Tuesday, January 1, 2008

For Paul

By Tom Paulson
Seattle P-I
May 20, 2005

Listen for the creaky voice, the strong "s" and the "low-back merger."

Most language experts believe the Pacific Northwest has no distinctive voice, no particular style or dialect. But some local linguists think that's wrong -- or at least a long-standing academic prejudice that deserves a good challenge.

Jennifer Ingle, a 27-year-old Ballard native and student of language at the University of Washington, is one of them.

"Language is part of our identity," said Ingle. Just as the Scandinavian heritage of Ballard distinguishes it from the rest of Seattle, she said, the evolution of language in the Northwest has progressed to the point where it can be distinguished from the rest of the country.

The question for the experts now appears to be whether our version of the English language has evolved enough to be considered a separate dialect.

"Linguists have generally assumed that the West is one dialect region," said Alicia Beckford Wassink, a UW professor of linguistics and mentor to Ingle.

"That may have been the case in the 1800s, when the West was being settled and there was a mixing of dialects among all the immigrants," said Wassink. But there's plenty of evidence now, she said, to suggest this region could have its own distinctive dialect.

Northwest speak.

Ingle decided a year ago to study her own neighborhood for evidence of local dialect. To some extent, she said, growing up in Ballard contributed to her interest in language.

"I used to hear people in my neighborhood speaking Norwegian," said Ingle, noting that despite her family's Scottish heritage, one of her favorite foodstuffs is lefse -- a Nordic flatbread made from potatoes.

But Ingle's study of language in Ballard was not aimed at identifying any of the neighborhood's Nordic influences. Participants were not asked to say, "Yah, sure, ya betcha." Rather, Ballard was selected as representative of the region because it is one of the oldest communities in the state, with a well-established population of native speakers.

"All the participants were born in Seattle and grew up in Ballard," said Ingle. She focused just on variation in vowel sounds because that is what most determines the different pronunciations in spoken American English.

Still, it should be noted that when Ingle presented her findings this week, it happened to be on the same day Ballard was celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day, May 17. Her study of Northwest speech in Ballard was presented in Vancouver, B.C., at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Among the findings: Many locals, especially women, speak in what experts call "creaky voice"; we've done away with a particular vowel used by Easterners; we really like to emphasize the "s" in words; we're not Californian and we're not Canadian.

Other determinants of dialect include differences in vocabulary and grammar, added Wassink, which are also being looked at in other linguistic studies at the UW.

"The Northwest is especially interesting because we have had almost nothing but immigration," Wassink said. "And there hasn't been as much racial or ethnic segregation as in the East. For a linguist, it's a very interesting place."

So, why do so many women talk creaky here? What's that mean anyway?

"Bill Clinton is a good example of creaky," said Ingle. Clinton's folksy speech, in which his voice sounds both scratchy and relaxed, is the opposite of "breathy" voicing, she said.

In the Northwest, Ingle's study indicates creaky voicing is popular -- especially among women. Breathy voicing, which in extreme form sounds like Marilyn Monroe's birthday song for JFK, is not big in the Northwest.

Wassink said the local popularity of creaky voicing could be how we compensate for another feature of our speech style. We've stopped using one vowel. Linguists work with 15 vowel sounds to describe spoken American English and we only use 14 of them.

Say "caught" and "cot" out loud. If you're a true Northwest speaker, the words will sound identical. Linguists call this the "low-back merger" because we've merged these two vowel sounds. On much of the East Coast, these same words will sound different. "Creaking is a way of making those distinctions that are being lost," Wassink said. Just as Bostonians tend to compensate in their speech for removing the "r" from many words, she said, we might speak creaky to compensate for refusing to use both vowels.

Another piece of evidence has to do with how Californians do something known as "fronting the vowel," Ingle said. This is considered standard to Western dialect and occurs when a speaker pronounces "rude" as "ri-ood" or "move" as "mi-oove."

"It's pretty funny sounding, actually," said Ingle, perhaps betraying a slight Northwest bias against all things Californian.

Full Article at the PIMC

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