Thursday, August 16, 2007

Obligatory prescriptivist rant

Yesterday Leonard Lopate had Patricia T. O'Connor on for a regular language discussion, this time on pronunciation errors. I caught the tail end of the show and was predictably incensed. You can listen to the show here.

I posted some comments on the discussion board. It's moderated, so I don't know if they will make it on there (update: that was quick!). Here they are:

As a phonologist, I'm pretty disappointed by the lack of expertise of your expert, Ms. O'Conner. Especially when it comes to basic phonetics, phonology, and American dialect differences. Many of the questions listeners brought up have been studied extensively by American dialectologists and linguists. I suggest she look into that work before the next scheduled appearance. A good place to start is the American Dialect Society (on the web at
In response to Jim's question above: the pronunciation of [or] as [ar] in NY (and other parts of the mid Atlantic] happens when the the [r] starts a new syllable in the word. You get it in 'sorry' but not 'for'. That said, all Americans pretty much have the [ar] in 'sorry' (unlike Canadians) but only some dialects extend it to other words like 'orange', 'Florida', or 'moral'. And many people have some idiosyncratic uses. For example, I (a native of SE Pennsylvania) have it in most of these words except 'moral'.
Some Brits may also have this pronunciation, although the only evidence I have for that claim is Roger Daltry's pronunciation of 'moral' in "Won't get fooled again". He clearly sings 'The m[ar]als that we worshipped were all gone.' I don't know if that is him affecting an American pronunciation or his native one.

On the show a caller asked about [shtreet] for [street]. This is also a common phonological variation in American speech. It appears to be anticipatory assimilation of the [s] to the place of articulation of the [r]. A similar rule is found in Swedish where an [s] following an [r] is pronounced as [sh], for example [morshan] meaning "Mother".


Ben Zimmer said...

Interesting title to your post. I first thought you intended "prescriptivist rant" to be construed as 'a rant that is prescriptivist in nature' (as in Geoff Pullum's Language Log post, "A prescriptivist rant? Get a clue"). But then I figured you meant 'a rant about a prescriptivist (or about prescriptivism).' That's assuming you're the one doing the ranting and not Ms. O'Conner. Or am I missing something?

Ed Keer said...

Right. Probably should've called it Obligatory Prescriptivism Rant!

boredoom said...

I like how you got "morsan" in there. I can't think of an equivalent English word for "Mom" that conveys the same combination of familiarity and disrespect.

Ed Keer said...

I guess "old lady" and "old man" don't count. But for both parents maybe "rents" is similar?

boredoom said...

Yes, that's pretty close! But I feel comfortable calling my parents 'the rents,' while I've never felt comfortable calling them 'morsan o farsan.' Too declasse.

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