Earlier this year, I wrote about an episode of NPR’s Code Switch and I was highly critical. The problems with that show weren’t the fault of the hosts, but rather a theater professor who was out of his league talking about American accents (much like I would be out of my league talking about theater in a radio interview). But Code Switch is back with another episode on linguistics and… Wow, is it good! I mean really, really good. They talked to linguists and language scholars about the origin of Broadcaster English and how there is no single variety of Standard American English. They also got into the stigmatization of accents in society and the media and what that means for people (with the help of Prof. Okim Kang, who has been studying this topic).
And like a good news article, they put a human perspective on it by talking to someone who has been dealing with the problems that come from the insistence that newscasters speak Standard American English.
I’m not going to spoil any more of it for you. I recommend that you go listen to this episode yourself. You can find the transcript or download the episode here. Listen online here.
And if that’s not enough for you, then you’re in luck. These are some big topics in linguistics. There’s much more out there for you to learn about them.
Some genuinely weird stories appear in the catalog, such as “Superman’s Lost Century,” the epic Mordru arc beginning in Adventure Comics vol.1 No.369, and the debut of Barry Allen’s immediate offspring Don and Dawn Allen a.k.a. The Tornado Twins in Adventure Comics vol 1 No.373 (Oct 1968). Who in the world would give their twins a homophone for a pair of names? I mean, the answer is Barry Allen and his wife Iris, but I pose the question rhetorically.
He’s right – the Mordru arc is a genuinely weird Superman story. No, I kid. He’s also right that the names Don and Dawn are pronounced the same by many speakers. It’s called the low back merger and it’s also what makes people pronounce the words cot and caught the same. Without the merger, the word Don is pronounced /dɑn/, while the word dawn is pronounced /dɔn/. So it’s only the vowel that distinguishes them, with the first vowel being more open and farther back in the mouth than the second vowel. But in the merger, the vowel in the word dawn shifts down to the vowel in Don and they become homophones.
So who has this merger? Well, according to the Atlas of North American English, the merger is “is characteristic of a very large part of the geographic terrain of North America” (Lobov, Ash & Boberg 2005: 60). The Atlas gives this map, where people who are inside the green line have the merger and the green dots represent people who both hear and speak the words Don and dawn identically.
It makes sense that the names of the Flash’s kids could be Dawn and Don. Barry Allen, aka the Flash, is from Iowa, which falls outside of the merger boundary in the image above. And he operates as the Flash in Central City, Missouri, another place outside of the low back merger area. The only thing is that the Tornado Twins Don and Dawn were born in the 30th century, which proves that the low back merger will never fully sweep across North America. Even 10 centuries from now there are places where Don and dawn are pronounced differently. Now you know.
Comedian Michelle Wolf was on NPR’s Fresh Air recently and the host, Terry Gross, asked her about her voice (at around 12:30 in this interview):
Let’s talk about your voice. I wasn’t sure how you’d sound as yourself, not on stage but just, like, talking to me. And I’d say your voice sounds, you know, sounds a little different when you’re just talking to me. Does your voice change on stage naturally? Do you emphasize certain qualities in it when you’re on stage?
I bring this up because things could have gone very bad at this moment… but they didn’t! I was bracing for some bad linguistics that thankfully never came. Wolf talks about how she wants to sound better in the interview because she respects Gross’s voice and Gross stresses that she thinks Wolf’s voice is fine and that her own voice changes when she tries to speak louder.
But this is interesting because the interview plays a clip of Wolf making jokes about people complaining about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly shrill voice. The term shrill is only applied to women and it’s some dog-whistling misogyny. As Gross and Wolf discuss in the interview, people’s voices change when they are speaking on stage – and that’s fine! Think about how Chris Rock speaks in his comedy specials. I don’t remember anyone ever asking him about his bombastic tone. Or how Jerry Seinfeld’s whining delivery (dare I say his “shrill tone”?) is endearing. No one sees that as a problem.
So it was nice to see the Fresh Air interview not go down a language-shaming rabbit hole. I wish more discussions between non-linguists on women’s voices were like this.
There was some press recently about a new study which seems to claim that you can’t become fluent in a second language if you start learning it after age 10. In fact, the study* did not talk about fluency at all. As this article in the Conversation UK by Prof. Monika Schmid points out, the media misinterpreted what the study showed. I’m glad Schmid wrote this piece, which not only clears up the media’s confusion with the study, but also explains some other things about fluency in linguistics. I read the study in question and it seemed pretty legit. I have some misgivings about the idea of nativeness in language learning and about how the questionnaire says that India isn’t a “traditional English speaking country”. And also how the quiz said that “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept I’m finished my homework instead of with my homework,” when this is also very common in and around Philadelphia**.
But all in all, it seems to be an interesting linguistics study that got blown out of proportion by the media. File it with the rest.
* The title of the study is “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers”. Does anyone else find “2/3 million English speakers” ungrammatical?
**It might just be me, but the phrase “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” also seems ungrammatical. “Canadians accept X” is ok, but “Irish accept X” and “Scottish accept X” are not, at least not in my variety of English. The latter two need articles before them or the word people after them: “The Irish accept X”, “Scottish people accept X”. I don’t know of any variety where “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” is correct. This is just a bit of irony in a quiz about the grammaticality of different clauses.
