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.
There’s an excellent article on the linguistic work of Prof. Julie Washington in the Atlantic. It’s about code-switching and Prof. Washington’s work in figuring out better ways to educate kids who speak African American English (AAE).
Right at the start of the article, there is a profound quote from Washington. She is talking about a 4-year-old speaker of AAE. Washington read a story to the young girl and asked the girl to recite the story, which she did in her native dialect, AAE. Then Washington says:
“She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child.
I never thought about it like this, but Washington is exactly right. That is hard. Code-switching can be like translating one language to another.
There is an unfortunate paragraph, though, which seems to drag linguists for no good reason:
At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) […]
I’m willing to bet journalists have their own phrases and code that no one understands. So why the shade? Also, everyone skips talks with boring titles. That’s how academic conferences work. Also also, not all linguists have a tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes and that’s ok. What is an obscure grammatical dispute, by the way? Does it involve auxiliary alternation or diachronic precursors? Did you maybe just make it up?
Besides that paragraph, though, the article is gold. Later on after the linguist dissing, the article has two paragraphs that are excellent in explaining the stakes of the situation.
Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.
Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.
That is what speakers of AAE have been dealing with. It has been hard for linguists to convince schools and parents to adopt the idea of code-switching, especially when it comes to AAE. But this paragraph shows Washington’s great thinking:
A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”
I have seen the positive aspects of AAE spoken of before, such as in McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black (review coming soon) and on his show on Lexicon Valley, as well as in the work of Walt Wolfram, most recently his film Talking Black in America (see the website here). And we have all seen the articles about how bilinguals are super smart and they live longer and they never get dementia and all the other claims made about what comes from speaking two languages. But I’ve never thought about code-switching as being the same thing as speaking two languages, even though it pretty much is.
Great article. You should read it. You can find it here.
On a not-so-recent episode of the Black Tribbles podcast (ep. 302, airdate: Sept. 29, 2017), the hosts were discussing the DC comics superhero Black Lightning. Host Len Webb (aka the BatTribble) mentioned that in the original Black Lightning comics, the character not only donned a mask (and fake afro) to avoid detection of his true identity, he also spoke differently. He used “slang” and “jive”, as Len put it. Another one of the hosts, Kennedy Allen (aka That Mikey Chick, aka Storm Tribble) said “He’s Black Lightning aka Captain Code Switch!” (occurs at 33:50 in the episode)
And she’s right! Take a look at the very first page of the first Black Lighting comic:
On the next page, Black Lightning describes his intentional code switching as “street-style patter” in the narration and we can see some more of it in the word balloons. This is really cool.
Black Lightning’s alter ego, Jefferson Pierce, is a teacher by day and he speaks standard (comic book) English. Tony Isabella, the creator of Black Lightning and writer of these books, puts just enough code switching into Black Lightning’s dialogue to show a difference between his personas, not overdoing it anywhere. It’s mostly slang and dropped g’s. As the issues go on Black Lightning’s code switching seems to get less detectable, but the character does talk to more non-baddies who wouldn’t know his alter ego, such as Jimmy Olsen and Superman, so the lack of code switching with these characters is probably intentional on Isabella’s part. Here’s Black Lightning speaking to Tobias Whale (the big baddie) in issue 3:
The Black Tribbles have mentioned code switching in other episodes, but this time it really made me notice. I don’t know of any other superheroes who code switch to disguise their identity, so this makes Black Lightning super awesome. If anyone knows of other characters that do this, please post it in the comments below.
Black Lightning, aka Captain Code Switch, is starring in a new show on the CW (or Netflix for international people). He’s played by Cress Williams. I’ve watched the first two episodes, but there hasn’t really been any detectable code switching between his superhero persona and his alter ego. That might have to do with the fact that in the show Black Lightning is in his 40s and was retired from crime fighting. He’s getting to old for this code switching nonsense!
Finally, check out these awesome panels from BLACK LIGHTNING Vol. 1 #3. When you just spent a night fighting crime, but you still have English papers to grade. Black Lightning feels you.
I never realized this before, but Superman is an L2 speaker of Kryptonian! And in SUPERGIRL #8 we learn that he is self-conscious about his accent around native speakers, such as his cousin Supergirl.
This doesn’t matter much in terms of story, but it’s representation on the page for L2 speakers. Dialect shaming still happens every day. Linguistic discrimination (of which dialect shaming is only just a part) is unfortunately still publicly acceptable in a way that other forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, are not. Of course, racism and sexism still happen in public, but open displays of these are largely shunned and in some cases illegal, unlike linguistic discrimination. For example, it is illegal to deny someone a job on the basis of race, gender, etc. It is not illegal to deny them a job based on their dialect.
The tables get turned later in the issue when we hear more about Supergirl’s struggles with English, her L2. For example, contractions don’t exist in Kryptonian. Uh…, ok. I can’t think of another language that doesn’t contract words, but I’ve seen enough crazy stuff about language to not be surprised by anything anymore. (Besides, Kryptonian = 100% fictional)
That raises another point – Krypton seems to have been a planet with one language. One language! That’s even more bananas than the “no contractions” thing. I can’t remember any other languages being mentioned (help me out, fellow comic nerds!). They do have dialects though, as Supergirl explains to Batgirl. But one language?! Bonkers.
