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One of the fun things about dialectal differences in English is how the poetry turns out. There are some rhymes that just wouldn’t work in your own dialect of English, but work fine in another. For instance, the way I learned that Canadian English has a different pronunciation of sorry from mine was by hearing a Nickelback song on the radio five hundred million times in 2002:

“It’s not like you to say sorry
I was waiting on a different story.”

My hometown of Pittsburgh has this too, as I found out reading a poem about the game in which the Terrible Towel (the original rally towel, which Pittsburghers wave at Steeler gamesOlympic award ceremonies, weddings, births, presidential inaugurations, etc.) debuted:

“‘It was easy,’ said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
‘I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!'”

That probably seems like terrible poetry to you, not only because it is, but also because the bolded end-rhymes of the second and fourth lines aren’t remotely similar. But to native Pittsburghers, they are. That’s because we have two vowel shifts that move us away from the “standard” American English pronunciations. Both of them are “monophthongizations”, which is a really fun word to say once you figure how to. Monophthongization is the process of converting a diphthong to a monophthong (I’ll explain those terms in a minute.)

The first vowel shift is the conversion of /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r. /aɪ/ is the phonetician’s way of writing what you learn in school as “long i”; it’s the vowel in sight, rhyme, or the pronoun I. It is a diphthong, which means that it’s really two vowels jammed together. If you say sight really slowly, you’ll notice that your lower jaw comes down as you start the vowel (the /a/ part), and then it starts back up, moving into sort of an “ee” sound (the /ɪ/ part) before you stop. If you don’t have anyone looking at you right now, try it yourself, and you’ll actually feel your mouth move from /a/ to /ɪ/. That’s a diphthong; it’s a sound where you start at one vowel and keep going until you finish at a new vowel. A monophthong, on the other hand, is a vowel sound that has the same sound throughout, like the /æ/ sound in American English hat. (Or the /a/ in British hat.) If you say hat slowly, you’ll notice that you start the vowel with your lower jaw down, and you only raise it back up when you start to make the t sound at the end, maintaining more or less the same vowel sound throughout.  If you’re having trouble seeing the difference between mono- & diphthongs, don’t worry.  The only crucial point is that the vowels in question are different in some way.

Returning to the Pittsburgh monophthongizations, we convert /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r, so smile has a vowel that’s more like an “ah” sound than the standard “long i”.*  The other monophthongization is the conversion of /aʊ/, the sound in Standard American English town, to /a/, another “ah”-type sound. This is why Pittsburghers sometimes write “dahntahn” for downtown.   The first of these monophthongizations isn’t particularly rare in American English, occurring (if I remember correctly) in Appalachia, and parts of the Eastern Midwest as well.  The second monophthongization is pretty much unique to Pittsburgh, at least among American English speakers.

And that’s how the rhyme works.  /aɪ/ in smile turns into one “ah”-like vowel, and /aʊ/ in towel turns into another “ah”, and tah-dah! We get poetry that seems like free verse to anyone from another city!  And at the low cost making the word pairs dowel-dial, foul-file, towel-tile, and vowel-vile more or less indistinguishable.

*: Since this shift only applies to vowels before an l or r, Pittsburghers pronounce the vowels in smile and smite differently.

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle made my head spin. It’s about an accordionist, Tom Torriglia, who thinks that saying the current year, 2010, as “two thousand (and) ten” is bad grammar, and insists that everyone ought to say “twenty ten” instead. The story, amazingly, ran on the front page. And there are four things I want to say about it.

1) When Torriglia claims that no one would say “I was born in one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three,” he may be right. But people would write it, as for instance in the New Jersey State Constitution:

“[…] ten seats shall be filled by election in the year one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three […]”

2) Furthermore, sometimes people say “nineteen hundred (and) fifty-three”. That’s more similar to “two thousand (and) ten” than “one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three” is, phonologically speaking, so it’s the more relevant comparison. Here’re snippets from an (oral) interview* of Dr. Walter Cooper at the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Online Project:

“My parents came north in nineteen hundred and twenty-one. […] And I had interviewed in May nineteen hundred forty-six, so the—I met with the director of admissions, I remember his name, I won’t call it now. […] We married in January of nineteen hundred and fifty-three, and well, being married, I then confronted the housing segregation in Rochester.”

3) Torriglia is so convinced that two thousand ten is bad grammar and illogical (he claims to cringe at it) that he even insists that two thousand nine is bad grammar and that it ought to have been twenty aught nine.

4) Torriglia is 56. He is no longer young enough to be this foolish. Neither, for that matter, is the 145-year-old Chronicle.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with either pronunciation. Twenty ten will probably be the more common one since it’s shorter, but two thousand ten won’t disappear. Nor should it, Tom Torriglia’s opinion notwithstanding.

[Update, 01/04/10: One additional thought here. How did Torriglia pronounce the year 2000, if “two thousand” wasn’t acceptable? “Twenty aught aught”? If so, he’s completely absurd.]

*: The silver lining to having read the Chronicle article is that it led me to this interview. If you’ve got some time on your hands, I recommend reading it; it starts off with a fascinating first-hand look at the way that even northern companies and colleges exhibited fairly open racism against even highly intelligent blacks in the forties and fifties, and it pushes further on from there.

Mark Krikorian of the National Review Online is upset that he’s supposed to pronounce Sonia Sotomayor’s last name with the stress on the final syllable:

“Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English […] and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.”

Now, Krikorian is right that final stress is rare in multisyllabic English words.  But it is certainly not unheard of, and it’s certainly not “unnatural”.  Consider these common English words, all of which have final-syllable stress:

  1. personnel
  2. Japanese
  3. volunteer

In fact, according to a study of the subset of English in the Hoosier Mental Lexicon (Clopper 2002), 11% of the multisyllabic words had their primary stress on the final syllable.  By comparison, Wikipedia notes that about 2-6% of the U.S. population has red hair, and around 10% is left-handed.  So if final-syllable stress is unnatural, so’s red hair and left-handedness.

Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that Krikorian isn’t always so obstinate.  I’ll bet he doesn’t go into Victoria’s Secret and ask to buy “lingery” because the pseudo-French pronuciation is too unnatural.  I’d be surprised to hear he refers to a sauté pan as a “soat” pan to avoid that unnatural final stress.  And I’d be shocked if he can’t go to a Starbucks because it’s a café.

What Krikorian is complaining about is having to use a stress pattern that occurs in a full 10% of multisyllabic English words.  He’s looking for an excuse to be lazy, and does a terrible job justifying it with his foray into armchair phonology.

Oh, and Krikorian also whines about “the whole Latina/Latino thing — English dropped gender in nouns, what, 1,000 years ago?”  He’s spot-on there.  That’s why you can say that Brad Pitt is a hunky actress and that Joan of Arc was burnt for being a warlock.  Or that Sonia Sotomayor is an intelligent man and Mark Krikorian is a confused woman.  Right?

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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