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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Pre-R Raising in Cleveland

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Michael Symon, a decorated chef from Cleveland. Celebrity chefs, refreshingly, tend not to alter their accent much (all those fancy French terms belie the industry’s working-class ethos). Symon is no exception, with a Cleveland accent strongly influenced by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Beyond this generalized description, though, I find a particular feature of his accent  intriguing, one you might notice within the first few seconds of this video:

Symon (and other Clevelanders I’ve heard) raises the vowel in words like “fire” or “tire” (so it sounds a bit like “oyr” to outsiders). He also raises the related diphthong in words like “nice” and “slice,” you’ll notice, but one finds this among many Northern US accents. Raising the vowel in “-ire” words is quite a different story.

In other regions of the country, one often sees the opposite. In New York City, the mid-Atlantic,  and the American South, this vowel tends toward a monophthong (so “tire” sounds like “tar“). I’m not quite sure why “tire” falls in with the same group as “kite” and “right” for some Great Lakes speakers.

It is possible for this type of raising to “spread” beyond its original environment. This was one of William Labov’s famous findings about Martha’s Vineyard, where raising in words like “about” (i.e. before voiceless obstruents) had spread to words like “loud” and “found” due as much to sociolinguistic factors as phonological processes. But I would find it slightly peculiar for this to only occur before /r/. Is there some other influence at play?

This is a small reminder of just how much dialectal variety one finds in Ohio, one of America’s great linguistic border states. Within a state often associated with middle-American normalcy, one finds truly fascinating speech quirks.

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That Tricky “Oh”

wikimedia

wikimedia

Over the holidays, I watched Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, an excellent miniseries about a beautiful but troubled community in New Zealand’s South Island. American actress Elisabeth Moss plays the lead role of a police detective who has returned to her hometown after a spell in Australia.

I must confess to skepticism about Ms. Moss playing a Kiwi, if only because I’ve never seen her portray a non-American. But I thought she did a good job speaking with a kind of pan-Southern-Hemispheric accent (it’s in the script; characters comment on her character’s accent being muddled). Being a nitpicker, though, I noticed that she used a vowel in words like “goat” and “row” with a vowel a bit more “American” than one would find in either Australia or New Zealand (i.e. ).

Ms. Moss is hardly alone in this, it should be pointed out. As per my last post, one of Dick Van Dyke’s biggest blunders in Mary Poppins was to consistently use an overly back vowel in such “oh” words. Moss’ accent is leagues better than Van Dyck’s, of course, but it’s a quirk I’ve likewise noticed among other Americans attempting British or Australian accents.

One of the more fascinating examples of this “mistake” comes from, curiously, an actor who largely identifies as British. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, see if you can identify his provenance from this interview:

Is he Welsh? An Englishman returning after a sojourn in Ireland? Nope. Rylance grew up in Wisconsin (with British parents), and in interviews has attributed his unusual speech patterns to his upbringing in the Badger State. Rylance has specifically mentioned that*, even after decades of residence in the United Kingdom, he has trouble making the British GOAT vowel (presumably he meant əʊ).

What I think Rylance’s case suggests is that Americans can have a surprisingly hard time consistently producing the type of centralized or fronted vowels more typical of the UK and Australia. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I can attest that these diphthongs challenged me when I was first attempting such accents.

I suspect that a factor is Americans’ general inconsistency with this vowel in our own accents. I’ve heard some Southern Californians, for instance, who’ve pronounced “goat” got where others would pronounce this gəʊt, with fairly significant variations within single speakers. Such fluctuations would be tricky in New Zealand English, I would think, as more retracted variants could compete with the vowel in “caught.” In other words, this may not necessarily be a case of American English being too “conservative,” but rather that Americans tend to be more “liberal” with this vowel.

*I am fairly certain this statement occurred in this article of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, I no longer subscribe, so I’m wary of attributing it to that publication. If anyone can find the original quote, it would be much appreciated!

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The Van Dyke Controversy

wikimedia/Public Domain

wikimedia/Public Domain

Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins adaptation has been in the news lately, in light of both film’s 50th anniversary and Saving Mr. Banks, a new film about the contentious relationship between Walt Disney and Anglo-Australian “Poppins” creator P. L. Travers. Of course, no discussion of Disney’s film would be complete without addressing Dick Van Dyke‘s Cockney accent, probably the most commented-on dialect in cinema.

Calling Van Dyke’s accent bad isn’t quite appropriate. It’s just very strange, an uncategorizable mixture of (yes) Cockney, Irish (maybe?), and American. To be fair, the film is set in an Edwardian London curiously free of pollution and Mediterranean of climate, so verisimilitude was not exactly what they were going for (the movie also has dancing penguins). Still, enough people have been offended by the Van Dyke’s accent that it’s still a conversation topic half a century later.

So who was to blame? Van Dyke has fingered his vocal coach, but history seems a more likely culprit. Dialect acquisition resources were simply much scarcer in the early 1960s than they are now. That’s why I measure most “dialect work” before the 1980′s with large amount of historical relativism. VHS changed things entirely in this regard, because it enabled private, repeated viewing of content in a way previously impossible on such a scale. An actor learning Cockney accent in 1986 could rent, say, The Long Good Friday at a high-end video store and rewind helpful scenes dozens of times. Only someone connected to a film archive and an obliging projectionist could do this in 1964. That’s not to overlook great dialect imitators of that era (the same year saw Peter Sellers’ bravura turn in Dr. Strangelove), but a dialect novice without a good coach would have had a steep uphill climb.

