Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why you don't talk like Grandma

Reba McEntire

    Have you ever noticed how almost everyone on U.S. network television and in the movies sounds alike...and not like any American you know?  Characters who are supposed to be New Yorkers, born and bred, don't sound like anyone from the buroughs.  In her show, ostensibly situated in Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore never displayed the hint of a midwestern twang.  In real life, southern U.S. voters watching their senators speak to the national press are struck by how different they sound.  In her eponymous television show, Reba [McEntire], the Houston mother character, shows every fiber of her  McAlester, Oklahoma roots but her offspring on the show seem to be northerners.

    What gives?

    Here's another baffler:  you could write a poem or lyric, thinking that "caught" is a homonym of "cot", rhyming with "hot", only to find some who think "caught" sounds more like "poet".

    Again, what gives?

    If you grew up in the central or western Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta or British Columbia you share a basic accent with each other and with some western U.S. states, particularly Washington and Oregon.  There is one slight, apparently inconsequential difference, though:  the Canadians talk like their grandparents¹.  The Americans?  Not so much.

Mary Tyler Moore
    If you grew up in an ultramontane U.S. state you speak a dialect with locals but, perhaps without even being aware of it, you change over to a common accent when an outlander may be part of your audience.  That lingua franca is the type of speech found in movies and on television or, less consistently, radio.  As such, let's call it "Media Speech" or "TV English". 

     If you venture far enough from home for any length of time (e.g. to work or attend college) you discover that a recognizable dialect tends to provoke a negative reaction² from other Americans.  Thus, your regional speech patterns recede with remarkable speed.  If you are gone long enough your family will begin to notice this [d]evolution.  You no longer talk like your grandparents, whom your children may have difficulty understanding.

     Such people might expect their old, native accent to be replaced by the one from the new locale.  For example, imagine a Southerner who moves to Boston and starts dropping "r" sounds.  That appears logical but, as often as not, that's not what happens.  It may take a long time before the visitor hears, let alone absorbs, the regional vernacular in face-to-face conversations.  Why?  We're missing a subtlety here:  the Bostonians were acutely aware of the presence of an outsider and were likely using Media Speech--the "Mandarin" of English--to be accommodating.  In fact, conversations might switch from Bostonian to TV English in midsentence as the Southerner enters the room.

William Shatner
     Where does this common accent come from?  Is it a mixture of existing ones, like a linguistic melting pot?  An eclectic hodgepodge, like the English language itself?  Actually, no.  Without significant³ variations, it is the accent spoken by Canadians living west of Quebec.  Could it have started in Oregon or Washington state and moved northeast?  No, because it existed north of the border for a generation before it appeared in the United States.

     Okay, but why would proud Americans settle on Canadian English as the speech standard?  After all, due in part to HTML coding and programming (i.e. where "COLOUR" won't work when scripting websites or writing executables), U.S. spelling has won the battle to become the world model.  "COLOR" gets 2.07 billion hits to 692 million for "COLOUR".  Why is Hollywood cranking out television shows and films filled with characters speaking like Canucks?  Why are American actors coached in the finer points of this foreign speech?  Why are opportunities so severely limited for those who cannot master this esperanto (e.g. the aforementioned Reba McEntire, whose movie career began with the NRA film, "Tremors", in which she had remarkably few lines, and soon stalled)?

Peter Jennings
     Remember me saying that "a recognizable dialect tends to provoke a negative reaction from other Americans?"  A Southerner hears any discernible Yankee accent (or vice versa) and thinks of the Civil War.  A Bostonian hears a New Yorker and immediately thinks of the Babe Ruth trade.  At best, it's a distraction.  When these same people hear Torontonians like William Shatner command the Enterprise or Peter Jennings deliver the news, though, they think "Where are you from, boy?"  They may be baffled, yes, but they're not affronted.

     One advantage to this consensus is recognition.  Denizens of the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia, Georgia and Brooklyn might not be able to comprehend each other's words but they all understood Lorne Greene and Pernell Roberts.  (Now you know why half of "America's family", the Cartwrights, were Canadian.)

Lorne Greene
     Another reason for the success of this consensus enunciation is the relative simplicity and consistency of of its vowels.  Generally speaking, they aren't collapsed into partial phonemes (e.g. "human rights" doesn't become "human rats"), they aren't mysteriously stretched (e.g. "wash" doesn't become "worsh") into dipthongs (e.g. "Damn!" doesn't become "Day-yem!"), and they aren't interchangeable, as in "I'm sari.  I guess I'm just a sorry [rhymes with 'glory'] excuse for a human being."

     There are a few differences that Canadian actors need to learn, the most important of which is not to uptick their inflection.  For example, hand this simple sentence to your friends from north and south of the 49th:

     "I'm going to the show."

     Your American buddies will say:  "I'm GOING to the show" or, more likely, "I'm GOING to the SHOW."

Pernell Roberts
     Canadians will read this aloud as:  "I'm going to the SHOW."  Paradoxically, this will seem either emphatic, causing us to wonder if someone suggested they were going elsewhere, or uncertain, sparking a response such as "Are you sure?"  The latter is consistent with the interrogative "eh" that permeates Canadian speech, apparently without them noticing (since they all deny using it much).  This indecision is similar to the Valley Girl--now ubiquitous--use of "like" as a stutter step.

     Speaking of things Californian and Canadian, here is a startling observation:  the more and less homogenous a group the less varied the language.  At one end of the spectrum, Australia exhibits fewer regional differences than New England.  No surprise there.  The polar opposite is the most multicultural city in the world--not Paris, New York or Montreal but--Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the tenth largest minority is an astonishingly high 4% of the population.  Aside from a few local institutions (e.g. donuts called "jambusters" and "goldeyes", wedding traditions that include "socials" and "presentation"), this is an area without a distinctive patois.  Everyone speaks like they're on TV.  Indeed, that is where many of them learned English.  California is among the most culturally diverse states in the union but the English spoken there is quite uniform, much closer to those north of them (including Canada) than those east (especially Texas).

Phonologist Jürgen Handke
    Thus, almost all North American anglophones speak C+W (i.e. Central and Western, not Country and Western) Canadian along with a regional variant (where applicable).  Over time, the latter will fade.  Abroad, Canadianization is not so pronounced, especially in Britain.  Due to the proliferation of U.S. media, though, we can see how younger English-as-a-second-language speakers sound less British than their grandparents, most notably in India and continental Europe.

    If interest warrants, we'll examine the development and impact of this confluence in a sequel.


¹ - Canadians sound like their grandparents, yes, but not necessarily like their great grandparents, who may have spoken a more British-sounding "Canadian dainty" if born before the 20th century.  (Others argue that "Canadian dainty" was more a reflection of class than geography.)

² - At the very least, your accent identifies you according to your place of origin.  As such, it is, quite literally, alienating.

³ - Of particular interest is the Northern City Shift, as illustrated in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's documentary "Talking Canadian", which we'll examine in Part II.  In America's great lake states residents have begun pronouncing "top" and "box" as "tap" and "backs", and using new dipthongs to enunciate "and" as "ay-end" and "family" as "fay-yem-ily".  The spread of this trend comes to a screeching halt at the Canadian border.


     While I didn't agree with every detail, these videos were very helpful in preparing this post:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's documentary "Talking Canadian" (43:32)

Phonology - English in North America II with Jürgen Handke

The History of English in 10 Minutes

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