Reformed Views on Spelling Reform

Back in college, I obsessed over English spelling reform. Why deal with silent gh’s, I figured, when things can be so much cleaner? So I started inventing phonetically-precise alphabets, ending up with results like this:

Tu bii or not tu bii, that iz dhy kweschn!

Or sometimes I’d get fancy with the diacritics:

Tú haushóldz bóth ëlaik in dignití…

Or I’d mess around with phonemically contrastive capital letters and punctuation marks in place of vowels:

D.-kw:l.t’-.v-mrs’-'z-n:t-str!nd–

That last one is from Portia’s monologue in The Merchant of Venice. Clearly!

Alas, I was unaware at the time that a Germanic cousin was attempting widespread spelling reform, and the results were mixed, to say the least. Here’s Robert Lane Greene on what happened in Germany:

One state had 60% of voters reject the reforms in a referendum; two others announced they would ignore the reform, which had been the product of 10 years’ work. One of Germany’s most venerable papers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reverted to the old spelling in 2000, and the Spiegel and the entire Springer-Verlag followed.

Keep in mind that these reforms were extremely minor compared to the top-down reboot I imagined in my late teens. I would probably agree with said reforms, were I a German speaker. And if modest attempts to regularize the grapheme /ß/ has the potential to cause such a ruckus, one can only imagine the outrage if we added unfamiliar double vowels and umlauts to English.

As I started studying dialects, I began to wonder just whose dialect my fantastical systems would emulate. To avoid any prejudice, I started using Wells’ lexical sets. But this caused problems in its own right. My American eyes would need to scan constructions like dauns for “dance” and aufter for “after.” A Northern Englishman would have to contend, likewise, with a different letter for “put” or “but.” And while a Glaswegian, say, probably sees nothing wrong with using the same double-o in “book” and “loot,” she would have to adjust to these words having different spellings in a phonemically exhaustive system.

As I became more of a book-reader, grand spelling reform started to rankle the bibliophile in me. I enjoy perusing dusty volumes from the 1700s with a fairly good idea of what the author is describing. And what about purposefully fanciful spellings and eye dialect? Hardy, Stevenson, Lawrence, Twain, and Hurston all require an understanding of orthographic standards to comprehend their characters’ non-standard English. Good luck creating an OCR algorithm to translate Hardy’s West Country into a new system.

So sorry, 19-year-old me, I don’t think your goofy alphabets are such a gud aidiia. That’s not to suggest that minor changes in spelling are a bad thing; it may very well be that “women” and “enough” will one day be spelled wimin and enuff. Spelling will change, just as everything in language changes. But adopting standards to fit the natural evolution of language is always preferable to overhauling everything in one fell swoop.

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“Jersey” or “Jersey?”

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About a week ago, my wife and I went to a fancy grocery store and splurged on an expensive bottle of half-and-half. As we were putting away our haul, I read the description on the back of the bottle and exclaimed, “This comes from real Jersey cows!”

My wife looked at me skeptically. Discerning the cause of her confusion, I replied, “Not New Jersey. The Isle of Jersey. Between Britain and France.”

This exchange seems unfair, in retrospect. Jersey (the American Jersey) has many wonderful small farms and artisanal food producers. But it does raise the question of why Northeasterners have taken to truncating “New Jersey” to an informal name matching its Channel Island namesake. Why don’t do this with the majority of other “New” place names?

There probably are other “New” places in America which have lost their modifier in the local parlance, but I can’t think of any prominent examples. To state the obvious, were I to refer to New York, New Hampshire or New England as, respectively, “York,” “Hampshire,” or (most ridiculously) “England,” nobody would have the foggiest idea of what I’d be referencing. Yet “Jersey,” probably due to familiarity, seems perfectly natural.

It strikes me that many place names are shortened for ease of articulation. I doubt it’s coincidental that many-syllabled “Indianapolis” and “Philadelphia” become “Indy” and “Philly,” while nobody calls “Denver” “Denny.” But “New Jersey” isn’t more difficult to say than “New Hampshire” or “New Bedford” and, at any rate, “New” wouldn’t be the problem if it were called “New Jerseyatophalikios.” So why is “Jersey” unique?

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New Mexican Spanish

New Mexico

Photo: Advanced Source Prod.

