Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Future of English

The future of English has long been speculated about, and science fiction and fantasy novels and films offer multiple notions about what it might look and sound like hundreds of years from now. Bladerunner (1982) famously offered us "Cityspeak," described in Harrison Ford's voiceover as " gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you." And, as shown in the original screenplay, it was exactly that, including words from Hungarian, Japanese, German, French, and Korean (thought notably not Spanish). However, while it's true that on a drive through LA one can pass through block after block of "Chinatown," "Korea Town," and other such areas, the social forces don't seem to be in place for anything like Cityspeak to evolve any time soon.

Another stab at the future was Anthony Burgess's "Nadsat," the slang he created for the criminal classes in his novel A Clockwork Orange. Nadsat draws from some native English lingo -- schoolboy talk, Cockney rhyming slang, and so forth -- but 90% of it is actually Russian, including some meorable words as "Gulliver" for head (from Russian golava), "lewdies" for people (Russian lyudi), and "droogs" for friends (Russian drug). A few years before he wrote the novel, Burgess and his wife had visited Leningrad, and heard of the problem of violent youths in that city -- but the reals surprise is how well Russian and English work together. A similar blended language, dubbed "Runglish," can often be heard at the International Space Station, which is maintained mostly by US and Russian astronauts/cosmonauts.

Perhaps the most innovative future English was that invented by Russell Hoban for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker -- the novel is actually written in this language, a degraded, worn-down English known simply as "Tok" (as in "talk" -- Hoban's future is phonetically spelled). It's unfortunate, though, that Tok at times sounds a little too much like the English of rural Yorkshire, with the implication that if such were to become the standard, it would represent a "degrading" of it (then again, Monty Python's famous 'village idiots' seem to have hailed from the North as well). A parallel problem troubles Sandra Newman's new novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, whose future disintegrated English bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jamaican patwa:
"My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. This be the tale of how I bring the cures to all the Nighted States, save every poory children, short for life. Is how a city die for selfish love, and rise from this same smallness. Be how the new America being, in wars against all hope - a county with no power in a world that hate its life. So been the faith I sworn, and it ain't evils in no world nor cruelties in no read hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star."

Monday, November 13, 2017

Southern Accents

The country bumpkin meets the city slicker
Practically since the birth of the Republic, Americans have been making fun of the way each other talked. As we've seen, this was partly a feature of the differences and distance between them; urban northerners, whose speech came mostly from East Anglia and gave us the "Boston Brahmin" dialect, had an entirely different prestige dialect than those of the southeast, whose "tidewater" tones were broader, more open, and fronted.

In part as a result of this, the American stage developed a long tradition of comic skits involving a "city slicker" from the urban north being taken to town (or away from it, rather) by a seemingly bumpkinish rural denizen. Many of these skits, and lines from them, still ring a distant bell today: "How far to Little Rock?" or "You can't get there from here." To the city slicker's "Have you lived here all your life" came the rube's reply: Not yet!" The practitioners of the comic "southern" accent today, from Jeff Foxworthy to Larry the Cable Guy, draw upon this same old story. These identical skits were just as popular on early recordings, such as this one.

It can be traced in cartoons and television shows as well, within which there is -- perhaps -- a gradual transition from more comic to more respectful depictions of southern speech and life. From the comic "Beverly Hillbillies" or "Hee-Haw," we moved on to comedy-dramas such as "Designing Women" or "Evening Shade," with even a purely dramatic show ("In the Heat of the Night") now and then. And, as with AAVE, the comedy on stage and screen belies potential prejudice in social life; a "southern" accent can still be read as the speech of a less intelligent, less well-educated person. It's something that's been found in children as young as five years of age, due no doubt in part to their exposure to stereotyped accents in cartoons.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

AAVE

The history of African-American Vernacular English is in some ways not unlike that of other dialects of US English -- except of course that it begins not with immigration but enslavement. And yet despite this any many other economic and political obstacles, African-American varieties of English have been a significant -- perhaps the most significant -- contribution to our national linguistic strength and variety since America was first colonized by Europeans. And yet, at the same time, more so than any other dialect, it's been haunted by a distorting shadow in popular culture, from the 1830's until the present; Its authentic cultural productions from Spirituals, Blues, and Jazz, to Rock 'n'Roll and Hip-hop -- have always had to compete with imitation, parody, and appropriation, in the form of stereotyped white versions of these same genres.

