by John McWhorter, July 22, 2011 11:45 AM
Having recently decided to stop buying DVDs and give in to streaming, I currently don't have anything new to play on the DVD player for the TV I ride my exercise bike in front of. I have gone back, as a result, to my cherished Looney Tunes DVDs and am noticing something that has always struck me as charmingly odd.
Example: A Bugs Bunny cartoon of 1944, The Old Grey Hare, depicts Bugs and Elmer Fudd as old men going through their usual antics with canes, gray beards, spectacles, and the shakes. But these aren't the only traits indicating their having reached their twilight years. Bugs, as an oldster, talks in a hillbilly accent.
But Bugs Bunny as a young "man" spoke in a Brooklyn/Bronx patois. Why would he have shifted into a moonshine dialect as he got older?
This was no random occurrence chez the Looney Tunes crew. One sees this kind of thing again and again in pop culture of that era, with old people talking like the Beverly Hillbillies while the people around them use mainstream standard American.
In the old radio hit Fibber McGee and Molly, a cherished character was "The Old Timer," who popped by telling tall tales ushered in by his catchphrase, "That ain't the way I heerd it!" He sounded like an antique gold prospector ? but everyone else on the show, which took place in generic small town Wistful Vista, Illinois, spoke generic Midwestern whatever.
The 1949 Looney Tunes The Windblown Hare is a parody of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. Bugs talks like Bugs, the Wolf talks like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons, but Granny talks like she grew up in the fastnesses of West Virginia. As the Wolf, anxious to keep the story going, hastily shoves her out of the house, Granny exclaims "Land sakes, ain'tcha gonna eat me? Can't a body get her shawl tied?" And this was a standard joke with the Looney Tunes squad, who had pulled the same thing in an earlier Red Riding Hood parody in 1937, Little Red Walking Hood. Red talked like Katherine Hepburn, but Granny again had an Ozark accent.
This kind of thing was so common in American pop culture before 1950 that I got a sense of the contours of hillbilly dialect (in caricatured form, to be sure) from these depictions of old people in the cartoons and old movies that were still staples on UHF as I grew up. Yet one afternoon in high school in 1980, joking with some friends, I passingly slid into such an accent depicting a person in their old age ? you know, "Sonny" and such ? and one guy joshingly objected "How come when he got old he would start talking in a Southern accent?" He was right ? what kind of sense did this make?
In fact, this way of depicting seniors' speech in the old days reflected a demographic reality. The 1930 census was the first revealing more Americans living in cities than in the country. Until then, for Americans, rural life was default. The City was the challenging, debauched setting depicted in tragic novels by Theodore Dreiser. The Country was the real America, such that Sinclair Lewis could write Main Street about Carol Kennicott relocating to little Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and be feted as capturing "America" itself. If Sherwood Anderson wrote about the underbelly of small town America in Winesburg, Ohio, this was news.
In 2011, however, the notion of the city as unhealthy for one's morals is antique. If urbanites, we cherish the occasional escape, and it is common to pity urban residents dealt a bad hand. But we hardly suppose that they would be best off relocating to Gopher Prairie ? we assume that The City should be made a better place for them.
But for Americans in the 30s and 40s, America's transition from a rural nation to an urban one was as recent as the Internet is to us. It would have been common that old people had grown up in the country, but had moved to cities to raise their kids. Speech patterns would have reflected this. As such, it would have struck an intuitive chord to American audiences for age to be indexed with a backwoods accent, shorthand-style, in pop culture depictions.
Today this would make no sense. We do not spontaneously sense a person past 60 in Philadelphia or Chicago as talking like Dolly Parton or Jeff Foxworthy. The Mona mother character on the '80s sitcom hit Who's the Boss did not talk like Granny Clampett, and today old characters on TV shows like Modern Family do not have "hick" accents unknown to their children.
But the demographic tipping point in 1930 helps make sense of a tendency in the entertainment of the era that, otherwise, is intriguingly
by John McWhorter, July 21, 2011 12:20 PM
If it's hard to imagine how more than a few words could have arisen by imitating things, as I blogged about here yesterday
, then one question is where words do
Where the first ones came from we may never know. But we know a lot about how new ones come from old ones, and some of the ways are not exactly intuitive. Since the counterintuitive is a lot of what makes linguistics fun, let's look at one of the ways.