Wikipedia has many excellent entries on regional dialects. I’m wary of taking all its information at face value, but the site provides good links to relevant sociolinguistics texts that would be tricky for laypeople to track down otherwise.

That being said, the site has some peculiar un-sourced dialect articles that leave me both scratching my head and yearning for more. One of my favorites is a little artitle entitled New Mexican Spanish. Its section on phonology is particularly notable. For instance, apparently this variety of Spanish renders pronounces /s/ as [h] at the beginning and middle of words so that…

somos así

…becomes…

ho.mos.aˈhi]

Also, /b/ before /w/ apparently becomes [g], so that abuelo sounds like aguelo. And /n/ is sometimes inserted before “ch” so that muchos becomes munchos.

I can’t verify whether this information reflects contemporary use, as the article cites few sources. Which is a shame, because New Mexican Spanish has a rich and important history, dating back to Spanish settlement in the area around Santa Fe, Taos, and Los Alamos. I tracked down a century-old text via Google Books on New Mexican Spanish (there are some JSTOR articles, but I don’t have access) which suggests a variety quite different than the kind of Spanish we learn in school.

For instance, according to the author, this dialect would have had a rounded front vowel for /ue/ words like “bueno” (bu̯œno) and “muerto” (mu̯œrto). It also would have had Russian-esque vowel reduction, so that “tirar” would have been tɪɾaɾ, “de nada” would have presumably been something like də nadɐ, and “unidos” would have been along the lines of ʊnidʊs. (If my extrapolations of early IPA are correct).

New Mexican Spanish is, in fact, one of the oldest native dialects in the United States, preceding most of the more established English varieties. Which is why it’s a shame that one of the most recent articles I could find about the topic is titled New Mexican Spanish: Demise of the Earliest European Variety in the United States. Is this dialect still going strong?

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Contact Info

Hi, all,

I’m retiring the “official” email address for this blog (info@dialectblog.com) and replacing it with a simple gmail address. This is not an important change unless you’ve contacted me in the past. Long story short, my host’s email service is mediocre and (this is a separate issue) it’s hard to weed through solicitations to find legitimate queries.

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Henry Higgins, Language Snob

My Fair Lady

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The classic musical My Fair Lady is on TV right now, and I am puzzling over Henry Higgins (I have shared my thoughts about the character before). If he obsesses over dialects so much, why does he hate non-standard English? Lerner and Loewe took this quirk to its extreme, as is clear from Higgins’ first musical stanza:

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters!
By right she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

No feel-good sociolinguist, Higgins! Perhaps this irony was G.B. Shaw’s point (it’s been a while since I’ve read My Fair Lady‘s source, Pygmalion), but it’s nevertheless an unsettling contradiction.

It also strikes me as unrealistic. When I think of inspirations for Higgins, English phonetician Daniel Jones naturally comes to mind. And while the younger Jones would no doubt have held attitudes  contemporary linguists would find stuffy (he revised his opinions over the years), I doubt he would have endorsed Higgins’ opinions. In The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones, authors Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mee  take Shaw to task:

The view of phonetics presented in Pygmalion is essentially that of the elocutionist working skillful transformations with “people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment” … this would have been a somewhat one-sided view of the science. By 1912, it was unfair to concentrate on a tiny area of a diverse subject and present it (even in a comedy) as virtually the total substance of the science.

In other words, Higgins made for a great Shavian protagonist, but he wasn’t necessarily representative of Edwardian phoneticians.

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Faulkner, Joyce, and Regional Modernism

James Joyce

James Joyce’s Grave (Photo: Lars Haefner)

I most associate literary modernism with Joyce and Faulkner, writers who pushed literature’s boundaries further than they had, and perhaps have since, been pushed. Both explored non-standard grammar and syntax, so it’s no coincidence that they were master “dialect writers.”

That being said, I find it hard to separate dialect from literary invention in these authors’ works. Joyce, for instance, mixes Irish pronunciations with “poetic misspellings,” as one finds in this short sentence from Finnegan’s Wake:

A glass of Danu U’Dunnell’s foamous olde Dobbelin Ayle.

