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.
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.
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.
Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change starts off by spelling out one of the difficulties in linguistic research and communicating it to the public:
In many areas of culture or technology, some older people will embrace and welcome the new. But in thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say, “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talked when I was young.” Most of us adhere to what one may call the Golden Age Syndrome: the belief that language once existed in a state of perfection, and any change is a decline from that state, to be resisted. (p. viii)
This really is the first and greatest of hills that linguists need to get over in order to talk about language to the public. I wouldn’t be surprised if linguists also have to get their undergrad students over this hill. So it’s good that Labov starts by surmounting this hill because the majority of the book is about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other non-standard varieties or dialects (linguistics pro-tip: non-standard does not mean substandard, it just means “not at all or not as highly privileged as the standard”). It’s also good that Labov is the one writing this book. He is a legend in the field of linguistics and his writing is clear and direct.
Chapter 1 is a bit of a primer on linguistics. It tells non-linguists what they need to know to read this book and it summarizes the arguments of each chapter. It begins with something that might be shocking to many non-linguists:
People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media […] This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong. (pp. 1-2)
I made reference to this idea in a previous post and Labov is right that (some) people think everyone sounds more similar today than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago – even though the opposite is true. I’m happy to say that Dialect Diversity does an excellent job of showing why American dialects are diverging. The CliffNotes version is: people do speak differently than they did when you were a kid, but their dialects are actually more different than they were back then and they are different in different ways. (I’m not good at CliffNotes. Read the whole book)
At the end of chapter 2, Labov makes an excellent point about our knowledge of language and what we do with it.
Most importantly, the (ING) variable [pronouncing the g in running vs. no pronouncing it in runnin’] is a prototypical example of orderly heterogeneity. It does not interfere with communication: we know that working and workin’, dunking and dunkin’, mean the same thing. Furthermore, the variation of (ING) works for us to establish levels of formality and informality and in any given context, the level of –in’ also tells us something about the social status of the speaker. In a word, we understand (ING). That does not prevent us from attacking Sarah Palin for “dropping her g’s.” Public rhetoric about language is always several stages removed from reality. Because we understand what (ING) is all about, we can always pick it up and use it as a club to beat our opponents on the head and shoulders with, linguistically speaking. (p. 16)
So even though people understand what is being said – and why it is being said in a certain way – we still can’t get over criticizing others (especially women and minorities) for the language that they use. The (ING) variable is even more perfect because everyone – everyone? Yes, everyone – uses it in at least some cases.
I have no notes on chapter 3 except that it is very interesting. Fun even. I guess it was too fun for me to stop and take notes 🙂
Chapter 5, “The Politics of African American English” discusses the divergence of Black and White English in America and how this is affecting African American literacy (the divergence is described in chapter 4). One of the most eye-opening passages in this book comes even before Labov talks about the Ebonics controversy (which Labov was right in the middle of). Labov writes about the ways that researchers have tried to influence the methods of teaching students who are native AAVE speakers.
To do this [giving children who speak AAVE the capacity to understand and use both AAVE and standard English], it is generally agreed that contrastive analysis is helpful: putting the two systems side by side and showing the learner how they differ. […] Contrastive analysis thus depends on and develops knowledge of both systems, for both children and teachers. It is generally understood that knowledge of other groups and different cultures reduces hostility and prejudice toward them. Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who have had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them. Nevertheless, efforts to use contrastive analysis in the teaching of reading have brought forth a series of political firestorms of increasing intensity which have defeated one program after another. (p. 73, bolding mine)
The sentence I put in bold is shocking and depressing and maddening all at once. But maybe more important is the fact that contrastive analysis sounds logical. It’s no wonder that idiots killed it. Never underestimate people’s desire to force others to speak like them and only like them. Teachers have the power to accept or delegitimize students’ speech and they should be careful with how they use this power. The reason this matters is because it denies kids an education. Labov shows on the following pages that people who said AAVE is “bad English”, “slang” and “ignorant and careless speech” – that is people who did not know what they were talking about, and did not know the linguistics behind AAVE – were able to shape the debate and force unproven and unhelpful teaching methods onto already marginalized children:
The same political reaction to the recognition of AAVE by the school system can be observed in a series of controversies that followed [the negative and uninformed reaction, published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, to early research on AAVE]. In case after case, efforts to use linguistic knowledge of AAVE for contrastive analysis were reported and condemned as programs for teaching children to speak a corrupt brand of English. The idea that African American children spoke a coherent dialect of their own was consistently rejected […] (p. 74)
Labov then goes on to show how complaints about AAVE, or Ebonics, are usually thinly veiled admissions of racism. The dialect is used as a publicly acceptable way to disparage all black people; linguistic discrimination being the last allowable act of bigotry in high-minded liberal corridors. The examples he lists are vile and I don’t want to repeat them here, but in something any linguist could see coming a mile away, the people trying to satirize AAVE end up showing that they do not know how AAVE works. To these Labov only writes “Here again one can see the distance between public discussion and linguistic reality” and calls these hot takes “uninformed reaction[s] masquerading under the ‘helmet of wit’”. They are this but they are worse than that. People who stopped studying math in high school don’t make claims about how math should be taught. But people with high school English under their belt feel comfortable in pedant-splaining to others how language should be taught.
After this Labov shows why linguistic knowledge is important in teaching – through the efforts made by him and other researchers once they were given room (and funding) to develop successful methods for teaching children who speak non-standard varieties such as AAVE. Labov and his colleagues developed contrastive analysis books to help children learn to read. If you’re wondering why those books were written in standard English, it’s because of the teachers’ reactions. Labov says
The battle for the recognition of AAVE in the classroom […] might be won, but it would be a long and expensive battle, waged at the expense of children who could have learned to read under a more realistic approach. The approach that has been taken in The Reading Road and Portals [the material developed by Labov and colleagues] is to provide contrastive eanalysis for the teachers rather than for the students. (pp. 92-93)
Linguists who try to point out that all dialects are rule-governed and that no dialect is better than any other dialect and that non-standard does not mean substandard often receive a sneer from language peevers, “Then why did you write your book in Standard English? Hmmm?” It’s for the people who are not proficient in dialects other than Standard English. The dialect of Standard English is something people can easily acquire because there are more than enough resources out there to teach it. The materials on non-standard dialects are a fraction of what there is for the standard dialect. Books are written in a dialect, by the way. It just happens to be the slang of prigs.
The last two chapters in Dialect Diversity in America take a look at the long history of the shifting dialects in the United States, specifically the Northern Cities Shift. Labov stretches his thesis across almost 200 years of history and ties it to the political switcheroo made by the Republican and Democratic parties. I’ll admit that these chapters lost me a bit, as I found some of the claims a bit more hard to grasp than in the previous chapters. I’m not doubting that Labov has done his research, I just think that the arguments in Chapters 7 and 8 didn’t seem as iron clad as the arguments in earlier chapters. I think, however, that people who are more into sociology, anthropology, politics and/or history than they are into linguistics might find this part of the book is their favorite. This book was, after all, written for non-linguists. If anything, it takes linguistics out of the research lab and applies it to the real world.
I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American dialects.
Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012) is available from the University of Virginia press for $19.50. There is apparently an online collection of audio to accompany the book, but I did not review these (I got my copy of the book from the library and I can’t remember seeing a reference to the online audio. Maybe it’s in the 2014 edition). You can find a glowing review of Dialect Diversity in America by the distinguished linguist John Baugh here. (PDF for those behind the paywall).
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).