We know that one way we make new words is with suffixes like –ment to make nouns: govern, government. But that alone is kind of boring. We don't feel like government is really "another word" compared to govern. It feels like a version of it, wearing a kind of hat.
But: Those suffixes don't always work. How would you make the verb recall into a noun? There's no recallment. That's where things go below the radar: You make recall into a noun by shifting the accent backwards and saying RE-call. The Schwarzenegger movie, for instance, was not called Total Re-CALL.
It's the same with how we can rebel against something and become a RE-bel. This accent shift is a piece of grammar that we all have in our brains. It is also always creating new words out of what start as two. A bird that happens to be black is a black bird, where you say black BIRD. But the particular backyard bird is a blackbird, pronounced BLACKbird. That's because of the same shift that makes reCALL into REcall, except shifting to the first word of two instead of the first syllable of two.
The accent shifts backwards as the novelty of the concept fades. If you saw a vat of purple cream you'd point to that purple CREAM. However, the staple desert is pronounced ICE cream, except in a Simpsons episode ("Bart's Inner Child," 1993) where Mr. Burns, always mired somewhere around 1900, encounters it for the first time and fittingly calls it "iced CREAM." Linguists call these double-stuff words compounds.
We create new compounds all the time by shifting the accent backwards ? without thinking about it: bank scam, Burger King, cost control. Imagine trying to explain to a foreigner learning English why we say a rocky ROAD but say ACCESS road instead of access ROAD. It's because access road is so conventionalized a concept that it is a compound, a new word despite its spelling as two.
What I enjoy is that now, with six decades of television as an archive of colloquial English since after World War II and so much of that vintage television available at the push of a button, we can watch this accent shift creating terms we use today, unaware that they would sound peculiar if we travelled just a few decades back in time.
In a 1973 episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, the characters eat what they call Chinese FOOD, as opposed to ChiNESE food, as we would say it. Chinese food wasn't as central to American eating in 1973 as it would later be (in the clip one character has never even eaten it before). Chinese food wasn't "a word" yet.
Or: In the old days, pizza was still called pizza pie, one of many kinds of pies one might enjoy, like what we pronounce as apple PIE, and as such, it was pronounced pizza PIE, as you hear in this '50s commercial.
But in the '50s, pizza was on its way to becoming an American staple, and, as such, the accent was already shifting fast, so that the expression was often PIZZA pie, a compound, which soon shortened to just pizza alone. In one episode of the Honeymooners ("Catch a Star") we can hear Alice Kramden at the tipping point, using first PIZZA pie and then pizza.
My favorite example of compounding on the march was when on a noisy street I overheard a woman talking on her cell phone about what sounded like "peestreh." After a while I made out what she was complaining about: repeat stress syndrome, pronounced as rePEAT stress instead of repeat STRESS. Because she says it all the time, the accent has shifted backwards, and we can expect to hear that pronunciation more and more.
Who'd have thought repeat stress syndrome and ice cream had anything in common? Yet they do: grammar. As always, English speakers initiate a new noun with the bizarre hazing ritual of holding it down and yanking its accent backwards.
by John McWhorter, July 20, 2011 10:00 AM
This article in New Scientist
is making the rounds this week. It's about what linguists call sound symbolism — the fact that, to some extent, people spontaneously associate certain sounds with certain concepts. So: Most people presented with the nonsense words kiki
, asked to say which is more likely to be spiky and which more likely to be round, will think of kiki
as spiky and bouba
That will surprise few of us; researchers suppose it must have something to do, at least in cases like these, with the way the sounds are formed with the mouth: Kiki involves sounds that make the tongue stop airflow for a spell. Bouba has those too, but also makes you shape your lips in a round way.
Some sounds seem to suggest different kinds of movement as well. Another experiment showed that people can even "feel" an animal name's meaning in a foreign language just by its "ring." The South American Huambisa tribe call one bird a chunchuíkit and one fish a máuts, and 98% of a group of American students could tell that a chunchuíkit was a bird and a máuts a fish.
Then there are word families like glisten, gleam, glean, glow, glint, and so on, in which it would appear that on some level, to English speakers the consonant cluster gl "means" something having to do with shining. No one knows just how such word families arise, but there is evidence that English speakers do end up associating the sound and the meaning. It's the same with sn, which in English is associated with nasal sounds: think sniff, snort, snore, and such.
