September 2009 Archives

American/Candian Online Dialect Samples at Library of Congress


One of my Listservs announced that the Library of Congress has classified some of its audio recordings from around the country into a set of American English Dialect Recordings organized by place (click "C" for Canada). The core is probably the set of collections made by linguist Walt Wolfram, but other samples are included, and the collection also includes some notable figures such as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. These last two recordings are old enough that you can see how speech in formal settings has changed over time.

The tapes are primarily open-ended conversations or speeches, but the extensive metadata gives you a good context of who, what and when. Many of these were recorded on site, so audio quality for spectrographic analysis is probably hit or miss, but it does have some good samples, and they are available in the .wav format as well as MP3 and Real Player. Note also that samples were recorded across a period of several decades (from the 30s to the 80s), so dialects in that area may have changed since the original recording.

However, they are freely available for educational or research use, so that's a major benefit. This collection was organized by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), so I am happy to see this as a use of our tax dollars at work.

Use of Singular "Ourself"


I ran into an interesting colloquialism listening to an interviewer from a miner turned federal mine inspector. In this quote she refers to miners needing to educate themselves on mine safety:

Each one of us needs to make ourself more knowledgable.

That's right - the reflexive "ourself" is singular even though it's a second person plural pronoun. This was a new one for me, but actually consistent with other aspects of spoken grammar. As you might guess, this is not "correct grammar", but actually within this dialect perfectly correct. Examining the sentence, you notice that the speaker is using a distributed plural meaning that each member acts individually, hence on his or her own (or in colloquial English..."on their own."

I am reasonably confident that if the speaker had said "We have to work together to make ____ knowledgeable", the pronoun would probably have been "ourselves".We rarely distinguish this in formal English except sometimes in singular/plural direct objects:

The team members need to bring their trophy ("trophy" singular).
The team members need to bring their uniforms ("uniform" plural)

But spoken English is more subtle about the distinction. Another example on the Web was "Then we will have to do it on our own/by ourself." Of course, this was immediately corrected by a grammar expert. But interestingly, the first speaker was quite perplexed as to why one couldn't use "by ourself."

I have to admit that my grammar has a singular "themself" which specifically refers to an unknown individual (replacing the more cumbersome "himself or herself"). My grammar also has singular "they" instead of the formal "him or her" as well as singular "their" replacing "his or her". As in:

Anyone who looks at themself (himself/herself) on camera all day will be concerned about appearance.
Anyone living away from parents will eventually have to do their own laundry.

When I write, I am careful to use the plural consistently so that I can use true plural "they" (since I refuse to default to "himself"). However, the more precise grammar is the spoken grammar which distinguishes distributed plurals (members acting independently) from plurals in which members act collaboratively.

Royal "Ourself"

There is an official version of "ourself" defined in Merriam-Webster which is the reflexive of the Royal We used by a monarch. So if the monarch wishes to dine alone, he/she (or they) might say "We will dine by ourself this evening." However, I am not sure that the Royal We is used much in current English. Even the Queen of England in interviews appears to refer to herself as "one" rather than any first person.

Instant Dialect Formation in the Age of Tech


A few decades ago, scholars wondered if being connected via a common set of TV programs (and now YouTube and the Internet) would level out dialectal differences. I was always skeptical, and the evidence is leaning against it. For instance, one of the episodes of the PBS miniseries Do You Speak American? shows how California is developing into its own dialect area.

Acronym Variations

But the proliferation of new tech words (or tech neologisms) shows how differences can arise. For instance today in a class I'm teaching, I discovered that "Web 2.0" had two variant pronunciations - "Web 2 point 0" and "Web 2 0" (no "point"). One student further intoned that dropping the "point" was much hipper (interesting).

Another one with variant pronunciations is "SQL" (structured query language) which I was taught as "S Q L", but others as "Sequel". The most interesting one may be "RSS" because no one can remember what "RSS" stands for - either Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. It doesn't matter though because the lexical entry is now RSS /arɛsɛs/.

Maybe this shouldn't surprise us because so many tech words are introduced to us from print resources. Even if we get to a YouTube source, I suspect that most of us see these terms online in a blog, tech review, documentation, listserv or e-mail. These don't normally come with pronunciation guidelines (or if they do, they're best guesses). That is, programmers may invent new acronyms, but they rarely publish pronunciation guidelines. The only way to get an "authentic" pronunciation would be to hear a presentation from a development team.

