At first I thought my interest in linguistics was because these days I’m listening more than reading or writing. Trapped in a car for close to four hours a day, I listen to the radio – politics, music, books radio, old time radio shows.
But that’s not really it. I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo when it comes to shifts in language. For example, it irritated the hell out of me when people started pronouncing Uranus as yer-UH-nus just because we’re all a bunch of mental adolescents who can’t help but giggle at the name of a planet. This is what happens when people acquire Latin skills. When we just called it a a butthole, poor old YOURANUS didn’t have to be embarrassed hanging out there in space.
Then there was that push for newscasters and TV people to pronounce resources as reZORsez. Thankfully that died out quickly.
Or how about when Anita Hill was testifying before Congress. Our big national debate was whether Clarence Thomas putting a pubic hair on a Coke can was sexual haRASSment or sexual HAIRessment.
I don’t limit my critiques to the spoken word. The print media comes under fire, as well. Consider yourself lucky to have missed my ranting and raving in response to what I was sure was a trending overuse of had been when was was grammatically correct. Misplaced past perfect progressive makes me crazy. I would pull out my red pen and mark up the Chicago Tribune for its sins against the English language.
It would follow then that I’ve become aware of two more recent vocal trends. One is mostly manifested on the television – specifically on political talk shows – and the other is everywhere, especially where young adult women gather.
The first, the one I hear mostly on television, is the habit of beginning sentences with the word so. It’s used heavily by experts, pundits and the like when they’ve been asked a direct question about how something works or if they’re asked to provide some factual evidence for their current stance on any given issue.
The other, far more annoying in its widespread usage and its physical effect on me is what I used to call sleepy voice. Sometimes Chloe would phone me early in the morning and while she spoke, I cleared my throat. Repeatedly. So much so that if MathMan was in the room, he’d ask me if I had a problem.
Turns out though, this speech pattern has a linguistic name all its own. Vocal fry.
Think the Kardashians or a roomful of young women. Here are some examples…
There are some fiery pedantic arguments over the subject. I mean venomous exchanges between linguists and linguistical hobbyists. I’ll bet some of those commenters angrily flared their nostrils while they pounded out their lively responses to the articles. Who knew linguistics nerds were so passionate about anything other than schwa?
Right about now you’re probably thinking that getting a job and out of the house was supposed to make me more normal.
Look, I’m trying, okay?
So (see, there I go doing it, too!) as I read the comments on one of those articles, I remembered another vocalization that gets my attention and not exactly in a good way. One of the commenters noted that many of the NPR reporters now seem to mimic the way Ira Glass and his cohorts speak on This American Life.
Naturally, I tuned into NPR this morning to confirm this fact. Fact confirmed. But it also prompted me to wonder if there’s a linguistic term for how Ira Glass pronounces the letter l. Now for those of you familiar with Ira Glass, imagine him reading those last two words. Letter l. Can you hear it in your head? You know, Chris Christie has the same verbal quirk in case you need another point of reference.
And, of course, it has its own term. It’s called a Dark L.
You can hear it in this great piece from Ira that made it around the internet a few months ago. I could show you a video of Governor Christie, but I like you so why would I do that?
None of this is meant to insult. Well, except for the vocal fry and beginning sentences with so. Stop that!
I’m certainly not devoid of my own linguistic oddities. I have a mashed up accent that can’t decide if it’s Southern or Midwestern. It’s both with a definitive bent toward whomever I’m speaking with or listening to.
And I can absolutely understand why young women would want to lower their voices in register. I’m often mistaken for a kid on the phone. Can I speak to your mother? Sure, let me give you her number. Be sure to tell her I said hello.
It took about a year of MathMan’s taunting to get me to pronounce cement with the emphasis on the second syllable. To get me to say inSURance instead of INsurance and umBRELLa instead of UMbrella. A few years in the South have sort of undone that, but I’m able to switch back and forth pretty easily because even if I don’t speak with a clean Midwestern non-accent accent, I’m aware of when my words begin to drawl out like a long, hot afternoon.
Even so, I still have trouble with pen and pin, but I bet if I remembered to say pen with the vocal fry, I’d get it right. Peheheheh(rumble)n.
All of this is to say what exactly? I have no idea. I just wanted to share so you could tell me that you notice these things to, that I’m not losing my mind and that maybe I should turn off the radio and enjoy the sequestered silence, perhaps get some fresh ideas for stories, clear out the cobwebs strung across my brainpan, listen to my own thoughts for a while.
Okay – let’s not go crazy.
Your turn. Ready to rumble? What language trends have you noticed? How do you abuse the language?