Monday, April 03, 2006

How You Sound

I was rereading Huckleberry Finn (perhaps my favorite book) the other day. One of this book's many charms is its presentation of dialects, about which Twain writes the following:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Isn't that great? Not only does he emphasize the very real pitfalls of representing dialects in writing, but he does so with a deliciously dry wit that borders on juicy.

Not to say that I think he did a perfect job - Mark Liberman posted a while back at Language Log in which he points out the "eye dialect" Twain employs, particularly when he has Jim say 'wuz' -- who doesn't (duzn't?) pronounce it that way? Still, I'm sure he did a better job than I would. In any case, one phrase in particular caught my eye. Tom Sawyer repeatedly exclaims, "How you talk," and this reminded me of a phrase I heard often in childhood: "How you sound!" This latter phrase I heard exclusively from African Americans, who use it to mean something like, "Are you serious?" whereas Tom uses it to mean "What you just said was stupid!" I'm pretty sure the phrases are related, though. I've never heard anyone actually say "how you talk," and I haven't heard "how you sound" in years. My hunch is they're both Southern in origin, but this is the dialect I've had the least exposure to. I'm still curious: does anyone know anything about these phrases?

I reckon I got to light out for the territory.


Gheuf said...

I'm not sure that "wuz" should necessarily count against Twain. It seems possible that "woz" was the standard pronunciation in Twain's day, making "wuz" genuinely substandard. Even in contemporary RP, "was" rhymes with "Oz", not with "does". Similarly, "what" rhymes with "cot" in RP, not with "but". I bet these pronunciations were once standard in the US. There's even a Lorenz Hart song using that pronunciation: "Tell me what street/Compares with Mott Street/In July..." And in "If ever oh ever a wiz there was/The wizard of Oz is one because/ Because of the wonderful things he does/ We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz" we seem to be asked to pronounce "was" both ways at the same time!

Ben said...

Wow, what well chosen examples. I think you're right, that this absolves Twain somewhat, because it shows that somewhere in the collective American unconscious is a feeling that "was" rhymes with "Oz." On the other hand, as I posted earlier, lyrics are a bit problematic, since, as I tried to argue elsewhere American singing pronunciations have sort of mid-Atlantic tendencies.

I have to say it never occured to me that "Oz" and "was" are supposed to rhyme, though now that you point it out, I'm sure you're that's the case: Think of the first couplet: We're off to see the wizard/ the wonderful Wizard of Oz/ We hear he is a wiz of a wiz/ if ever a wiz there was". Okay, it's not really a couplet, but it has to rhyme for structural reasons. I think I never noticed, because in the movie it isn't pronounced as a rhyme. You can see my post on "The Wizard of Oz," in case you're interested.

I always thought of the Lorenz Hart lyric as a playful half-rhyme, which is typical of his style (though not of Yip Harburg - he's playful in other ways). But I think you may be right, that this was was in fact meant to be a full rhyme when pronounced "correctly." As a side note about this song, which I just learned is called "Manhattan," not, as I'd thought, "I'll take Manhattan," there's a line "The city's bustle cannot destroy/ the dreams of a girl and boy" that me and everyone I know changes to "the dreams of a Jew and Goy." In fact, in a recent recording of the song by Caetano Veloso, he sings it precisely this way.

the chocolate lady said...

How can dry wit border on juicy?

Ben said...

I was hoping someone would ask that - not that I have an answer.

Gheuf said...

I've just come across something that might well fascinate you. Since I obviously have nothing better to do than read other people's blogs, I decided I might as well post it here. Some fellas called Kenyon and Knott wrote a book called "A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English" in 1943, which Merriam Webster published in 1953. For the word "was" they give: "stressed wɑz wɒz unstressed wəz restressed wʌz." For "what" they give: "stressed hwɑt hwɒt hwʌt unstressed hwət wət." I have never heard the "Jew and Goy" substitute lyrics, but they are hilarious. Someone (Ella Fitzgerald?) sings "The city's bustle can never spoil/The dreams of a boy and goil", with some more regional accent wizardry. - gheuf

Ben said...

That is indeed fascinating, especially because it's data about precisely what's at stake here, namely what people consciously think of as the "right" pronunciation. I've been thinking about writing about pronunciation guidelines in American dictionaries and how they handle vowel mergers; this is a good source for that. Thanks!

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