The Mayor’s speech

The spectacle of two bilingual Presidential candidates arguing in Spanish last week reminded me of the Twitter feed, “Miguel Bloombito,” created by Rachel Figueroa-Levin to mock our former Mayor’s Spanish for the amusement of her friends. I may be coming late to the party here, but Bloombito is still tweeting, and was recently mentioned by one of my fellow linguists. If Bloomberg runs for President we can probably expect to hear more from El Bloombito, so it’s not too late to say how dismayed I was by this parody as a linguist, as a language teacher, as a non-native Spanish speaker and as a New Yorker.

If Bloombito were simply a fun, jokey phenomenon, punching up at a privileged white billionaire who needs no defending, I wouldn’t spend time on it. But the context is not as simple as that. Figueroa-Levin’s judgment is linguistically naive, and rests on a confusion of pronunciation with overall competence, and an implied critique of language learning that sets the bar so high that most of the world’s population can never meet it.

Figueroa-Levin says that, “I think he’s just reading something on a card,” and maybe he does that with Spanish in the same contexts as with English, but that is not all there is to his Spanish. As reporter Juan Manuel Benítez told the New York Times, “the mayor’s Spanish is a lot better than a lot of people really think it is.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the tweets of El Bloombito do not actually resemble the Mayor’s Spanish very much at all. Instead they are a caricature of bad Spanish, with bad morphology and syntax, and lots of English mixed in. Linguists actually agree that mixing two languages is generally a sign of competence in both languages, and New York Spanish has several English borrowings that are absolutely standard. In contrast, the fictional Bloombito mixes them in ways that no real speaker does, like adding Spanish gender markers to every English noun.

For years now, as the population of native Spanish speakers has grown, politicians have made an effort to speak the language in public. With President George W. Bush and Governor George Pataki, Spanish seemed mostly symbolic. But Bloomberg seems to have taken more seriously the fact that twenty percent of the city’s population speaks Spanish at home.

The most noticeable feature of the actual Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish is a very strong American accent. He has no real success in pronouncing sounds that are specific to Spanish, like the flapped /r/ or the pure /o/, substituting sounds from his Boston/New York English. But in addition, when he says a Spanish word that has an English cognate his pronunciation tends to sound closer to the English word, giving the impression that he is using more English words than he really is.

There are ways of rendering these mispronunciations into Spanish, but Figueroa-Levin does not use them in her parody, probably because her audience doesn’t know Spanish well enough to get the joke. She also confuses accent for overall competence in the language. But if you listen beyond his accent, Bloomberg displays a reasonable degree of competence in Spanish. He often reads from prepared remarks, as with English, but he is able to speak extemporaneously in Spanish. In particular, he is able to understand fairly complex questions and give thoughtful responses to them on the spot, as in this discussion of the confirmation of Justice Sotomayor:

The bottom line is that, as Bloomberg said in the first clip, “Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma.” My experience teaching ESL and French has confirmed that. No adult, especially not a man in his sixties, is going to achieve nativelike fluency. But we can achieve the kind of mastery that Bloomberg has. And this city runs on the work of millions of people who speak English less well than Bloomberg speaks Spanish, but still manage to get things done.

In fact, before Bloombito I used clips of Mayor Bloomberg to reassure my ESL students that they could still function in a foreign language and be respected, even with a thick accent. After Bloombito I can no longer give them that assurance.

In the Salon interview Figueroa-Levin makes the argument that this kind of language work is best left to professionals, as Bloomberg did with American Sign Language, for example, and that Bloomberg was doing his Spanish-speaking constituents a disservice by speaking it imperfectly. I have made similar arguments regarding interpreters and translators. But speaking to the media and constituents in a foreign language is nowhere near as difficult as interpreting, and does not need to be professionalized. I’m sure the Mayor always had fluent Spanish speaking staffers nearby to fall back on as well.

What I find particularly disturbing about Miguel Bloombito is the symbolism. For centuries in this country speakers of other languages, particularly Spanish, have been expected to speak English in addition to whatever else they are trying to do (work, advocacy, civic participation). English has been associated with power, Spanish with subjugation.