Anyone familiar with Hiberno-English will recognize Dobbelin as a local pronunciation of the Irish capital (i.e. dʌbəlɪn or dʊbəlɪn). Foamous is almost certainly a pun suggesting the head atop a well-poured pint. But why Ayle for “Ale?” Contemporary Dublin English differs from Western Hiberno-English in diphthongizing “ale” where, say, a Limerick native has a monophthong (i.e. ɛɪl vs. ɛ:l). But I have no idea if this is what Joyce is indicating. Likewise, U’Dunnell might suggest a Dubliners’ unrounded vowel in LOT words*. Or maybe Joyce just felt like using a “u” there.

As I’m no scholar of modernism, these are layman’s impressions. But such are the puzzles the casual reader encounters when reading Joyce. He loved other languages and Englishes, of course, so these quirks can partially be attributed to those other influences. Take this passage from Ulysses (I’ve highlighted relevant words):

Time they were stopping up in the City Arms pisser Burke told me there was an old one there with a cracked loodheramaun of a nephew and Bloom trying to get the soft side of her doing the mollycoddle playing bézique to come in for a bit of the wampum in her will and not eating meat of a Friday because the old one was always thumping her craw and taking the lout out for a walk.

Old one is a Hiberno-English phrase (sometimes written “aul wan“), as is loodhermaun (from Irish liúdramán). But mollycoddle is not exclusively Irish, Narragansett-derived wampum hardly strikes me Hibernian (although I might be wrong), and bézique is a French card game. Which of these words would an Edwardian Dubliner have used? And which words simply struck Joyce’s fancy?

One can likewise deduce many things about rural Mississippi English in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I’m currently reading. Particularly intriguing are his use of terms we associate more with the British Isles, such as et (i.e. the past tense of “eat”) and ay (yes). He clearly understood the linguistic terrain of his fictional landscape.

But even in this “accessible” Faulkner work, the line between Mississippi English and mere poetry is hazy. As with The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner writes chapters from the perspective of a character with child-like cognition, in this case the young Vardaman**. Those who have followed the recent conversation about prepositional because might enjoy this Vardaman gripe:

“Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in town because flour and sugar and coffee. “Wouldn’t you ruther have bananas?”

Vardaman’s meaning seems unambiguous: he wonders why God made him “rural” instead of a “town boy” with access to urban amenities. But is that prepositional “because” part of Vardaman’s dialect? Or is it a Faulknerian creative flourish? Heck, is this even a case of prepositional “because?” (Faulkner might have left a space where another writer might have used ellipses: “why can’t He make them all in town because … flour and sugar and coffee.”)

It doesn’t help that both writers were storytellers prone to mythologizing themselves and their provenances. Where their written idiolects begin and the dialect of their milieus end will be debated for a long time.

*”Ayle,” not unpredictably, was once an alternate spelling of “ale.” “U’Dunnell,” however, has only been used by Joyce as far as I can tell.

**His age is never given in the book, but he is presumably pre-adolescent.

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“Oy,” “Bollocks” and Other Trick Words

In an episode of HBO’s The NewsroomEmily Mortimer’s character addresses coworkers with a frustrated “oy!” Mortimer does not play a Brooklyn grandmother; “oy[or "oi"] is a British term roughly similar to American English “hey!”* I would assume the show’s American writer, Aaron Sorkin, added the word to give Mortimer’s dialogue a more authentically “British” flair.

To be honest, though, when American screenwriters or playwrights or novelists use “oy,” I wince. The word joins a class of terms–including blokemate, and bollocks–that make up a writerly box of tricks to indicate Britishness without delving into the deeper structural differences between British and American English. It’s possible Mortimer’s character might indeed say “oi!” while addressing staff (she’s a television executive), but I don’t know that I’d be comfortable as an American writer putting the word in a character’s mouth.

I had a similar reaction while recently re-watching the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, written by Americans Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz and Peter Hedges:

Now, I enjoyed this film tremendously and think its writers are far better at capturing non-American dialogue than your average Hollywood screenwriter (it possibly helps that Chris Weitz attended secondary school and university in England). It also features some wonderful transatlantic humor, as when a stodgy, RP-accented schoolmaster at a talent show cheerily announces a dance troupe named “Def Penalty Kru with Murder Fo’ Life.”

