Monday, June 26, 2006

Caption Contest #56

"We're brain surgeons, not rocket scientists."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

How I Spent My Vacation

Well, now I'm back from a week up in the Rockies, where my wife's family had a reunion. I was able to hear and compare various dialects on this trip, which led me to the following observations:

1. When you've been living in New York, the rhoticity of pretty much anywhere west of the Hudson starts to sound a little weird.

2. I got to compare speakers from the eastern and western extremities of the South/ Southern Midland border (from Oklahoma City and eastern Maryland, respectively). The Oklahoman sounded, for lack of a better word, twangy - I think this is due to a more advanced Southern Vowel Shift on her part. The Marylander, on the other hand, had the classic Mid-Atlantic fronted long /o/.

3. At one point I listened to three Inland Northern speakers talking - they were from southwest Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Chicago. Though I wouldn't swear to it, I believe that if I hadn't known who was from which place, but I had known that there was one speaker from each place, I would have known who was from where. And if you understood that beast of a sentence you deserve a prize.

I figured the best thing to read while traveling would be a book about traveling by a fun writer, so I chose Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I'm back home and not done with it yet - it's long and I'm a slow reader (which makes grad school ever so fun), but I like it a lot, though parts of it are either too staid or too over the top, and other parts are fairly offensive by contemporary standards. Oh well - despite his bigoted asides, he clearly believed in the common humanity of, umm, humanity.

I am particularly interested in attempts by writers to relate and locate America and Europe conceptually (this is my area of research), and Twain's portrait of Europe can be summarized thusly:

1. They don't speak English very well over there.
2. They don't use soap, either.
3. The buildings might have been nice once, but now they're old and falling apart.
4. Catholicism is silly and superstitious.
5. European governments are corrupt and oppressive, and have always been so.

I'll reserve judgement on #4 for fear of repeating the Scientology controversy, but I'll say that the rest of these points are all much less true nowadays than they were then.

Overall, though, this is an extremely fun read, and parts of it rank among the funniest things I've read. My favorite part so far is a description if the elaborate ways Twain and his friends amuse themselves by pestering their tour guides. In Rome, for instance, they decide to ask about everything they're shown if Michelangelo designed it, including the forum and an Egyptian obelisk. In Genoa they pretend never to have heard of Christopher Colombus:
"Pleasant name--is--is he dead?"
"Oh, corpo di Baccho!--three hundred year!"
"What did he die of?"
"I do not know!--I can not tell."
"Small-pox, think?"
"I do not know, genteelmen!--I do not know what he die of!"
"Measles, likely?"
"May be--may be--I do not know--I think he die of somethings."
This "is--is he dead?" routine is so good that they repeat it when shown a mummy, and then with various statues. It is only with great restraint that they keep from doing it in the catacombs.

I'm reading a facsimile edition, which has some quirky spelling that I like: 'staid' instead of 'stayed,' for instance. I also learned from this book that the expression "tricked out" is at least a hundred years older than I would have guessed.

A footnote about the name Mark Twain. Or rather, about the pen-name of the Yiddish Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem. There is a shibboleth of sorts in Yiddish studies, whereby those who refer to Sholem Aleichem as Aleichem are cast down as dilletantes. (My field is a minefield of such shibboleths.) The explanation is this: 'Sholem aleichem' is a phrase - a formal greeting. Thus it doesn't make sense to refer to him as 'Aleichem.'

Okay, fine. But the same could be said for Mark Twain. Indeed, both pen-names are similar in that they are two-word phrases, the first word of which is also a common first name. Sholem Aleichem's real first name was in fact Sholem. If the appeal to logic that is purported to explain why you shouldn't call Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem' is valid, then it should apply equally to Twain -- which it doesn't.

I'm generally dubious about pre- and proscriptions in language that are based in logic. Does this mean that I think Yiddish scholars should start calling Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem?' No - you can't call him this, for the simple reason that he isn't called that. It's just a convention, and those who call him 'Aleichem' reveal their ignorance of this convention, and thus their status as outsiders.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Balashon has an interesting post about the various terms used historically in Hebrew for 'bathroom'. The pattern he traces is of cyclical euphemization; every word for 'bathroom' eventually became taboo and a euphemism was substituted, which eventually became a neutral term, and then a vulgar one, and wound up being replaced.

English is equally squeamish about words for this - we discarded the term 'toilet' in the sense of bathroom, even though 'toilet' was originally a euphemism itself, because the term became associated with the crucial apparatus in the room rather than the room itself. In my Midwestern dialect of English, moreover, even 'bathroom' is considered slightly vulgar, and in polite company 'washroom' is usually substituted (but not 'restroom,' which can only refer to a public facility - a washroom can be in someone's house). My hunch is that 'bathroom' became taboo when the euphemism 'going to the bathroom' became detached from the room itself - my father has an example sentence in his first book about a dog going to the bathroom in the kitchen. Ah, Generative Semantics - if only all scholarship was so uninhibited!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Carmen et error

Since so many folks have written to me asking what I think of the most recent re-design of the $10 bill, I'll indulge them by answering with a quotation from Catullus: odi et amo (carmen LXXXV)- I love it and I hate it.