What's that gadget?

Another source of confusion may come gadgets with no official name like this one below:

Jump Drive in Computer
A flash drive/jump drive/USB drive/keychain drive. Image courtesy Fredo Alvarez. Licensed by Creative Commons.

This thingamabob is known as a jump drive/flash drive/USB drive/thumb drive depending on the speaker. Actually the first time I saw it it was described as a neat device that plugged into a USB drive and that you could put on your keychain. So for me, it became a "keychain drive" (and apparently for other people as well - although I think I am the lone "keychain driver" speaker at Penn State.)

Surprisingly, I don't recall any major marketing campaigns for this - word of its existence seemed to spread by word of mouth. These are the circumstances which could promote multiple variants, but it really is amazing how many developed in such a short period of time (since about only 2002 or 7 years).

Although we are connected by media, apparently we don't always use it to propogate "official" usage information. In fact, in the new age of Facebook/texting/Twitter/YouTube/multiple cable channels, I would predict that more variations will evolve over time. Unlike 50 years ago, we can't assume that a large segment of Americans will be watching the same show (e.g. I Love Lucy) because there are so many more options. Despite the ubiquity of these technologies, they are actually serving to Balkanize us at the moment.

The difference may be that not all communities will be geographically contiguous - we've seen this somewhat before (e.g. educated people speaking Latin or French across Europe), but I don't think on the scale we're seeing now.

Who's Harder to Understand?


A video making the rounds in John Wells' Phonetic Blog is a 1940s educational piece on helping a Sinhala speaker (from Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was called back in those days). The student is trying to get directions to 48 Paddington Street, Edgeware Road, but the newspaper vendor he asks is perpetually confused. Hence the student visits the local phonetician's office (wouldn't you?).

Wells makes some interesting comments on how old-fashioned the phonetics instructor (A. Lloyd James) sounds. It is amazing how even the "standard" has significantly shifted in 50 years. What's interesting to me though is that I actually find the Sri Lankan speaker far easier to understand than the instructor (or the newspaper vendor). Apparently, I've had more exposure to speakers from South Asia than this variety of British English.

I have no explanation for the instructor's advice to "change the rhythm." It's not a recommendation most linguists would make today, certainly not in terms of "Morse code." However, now that Professor James has mentioned it, it is true that there is a longer pause between phonological phrases in English than the Sri Lankan student. I think the professor is trying to point out that in the address "48 Paddington Road, Edgeware Road" there is a pause in English (indicated by the comma) which the Sri Lankan speaker is not always making. I guess that "pause" is supposed to make the difference. To me, the change sounded very miniscule though.

In fact, in the student's second attempt, he only inserts pauses in the address. The rest of his sentence has the same "rhythm" has before!

Aspirated Nasal in Gran Torino Eastwood Movie


The recent Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino is a very interesting character study, but is also notable for giving a demonstration of a voiceless or aspirated nasal.

If you don't know the plot, Eastwood plays a retired Detroit auto worker Walt Kowalsky with politically incorrect views on a lot of things, including his Asian neighbors (fortunately, he learns toleration, but in an interestingly unsentimental manner). It turns out that his neighbors are part of the Hmong culture as one of the younger women Sue Lor (played by Ahney Her) explains to Clint.

In fact, she even says the name "Hmong" where "hm" is a voiceless or aspirated /m/ which I will transcribe as /mʰ/ (and "ng" is really the velar nasal /ŋ/). In an aspirated nasal, the vocal cords do not vibrate continuously through the /m/ but pause at some point. From what I could tell, the vocal cords begin as non-vibrating, but then begin during the nasal. It would be consistent from how voiceless nasals are pronounced in other languages of Burma.

So the transcription for "Hmong" is actually or /mʰɔ̃ŋ/ (not sure about the tone), but to my ears it sounded like "Mong" /mɔ̃ŋ/ with a slight pause in the beginning. Very interesting. It's another happy example of how linguistic sensitivity is slowly creeping into Hollywood.

P.S. I also have to respect a movie that shows how effectively a Hmong grandmother can spit a wad of tobacco. Needless to say, Walt was impressed in spite of himself.