Monday, December 17, 2007

BBC's myth-take on dialects

Tenser, said the Tensor posted a couple weeks back on the BBC presentation of How the Edwardians Spoke. His post does a fine job of going over some of the laughable claims made by program host Joan Washington.

It's an hour long so if you have the time you should watch it. And just for the record: it is an enjoyable hour even tho Ms Washington peppers it with ridiculous conjecture and baffling superstitions. The recordings are fascinating. And occasionally touching.

Watch the Google™ video or the GUBA video (better quality). Both are downloadable.

A few parts that stuck with me:

At about 15:00 when told that the Germans made these tapes with the intention of using the data to learn native British dialects she reacts with what strikes me as an incredibly patronizing "Do you...Do you...Do you surmise that? Do you guess that? Or do you know that?"

Her disfluency strikes me as indicative of a sudden discomfort. I don't think she believes Jürgen-Kornelius Mahrenholz. She has been leaning in towards him and as soon as she starts asking she backs away. My instinct tells me that she's aware that there's aggression in her question and she's padding it by her slight retreat. Notice that when he tells her that there is documentation of the fact her cheeky smile fades slightly. (She might not be used to people being able to actually back up their claims.) But I'm no Jack Byrnes. It's just an impression.

Her claims regarding terrain and sinuses and temperature affecting the phonetics of dialects remind of the hokum I mentioned this past summer. But take a look at the IMDb page. At least one viewer thinks those are interesting claims. The stuff sells. Fallacies are the best opiate.

Washington's label of Major and Minor keys in accents is particularly interesting. I can't imagine how the intonations of dialects would be bound to a major or minor key. They're really just full of accidentals. And given the relatively narrow range of pitches and the great variation in tones from phrase to phrase and sentence to sentence it's much more likely that we're looking at a chromatic scale.

This major/minor distinction is a tough one for the untrained. People really know as little about music as they do about linguistics. Earlier today a rerun of My Wife and Kids featured a guest appearance by the wonderful Betty White. In one scene she plays a difficult passage on the piano and remarks "Did you hear that? ... Your C-major is a quarter tone off." C major could be a quarter tone off. Sure. But that wouldn't be a helpful observation because it could really only mean that one note in the C major chord or scale is off. And that same note could be in the A minor scale (It would have to be really) or the C harmonic minor or the C minor or the A long as it's a white key. But back to the dialect stuff:

Washington makes the distinction between major and minor keys by saying that in a major key the speaker sounds self assured and confident and in a minor key the phrases and sentences don't end on any clear and definite note. Notes are all just as definite in every key. She seems to be talking about phrase ending intonation which is sometimes a rising or falling tone and sometimes not. But that has nothing to do with keys. Each key is as definite as the rest.

The best example of the difference between a major and minor key that I can think of (and that people are likely to recognize) is the Gracie Films fanfare best known from the closing credits for The Simpsons. The normal ditty is in a major key but the Halloween Treehouse of Horror episodes feature a little shift into a minor key.

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