Thursday, October 26, 2006

Speaking Trippingly

Buffy has a funny habit of pronouncing words both carefully and "efficiently" at the same time (I'll give examples in my next post). I say efficiently because I'm trying to remain neutral on dialectal judgment. One of my professors likes to use the phrase "lazy pronunciation" to describe phonological alternations, but I don't like the implications of "lazy."

Steven Pinker makes an excellent case against the view that speech markers are the result of lazy articulation. In The Language Instinct he first points out that the same people "who are derided for dropping g's in Nothin' Doin' are likely to enunciate the vowels in pó-lice and acci-dént that pointy-headed intellectuals reduce to a neutral "uh" sound" (180).

Add to that the diphthongization of the vowels in "tin can" -- leading the words to become disyllabic instead of monosyllabic -- and how can we call it lazy when some words are pronounced with units that are more marked and others with a greater number of units. Northern [kæn] is more simple than [kæ:jǝn]. So the Southern American accent is doing more work -- quantitatively.

Pinker also makes the argument that assimilative articulation is completely natural. He draws on the analogy that when you reach for a saucer and a coffee cup you grab the edge closest to you and you put your hand in the grasping position before you touch the cup.

Let's look at another example. I'll make the analogy from walking through a door to the post-stress intervocalic voicing in American English [t] > [d,ɾ]. Imagine walking towards a glass door that you know opens by pushing. Imagine further that you are familiar with this door and know that it opens easily without a strong push. When you approach the door you see there is no one on the other side and you put your hand forwards to contact the door and push it aside while your stride continues. In my observation I have seen that even when the door opens towards the "walker" and even when a knob has to turn to unlatch the door there is still often one foot in motion so that the stride of the walker is barely interrupted -- at most it slows just a bit.

Is this continuous movement of the feet evidence of slovenly or slurred motion? Would we say that these people are slaughtering the beauty of graceful and careful walking? On the contrary. By anticipation and adaptation this shows balance and agility. How odd it would look if before every door the walker stopped -- put out a hand -- placed palm against handle -- closed fingers around handle -- pulled door -- stepped through door...etc.

And yet we argue this as the very virtue of a good speaker. When I say "water" with a strict [t] between the vowels I find myself feeling stilted and guilty. That interruption of voice is just as unnecessary as the flat-footed stop in front of a door. In my dialect there is a wonderful allophone corresponding the voiceless and voiced alveolar stop: the alveolar 'tap' or 'flap.' This is not a simple and easy phone. It's a very quick and light lingual articulation. It requires great precision to avoid sounding like the lateral [l] or the voiced fricative usually represented orthographically as 'z' or 'zh'. To argue that this allophone is a product of laziness is like arguing that a running-back is lazy because he runs around a linebacker instead of walking right up to him and trying to push him over.


  1. I bring issue to your analogy. Movement, opening a door, running a football, picking up a saucer, is a personal and individual task. It makes sense to add grace and efficiency to our movements.

    I think speech should be interactive. So when we're communicating with another, clarity is important. That awkward [t] might be important when stressing writer or whiter. Yes, there are many ways to effectively communicate, including some "tripping" language, depending on our audience, but efficient speech doesn't mean effective speech.

    Thanks again for some quality quodlibet.

  2. But unless we're playing football with ourselves, running a football is not a mere individual task.

    And efficient speech can also be effective, just as conspicuously affected pronunciation can interfere with or distract from the more important topic at hand.

    Of course if confusion is truly the result of this efficient speaking, I'm completely with Daniel, but where there's no uncertainty, I rather champion Michael's duly-termed (since it's my speech that's to be submitted, of course) balance and agility.

    And seriously, what sort of context would leave a person wondering if the speaker said, "writer," or "whiter?" Seriously.

  3. Not a confusion twixt whiter and writer but whiter and wider, and rider and writer. Ask Michael, I'm sure he'll share.

    And I'm completely on board with Michael's actual ideas. I was just taking issue with the analogy.

    It is funny you mention how "conspicuously affected pronounciation" can be a downfall. I'd like to think my persona is hurt by my careful words.

  4. But I still think the context informs the words. It's not extremely common for the framework surrounding a sentence to lend itself both to a writer AND a rider, for example.

    But then I suppose one could hear, as another pulls out a shirt from the wash, a fiery complaint--and we might never know whether the disgust related to size or color, to wideness or whiteness.

    And what a brouhaha THAT would be.

  5. Hey Michael, Do you have any brilliant ideas for a paper topic in my Spanish Phonology, Phonetics and Dialectology class?

  6. Sure. Put all the native Spanish speakers in FLL in a crucible: force them to explain to you the difference between their accents and listen to how they emphasize or exaggerate certain vowels and consonants. After you say "huh?" 3 or 4 times some of them might start to alter the vowel from what their actual pronunciation is. Do you see a trend? Is there some quality of certain alternations that get special attention when being used contrastively?


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