Friday, March 17, 2006

Fun with linguistics, travelogue-style

Linguistics doesn't make its way into the news media very often, so it's always nice to see the field get a little scrap of attention now and then, even if it means turning to the Travel Section.

This delightful article ("It's Not the Sights, It's the Sounds"), filed by the NYT under Activities and Interests > Road Trips, is a fun read that even someone who doesn't know anything, or even care to know anything, about linguistics (i.e., pretty much everybody) could enjoy, since it deals with regional variation in pronunciation in the United States (what we usually call "accents"). In other words, this is linguistics of a non-threatening variety.

Here you can learn: some frightening details about Pittsburghese and Rochesterese, that there is really only one regional dialect all the way from Chicago to upstate New York (which was news to me — and I'm still not sure I'm convinced about that one), and most astonishing of all, that linguists are willing to pay $620 (no, that is not six dollars and twenty cents) for a meticulously-researched compendium of Norht American regionalects called Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change.

What is alarming about this is not so much the price, but the images of horror, tragedy, human loss and deprivation that must accompany paying for it out of a linguist's salary. Makes one wonder if linguists stay married very long ("Honey? I'm sorry we can't afford food for the kids this month; but I just had to have the latest research on the Ohio River valley syllabification patterns!"). (Me? I don't have kids. And I overspend even an engineer's salary on books I don't need. But that's a story for another blogposting.)

You really, really have to love a book that has a chapter titled "The general fronting of the back upgliding vowels".

(And yes, I do know what that means.)

Even more fun, this article has links to some mp3s with sample pronunciations (some of which are not to be tried by the faint-hearted), and another link to a great list of regional vocabulary (under the heading "local color").

And if these links should go stale, you can thank Charlene here for braving the wrath of the copyright gods for copying the entire text here.

But I have a more personal connection. I was branded as learning-disabled by my first grade teacher, a Mrs. Wenty (who was herself at the time probably only about 22 I bet and straight out of some "College of Education"), because, as it happens, when I was learning to write for the first time, I wrote her speech phonetically. For instance, she showed my parents that I was an incorrigibly bad speller because I spelled the word "ant" (or maybe it was "aunt") as "eant". Which is how she pronounced it. As a child straight out of the UK at the time, I was not yet inured to that sort of pronunciation. (Come to think of it, I'm still not ...) My parents tried to explain this to her ("but that is the way you say it"), but I gather she was not amused. Lisa and I came across a brutal assessment of my near-retardedness ("language skills: very weak!") when going through my mother's things after she died. Lisa wanted to look up Mrs. Wenty in the Urbana phone book to yell at her and tell her I had been to Yale and to Harvard and in linguistics! I just told Lisa I should have the thing framed. (Still haven't done either.)

BY the way. When I talk about "linguistics in the news" I am not talking about such things as William Safire's old On Language column in the NYT Magazine nor Eats, Shoots & LeavesBuy me! (a delightful book, by the way). That's not linguistics. Linguistics, of course, has nothing to do with proscribing what is or is not "correct". It only has to do with DEscribing what IS.

But then, linguistics, is one of the least understood (and least respected) branches of knowledge, and yet, paradoxically, one that everyone seems to think themselves expert in. I guess because everybody has mastered at least one language (their native one), they feel qualified to argue the finer points of folk etymology or child language acquisition issues with a linguist, when they would never dream of arguing quantum mechanics with a phycisist or even the correct maintenance of drains with a plumber. Harrumph. Hell, what am I doing defending a field I abandoned 19 years ago for the greener pastures of cubicles and staff meetings and reorgs just because I wanted to be able to afford $620 non-fiction books that'll collect dust on my shelf and make me look intellectual ...

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