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News You Don't Say

People sure talk funny

George Bernard Shaw, writing in the preface to Pygmalion, says flatly that "it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him." The way we speak betrays many things about our regional origins, level of education, and class status, and those who hear us are quick to make judgments. 

Alteration and concealment are possible, as with those Episcopal clergy who come back from a six-week course at Canterbury or a summer at Oxford with Received Pronunciation clenched between their teeth. But unless one has had tutelage with a Henry Higgins, original marks will remain. 

Last week I wrote a post suggesting that people should not get their backs up at locutions like "me and my sister went home" ("No need to demonize the demotic"), and an old classmate from high school, completely misreading the substance and intent, excoriated me on Facebook for betraying my origins and "talking about common people, like you were cut from some imaginary upper crust."* 

My parents, Raymond and Marian McIntyre, grew up in Fleming County, Kentucky, which lies between the uplands of Appalachia and the Bluegrass. Their formal education ended at high school, and they spoke with a pronounced regional accent, though not as pronounced as the more nasal Southern Mountain accent that one associates with, you should pardon the term, hillbillies. When I went away to college, my mother expressed some apprehension about sounding "country" to the cosmopolitan sophisticates of East Lansing, Michigan (!). But she was a formidably articulate woman, as anyone who ever got on the wrong side of her can attest. 

In due course I grew up in Fleming County. My idiolect,** pretty much the one you can hear today, was probably influenced by television and a teacher's-pet propensity to talk like the books I was reading. ("John Early, you sound just like somebody from up north," a classmate's mother once told me.) I did take a little trouble in adolescence to clean up a couple of diphthongs, learning to pronounce "student" as "stoodent" rather than "st-yew-dent." My wife insists that when we used to visit my mother every summer, my accent broadened a little. But not much. 

I also had to learn over time how to pronounce words that I had encountered in reading but had never heard spoken. 

Our awareness of the origin/education/class markers that come out of our mouths produces anxiety, even embarrassment, in certain circumstances. Kory Stamper, whose polished videos on pronunciation and language you can see when you look up words at Merriam-Webster Online, writes about that anxiety in a post at Harmless Drudgery, "In Defense of Talking Funny." 

You would do yourself a favor by reading the entire post, but here is a key passage:

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

The politics will always be there. The predictions that universal television would produce a universal American dialect have not been fulfilled. "American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a 'dialect,' ” Ms. Stamper writes. And, status-conscious as we are, we make our way among them. 

I have grown into my idiolect and do not plan to alter it. Some may find it pleasant, some may find it affected, and some may be merely baffled. ("What manner of man is this?" a classmate at Michigan state said he wondered the first time he heard me speak in class.) 

A decent respect for the rights of others demands that I grant them the same right to their idiolects, recognizing status markers but refusing to treat them with scorn, contempt, or derision.*** People have a right to their language, a right to be themselves, and snottiness about their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation is, as I have argued elsewhere, no more privileged than any other form of snobbery. 

 

 

*Another old classmate got sharp with me on Facebook for opining that people who complain that Christians are being persecuted in the United States seem to be aggrieved that they are not being allowed to impose their beliefs on others. In some way, I suppose, you never completely get out of high school. 

 

**An idiolect is the pattern of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation distinctive to a person.

 

***Oh, all right, I'm reserving scorn, contempt, and derision for corporate cant and bureaucratic bafflegab.  

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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