February 8th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language; making a list of American English D-items and S-items...

Several comments have -- quite reasonably -- asked me to post a list of the items of language behavior in American English that signal dominance (D-items) and those that signal subordination (S-items). I understand the request, but I don't think it's possible to construct a list like that in any useful way. Because none of the items occur in isolation; they occur in clusters, many items at a time, and the totality of items is the context for each individual one.

That doesn't mean it's not possible to learn the two sets of items. It's just that a list is entirely the wrong way to go about it. Our educational system trains us to expect lists; I'll never forget the horrified reaction of most of my class at the University of Chicago when our first assignment in Nat Sci was to actually read what Galileo had written and discuss what was said there, instead of being instructed to memorize an already-constructed-for-us list of the things he'd said.

I think the best way to explain this is with an analogy. Suppose you were someone who wanted to get rid of your Southern accent. You could go to the appropriate expert on that -- an acoustic phonetician -- and get a list of the things that you'd need to do to accomplish your goal. And that list would tell you things like how much you needed to increase or decrease your subglottal pressure when you pronounced a particular sound of AE, and exactly how much you needed to increase or decrease the muscular tension in your tongue when you pronounced a particular sound of AE, and so on. You'd need a lot of very complicated gizmos to measure these things, and a neurofeedback device that would tell you whether you'd made the change correctly or not .... it would be intricate. Given money enough and time enough, you might be able to learn to do all these things, and to do them in various combinations and clusters -- but it would be a really absurd way to proceed. Your brain already knows how to do all of them, and it makes all the multitude of necessary adjustments when you're speaking AE, smoothly and without any kind of conscious action on your part. If you just get out of its way, it can make the adjustments necessary for learning to speak with a more Yankee accent too.

You do that by getting a recording of someone speaking the variety of AE you'd like to be able to speak, and then speaking with the recorded speaker. Not repeating after the speaker; not writing down what the speaker says and reading it aloud along with the recording. You listen to a chunk of the recording just long enough to be roughly familiar with what's said, roughly one sentence at a time, and then you say that sentence right along with the speaker, repeating that until you're able to do it easily, however many times that takes. And then you move on to the next sentence. Your brain, which does know what it's doing, will make all the adjustments in your vocal tract that are necessary to let you match the stream of speech on the recording. [Note: Often you'll need to work with parts of a sentence before doing the whole sentence. For English, this works best if you start at the end rather than at the beginning. So, if the sentence is "We went to the grocery store looking for some decent salad vegetables," you'd start saying "decent salad vegetables" with the Yankee speaker, then "for some decent salad vegetables," and so on.]

To learn the set of D-items and S-items of American English, you just extrapolate. Instead of an audio recording you want a videotape or film of someone using the set of your choice in speech. If you're a woman, try working with a videotape of Geena Davis (I hope I have her name right!) -- the woman president on "Commander in Chief" -- or Diane Sawyer; if you're a man, you'll have a wider choice. [If you know someone who does exactly the right mix of D/S you want, make a video of that person talking -- after asking permission -- and work with that. Your model doesn't have to be a famous person, just someone competent in using the set of items you want to learn.] Watch a couple of seconds of film; hit the pause button; try to assume, in every way, the posture and gesture and facial expression (and so on, all the bodyparl) that your model speaker is using in that segment. When you can do that easily, add the audio component; don't try to do both at once. Your goal is to move and sound exactly like your model. That will teach you the D-items you want. (And, if you work at it too long, will make you look and sound like you're trying to do an impersonation of your model; stop before you get to that point.) To learn the S-items, follow the same procedure with a speaker who is clearly taking the subordinate role in the conversation. Your brain can do this, and more quickly than you might think; you just have to want to bother.
ozarque figure

Linguistics/gender and language note....

There was an extraordinary opportunity yesterday to watch an array of different speakers of American English -- from various genders and various dialects and registers -- during the memorial service for Coretta Scott King; I hope you had a chance to watch at least some parts of it. Maya Angelou. Both Presidents Bush. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton. Lots more, including the Kings' daughter who is a preacher (I'm not certain how to spell her name), preaching up a storm. I was lucky enough to be able to watch almost all of it; it was incredible, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

If you did see some or all of this, I'd be interested in any observations you might have.