Friday, February 22, 2008

"Behold the left flank!" and other misheard sounds

Bullock and I were both working in our respective studies, but energy gave out and we started messing around and wasting time. I'm surfing the 'net and playing with PBS's "Do You Speak American?" site, and he's playing a computer game called Empire Earth. There's something that one of the commanders keeps saying in his game and I *swear* it sounds like "Behold the left flank!" Of course, that makes no sense whatsoever, and I think it's more likely "We're under attack!" or something like that. There's also another guy who says very clearly "Prepare to die!" and the frequent sounds of anguish and pain. So I went into his office to see just what was happening in this game and what I found was some crazy and disturbing mash-up of medieval and modern warfare where stealth bombers were decimating knights on horseback. Oh that's so wrong! I couldn't help feel sorry for the tiny CGI knights and their wholly innocent horses. Poor things.

I just hope this isn't his way of getting out his unconscious aggression toward the medievalist in the household!


Speaking of "Do You Speak American?", since I've never taken a full-on HEL class (my linguistic knowledge, fwiw, pretty much stops with Shakespeare), I don't know that much about American varieties, although I knew about the Northern Cities Shift because I once saw William Labov talk about it at a conference. Given that I now live in the midst of it, it's very useful knowledge. However, I could probably stand to get some deeper knowledge of it to make teaching the sounds of Middle English to my students more effective. I made the mistake this semester of insisting on something about "midwestern" phonology as a guide to Middle English sounds that was really only true for my central midwest variety and not for my students northern cities variety. Generally when one is teaching the ME short vowels, one says they're more or less the same as now, with a couple of exceptions like the short -u- and the short -a-. I play clips from BBC TV to help them hear those sounds and explain the whole "u as in put, but not as in but" thing. But they were having a heckuva a time with the short -o- sound, which I thought was really weird. I said the short -o- was like our own, but they weren't getting it. Well, that's because for many of them their short -o- was sounding more like my short -a- and so my examples made no sense to them -- for them "cot" sounds like "cat." I knew about the cot/caught merger (which I have) and so I knew to expect some trouble with ME -o- sounds, but it turned out to be a different trouble than I expected! Yeah, it's only taken me 5 years to figure this out. What can I say -- I don't have the most finely tuned ear. But from now on I think I'll stop using the same old pronunciation guides that worked for students in SoCal (and for me) and adapt some for my NCS-ing students.

But, anyway, what I really didn't know but learned on the PBS site is that my own cot/caught merger is something that only happened in my region starting with my generation. That explains so much! See, once upon a time our next-door-neighbor's son Don was dating a woman named Dawn and I thought this was totally perplexing because I could NOT hear or articulate the differences in those names' vowels. But my Boomer age siblings -- and maybe Virgo Sis and Fast Fizzy can attest to this, if they remember -- couldn't understand why I couldn't hear the difference. Turns out I was on the cutting edge of a phonological change in my regional speech! Awesome!


Steve Muhlberger said...

Long ago my stepdaughter (Ontario) was visiting her Chicago grandmother, and the good lady told her there was a "cot in the closet." Young girl was disappointed to find only furniture, and no pet there.

I've been driven nuts by Torontonians laughing because they had the same names: Don and Dawn.

Karl Hagen said...

I had something similar happen to me trying to teach place of articulation to classes of Southern Californian natives.

I would typically try to get them to feel front vs. back articulation by contrasting /i/ and /u/, but a substantial minority frequently claimed to be unable to tell the difference.

I put this down to a simple inability to introspect for several years, until I realized that these people all showed the classic SoCal fronting of back vowels and retraction of front vowels (i.e., valley girl/surfer dude speak), so for them, both vowels were much closer to mid vowels.

tempestsarekind said...

The "Do You Speak American?" website is fun, isn't it? I saw the special and bought the book for my high-school Spanish teacher (I see her during most of my winter breaks; it was a very small high school).

The odd thing, though, is that I discovered the website right around the same time that I found a BBC (I think) quiz on British accents. I did much better on the BBC one than the American one! I was horrified.

T.E. said...

For me, the hardest part of teaching HEL and OE deep inside the Northern Cities Shift was convincing students that ├Žsc was not a diphthong.

Dr. Virago said...

Steve -- I would be greatly disappointed to find a cot instead of a cat, too! :)

Karl -- I can't tell you how much better it makes me feel to hear you have a story similar to mine! I take great comfort in that!

Tempests -- Yes, I probably would do better there too. I did OK with the American one, getting all the midland speakers and northern cities speakers right. But I confused a mid-Atlantic speaker with a New Englander and a southerner with a westerner (bizarrely enough). And I drive my students nuts always using Brit accents as examples. I mean, I really shouldn't expect them to know what a Liverpudlian short -u- sounds like!!

TE -- Goodness, I think I only just realized in retrospect that that's been a problem for me, too. And of *course* it is, because many of them pronounce "cat" something like "ceeyat"! Duh!

Suddenly so many things are making sense!

Virgo Sis said...

OK, not only do I not remember the incident that is so firmly in your memory, but I hadn't realized your generation speaks and hears those two sounds differently. Am I a dinosaur? Don't answer that.

Dr. Virago said...

Sis -- I could have been Ms. V and Fizzy who mocked me, since you were only around on holidays.

Feirefiz said...

Hi--I looked at the PBS site--looks very interesting. I particularly like the article on whether men or women talk more. The claim that men and higher status people talk more in public spaces as a way of asserting authority certainly squares with my experience in academe.

By the way, I saw your earlier post about your idiot president, and I'm very sorry to hear about it. It seems like he's just taking money from the poor to give to the rich--hmm . . . sounds familiar?

I could in turn complain about our president but our does have his good side--so I'll complain about a job candidate instead. We made an offer for the search we're doing now, and he accepted (after he got a little extra time beyond the standard 2 weeks to complete an interview somewhere else), and then a few days later he reneges! The worst of it is that he's from my own alma mater. I'm hopping mad since we've already told our second choice that the job's taken and now the search may well end up failing. And I fear that we may lose the line.

Anyway, I am glad that you and Bullock can find distractions around the house--I also looked at the pictures of the table he's made. Wow, the man is talented!

Dr. Virago said...

Hi Feirefiz, good to hear from you! But sorry to hear about your annoying candidate woes. It's one thing to ask for extra time; it's another thing to renege! Sheesh!

You know, there's something up with the people from your alma mater these days...I've heard or witnessed some weird job market behavior among the recent cohort, particularly an over-inflated sense of what they "deserve" in terms of jobs. I blame their advisors, who must be pressuring them to think very hierarchically about what jobs are "good enough" for them.

Feirefiz said...

Hi again! That's really unfortunate. I'll have to get details from you later about the weird job market behavior. It's certainly not something I want to be associated with and yet I'm finding myself in an awkward position now. The sad thing is that the other job is actually a worse job but in NYC, which I assume is the prime attraction.

Fast Fizzy said...

Can you tell the difference between "John" and "jawin'"? Jawin' as in chewing the fat.

Dr. Virago said...

Fizzy, well yeah, but that's because "jawin'" is two syllables. But since I never *use* that word...why do you ask?

Fast Fizzy said...

Jawin' is one syllable south of the Mason-Dixon and it rhymes with Dawn.