Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Snobbery, Fashion, and Manners of Speaking

The vocal fry thing was only the beginning.

In recent months, verbal linguistics have been a constant obsession. I keep noticing how speedily pronunciations are evolving, and thinking about how they have changed in the past.

Watching films made in the 1930s, I get a sense of the vogue way to speak when my grandmothers were young - what "modern" used to me - and I wonder how their voices differed from one another in their primes, based on the way I remember them before they died. Both Virginian, but from different places, different backgrounds. I can still hear my mom's mother's voice fairly clearly in my head.

Listening to younger women now - and knowing that, though my generation's ears often find it annoying and even unintelligent-sounding, vocal fry and creak are now considered signifiers of education and success - I listen for different types of this evolved valspeak, and try to understand where the annoying affectations of my own youth became the worthy attainments of a new age ... and I wonder how quickly another mode of speaking will take over, what *is* taking over, and how these things will sound to those finding their own, new voices. How quickly fashion will change.

I wonder, too, how much of this occurred - how quickly speech changed - before media developed and burgeoned and kept us constantly aware of how we and others sound. Those thirties movies came at an era when image was literally projected for the first time, and sound became an emblematic part of fashion.

Clearly, language has always changed its sound. If new ways of speaking had not always superseded old ways - in coinage, but just as fundamentally in sound and emphasis - we'd still be speaking in what we now like to call proto Indo-European roots.

It's hard not to think recorded sound and image have not affected the speed with which these changes occur. It seems only yesterday I was complaining about the ubiquity of people emphatically growling HUJAPASSENT to indicate their certainty about something, and now I haven't heard it in months. Already out of vogue? I'm not even sure when I last heard curate; but artisinal has been fairly popular for a couple of years.

Getting out of coinage trends and looking at pronunciation, current fashion sounds to fogeys of (say) my Certain Age ... well, actually infantile. There is a trend for both overstatement and inaccuracy in diction, and some of the inflections and emphases echo those of a child just learning to speak.

A sampling of pronunciations which seem to be crossing regional lines, so do not appear to be related to particular accents:

Overdone ...
           diDINT (didn't)
           JOOLuhree (jewelry)
           feahMAlee (family)
           FOWurd (forward)
           MEEkup (makeup)

Underdone ...
           fill (feel)
           housiz (houses - first S sibilant)         
           uhMAYzeen (amazing)
           BEEdy (it took me some patience to understand this as a pronunciation of "beauty")
           BEDdur (better**)
The intensity of emphasis on consonants in middle of a word reminds old folks like me of a liddle kid's care in speaking words still new to their tongues - training the tongue to every part, every syllable of a word. It is adorable in a three year old, the way a toddler's emphatic way of walking is cute, as they learn refined balance.

In an adult - to more elderly adults - all this sounds considerably strange.

Here's where it gets REALLY interesting:

Considering how strange my slurring and curiously unsyncopated manner of speech must sound to those putting (let's face it) so much more effort into their speaking.

At Janet Reid's blog yesterday, we touched in the comments on the concept of dated voice, looking at slang and its changes since the 80s. But the actual mechanics of my tongue and lips, trained in a different generation, are themselves probably a giveaway of my age.

In the same way that, say Rosalind Russell's or Katherine Hepburn's youthful staccato and volume make people think that the acting in old movies was unnaturalistic, perhaps - my own seventies and eighties infused rhythms and inflections are distinct from the modes of speech in the under-thirty-five set right now, and probably sound artificial, if not downright lazy. It may be a more accurate signifier of my age than the old "check a woman's hands and elbows to see how old she really is" thing.

And oddly enough: Rosalind Russell was the absolute mistress of vocal creak ...

**Lest we think I'm talking only about female voices;
some of the most egregious infantile pronunciation currently available... 


TCW said...

Huh! You think you've got problems? How do you think I feel, living in the UK?

The ubiquity of American TV and films means that my language is not just changing but vanishing. For example, I had to stop myself typing 'movies' just there. American English and UK (Standard) English are not the same language and my native tongue is gradually being forced out by the younger upstart. There's no point in fighting it. The official definition of 'billion' has changed to accommodate people who slipped three decimal places as they crossed the pond. Editors prefer 'apartment' to 'flat' because it makes books easier to sell overseas. And pronunciation is changing all the time. Even old fogeys like me have given up on 'either' (ayther) and now go for 'eether' like everyone under 35. It's worse for people (again like me) who were brought up to speak Received Pronunciation (aka 'BBC English' though the BBC has rather given up on it).

Language changes. Get over it. Though it's sad, as languages like Welsh are brought back from near-death, to see a language that was as successful as English being lost to us. I was speaking to a couple of Swedes last year and they said that language schools in Sweden teach American English because Standard English is no longer seen as the best way to get on in the job market.

I think the way in which the French legally protect their language in a desperate attempt to cling onto old dreams of being a World Power is deeply pathetic, but sometimes I do have a tiny bit of sympathy when they complain about American cultural imperialism. But, then, no one makes us watch US shows - it's just that some of them are so damn good.

DLM said...

Oh dear, I think I struck a very bad tone. The post was meant to remind those of us who DO bemoan change that language has always evolved, and mourning the loss of correctness is an illusion. I did not mean to come across as having anything *to* get over.

I would remonstrate a bit against the idea that American English is incorrect or even nonstandard. Your resentment against us is understandable, but it's not really and "us versus them" situation; the homogenization you're pointing out speaks to that. And there have been linguistic theories about certain mountain areas Stateside preserving Elizabethan English, where it died out in the UK. I believe those have been debunked, but the point is that any language is filled with lacunae and curiosities, artifacts and innovation - always - and always side by side. My reversion to my father's pronunciation of REST-r'nt a few years back, from the RESTA-raunt I grew up with was a conscious silliness I know to be irrelevant, but it's mine. I did that whole Bringing Supper Back thing too; an outmoded usage, but not outright incomprehensible.

As to Received - actually, this is how I often speak to my dog. As overexposed as American media are, I've been watching British television all my life, and have lived with one Londoner, and - if my accent weren't variable enough, with the "Southerninity" ebbing and flowing when I'm around family, or upset, or thinking I'm being cute/amusing - multiple UK accents are a part of my patter just about every day.

I meant more to make fun of myself precisely FOR feeling snobbish about the way Young People Talk Today than to decry the change (though ... yeah, that video does make my skin crawl, but as much because the music sucks as because the BEDDUR pronunciation sounds idiotic). (Let's get started on how all the good music has died now!)

And now I need to go read about French language protective measures, because I had no idea. How fascinating. And how insular of me, because I *invented* France (writing the novel about Clovis - so very joking, of course).

Lilac Shoshani said...

I love linguistics; I love reading about it, and I love the way you use language, Diane…Great post! <3

DLM said...

Hello, Lilac! Spoken linguisics have become an obsession as I've grown older and realized generational differences in a way I just never comprehended before. My own speech has always been at least as arch as my writing, but with age I'm really enjoying some of my contrarianism this way. Most recently, I've decide that some seventies slang would be fun - you so rarely ear "sensational" anymore.

What is it about S-adjectives that is so delicious? Splendid ... superb ... scintillating ... sensational ...