Blackface Minstrelsy may very well have been the single most popular American form of entertainment from the 1840's through to the 1940's. Its popularity waxed and waned, from a peak in the 1850's, through a gradual decline until a revival in the 1880's, followed by a gradual shift toward more "refined" versions produced by both amateur and professional companies in the period between WWI and WWII. The 1940's saw its permanent decline, in large part due to social changes, integration of the armed forces, and the post-war rise of television, although it still survives in a few isolated places such as Derby Connecticut, where a clown-face "Gang Show" is now in its 90th year (they stopped using blackface in 1944). In the UK, where minstrelsy had been enormously popular from its earliest period, the Black and White Minstrel Show remained on the air until 1978!

Of course it is easy to see this tradition as fundamentally compromised from the start, as it relied upon a distorted, comical, theatrical version of "blackness" devised by white entertainers. And yet, from the beginning, it was a hybrid form, appropriating bits of actual Black culture and mixing them with elements such as Irish jigs, regional "rustic" humor, melodrama, and early skits and vaudeville routines. And, as early as the 1850's there were a number of Black Blackface troupes -- "Black people in blacker faces," as Bamboozled's Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayons) puts it -- some of which enjoyed even wider success than white troupes. The commercial success of the form, for better and for worse, paved the way for other artforms which were, or were perceived as, "Black," including Dixieland jazz, blues, and Black vaudeville.

Fortunately actual history of AAVE is more complex, and infinitely richer, than its pop-cultural avatars. Its origins can be traced to various West-African languages and trade pidgins (these were argots drawn from languages along a trade route, such as the Congo river). When slaves were deliberately sold in lots in which there was no common dialect, the trade pidgin formed the basis of communication; when latter agglomerated within various colonial languages, they became "creoles." Jamaican "patwa" is an English creole, and there are Spanish, French, and Portuguese creoles scattered through the Caribbean and the Cape Verde Islands. AAVE, in its origin, was also a creole, but as its speakers were part of a much larger population surrounded by land instead of water, there was a longer period of addition and assimilation. Modern AAVE is a full, complete, English dialect which preserves some features of West African languages, such as a "habitual" mood of the verb "to be."

Sunday, October 29, 2017

English Accents

We're shifting gears this week -- from historical English to the Englishes of today, from an emphasis on written language to one on spoken language in all its variety, from the underlying structures beneath language to the overlying srtuctures society erects above and on top of language. And we could have no better guide at this moment than Rosini Lippi-Green.


In this chart, taken from Rosina Lippi-Green's book English With an Accent, we see how white undergrads in Indiana thought about samples of spoken language -- how "correct" or "normal" was the speech they heard. Of course, they sounded normal to themselves, and so did most folks from the Midwest, along with California, Colorado, and Washington State. The southwest, particilarly Texas, sounded less correct, and the dep south -- sometimes called the "Southern Trough" -- sounded the most incorrect of all. Rhode Islanders, incidentally, came out in the second quintile -- that is, just a little less normal than Hoosiers -- and better than New Yawk.

But what does this perception mean? If such a survey had been conducted sixty or seventy years ago, it might have come out a bit different, as most Amderican in public life -- politicians, actors, and speech-makers -- adapted the "Mid-Atlantic" accent (you can hear it, among many other places, in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," in which everyone says Wizzahd instead of Wizerd).  But this common upper-middle-to-upper-class accent faded away after WWII, and the era of broadcast television; rumbly midwesterners such as Edwin R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Tom Brokaw soon set the standard, and placed out national normative right in the middle of the midwest.

But of course American accents -- mostly "L1" accents, that is, accents acquired from infancy via regional variations in one's natural/family language -- are only one part of it. For those, whether in the US or abroad, for whom English was their second (or third, or fourth) language, there's another set of issues; these we know as "L2" accents. In the same way we might call an American accent a "Southern" or a "New England" accent, L2 accents are often called "foreign," though that's not really a good way to describe them. Foreign to whom? The key difference, though, is that L2 speakers are more likely to substitute sounds from their native language in the place of less familiar (or less-familiarly-placed) sounds in English. Thus, say, a German speaker might say "heff" instead of "have," and a French speaker might pronounce "sweater" as "swettauw." We're exposed to such accents all the time, but -- as with L1 accents -- it's pop culture, in the form of cartoons, comedy skits, and television shows that often sets up our expectations. Certainly, during the time I was growing up, it was hard to avoid picking up on the negative connotations of a German accent (Colonel Klink), a Russian one (Boris Badanov), or even a French one (PepĂ© le Pew) -- and there were plenty of "bad" L1 accents in cartoons too (anyone remember the Hillbilly Bears?).