I love it mostly because I think it looks spiffy. If you haven't seen it, here's what it looks like:

It looks like money, right? In fact, it looks more like money than the 2000 redesign did. But, more importantly, now when my European friends (and I include Canadians in this category) mention in their litany of examples of American barbarity the fact that all our bills (or "notes," as they call them) are the same color, I can now proudly respond, "Nuh-uh!"

What, then, could my objection possibly be? Well, I'll tell you. I've always loved $10 bills because they used to have some funky looking old cars on the back:

And here's a detail of the most prominent car:

Though many claim that this is a Ford Model T, it isn't; in fact, it isn't any real car, but rather a succesful attempt to make a generic-looking late-twenties car. After all, the Treasury Department isn't in the business of endorsing car companies.

I liked this car a lot, because it must have seemed bold and contemporary-looking in 1929 when it was designed. Then, over the years, it took on a quaint charm, until the 2000 redesign did away with it. I tried to protest by boycotting money, but then I got hungry. When I saw the new redesign a few months ago (wasn't expecting that!) I first thought I accidentally got foreign currency. Then I quickly realized it had been redesigned, and checked the reverse to see if my car was back. It wasn't, damnit.

Here are some unrelated thoughts I had over the past week, none of which developed into something post-worthy:

1. The new Regina Spektor album, "Begin to Hope," which came out this week, is fantastic. Go buy it and find out for yourself. It's a little less consistent than her last album, "Soviet Kitsch," but although the lows are lower, the highs are higher. The production is a bit weird, with heavy use of silly-sounding synthesized strings. This is surprising, since the producer, David Kahne, produced the best albums by Fishbone, the band I was obsessed with in high school. Indeed, I think his production was key to their sound; their later albums, which he didn't produce, are markedly inferior.

2. After years of trying and failing, I'm starting to like Leonard Cohen. Since I'be been thinking so much about singing pronunciation lately, I noticed two things:
a) In the chorus of "So Long, Marianne," he rhymes 'Marianne' and 'began' with 'again.' In my American pronunciation, this is a not too jarring half-rhyme. However, as a Canadian, he naturally pronounces 'again' to rhyme with 'gain.' You can hear him struggling not to pronounce it this way, but when the word crops up in the verse he pronounces it the Canadian way.
b) In "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" he pronounces the word "prescription" as "perscription," which is, incidentally, how I pronounce it. Both these examples are interesting to me because I'm working on a theory that, in contrast to the standardized mid-Atlantic popular singing pronunciation scheme I've been posting about, cerebral folk-rockers in the mid sixties opted for a pronunciation scheme that more closely resembled generic Northern colloquial speech. More on this later, maybe.

3. After the fascinating exchange in the comments section of my last post, I'm tempted first of all to post less often and see what other interesting things crop up, and I'm inspired once again to link to this cute flash animation that involves intrusive intrusive /r/ in an otherwise decent imitation of a Chicago-like dialect. For the record, if Homestar Runner winds up taking over your life, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Intrusive intrusive /r/

In the summertime we'd drive my grandfather from Hallandale, Florida to Chicago, and as we'd pass through Tennessee he'd invariably remark, "Chattanooger. That's how the Bostonians say it." They don't, but he's certainly not the only one who thinks they do. The actual phenomenon underlying this belief is known technically as 'intrusive /r/.' When words ending in certain vowels (non-high ones) are followed by words beginning with vowels, people with this feature insert an /r/. So a Bostonian wouldn't just call Chattanooga 'Chattanooger,' but he or she certainly might say "Chattanoog[er] is in Tennessee." Or, to draw an example from my favorite corpus - Beatles lyrics - John Lennon sings "I saw[r] a film today, oh boy."

Two questions arise: who does this, and why? In answering one we will answer the other.

First off, as you undoubtedly know, some dialects of English are non-rhotic - that is, they drop the /r/ sound when it occurs after vowels - but not before them. A consequence of this is that the dropped /r/s come back when they are immediately before a word starting with a vowel. Thus in "Let It Be" Paul McCartney sings "In my hour of da(r)kness" and "There is still a light that shines on me." So intrusive /r/ happens when a word sounds like it has a dropped /r/ at the end but doesn't really, and the phantom /r/ appears precisely where a dropped /r/ would reappear, before a vowel.

Do all English speakers who drop /r/s have intrusive /r/? In a word, no. The key phrase in the paragraph above is "when a word sounds like it has a dropped /r/ at the end but doesn't. See, in some /r/ dropping dialects (such as African American, or the dwindling /r/ dropping white Southern dialects) the dropped /r/ alters the preceding vowel. In these dialects, then, 'manna' and 'manner' don't sound the same, so the confusion that gives rise to intrusive /r/ isn't present, and as a result there is no intrusive /r/.