Figueroa-Levin told Salon, “You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish.” What she gets wrong is that this is not just an empty gesture, like memorizing a few words. Here we have a native English speaker, one of the most powerful people in the country, who puts in significant time and effort every day to learn Spanish, and people mock him for it. It’s like if someone saw the Pope washing the feet of homeless people, criticized him on his technique, and told him to let a licensed pedicurist do the job. I could say more, but I’ve run out of polite things to say, so I’ll leave the last word to Carlos Culerio, the man on the street interviewed in the first clip above:

“I feel especially proud, as a Dominican, that Mayor Bloomberg speaks Spanish. It’s a matter of pride for us as Hispanics.”

Describing differences in pronunciation

Last month I wrote that instead of only two levels of phonetic transcription, “broad” and “narrow,” what people do in practice is to adjust their level of detail according to the point they want to make. In this it is like any other form of communication: too much detail can be a distraction.

But how do we decide how much detail to put in a given transcription, and how can we teach this to our students? In my experience there is always some kind of comparison. Maybe we’re comparing two speakers from different times or different regions, ethnicities, first languages, social classes, anatomies. Maybe we’re comparing two utterances by the same person in different phonetic, semantic, social or emotional contexts.

Sometimes there is no overt comparison, but at those times there is almost always an implicit comparison. If we are presenting a particular pronunciation it is because we assume our readers will find it interesting, because it is pathological or nonstandard. This implies that there is a normal or standard pronunciation that we have in our heads to contrast it to.

The existence of this comparison tells us the right level of detail to include in our transcriptions: enough to show the contrasts that we are describing, maybe a little more, but not so much to distract from this contrast. And we want to focus on that contrast, so we will include details about tone, place of articulation or laryngeal timing, and leave out details about nasality, vowel tongue height or segment length.

This has implications for the way we teach transcription. For our students to learn the proper level of detail to include, they need practice comparing two pronunciations, transcribing both, and checking whether their transcriptions highlight the differences that they feel are most relevant to the current discussion.

I can illustrate this with a cautionary tale from my teaching just this past semester. I had found this approach of identifying differences to be useful, but students found the initial assignments overwhelming. Even as I was jotting down an early draft of this blog post, I just told my students to transcribe a single speech sample. I put off comparison assignments for later, and then put them off again.

As a result, I found myself focusing too much on some details while dismissing others. I could sense that my students were a bit frustrated, but I didn’t make the connection right away. I did ask them to compare two pronunciations on the final exam, and it went well, but not as well as it could have if they had been practicing it all semester. Overall the semester was a success, but it could have been better.

I’ll talk about how you can find comparable pronunciations in a future post.

The positional neutralization of Marion Barry

In the wake of the death of Marion Barry, the former Mayor of Washington, DC, one of the most striking revelations was how many people had believed at one time that he was actually a husband-and-wife couple named “Mary and Barry.” Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog, tweeted about this misconception and then discovered that lots of other people had also mentioned it.

The sociolinguist David Bowie mentioned that as a child he thought marionberry yogurt was named after the Mayor. I also thought until tonight that the Mayor was named “Marion Berry.” I had never heard of the berry or the yogurt, but apparently it’s a kind of blackberry that was first cultivated in Marion County, Oregon, when the Mayor was a child in Tennessee. It would have been the perfect Ben and Jerry’s ice cream naming opportunity, but given the Mayor’s controversial past, I understand why they didn’t bite. This may have been the seed for Barry’s fierce opposition to a “yogurt tax,” which could be a whole other blog post.

This widespread confusion between “Mary and” and “Marion,” and Bowie’s and my confusion between “Barry” and “berry,” comes from the positional neutralization of the /æ/, /ɛ/ and /e/ sounds in some dialects of English. As far as I know, no English speaker has trouble telling these two sounds apart before a /t/, so if there were a politician named “Mettion Batty,” no one would think that he was a couple named “Matty and Betty.” But in many parts of the United States, the sounds are pronounced the same before an /r/, so that “marry,” “merry” and “Mary” are pronounced the same.

Why do some people neutralize these vowels before an /r/? To make the American bunched /r/, we put our tongues in a place that’s very close to the place for /e/. That means to say “Mary” /meri/ we don’t have to move our tongues before the /i/, which is pretty convenient. For “merry,” those of us who say /mɛri/ have to raise it a bit, and for “marry” /mæri/ we have to raise it more. My guess is that for some of the ancestors of the marry-merry-Mary neutralizers would have occasionally raised their tongues a little early, or not lowered them so far in the first place, for those words. This kind of timing variability is quite commonplace in speech. They then discovered that confusions like “Mary and Barry” were infrequent and usually pretty easy to correct, and it was more efficient if they didn’t have to lower their tongues so much, so they kept doing it, and their kids picked it up from them.