This week, we're going to use both the Speech Accent Archive and various Accent Tags to bend our ears to the sounds of English: here, there, and everywhere.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The New Normal -- and the old

Despite the efforts of those who actually study language, the notion of a "standard English," one to which we should constantly adhere, at the peril of revealing our fathomless ignorance, has persisted for generations. Perhaps it's just an inevitable consquence of the effort to make education accessible to the masses; in order to do so, language was codified, and people began to mistake those codes for the ones that actually govern everyday speech.

And of course, ever since there's been an English language, there's been a prestige or normative accent: The West Saxons looked down their noses at their Mercian and Northumbrian neighbors; the Oxbridge chattering classes guffawed at the parlance of Soho Square; even in the purportedly egalitarian American colonies, Boston Brahmins and Tidewater planters laughed at the usage of backwoods Kentuckians, at least until the Midwest conquered both, and laughed last.

And that's not all: even if, in terms of diction and pronunciation, we could talk about a normative way of speaking, and agree on what that was, none of us actually speaks it. We hear others having an "accent," and we may believe ourselves to have one, but truth be told, normative pronunciation is an accent too -- albeit an artificial one, known mostly by its seeming absence. Our linguistic variety, indeed, is our strength: the different phrases and idioms we use, the different pronunciations and accents natural to different persons, all of these are the life-blood of living language. The only languages that don't have such variations -- Latin, or Attic Greek -- are dead ones. And, within broad limits, the more differences, the merrier. English literature, indeed, is full of those whose manner of speaking is different from anyone else's, whether it's Dickens's Jo the crossing-sweeper, with his "I don' know nuffink," Liza Doolittle with her "Aaaaaaaaaaah-ow-ooh," or Popeye the Sailor with his "edjamication," his "horshpital," or his immortal apothegm "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam" (which, incidentially, is the favored Twitter quote of Salman Rushdie). In more recent times, Hip-hop has brought us such wordsmiths as Keith Murray, Flavor-Flav, and Humpty-Hump, who boasts in "The Humpty Dance" that he'll "use a word that don't mean nothin', like loopted." But of course, sooner or later, every word means something.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Class consciousness

So what's the alternative to the old "parts of speech" model? Schoolhouse Rock provides a handy clue: "conjunction junction, what's your function?" -- what if we were were to ask of other words, not what it is they are, but what it is they do? The answer would give us word classes, which have the tremendous advantage of describing what English words actually do do in actual sentences and utterances. Some of these classes, such as the class of prepositions or that of conjunctions, are relatively stable -- these are sometimes called "closed" classes -- but in other cases -- what the parts people call nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs -- a word's class status might be completely different depending on the particular sentence it's in. In addition to words such as fish, photograph, taste, and service -- all of which can potentially be members of several classes without changing their form at all (these are called zero morphs) we also have a wide array of suffixes, and sometimes prefixes, that "recruit" a word from one class to another: -able turns verbs into adjectives (love ==> lovable); -ment turns verbs into nouns (govern ==> government); and of course -ly turns adjectives into adverbs (quick ==> quickly).

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What is Grammar?

We all know the "Grammar Nazi" -- and can laugh along with parodies such as College Humor's take on the famous scene from Inglorious Basterds. But why is this notion so persistent? I think it's because those of us who have anxieties about our grammar and usage have them because we've been called out somewhere -- in a classroom, on a stage, by a seeming friend -- for some real or purported usage error. The grammar guardians have that same smugness that we fear from the enforcers of some imaginary authoritarian regime: the law is on their side, and they will show no mercy. But how did we get to this state of affairs, with a language that most of us have been speaking since before we were two years old? How did we come to feel not at home in our own home language?

Part of it is that English is notoriously filled with inconsistencies. Compared with either Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) or Germanic ones (German, Norwegian, Icelandic), we have dozens of exceptions to the rules, all of which someone learning English as a second language must contend with. On top of that, we have quite a few "rules" which the grammar correctors are convinced are rooted in stone, which are in fact not rules at all, but merely conventions (see the previous sentence for how we're not supposed to end things). Perhaps most significantly, we tend to confuse these conventions -- which are those of formal written English -- with rules about everyday, informal speech.


I have good news though: as Dante Alighieri noted about his childhood acquisition of Italian, if English is your first language, then you learned it by imitation, and sine omni regula (without any rules). Rules come later, and after, and actually have nothing whatsoever to do with how we actually learn to speak, or do speak. Which is not to say English has no structure, but rather that the structures which help us generate speech are not the same as those external after-thoughts with with grammarians have measured and examined speech. When one thinks of language in generative terms, one realizes the sad futility of the rule-followers: to follow rules is not the same thing as grasping a principle.