I’m getting bolder as I age. Because of this, there will be several things happening in today’s blog that are completely uncharacteristic of me. The first is launching myself into a current ‘hot topic’ while it’s still…you know…hot. It’s not because I am against bandwagons or jumping upon them. Sure, I often ignore them, but if it’s a nice bandwagon, I’ll jump. The problem with me is that I am so often unaware of these hot topics until they are long gone. Elvis has not only left the building, but he’s already played three other venues and had a week off by the time I realize that he’s not coming back for another encore.
So, in a rare turn of events, I may have caught this one while I still have a chance to grab a handle and swing myself into the baggage car. And what is this hot topic? It’s a video blog about accents. I first saw it at Renee’s blog, Lessons for Teachers and Twits. She got it from Jessica at Meet the Buttrams, who in turn heard it from Jamie’s Rabbits. The chain continues but I’ll stop there. The videos that I did mention are fantastic and you really should go have a look-see.
What this consists of is a list of words to showcase regional pronunciation differences, and then a series of questions to discover variations in vocabulary between regions. Folks, you might as well have thrown up the Bat Signal. I don’t have a choice here. Do I want to discuss regional dialectal differences? As a linguist? Is the Pope Catholic?
It was impossible for me to not heed the call, despite my aversion to the idea of making this moving picture thingy of myself. This, then, is the second aberrant behavior I will be engaging in for this post. Considering how tight-lipped I’ve been about even offering up my name, it frankly shocked me how quickly I decided to go for broke and record the goofiness that is me. After about 5.37 seconds of thought, I knew I had to do it.
I’m excited about the challenge, but of course I can’t just leave it at a list of words to pronounce and vocabulary questions to answer. The first name that comes up when I think of this topic is William Labov. He is known for groundbreaking work on the unrecognized grammatical systems of non-standard dialects of English, namely that of the black community, which he called Black Vernacular English. He also performed the famous (amongst linguists anyway) Fourth Floor department store experiment in New York.
Essentially what Labov discovered was that in casual speech, the lower status salespeople at the store Klein’s did not pronounce the /r/ in “fourth floor” very often, and the pronunciation didn’t change much in careful speech, even with researchers that appeared to be of a higher social status. In Saks, the situation was almost reversed: the /r/ was spoken more often to begin with, so in careful speech, the rate was only slightly higher. The biggest difference came in the middle-status group at Macy’s. It seems this group style-shifted most often depending on the formality of the situation and of the perceived status of the listener.
Labov also went on to do taped interviews with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, recording incidences of casual and formal speech, as well as reading style and word lists or minimal pairs (i.e., are cot and caught pronounced the same or differently). Higher status interviewees used fewer elements that marked the regional accent; in other words, they didn’t have a thick regional accent at all. Lower socioeconomic status subjects used these marked forms much more often in casual speech, then tried to emulate the neutral accent in more careful speech and reading.
This work took place nearly 50 years ago so it’s possible that these findings could no longer be replicated today. However, it is still true that people will alter their speech depending on the situation or the audience. Remember that language is an identity marker. It helps us decide who’s in a group and who is not. Style and accent shifting can help us bond with a group where we feel we belong, but it can also help us distinguish ourselves as an outsider to a different group. Macy’s salespeople inserted the /r/ sound to show that they belonged to the class of people who say all their letters when they speak, which at the time was the more prestigious group to join.
So without further ado, here’s my first ever video blog post. I really don’t sound particularly “New York” in it, and I also forgot a few things but can’t bear to do it over. I meant to model the ‘fourth floor’ of Labov’s experiment for you, and I also never actually answered Question 5 (the answer is ‘You guys’ and never ‘youse’ thankyouverymuch.) There also seems to be a slight synchronization issue with the image and sound, which is annoying
but I can’t seem to do anything about it Fixed it! Whew! Finally, don’t ask me how I got to over 8 minutes. Sheesh.
Please be kind as I cringe and rock gently in a corner.
The Words: Aunt, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, Toilet, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting Image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught
Mary, Merry, Marry (my additions).
- What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
- What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
- What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
- What do you call gym shoes?
- What do you say to address a group of people?
- What do you call the kind of spider that has an oval-shaped body & extremely long legs?
- What do you call your grandparents?
- What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
- What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
- What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
- What do you call this type of sandwich? (my addition)
Here are some links for youse!
1. Nationwide Speech Project knows that people may say words differently when being recorded than they do in more natural speech, but they still made a cool map of dialects anyway. Actually, She’s a Maineiac gave a great example at 4:53 in the hilarious video that she put up yesterday about her on-again, off-again Maine accent.
2. The PBS special, “Do You Speak American?” is just a treasure trove of resources! Here’s where you can find information on different American Varieties. You could stay on that site and take a quiz there to test how well you can hear the differences, or find out more about William Labov.
3. You could also check out YouThink and take a different quiz to see what kind of accent you have. The results will probably not be shocking, but it may be interesting to see which words are the ones that probably give you away!