I personally don’t have this neutralization (possibly due to the influence of a dialect that syllabifies /r/s into onsets), so I can pronounce all three sounds – and hear them, provided that the people speaking are pronouncing them differently. My first memory of this neutralization is hearing Mary Gross ranting about Christmas on Saturday Night Live: “People tell me I should be merry because my first name is Mary. Well, my last name is Gross, so have a gross Christmas!” And since I heard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” today in the supermarket, it’s not too early to extend that gross Christmas wish to you all.

America’s Loveliest Accents: New Orleans

There’s a stereotypical “Southern” accent you’ll hear in mid-twentieth century movies and television, that owes more to Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s artificial accents than to anything that ever came out of the mouth of any real-life Southerner. It may bear a passing resemblance to the accents of real Coastal Southern gentry like Fritz Hollings, but it’s been used to portray people from all regions and social classes of the South. In the last fifty or so years we’ve heard a new stereotype that’s at least based on real Southerners like Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley, but it’s been applied to rich and poor white characters from Dallas to Knoxville to New Orleans.

YouTube user Mehrvigne, from Chalmette, Louisiana, wants us to know that some people from the New Orleans area don’t talk anything like that. Katie Carmichael, who just finished her dissertation on Chalmette accents after Hurricane Katrina, pointed me to Mehvigne’s “accent tag” video on Twitter.

Mehrvigne has a “Yat” accent, which bears an uncanny resemblance to working-class New York and Boston accents, and is said to have evolved from similar patterns of European immigrants acquiring an /r/-dropping dialect.

The “Yat” dialect is just one of several New Orleans accents, and it’s one that I actually didn’t hear when I visited the city back in 2010. It exists alongside other accents spoken by white, black and Asian (NSFW) people in New Orleans. To get an idea of the diversity of the area, listen to these two teenage girls doing an accent tag together:

This is part fifteen of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Charleston. Next, and last but not least: Baltimore.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Charleston

In my post about the Memphis accent, I discussed how the Mountain and Coastal (white) Southern dialects have very distinct origins. So why do they sound “the same” to many people? In part it’s because they’ve become more similar over the years.

At first it was the Mountain South imitating the Coast. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia all controlled large mountain areas from their coastal port capitols in Williamsburg, New Bern, Charleston and Savannah, and later from their Piedmont capitals in Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia and Atlanta. It was fashionable among certain people to imitate the elites, and those elites spoke mostly with Coastal accents.

In the late twentieth century with the rise of the “New South” centered around Appalachian and Piedmont centers of cheaper labor, cultural and political power shifted to cities like Nashville, Charlotte and Louisville. With wider access to radio and television, and better roads connecting them to regional capitals, Southerners have had more exposure to regional accent role models.

African Americans in the South have also tended to shift from local accents to a regional or national model of “sounding Black.” Walt Wolfram and his colleagues have documented this divergence between black and white accents in Hyde County, in coastal North Carolina, in a fascinating series of studies.

Charleston

Charleston used to be known for its conservative, genteel coastal Southern accent, which you can hear in the speech of former Senator Fritz Hollings.

I’ll admit I had to look this one up. Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, is from Charleston. I’ve heard Hootie dismissed by some music snobs, but is there anyone who thinks Rucker doesn’t have a lovely voice?

What I find most interesting is that to my ear he sounds almost nothing like Hollings. Is that because he’s black, or because he’s younger, or both?

This is part fourteen of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Atlanta. Nextly: New Orleans, and finally Baltimore.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Louisville

We talk about “Southern” accents, but dialectologists distinguish at least two major dialect groups: South and South Midland, sometimes known as “Upper South” and “Lower South.” The different histories of the Coastal and Mountain South are presented in Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s accessible history of early British migration to North America.

Fischer shows us that there were two distinct migrations: the Anglican and Catholic planters and their indentured servants crossed from the south of England to Virginia ports like Arlington and Jamestown between 1642 and 1675, spreading out down the coast and importing slaves from Africa. It wasn’t until 1717 to 1775 that Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands, Northern Ireland and the English-Scottish borderlands arrived in Philadelphia and after a few years in Pennsylvania began migrating down the Shenendoah Valley and throughout the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.