But I still found the film’s “density of Englishness” occasionally distracting. I’ll illustrate this observation by comparing some stereotypically British terms as they appear in Hornby’s novel versus the film (via my GooglePlay copy of the book and a possibly dodgy–but accurate–internet transcription of the movie):

Word Movie Book
Bloody 9 13
Shag 4 0
Mate 13 5
Bloke 4 9
Crap (Adj.) 5 5
Bollocks 2 1
Cheers 2 0
Rubbish 3 7

In some cases, the screenwriters added slang not present in the original; Hornby never used “shag” or “cheers.” Other words, like “bloody” and “bloke” appear more often in the book, but have a decent frequencies in the film given that it’s only 101 minutes.

Tellingly, though, “mate” is where the two works differ most. The word pops up frequently in the film (it’s in the trailer) but rarely occurs in the novel. It’s consistent with my observation that writers focus on tags like “mate” or borderline extralinguistic utterances like “oy” more than anything else. It strikes one as overcompensation, like a 13-year-old’s nervous “likes” and “umms” during a classroom presentation.

I don’t mean to pick on these writers especially; writing in a dialect other than your own is a very tricky feat to pull off. There are so many things you can screw up that it’s going to be nerve-racking. Nor is it entirely fair to pick on Americans; I could write an entirely different post about Zadie Smith’s treatment of American English in the otherwise excellent On Beauty**.

But while packing dialogue with dialect terms seems like an easy way to create “authenticity,” such words bear semantic complexities trickier to master, in some ways, than syntax and morphology. In other words, I think it lends more authenticity if your British character says “got” instead of “gotten” than to load his speech with plenty of “mates” and “bollockses.”

*On the other hand, “hey” straddles the border between “what?” and “you know?” in some varieties of British English.

**That’s a trickier case, perhaps, because Smith was writing about a family headed by a British father and American mother. 

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Stray Thoughts on Theatrical Accent Traditions

Peter Pan

Paramount Pictures (Public Domain)

Slate ran a recent piece on the history of women playing Peter Pan onstage. This got me thinking about other theatrical or filmic traditions with regards to fictional characters. In particular, should we question why certain characters are played in particular accents? For instance:

SHOULD PETER PAN SOUND AMERICAN?

I first experienced Peter Pan via the 1950s Mary Martin stage musical (produced for live television in 1960). I’ve long associated Pan with Martin’s homey Texas twang and, despite the character’s British provenance, have on some level never considered Pan anything other than American.

The strong American Pan tradition has a long history, actually, harking back to the earliest days of the story’s popularity: the first Broadway production of Barrie’s stage play starred Maude Adams, an actress from the then-frontier state of Utah. The tradition continues up to present day, of course, as the 2003 film featured young American actor Jeremy Sumpter in the role.

I find it difficult, in fact, to recall any notable British-accented Pans. And maybe that’s the way things should be. It’s hard not to see Neverland as a stand-in for America, or rather, a Victorian daydream of America in all its rugged beauty. (Note the presence of now-cringeworthy “Indians.”) So why wouldn’t Pan have an American accent?

HOW SOUTHERN WAS HUCKLEBERRY FINN?

Would Huckleberry Finn have had a Southern Twang? Or even much of one? Many film versions of the novel feature Hucks with Appalachian drawls, or something along those lines (I recall Mickey Rooney sounding downright Mississippian in the role). Still others (such as the adaptation starring Elijah Wood) feature Finns who sound more generally middle-American.

I’m of the opinion that the latter is more accurate. If Huck Finn supposedly resided in a fictionalized version of Mark Twain’s native Hannibal, Missouri, an especially thick twang might be inappropriate. Hannibal is a bit further north than one might expect (in modern times, the town is less than an hour from Iowa). Twain’s association with abolitionism and the often southern settings of his fiction belie the fact that he was more a Midwesterner than a Southerner.

That’s not to say that there would be no twanginess in Finn’s speech, just that it might be less marked as that of someone from, say, the Ozarks (Missouri is a big state). Of course, American speech has changed greatly since the 19th-Century, so it’s hard to say for sure.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: ALWAYS BRITISH English?

Has there ever been a Scottish Sherlock Holmes? I’m curious why few actors have tipped his hat to the character’s Scottish creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet Holmes is invariably English.

As far as I can tell, however, there is little in Doyle’s work suggesting where Holmes grew up, although this interesting Wikipedia subsection suggests he had some French ancestry. (If any diehard Holmes aficianadoes know otherwise, speak up!) Regardless, Holmes is quite fictional and could very well be played as Scottish or Irish without destroying the character’s integrity.

