Thursday, March 17, 2011

Speaking American

Have you seen PBS's collection of articles and essays by linguists from around the country about the development of American English, "Do You Speak American?"  I'm fascinated by linguistics, in a "I don't want to put much effort into learning the phoenetic language" kind of way, and the develoment of accents among individuals and groups of people has always been a particular point of interest for me.  (Hence my habit of watching those videos on youtube of actors running through twenty accents in two-and-a-half minutes.  Have you watched those?  You should. (The American accents in the video below start at 1:34.))


But back to the articles.  As a self-identified Californian (despite my love affair with Colorado), I was interested to learn in "Getting Real in the Golden State" that in 1941, "California English was no different from the English of the East Coast. But, over the decades since the 1940s, a distinctive accent has developed among much of the population of the state."  Apparently, since then, the white American California accent has moved vowels "forward" in the mouth, and certain discourse markers have appeared ("I'm like," or "She's all").  How cool is it that a new accent can appear in just seventy years, despite the "Standard American" that is spoken on television and nowhere else?

I was also particularly interested in "Drawl or Nothing: Is Texan a Thing of the Past?"  First of all, accents differ between West and East Texas, neither of which is present at all in those I've met who've grown up in Houston.  I've always assumed it is because Houston is (a) urban, and (b) made up of people from all over, so that the accent has been diluted.  Interestingly enough, I wasn't far off, although what I didn't know is that in mid-size cities (like Lubbock), the Texan accent is actually growing more engrained:
"[University of Texas at San Antonio linguistics professor Guy Bailey] was intrigued to find that those who described the state as an 'excellent' place to live were five times more likely to use monopthongs as residents who characterized it as 'poor.' Of course, people who are proud to be Texan are proud to talk like Texans. But Bailey sees it as no coincidence that people are now, more than ever, claiming their Texan identity through language, whether that choice is a conscious or unconscious one. 'The Texas identity is threatened,' he said. 'There was a large influx of people who moved here in the seventies. Oil was big, and the auto industry and the Rust Belt were on the decline. Suddenly, in the seventies, Texas attracted many new residents from outside the state. The arrival of so many outsiders can make people circle the wagons, linguistically.'"
Bailey points to the example of President George W. Bush, whose West Texas accent actually got stronger after he moved to the White House--because he was holding on to his Texan identity.  How awesome is it that in a subconsious way we choose to hold on to an accent because it is so much a part of how we see ourselves?

I love this stuff.  Check it out.

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