The internet obviously took amateur accent research to a new level. By the mid-90′s, you could categorize and contextualize accent-related content as never before. One might search IMDB to figure out where actors hailed from. Searchable speech and other recording databases became available. The explosion of streaming video content that accompanied YouTube in the mid-2000s, of course, led to unprecedented access to different dialects, news reports and almost anything else that might serve as a guide.

The point being, I don’t judge Dick Van Dyke and other actors from that era that harshly given the limited tools available. Van Dyke became a target, unfortunately, because a major American movie actor imitating a regional British accent was very unusual for the time*. And although I can’t say for sure, I doubt that most American movie stars of the time would have done much better.

*It was actually fairly common, in 1964, to simply import British actors to play British characters (as was the case with most of Mary Poppins’ cast).

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More on Young New Zealand English

Ubiquitous on the radio recently has been “Royals,” a minimalist anti-consumerist (I think) anthem by 16-year-old New Zealand singer Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor). She been busy on the American interview circuit, revealing her non-singing, New Zealand-accented voice:

Something that struck me about Lorde/Yelich-O’Connor’s speech was her relatively “conservative” vowel in words like “right” and “kind,” which sometimes approaches the “American” . This feature strikes one as slightly different from “canonical” Australian English. Indeed, Macquarie University has an online set of vowel charts comparing Australian, American, New Zealand and British (RP) accents; for Australian English, they suggest the diphthong in “kite” starts with a nearly back vowel, while for New Zealand English, they represent this diphthong as starting at a point between central and front. (I’m not sure which data were used to construct the New Zealand English chart, but it matches my general impressions.)

I’m not certain this is an entirely youthful or Kiwi phenomenon, by the way; I’ve heard this more “genteel” diphthong in older New Zealanders as well as some Australians. The KITE vowel seems to exhibit a kind of spectrum in “Oceanic” English generally, ranging from markedly Cockney-esque variants (e.g. ɒe) to more the more RP/GenAm-like diphthong just mentioned. I will say, however, that I’ve heard the latter more commonly among younger Kiwis like Lorde. And more specifically,  strikes me as slightly more common in NZ than Australia. But I haven’t managed to find much scholarly research on this phoneme, so I can only offer broad impressions.

I want to be careful, as well, in suggesting anything along the lines that NZ English is becoming more “Americanized” or “Anglicized” or some other dubious “-ized” (especially based on this one feature alone). You’ll note that Lorde (who is still a high school student in her home country) speaks with strongly raised TRAP and DRESS vowels, and has a strongly retracted KIT vowel. As I’ve mentioned before, there seem to be some ways in which New Zealand English is evolving rapidly among younger people, but that doesn’t mean the accent becoming “milder.”

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Sick Speech

Photo: Andrew Filer

Photo: Andrew Filer

I had tonsillitis last week. Throat maladies tend to endow one with a strange temporary “accent,” and this one was no different; the illness rendered my voice unusually nasal in this case. Such an affliction contrasts with typical head cold symptoms, which sometimes “denasalize” speech (for reasons I’ll get to). Still, when I first noticed that I was talking strangely, I didn’t take much notice. I was sick as a dog, after all.

Over a few days, however, I noticed a pattern. I only nasalized close and mid-close front vowels (those in FLEECE and FACE): ĩ and ẽɪ̃. The words “bean” and “bead” would normally involve slightly different phones in my accent (i vs. ĩ), yet with tonsillitis I employed the same, nasalized sound. This pattern did not seem to hold, however, for open or open-mid vowels like the “o” in “pop;” I could easily distinguish the first vowel in French encore (ɑ̃) from the vowel in (conservative) French pâte (ɑ). (The quirk affected the diphthong in the word “kite” in a particularly funny way, since the first vowel was oral while the latter was nasal: aɪ̃.)

The reason for this? I’m not quite sure. It’s possible my tonsils were inflamed enough to impact the movement of my velum and tongue. Although I’m shaky on the details (I’m not a doctor), I did note during a flashlight inspection that the tissues in the back of my mouth were so swollen they almost seemed fused together. So it’s possible the tongue gesture required for the vowel in “bead” shifted the velum enough to render the vowel nasal. There is, I’m sure, much more to the story, but I unfortunately own no home MRI equipment.

As I mentioned, the nasal affliction differs from your traditional cold or flu, at least in my experience. The classic “sick” accent is in a certain respect less nasal, not more. Because the nasal cavities are typically filled with mucus during such illnesses, they become less resonant, thus making phrases like “my nose” sound like “by dose.” However, tonsillitis is a very different beast, despite afflicting the same region of the body.

But everyone is different. I suspect a different individual suffering from last week’s illness may end up with a very different pattern of voice modulation. So simulating a “sick accent” (which actors and work shirkers alike must do occasionally!) requires very specific choices: Is the nasal cavity obstructed or free? Is there soreness in the larynx that might cause hoarseness? How does inflammation impact the soft palate? Is there any discomfort breathing which might diminish airflow? How sickness alters one’s manner of speaking is not such an easy thing to predict.

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