The New Scientist article, however, is highlighting a new implication some are trying to draw from sound symbolism that is, if you ask me, one of those things that's too good to be true (in one chapter in my new book What Language Is I discuss another one of these tantalizing notions, that Ebonics is an African language with English words). Ten years ago Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard at the University Of California, San Diego lit a lot of people up with the idea that sound symbolism might help us explain how language arose.
It's a tough question, that. English has dog; French has chien; Russian has sobaka. What do any of those words have to do with what makes a dog a dog? And what was the first word for dog? Unsurprisingly, some have surmised, in what is called the "bow wow" theory of language origin, that the first word for dog would have been based on the sound dogs make. Sounds reasonable. But — most things don't make sounds. Most things aren't even things, really — the concept of fast doesn't make a sound. Yet to speak, you need to have a word for fast.
However, sound symbolism might come to the rescue if, say, fast actually does have a sound. That's where scholars like Ramachandran and Hubbard come in, suggesting that the origin of language could have been not only a matter of gurgling like a brook and meowing like a cat, but making words with stops in them stand for briars and sticks, and words with round vowels in them for things like melons and, well, one can imagine some others.
As media-friendly as that idea is, however, I have always had a hard time getting really excited about sound symbolism. It's because no matter how much we extend its domain — not just imitations but things like fastness, spikiness, and even fish-ness — as far as tackling the origins of language goes, I think of someone asking how to build a house and someone telling you how to paint the windowsills.
Language, as I try to get across in What Language Is, is not just a matter of what the names of things are, or even just the names of things and actions. Language is also concepts, shades, modifications. What sounds would symbolize, for example, but, sometimes, under, or so? Or, a language is grammar; to wit, any language is a lot of grammar. A great many words are, in fact, grammar. One might ask: How would sound symbolism get us from arf and bouba to a perfectly ordinary sentence like Look how he can't even jump just halfway over the wall they put up just because that guy threw him when he asked him if he was really up to it. Note: this sentence isn't formal; someone could say it drunk or half asleep. It's just talking — and the question as to how language started must address real talking, not just isolated words.
So, sound symbolism is cool indeed. But I suspect it will not tell us much about how humans started talking. Cat? Sure. Of? We're going to have to keep thinking. A parting question, even: What is the sound of
by John McWhorter, July 19, 2011 11:41 AM
In honor of Nelson Mandela
's birthday yesterday, I want to share one of my favorite things about his native language, Xhosa.
The factoid we usually hear about Xhosa is that it has click sounds, and it does. In the '70s this, was best known through the singing of Miriam Makeba. These days people below a certain age are more likely to know about click languages through the film The Gods Must Be Crazy or the Marvin character in early episodes of South Park (although in reality click languages are not spoken in Marvin's native Ethiopia).
However, there's something else about Xhosa that I have always found just as interesting. It's the word ithi, and it seems innocent enough at first: It means "like this." So, if indoda enkulu means "old man" and "when he walks" is xa ihambayo, then this sentence:
|when he walks.|
...means "The old man is like this when he walks." Or, more idiomatically, "The old man walks like this."
Good? Okay, but now, here is another way you can use ithi. "Love thy neighbor" in Xhosa is Mthande ummelwane wakho. The word for Bible is iBhayibhile — look closely and you can see the word Bible in there; it's basically Bible enunciated the Xhosa way.
The fun thing is: here is how to say "The Bible says 'Love thy neighbor'" in Xhosa:
|"Mthande ummelwane wakho."|
|"Love thy neighbor."|
Here's ithi ("like this") again. Languages differ in what order they put concepts in, and so English and Xhosa do not line up word for word. However, the way that sentence pans out is "Like this is the Bible: Love thy neighbor." That is, in Xhosa, a perfectly proper way to say "The Bible says 'Love thy neighbor'" is, of all things: "The Bible is like, 'Love thy neighbor'"!!
What this shows is that our sense in English of what is "right" and what is "wrong" is not a mere matter of logic, but of the social valuations that different ways of saying things happen to carry, because of chance, social history, and other factors.