My grandmother’s family history follows this stream: in the birth, death and marriage records collected by my cousins we see each generation moving down the mountains: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where my father was born. In Texas the Coastal and Mountain dialects merged to form something different from both.

Louisville

The Appalachian dialect covers all of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, including Louisville. I’ve known several people from Louisville, including my first college roommate, and my friend and neighbor Elaine.

Dennis Preston studies American dialects and our attitudes to them. He also has a lovely Louisville accent, having grown up in New Albany, Indiana (“N’Albany”), just across the river. His dialect still maintains different pronunciations for “witch” and “which,” and “horse” and “hoarse,” as he demonstrated to me at a recent meeting of the American Dialect Society. Here’s a great video of him and Robert MacNeil riding a train across the mountains and talking to people about accents:

This is part eleven of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Tallahassee. Nextly: Memphis.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Tallahassee

Shortly after I posted the first of America’s Loveliest Accents, Matthew Harrison tweeted, “This really is lovely. I hope you do some Southern accents!” As I told him at the time, the last seven of these sixteen cities are in the South, if you define the South broadly enough to include Baltimore (#16).

It’s hard to tell whether New York accents get more hate than Southern ones, but it’s close. I don’t think there are any accent groups whose speakers try as hard to cover them up. Being half-New Yorker and half-Southern, I’m happy to say that they’re both misjudged. My father was a master of the Texan strategy of deploying arch gentility and folksy wit in proportions finely calibrated to the situation at hand.

Tallahassee

Tallahassee is another of those cities I’ve never been to (the closest I’ve gotten is New Orleans or Orlando), but my neighbor, Teresa Ward, went to college there, and sent me this guest post:

Well, Tallahassee is a beautiful north Florida town. It should actually be part of Georgia, as it has a distinct Southern bent to it. It’s near the border with Georgia. It is also close to the Gulf of Mexico, so it is slightly “coastal” in feeling.

Their are roads in Tallahassee that are extremely romantic, canopied and dripping with moss. On a sunny day, the road can be cool and shaded by the canopy.

The nearby beaches have sand as soft and white as sugar and the oysters and shrimp are the best.

And the accents are warm and friendly. When I think of Tallahassee accents, I think of my friend Carol and how she says “Hey” over the phone when I call her. It is slow and cozy, and takes her about three or four syllables to finish it. And there is always a slight smile and generosity to her conversation.

I also think of another old friend from there, who had a much quicker way of talking than Carol. In fact, as Debbie herself might say, she could talk “ninety to nothing.” The voice would go a little high in the head and louder than Carol’s, but it too would drip with kindness and laughter. That’s how I remember it.

My brother, who is in sales, has a wonderful Tallahassee drawl now too. And I think it helps him continue to be one of the leading salesmen!

When I started school at FSU, in the theatre department, I do remember my voice teacher tearing out his hair to get me to hear and say the difference between “pin” and “pen” (and, of course, “tin” and “ten”), and as an actress I mastered it. But really, in daily life, does it matter? Down there, we know what y’all are talking about, it’s all in the context.

Speaking of FSU, students often come from out of state, or city, to go to school there, and end up staying. The town has grown quite a bit since I made it my home in 1978. And, I would say a number of the residents are former students who were swayed by the friendliness of the city. (You go into a grocery store, and they actually look at you and thank you and talk about all kinds of things before you can leave. . .)

I’m guessing that the Tallahassee accent is pretty close to the accent of nearby Gainesville, which you can hear in Tom Petty’s song “American Girl.”

This is part 10 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Los Angeles. Nextly: Louisville.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Scranton

In his post about Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” series, Joseph Fruehwald notes, “Predictably, the kinds of accents and languages which get dumped on the most, and get branded the ‘ugliest,’ always wind up being spoken by socially disadvantaged people.” And that’s really the ugliest thing about this Gawker gimmick: it’s pretty much the epitome of punching down. In particular I noticed that while linguists find accents in cities, suburbs and the country, all the accents that Dayna Evans chose are urban accents. On the plus side, it means that we’ll be spared the racist comments about inbreeding and Deliverance that always pop up when rural Appalachian accents are mentioned. On the minus side, it means lots of racist comments about inner-city black people. Is it a way for Evans, a native of Leicester in the British Midlands, to impose English class-consciousness on the American people? Or just an effort to mimic the championship sports brackets, which are usually filled with teams named after cities?

