Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pretentious /æ/ hole

This week on Car Talk, there was a wonderful moment that exemplified a feature of the Boston dialect, inter-generational conversations about language change, and the importance of covert prestige.

At 22 minutes into the show, someone calls in with the name Cara (or Kara or something). While trying to figure out whether to pronounce her name as C[a]ra or C[æ]ra, Tom brings up something his kids give him trouble for. Here's a transcript of the relevant part, with the audio below.

Tom:My kids always make fun of me because I say "c[a:]n't." "I c[a:]n't do that." They say you're supposed to say "c[eə]n't."
Caller:You are.
Tom: "C[eə]n't." They think I'm being pretentious when I say "c[a:]n't."
Ray:Well your mother's sister would be your what?
Tom:My [a:]nt.
Ray: [a:]nt.
Caller: Oh, see.
Ray: That sounds rather pretentious, doesn't it?
Caller: You are pretentious.
Tom: It does! No yeah. And then they say to me, "Oh! Do you eat pot[a:]tos or pot[ei]tos?" And I say, "Get lost!"

Of course, Tom's kids are making fun of his broad-a system, which is a receding feature of Boston English. The really interesting thing about Tom's conversation with his kids is that they are informing him of the new norm. He's supposed to say "c[eə]n't" you see. Typically language policing runs in the opposite generational direction. However, as Bill Labov has casually mentioned, usage notes for incoming norms are one of the few things for which parents will take their children's advice, another being makeup.

The other interesting thing here is Tom's kids' attitude towards the classic Boston broad-a. They think it sounds pretentious. Even though it is a conservative form of the local dialect, I suspect broad-a indexes "British" for Tom's kids. But when a Brit uses broad-a, I'm sure Tom's kids, along with most Americans, think it sounds fancy. Why does it sound pretentious when Tom uses it?

Because who does he think he is! It's important to not sound too trashy or lower class, but it's also important to not try to sound better than you are. A related, but different example of this tension comes from Suzanne Evans Wagner's dissertation. Short-a in Philadelphia is tensed from [æ] to [eə] in many environments, including before voiceless fricatives like /f/. Wagner's dissertation includes this story of a Philadelphian returning home after a year at college:
And I was telling my mom the story. I was like, “Yeah, I was laughing [læfɪn] really hard at that.” My mom was like, “Did you just say laughing [læfɪn]?” And I was like, “Yeah, I did.” She was like, “Never fucking say that again.”
Abandoning the authentic Philadelphia short-a required a swift and firm response from this girl's mother. In the context of Tom's story, it's interesting to wonder about what circumstances had to obtain for a form which is actually authentic to be reanalyzed as foreign by the younger speakers in the community.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm.Pronounciation of one vowel, and bingo-bigot! you are, or are NOT, a member of the tribe.

    Anybody ever read Shaw's 'Pygmalion'?


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