Yet Holmes has usually spoken Received Pronunciation or related accents, a trend which continues even today with the contemporary adaptation Sherlock. James Bond has had a bit of flexibility in this regard (the character’s most famous portrayer was a Scot); why not Holmes?

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The “Awesome” Trajectory

Regarding the subject of my last post, I was struck this passage from Alice Munro’s story, To Reach Japan:

They opened the compartment curtain to get more air, now that there was no danger of the child’s falling out.”Awesome to have a child,” Greg said. That was another word new at the time, or at least new to Greta.

I don’t believe Munro means that “Greta” has never heard “awesome” before, but rather that the trend toward this particular use of “awesome” was a recent development. The story takes place in the early 1960s (I think; Munro loves chronological ambiguity), and I must admit my surprise that someone would use “awesome” in the “cool/neat/groovy” sense that early*. Yet the Online Etymology Dictionary backs up Munro’s passage:

awesome (adj.) 1590s, “profoundly reverential,” from awe (n.) + -some (1). Meaning “inspiring awe” is from 1670s; weakened colloquial sense of “impressive, very good” is recorded by 1961 and was in vogue from after c.1980. Related: Awesomely; awesomeness.

“Awesome” has remained related to “greatness” in North American English, but developed an explicitly positive connotation within the past fifty years or so. As this Google NGram chart suggests, the popularity of this sense perhaps led to the word itself increasing in frequency during the post-war era:

So why did I not expect the word to appear in such a way in a story set fifty years ago? Probably because I associate “awesome” with the Reagan years, part of a broader semantic shift common at the time whereby words suggesting “extremity” of various kinds came to adopt positive meanings, as was also the case with  radical.

When you think about it, “awesome” is a rather unlikely everyday word, though, since it was once relatively obscure (Google NGram suggests the word “incorrigible” was significantly more common in the 1940s). It strikes me as a cousin to words like “excellent“ and “brilliant,” but those words have always been far more commonplace:

Of course, “awesome” seems to have undergone a further shift since the 1980′s, in that it now joins “nice,” “cool,” and other words which indicate “halfhearted assent.” In other words, repeated use has rendered “awesome” an appropriate response to “I bought a new carton of milk at the grocery.” An odd fate for a word which once connoted fearsome power.

*Of course, one could read Greg’s comment as meaning “it’s a great responsibility to have a child,” but the character is supposed to be a young, artsy drifter, so that seems unlikely.

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Canadian and American /T/

I recently read Alice Munro‘s famous short story collection Dear Life, my interest piqued after the Canadian writer’s recent Nobel Prize win. I enjoy watching interviews with authors I’m reading, so I looked up several with Munro on YouTube. I was also, I admit, curious about the accent of someone who grew up in rural Ontario before World War II:

Like several older Canadian I’ve heard, Munro’s accent strikes me as, in some respects, less marked (from an American perspective) than that of many younger Canadians; her Canadian Vowel shift seems rather intermittent. She exhibits, however, a feature that has always struck me as being a slight if inconsistent divider between Canadian and American English: she sometimes pronounces the /t/ in words like “later” and “writer” with an aspirated plosive where many Americans would use a tapped or voiced vowel (i.e. “writer” and “rider” would sound roughly the same).*

My impression is that Canadians these days more likely to use the same consonant in “rider” as the one they use in “writer.” But I can’t say how much of a change this is; it seems to me that there used to be more Americans who used un-tapped /t/ in these words as well, and it’s likely that, conversely, tapped /t/ has been a feature in Canadian English for a long time.

So all I can really say is that, impressions aside, Munro’s idiolect (rural southwest Ontario possibly influenced by decades living in Vancouver) often features an aspirated /t/ in this environment where, say, mine does not. There are clearly a large number of allophones for intervocalic /t/ in various dialects of English; why some accents and possibly even some people use certain variants where others do not strikes me as one of the more intriguing mysteries of English phonology.

*In some parts of the Northern US, however, there is a trend away from tapped /t/ and toward the glottal stop more typical of some British accents. Hence while back in a Connecticut recently I overheard someone in a restaurant pronounce the phrase “but it wasn’t” bʌʔ ɪʔ wʌznʔ.

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