The Alice Cooper song “Poison” features lyrics rhyming the words hot and caught:
Your mouth, so hot
Your web, I’m caught
Rhyming these words is an example of the cot–caught merger. In linguistics, a merger is when the vowel sounds of two words move together to become the same sound. If you say the words cot and caught the same way, or if hot rhymes with caught, then you have the cot–caught merger. The cot–caught merger is sometimes described as if it’s a yes-or-no phenomenon, but in reality – like in all things in linguistics – it’s more of a continuum.
Alice Cooper doesn’t really pronounce the vowels in hot and caught the exact same way. That could be because Alice Cooper is from Detroit, Michigan, a place which doesn’t have the cot–caught merger. Or maybe the other two writers of “Poison” were taking poetic license with the rhyming of these words. The other writers are Desmond Child, who’s from Gainesville, FL (a place resistant to the cot–caught merger) and John McCurry – but I don’t where he’s from. Either way, the merger is more of a yes-no-maybe-so kind of thing. That means there are speakers with the merger who live in areas where most speakers do not have the merger and vice versa. And there are speakers who have the merger only in certain words or environments, such as before nasal consonants so that the vowels in Don and dawn are merged.
Here’s Alice Cooper singing “Poison” live in 1989 (video starts at the hot/caught lyrics, but rewind it to listen to a flaming guitar solo straight outta the 80s):
You can read more about the cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (some online info here). Wikipedia also has an article on it.
Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.
Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.
Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz is a very easy read since it is mainly colorful maps of dialect (sometimes lexical) boundaries in the US – here’s the line between people who say X and people who say Y (and occasionally there’s an island of people who say Z). The research behind the maps comes from a dialect survey that was featured in the New York Times in December 2013. It’s rather scant on details about language because that’s not really the purpose of this book. It shows, not tell.
To anyone familiar with linguistics, the maps will look familiar, although they are much nicer looking than the average dialect map in a linguistics textbook. Speaking American is a great coffee table book and I mean that in a positive way – it’s perfect for starting conversations between people. E’rybody loves talkin’ ‘bout language. The material is presented with such great imagery and it is so simple that it makes a great springboard into talking about talking. It happened at my house too. Both of my kids were very interested in how people said different things.
I did have a few misgivings with the book, however. I would have appreciated having the words of a few of the maps written in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the maps showing the various ways that people say pecan were a bit tricky to figure out (PIH-KAHN, PEE-KAHN, PEE-KAN, PEE-KAHN, and PEE-KAN, pp. 80-81). But I suppose that the dialect survey in the NY Times wasn’t done using the IPA (and I know that the general public isn’t familiar with the IPA).
The section on California was a bit unclear to me. Katz writes that “for much of the twentieth century, California speech sounded like a mish-mash of dialects from everywhere else. California was a giant blender of the rest of the country’s speech: the general American dialect.” (p. 91) I don’t think Katz means that the rest of the country speaks in the General American dialect because that would be incorrect. But it would also be wrong to say that Californians speak in the General American dialect, so this part left me scratching my head a little.
Later in the section on Katz says that “in the mid-twentieth century, though, national radio began to replace local radio for the first time. The voices in America’s living rooms were […] Californians.” (p. 91) I’m not disputing the rise of (southern) California in the media industry, but I would’ve like to have a source for this. I assumed that national radio stations were still broadcasting shows out of New York in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Katz seems to suggest that surfer culture and valley girl speech spread the word cool out of California to other parts of the US. But that doesn’t seem right at all.
An eye-opening part of the book is where the data seems to shows that 75% of Americans have the cot–caught merger. The cot–caught merger basically describes speakers who pronounce these words identically. Since it’s two vowel sounds that are merged into one, it means that other pairs of words are pronounced the same, such as stock–stalk and pod–pawed.
But seeing that 75% of people have the cot–caught merger is bananas! I don’t know if I can buy this. Other linguistic research on the cot-caught merger, such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg, 2006), would probably disagree since they show that large regions in the US resist the merger (and there are degrees to the merger, rather than just a yes-no classification).
But the data presented in Speaking American shows how many people have the merger based on their age. I think we can agree that the merger has spread, and obviously that language changes over time, but I’d like to see where the younger speakers in the data grew up. It seems like there might be an over representation of speakers from places where the merger has happened. If not though, this is some huge news.
One of the best parts about reading this book is how fun some of the sections can be. For example, if you know anyone from Philly or South Jersey, you might get a kick out of this section, which shows how some speakers pronounce the word crayons:
You are also bound to be surprised by certain sections. For me it was just how many people say “groh-shery store” (blue regions in the map below). I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, but look at all these people. They’re everywhere!
Finally, despite my misgivings about some aspects of the book, there is a refreshing linguistic commentary at the end, especially in the last paragraph which says
Dialect variation in American English shows no sign of disappearing […] No matter how much media we consume […] our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the Internet. (p. 197)
It’s nice to see such sound linguistic observation in a book aimed directly at the general public.