Wednesday, February 22, 2006

From Italy to New York via London

My recent musings about the whole Turin/Torino affair got me thinking about a related matter: the pronunciation of Italy. A few years ago I started noticing people pronouncing the /t/ in Italy as a full-on devoiced aspirated English /t/. This was interesting because, even though that /t/ is a typically English sound, the natural American tendency is to "flap" the /t/ in this situation (before unstressed vowels), making it sound more like a /d/. Okay, technically it's a [ɾ], but you get my point. This means that when an American pronounces Italy with a /t/, it can't be explained away as the speaker adapting the word to the phonetics of their own language, since, if anything, it violates the phonetics of American English. My initial thought was that this was yet another instance of hyperforeignism -- that is, a manifestation of an instinct that a flapped /t/ doesn't "belong" in a foreign word -- never mind that Italy isn't a foreign word.

Then I noticed that the onset of me noticing this pronunciation coincided with my moving to New York, and that the people who I heard saying this were all non-young (50+) native New Yorkers. This is the same group of people who still have a lovely but fading trait of New York English: the pronunciation of the /t/ in "bottle" not as a flap, but as a glottal stop. You know, like a parody of a Cockney accent: 'Ow many bo'les, Guv?

I'll admit that I don't know why New Yorkers say (said?) this, whether it was at one point a generalized Cockney-like tendency to turn flaps into glottal stops (glo'al stops?). I could research it, but I don't have time. So instead I'll offer the following theory, based on nothing at all. There's nothing like mucking up an empirical science by making up theories without any evidence. The mind,
when encumbered by data, is free to go many wondeful, strange, factually incorrect places.

My theory is that in New York at some point the glottal stop/t/ occured more often than only in the word "bottle." How widespread I don't know. I know that in London there is a fundamental sociolinguistic between those who turn their /t/s into glottal stops, and those who leave them as devoiced, aspirated /t/s -- flapping isn't an option in that area. Perhaps such a distinction once existed in New York as well, perhaps even borrowed directly from London. Thus "bottle," a humdrum everyday word, preserved a basolectal pronunciation with a glottal stop, while "Italy," a word associated with high culture (Europe! What could be fancier?) retained an acrolectal /t/. As I have said on many occasions, I just made that up, but I think it might be true.

Lest you mourn the passing of "Italy" with a /t/ and "bottle" with a /
ʔ/, there are plenty of other New Yorkisms which are thriving. Some of my favorites include using the word "Spanish" to refer to anyone of Spanish-speaking heritage, which New Yorkers of all ages and social/ethnic backgrounds do. In fact, a chapter in the Yiddish textbook I use in my classes lists "shpanish" as one of the main ethnic groups in New York. Another striking New Yorkism is calling any surface you walk on "the floor," indoor or out. This is more limited sociolinguistically, but still widespread among all age groups. But the absolute winner is "standing on line." I think for New Yorkers this is like "pop" is for me (as opposed to soda/coke): although New Yorkers claim that they can say "on line" or "in line," in reality they only say the former. Since "in line" is ubiquitous everywhere else, New Yorkers are misled into thinking they say it too. Furthermore, just as us "pop" sayers have no problem with "soda," while "soda" sayers can't stand "pop," so New Yorkers are deaf to "in line," but many of us immigrants to New York passionately hate "on line." Me, I love it. Not that I'd ever say it.

8 comments:

the chocolate lady said...

Ever heard this one? I once knew a woman who pronounced "Italy" as "I?ly"--two syllables with a glottal stop. It was a cooking class, so we had to say "Italy" all the time.

Ben said...

Wow, how cool. Never heard this myself (except maybe from people faking Cockney accents in movies). What sort of person was she? New Yorker? What age? What background?

I think this either supports or disproves my theory. It's a hell of a theory that the same evidence can either support or disprove, eh?

Gheuf said...

Hey,
I stumbled on your blog via languagelog and have been reading it since the post on "Torino."

I think that the aspirated t in Italy is not confined to that word alone: it's a general hypercorrection people use who would normally use the stigmatized glottal stop for intervocal /t/. For example, a friend of mine from Rhode Island tells me she deliberately changed her pronunciation of "Latin" from /lae?in/ to /laethin/ because she thought the glottal stop pronunciation sounded bad. It's interesting that all of our examples are normally pronounced with a syllabic consonant after the /t/ by people who don't use the glottal stop (/laetn/, etc.).

Ben said...

Excellent point. I know the /laethin/ pronunciation well; my school's rival was called The Latin School, and all the students called it /laethin/, which I thought spoke volumes about them and what was wrong with their school. But I'm biased. I know other people who say /laedin/, (one of whom is a Classicist, unfortunately) as well as /ridin/ for written, etc.

Good point about the glottal stop/flap distinction in American English. It's not all before all syllabic consonants that /t/ becomes a glottal stop, but just before /n/. Think of metal/medal.

And I can't resist asking about your name: is it a form of Jeff? or omething more exotic?

the chocolate lady said...

This was eighteen years ago, and I think she must have been about forty then. She claimed Italian heritage and had an Italian name, and I *think* she was from New York.

Neddie said...

The glottal-stop in "bottle" isn't restricted to New Yorkers; it's characteristic of the whole Northeast, and it isn't restricted to that word. A computer-programmer friend of mine betrayed her Bostonian origins the other day to me in conversation when she told me to push a particular "buh'in" on my screen.

Gheuf said...

A lot of people ask me about the name. I just chose it cuz I like its appearance. At first I wanted to pronounce it [ɣœf] but now I tend to tell people [ɡuf].... Sorry I don't have a more exciting etymology.

Ben said...

Neddie -

I know what you're talking about with the whole button thing. Me, I'd say that I (and most Americans) also have a glottal stop in the word, but what sets us normal people apart from the buh'in phenomenon you describe is that we put our mouths in a position to say /t/ before we make the glottal stop, whereas some people make the glottal stop right after the vowel. But this is slightly different from "bottle," because in button the /t/ comes before a syllabic /n/, and in "bottle" it comes before an unstressed vowel. So notice, for instance, how you pronounce the /t/ in "batten", versus "battle." The former's a weird glottal stop thing, and the latter is a flap.

Gheuf -

How 'bout I call you Goif? That'll learn ya. Reminds me of someone who pronounced Goethe as "Geeth," which I think is beautiful.