All this is very complicated, and it's no wonder, then, that my grandfather had trouble mimicking it. Though Peter Trudgill's examples of people misusing intrusive /r/ in British pop songs may be problematic, the phenomenon, which I will dub 'intrusive intrusive /r/' is a very real one, and the point Trudgill is trying to make - namely, that people aren't as good as they think they are at miimcking other dialects - is entirely valid.

In the comments to my last post the question arose why a British professer would pronounce the name Echa as 'Eker.' After all, don't non-rhotic Brits have intrusive /r/? Shouldn't he therefore know how to use it. I would suggest two possible explanations:

1. He was mocking rhotic American dialects, but misanalyzing them and overgeneralizing. More likely, though, is the explanation suggested by the fact that

2. In British English intrusive /r/ is stigmatized, and this professor spoke a fairly posh dialect. I suspect, then, that intrusive /r/ is as foreign to him as was to my grandfather, and he too misanalyzed the phenomenon, and, attempting to employ it mockingly, misused it.

On an unrelated note, I want to acknowledge the sad fact that Billy Preston died on Monday. Honor his memory by reading my two posts about him.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Trudgill on Pop Song Pronunciation

When I last wrote about pronunciation in pop music, Ben Zimmer directed me to Peter Trudgill's article on the subject. After months of not reading this article... well, I read it. It's very good. In fact, the book I found it in, his On Dialect, is very good, and surprisingly accessible for a layman like me, and it will surely be fodder for a number of posts.

Trudgill's thesis is twofold: first, that over the course of the sixties British groups went from emulating "American" pronunciation - not dropping post-vocalic /r/s, monophthongizing /aj/ to /a:/, frequently using /ae/- to not doing so. Secondly, he shows that the advent of punk brought an increase in markedly British, and particularly working-class Cockney, features.

In the broad outlines I agree with Trudgill. His data is pretty remarkable - he has a graph showing the Beatles' use of postvocalic /r/ steadily declining throughout their careers. Remember, though, that Americans themselves tend not to use postvocalic /r/ when they sing (outside of country music). My feeling is that the de-Americanization of British singing pronunciation in the sixties can be described as the emergence of a sort of trans-Atlantic standard singing pronunciation, or perhaps a growing awareness on the part of British singers that if they wanted to sing like Americans, then they shouldn't out-American Americans by using post-vocalic /r/s.

The main quibble I have with this article has to do with Trudgill's assertion (which figures throughout the book) that in an attempt to Americanize their pronunciation British singers hyper-corrected their rhotacization, inserting "intrusive" /r/s even where those with intrusive /r/s don't really have them. That this is the case is undoubtedly, umm... the case. But two of the three examples he provides are problematic. The first is the Beatles' version of the old chestnut "Till There Was You" on their second album, "With The Beatles" (1963). In their version, Paul McCartney sings "There were birds in the sky/ but I never sawr them winging." Trudgill thinks that this proves that McCartney wanted to sound American but misanalyzed when it is us crazy Americans have /r/s. I think that the underlying point is entirely plausible, but I'm sure in this instance that McCartney was just trying to be goofy and self-mocking so that no one could tease him for singing a moldy oldie like "Till There Was You."

Another example Trudgill provides is from the Kinks 1966 song "Sunny Afternoon," where Londoner Ray Davies sings "My girlfriend's run off with my car/ and gone back to her mar and par." Except he doesn't. I listened to the key moment repeatedly and heard neither "mar"(which would be a typical and authentic example of "intrusive" /r/) nor "par", which is par-ticularly striking because he does sing "car" with a pronounced /r/. Were he to sing "par," it would strike me as a clever and funny sort of stretch of a rhyme, not a misanalysis of American rhoticity.

Trudgill's third example, Cliff Richard's 1961 "Bachelor Boy," is a solid and incontrovertible example; "a bachelor" becomes something that is so rhotacized that to me sounds like "her bachelor" or "your bachelor." Haven't heard of Cliff Richard? I hadn't either, but then in one of those weird coincidences that either supports or disproves my belief in the fundamental absurdity of the universe, my favorite music journalist, Sasha Frere-Jones, mentioned him in an article in this week's New Yorker. In this article, an intriguing analysis of the role of British pop music in America, Frere-Jones claims that British musicians who get famous here tend to "lack identifiably English accents." This may be true, but the lack of accent is largely a symmetric one.

As for Cliff Richards, Frere-Jones calls him "England's answer to Elvis Presley." That I'd never heard of him underscores the surprising insularity of American pop music, which is sort of the point of his article. Frere-Jones has a fascinating, albeit perplexing blog that is definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Gheuf & Lowth

I've been uninspired lately, so instead of making a feeble attempt to be clever or interesting, I'll direct you to something that is:

In a series of posts, Gheuf explores the writings of Bishop Lowth and in the process debunks the myths that Lowth a) invented the prescriptivist claptrap about split infinitives and stranded prepositions and such, and b) that he did so (which he didn't) out of a perverse or ignorant desire to make English conform to the rules of Latin grammar. It's interesting stuff, but don't take my word for it -- read it for yourself.