That kind of reasoning from linguists tends to sound like special pleading or politics, but it actually isn't. In English, the quotational usage of like, as in, "And he's like, 'Tell me more about it'," is associated with young people, with the informal, and with the new. It is indeed all of those things — like wasn't being used in that way in 1950, and those who use it will tend to be not old and not speaking in Sunday-best fashion — so, naturally, it is therefore thought of as sloppy, a detour from "real" English.
Be that as it may, the fact is that in one language (and others), the same quotational usage of like is an established part of ordinary language, not associated with the young or slang or television. People use it to discuss the Bible, and we can be sure that Nelson Mandela, of all people, has been using like in his native language like a teenager hanging out in Cleveland.
The language of Nelson Mandela, then, can tell us that what is new in a language is, as often as not, something that already happened eons ago in some other one, and will happen in other ones before
by John McWhorter, July 18, 2011 11:30 AM
For my first post I'd like to tie together the impending publication of What Language Is with the birth two weekends ago of the world's newest nation, South Sudan. A country like this, full of languages unknown beyond where they are spoken and usually by small numbers of people, is an ideal demonstration of the main lesson of my book.
That is: Human language is always magnificently complex, even when unwritten. The world's 6,000 languages are composed not of a few "real" written languages and a bunch of underdeveloped "dialects," but 6,000 marvels, period.
One of the main languages of South Sudan, for example, is called Dinka. As languages of the area goes, it's a big one: It has about two and half million speakers. However, that's fewer people than live in Chicago, and the language is rarely committed to paper. It's an indigenous language, and one might suppose that it would not need to be as complex grammatically as, say, Russian or Greek.
And it doesn't (although we might ask why Russian and Greek "need" to be) — but it is as complex as them nevertheless. More, really — as is usually the case with small languages. It's the Englishes and Mandarins that are on the easier side as languages go. There is, in short, nothing remotely dinky about Dinka.
Here's a quick slice of Dinka. Let's do plurals. In English, to make a plural you add s: cats, dogs, houses. Now, it's technically a little more involved than that: notice that the s on dogs is actually pronounced z, and that after houses comes not s but ez. But there are reasons for that: It tracks very nicely according to what kind of sound there is at the end of the word. The details need not concern us here, but it's an easy three-way split that we all know unconsciously. Add to this a handful or irregular plurals like children and that's the English plural.
So, English is the "complex" language? Here's one singular-plural pair in Dinka:
cup = bing
cups = biiing
So, how do you make a plural in Dinka? It looks like you triplicate the vowel: weird, to us, but not really difficult. In an alternate universe you can conceive of an English where the way to say cups was cuhhhps.
But then, how do you make waal (plant) into a plural? You can kind of tell it's not going to be waaaaaal. Nobody would have time to talk about plants. Rather, waal becomes wal ? you shorten the vowel.
Um, okay. But even then, it's hard to know why biiing has three i's but then while chief is bang, chiefs is baang with just two a's. How do you know whether to duplicate or triplicate?
While we wonder, maybe there's some light at the end of the tunnel with words like the one for hippo. One hippo is a roow, but several hippos are root. So, that looks more "normal." Maybe the regular rule is that you make a plural with —t just like you use —s in English, and those first few are just weird exceptions like mice for mouse.
But no: Girl is nya and girls is nyiir. There's no pattern where you make plurals with t; the hippo word was one more exception. Plus, with nya to nyiir, the vowel completely changes, too. And that vowel thing happens a lot: One thistle is tiil; more than one are tjeel. Sometimes it's about melody, of all things: One palm fruit is tuuk, said on a low tone. Say it in a flutier way, and that's the plural version. And so on.
So, to return to our question: What's the rule for making a plural in Dinka? Answer: there isn't one! You just have to know. It's as if all nouns in English were like man, men and goose, geese.
No one knows just how children learn how to handle this. One imagines that Dinka kids sound cuter than American ones because there are so many ways to make mistakes! In any case, the adults don't, and millions of people speak this language with ease every day, including South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit.
Dinka is one more example of how the world is full of linguistic miracles far beyond what we learn about in school. We Anglophones think learning two genders in French and Spanish is hard and think of German and Russian's three as sadism. Well, imagine dealing with just trying to say "boys and girls" in Dinka. We saw how user-friendly the girl word is; for the record, boy is dhok but boys is — go figure —