I wonder if Supergirl is the only person that Superman is self-conscious around with his Kryptonian. I mean, she is also his older cousin (who ends up being younger than him when she gets to Earth – comics are weird), so maybe he’s worried about her kidding him. What a boy scout. There are approximately 4,576 other living Kryptonians who speak Kryptonian as their first language, but I think 99.9% of them are super evil, so Superman probably doesn’t care what they think of his accent. There are also a handful of Kryptonian animals, who don’t speak. Or haven’t spoken yet. Comics are weird/awesome. Give ’em time and we’ll get there.
Update: Steve Orlando, the writer of the Supergirl comic in question, hit me up on Twitter and said that the language stuff in the story was intentional:
thank you so much for picking up on this! We put a lot of work into the language aspects of Supergirl
That’s awesome! Language is a recurring theme in the story before and after this issue (issues also written by Steve). Supergirl’s foster parents are trying to learn Kryptonian and it’s going… about as well as learning Finnish did for me. And Supergirl’s trouble with contractions coming from the influence of her first language is actually quite clever – speakers of one language often encounter similar problems when they are learning language (say, Finnish L1 speakers learning English). The difficulties can be phonetic or syntactical, but they are commonly due to an interference from the speakers’ native language. The cause of the difficulty isn’t important here (Kryptonian is made up, after all), but it’s neat to see the problem echoed by Superman who went from English (has contractions) to Kryptonian (doesn’t have contractions). Comics are awesome!
Update 2: Important info here. According to Darren Doyle over at Kryptonian.info, Krypton does indeed have only one language. This language, Modern Kryptonian, was created by the government in order to promote planet-wide unity. Before this, there were five languages on Krypton – all of which belonged to the same language family. That’s crazy, I hear you say. Nothing shocks me, I say…
Update 3: Reader fidelita chimed in below to note that this isn’t the first time Supergirl has commented on Superman’s accent. Indeed, In SUPERGIRL Vol. 6 Issue 2 (from the New 52 run), Supergirl has this to say after meeting Superman for the first time:
This guy’s accent sounds like he learned Kryptonian from a textbook. No way he’s from Krypton.
For some background: In this version of Supergirl, she has just crash landed on Earth and she has no memory of when or why she was sent there. She doesn’t even know that she’s on Earth. She is already a young adult (she doesn’t speak any Earth language yet) and her powers have manifested all at once and overwhelmed her. On top of that, she was attacked by some government(?) people in mech suits right after she got out of her spaceship. Supergirl knows no one, has no idea where she is, and doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. And then Superman shows up speaking Kryptonian… but not like the people from Krypton. Superman says he’s Kryptonian, but he doesn’t sound like the people from Krypton. So she’s understandably a bit put off by everything. And Superman probably did learn Kryptonian from a textbook. Or a robot or a hologram – he’s got some pretty wild technology up there in his Fortress of Solitude.
But wait, there’s more! In issue #14, Supergirl again comments on someone else’s Kryptonian. This time it’s Dr. Shay Veritas, a super-genius scientist who helps out the good guys. Supergirl says that it’s strange to hear a human speak Kryptonian and that both Superman and Veritas have the accent of someone who hasn’t lived on Krypton or wasn’t raised there. At this point in the story, Supergirl still doesn’t know much about the other characters and she’s very skeptical of everyone (because everyone she meets tries to kill her). She’s not even sure Superman is her cousin, partly because he was a baby the last time she saw him and now he’s older than her. See? Even Supergirl thinks comics are weird.
Then on the next page of issue #14, Supergirl speaks Kryptonian with Siobhan Smythe, aka Silver Banshee. Because of Smythe’s “special talent with sounds” (she’s literally a super-banshee), her accent is more Kryptonian-like (more like Supergirl’s?) than Superman’s. No word on how Smythe picked up the vocabulary so quickly.
That’s all for now. If I come across some more characterization using native/non-native Kryptonian accents, I’ll make a separate post. Again, language plays a role in the current Supergirl series (Volume 7).
On the Vocal Fries podcast, Professor Carmen Fought made a wonderful analogy about accents. Prof. Fought said:
Everybody who speaks a language speaks a dialect of that language. So you speak a dialect, I speak a dialect; a dialect is not a bad thing, it’s something you can’t help. It’s like the make and model of a car: like, you have a Honda, but then it has to have a model like a Civic or an Accord. You can’t just say, “Oh no, no, no, I just have a Honda. It doesn’t have a model.” It’s the same thing. You can’t say “I speak a language. I don’t speak a dialect.” No. Everyone speaks a dialect.
I really like this analogy and I’m going to use it in the classroom. You should go listen to the whole episode (and all the other episodes!) here: https://vocalfriespod.fireside.fm/9. The episode’s topic is the Chicano English dialect. The analogy comes about 14:30 minutes in.