Friday, March 03, 2006

What changes a language...

We have recently discussed (here) the changes taking place in American English, primarily in pronunciation. Whereas those changes can be strictly and scientifically studied, the reasons for such changes are much harder to comprehend. There are hypotheses however, and what follows comes again from linguist professor Labov.
In The New Yorker Labov contends that the people he calls “extreme speakers”—those who have the greatest linguistic influence on others—tend to be visible local people: “politicians, Realtors, bank clerks.
It also seems that slang plays a much more minor role than one may tend to believe.
Slang is just the paint on the hood of the car,” Labov said.
Then he takes the example of
Brooklynese, the American English spoken in Brooklyn. Its three most prominent are :
  • the raised “a” in words like “past” (peahst),
  • the “aw” sound in words like “coffee” (cawfee),
  • and, of course, the dropped “r” in words like “water” (watta).

What is fascinating is the social value attached to certain pronunciation which explains some of the changes. According to Labov, the city’s dropped “r” has its origins in posh British speech, when it sounded classy to speak with a British accent.
That's probably why F.D.R. dropped his “r”s (Ex.: “The only thing we have to feah is feah itself”) and Katharine Hepburn dropped hers (“My, she was yah”). It just sounded more upper class.

What is even more fascinating is that a great change in pronunciation took place right after WWII with the loss of Britain’s imperial status. Labov claims that “r”-less British speech ceased to be regarded as “prestige speech” and the dropping of “r”s became exclusively working class.
Here’s a funny illustration:

Before the war,” Labov said, “the judges in the gangster pictures dropped their ‘r’s, but after the war only the hoodlums did it.
Ralph Kramden (the Honeymooners, a 1950s television sticom), Archie Bunker (from the 1970s-80s sitcom All in the family) , and Tony Soprano (from the current HBO series The Sopranos) all speak Brooklynese, and the dialect immediately evokes their regular-guy milieu.

See it didn't take long... or much - just the fall of an Empire!


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