

    So, 'flat' has some meaning; depending on speaker and context it can actually have contradictory meanings. But then, we're talking about as used in casual speech not technical discussion.

  60. m.m. said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    Pflaumbaum said,

    @ maidhc
    I've only heard the term "flat" applied to vowels, not consonants
    Yes I believe when it comes to consonants the meaningless adjective of choice is 'hard'.

    hard, soft, strong, weak, lazy, and I forget a few others that are very common for describing consonants.

    Joyce Melton said,

    It's sort of foolish of the reviewer to criticize the accent of a native as not sounding native. As if there were only one Chicago accent. Even Los Angeles has a half-dozen different authentic native accents.

    I'd beg to differ, depending on what qualifies as 'authentic native'…

  61. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    I thought I posted a comment mentioning two more phonetic meanings of flat for Pflaumbaum's collection: voiced or lenis (various dictionaries, and just showed up in the "Dwarves" thread), and having the tongue at an even height, not higher in front or in back (OED).

    (I hope I just messed up and am not duplicating a comment that's caught in moderation or was zapped for some reason.)

    [(myl) Your earlier comment may have been trapped by the ever-inscrutable Akismet. Since it traps O(1,000) spam comments a day, I usually flush its filters without checking all of the contents.]

  62. Tom Recht said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    @Brett: Her placid beauty could not suit the character, Teresa Colvin, any less than[,] if the producers had scoured juice bars looking for a pretty server of antioxidant smoothies, [her beauty would have suited the character.]

    But if that was the intended meaning, then the polarity is the wrong way around: the idea would be that Beals's beauty was no more suitable than a smoothie-server's, rather than no less suitable.

  63. Amy Stoller said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    @Brett: "I always wanted to believe (in spite of my good sense telling me otherwise) that Anna Deavere Smith's ability to replicate individuals' idiolects was just an innate talent, as if she just had to listen to them talk for a while before, chameleon-like, becoming them. Now you've burst my illusion."

    It's rather more complicated than that. Until Let Me Down Easy, Anna always worked solo on her creations; I am the first dialect coach she has ever worked with. She has always spent hours upon hours upon hours listening to audio recordings of her interviews with her subjects (and, latterly, watching the video recordings as well.) Indeed, she does this on a daily basis.

    Her innate talent is extraordinary, but it is matched by her supreme dedication and discipline. It is a source of immense pride to me (and not a little wonder) that someone with such astonishing gifts, and such a reputation for work of this kind, should have chosen me to help her explore even more deeply than she has before.

  64. David Fried said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    Mark said in the original post:

    "And even if [Beals] did, it would be surprising to find that someone who mastered a new variety at college was unable to revert to her linguistic roots whenever she chose to."

    I was surprised by this comment. It's not intuitively obvious to me that someone who successfully changes their pronunciation automatically becomes bidialectal thereby. Even if they retain the ability to form the sounds they once used, is that under their conscious control?

    My own pronunciation slides around between a modified version of the LI accent of my youth and a more General American accent. I can "decide" to speak in a more "cultured" way, but the LI accent is barely under my conscious control. I cannot do it on command, and if I try i produce a bad "stage' version. It comes out in certain social situations and under stress.

    I have always assumed that a result like this is the usual experience of the upwardly mobile in this country, if you'll excuse the expression. Comments?

  65. Paul Kay said,

    February 13, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    Mark, you wrote,

    "And it's a standard observation among child-language researchers (and parents) that sometimes if you imitate a child's pronunciation, you'll get the response "no, silly, it's not wabbit, it's *wabbit*". No one is quite sure whether this reflects an asymmetry between production and perception, or a subtle production difference that the adults have lost.

    "I favor the perception/production asymmetry account myself, but given the well-known insensitivity of adult speakers to certain unused phonetic dimensions (like the problem of Japanese speakers with /r/ and /l/), the "subtle production difference" theory is not at all implausible.]"

    I've often wondered about this. Could both accounts be partially correct? It would be interesting to know whether children can hear the difference in their own "correct" and "incorrect" renditions of rabbit (for example) when they're not producing them and whether their own "correct" version sounds correct to them when played back — say, put in the mouth of an animated cartoon child. (I'm assuming their "correct" version does sound correct to them while they're actually producing it because they can be very positive in their attitude of correction.) Do you think experiments in which the child's "correct" and "incorrect" versions were elicited and played back to the producer might cast some light on this puzzle? (Assuming such experiments haven't already been done.)

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