Scranton

I have to be honest with you: I’ve never been to Scranton, and I haven’t met too many people from there. Off the top of my head, the most famous people I’ve heard of from Scranton are Joe Biden and Jane Jacobs, who are both known for their ways with words. The right likes to portray Biden as a “gaffe machine,” in the words of Brian Williams, but he does have a certain wit and sass.

Even though I haven’t been to Scranton, I did go to college in Binghamton, about sixty miles to the north. From what I understand, the culture and language in the two cities are not that different. The area is influenced by both the Appalachian mountains and the Rust Belt. I had two classmates at Binghamton with two different accents. One sounded like most of the SUNY students who weren’t from the city or Long Island; the other could almost have come right out of a West Virginia farmhouse. These women were best friends, and they had grown up down the road from each other in a subdivision on the outskirts of Binghamton.

All that is a long way of saying that I don’t really know what a Scranton accent sounds like, but it can’t be that bad. I bet most of the people voting up Scranton for “Ugliest Accent” haven’t heard anyone other than the Vice President. And I don’t know what a small city like Scranton is doing on Gawker’s list of sixteen accents, while there’s no Dallas or Houston. I guess Evans didn’t want to mess with Texas.

Previously: Boston. Nextly: New York City.

America’s loveliest accents: Boston

Josef Fruehwald has some well-thought-out criticism of Gawker’s latest hate-fest, “America’s Ugliest Accent.” He concludes: “At the risk of coming off as a slacktivist, I’d encourage you all to be the change you want to see in the world, and say something nice about an accent today, even if it’s just your own.” I was actually thinking, as I looked at the Gawker bracket, how much I like some of these accents. So I’m going to try to say something nice about all sixteen of the ones they chose, with some of my thoughts about the whole shebang, and maybe throw in a few more accents at the end.

Boston

There are lots of voices you may hear when you think of a Boston accent: President Kennedy, Mayor Quimby, “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” I think of Philip from American Tongues, but mostly I think of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as “Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers,” from National Public Radio’s Car Talk. They are masters of the Boston accent, which is sort of a Bizarro version of my family’s New York accent with a lot of the same dropped “r”s, but we raise the “o”s in some places where they don’t, and they front the “a”s in some places where we don’t. It’s all good.

You might be one of those who think Tom and Ray are annoying, and their banter can be hard to listen to if you’re not in the mood for it. I suspect that for years someone has been editing in extra chuckles to pump up the jolly mood, and it’s unnecessary. You might dismiss them as a pair of know-nothing car mechanics with working-class accents, but they’re actually well-educated technophiles, and they do great things with language and sound. I don’t own a car, and I don’t much like cars, but I listened to their show regularly for years. Just their fake end credits, like Statistician Marge Innovera, are worth tuning in for. And they sound better in a Boston accent.

Nextly: Scranton.

Choose your Own Speech Role Model

In a couple of recent posts I talked about the idea of speech role models for language learning, specifically on fluent, clear non-native speakers providing more accessible models for students learning after the teenage years. I ended with a caution against “cloning” a single non-native speaker, raising the specter of a class of students who all come out speaking English like Javier Bardem. I believe this can be avoided by giving students a greater range of options for role models, and a greater role in choosing them.

Again, I can speak from personal experience in this area. As a second-language learner of French and later Portuguese I chose a variety of speech role models. No one has ever said I sound like Jacques Dutronc or Karl Zéro when speaking French, but I was motivated to reach for those goals because I believed I could sound kind of like them.

Thinking back on my speech role models for French, and even for my native English, it was clear that my unique voice is a result of having a diversity of speech role models, and my comfort with my voice was due to the fact that I had chosen all those role models. I sound like me because I sound like a combination of several people that I have admired over the years.

As language teachers, we owe it to our students not to turn them into Javier Bardem clones, or to discourage those who feel like they could never be Bardem. John Murphy’s study of reactions to Bardem is valuable because it establishes that a non-native speaker can be an acceptable role model, but we can’t stop at him, or even at the other fourteen that Murphy lists in his Appendix A.

With sites like YouTube at their fingertips, students have access to millions of non-native English speakers. We need to give them the opportunity to choose several non-native speakers, and be prepared to evaluate those speakers as potential role models, so that they can sound like their unique selves, but speaking clear, fluent English (or French or Hmong or whatever).