Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Missippi thump

Radio 4 is running a serialization of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. I have never lived long anywhere to the east of Texas, but there's something about the state, where my family comes from, that's like an invitation to fade away there, when the time comes. When in the serialization I hear a kid being corrected for "sass-mouthin'", I get homesick.

One of the best utterances so far was by a woman who had to run hide in the guest bathroom, because she wasn't supposed to visiting the house. She said: "I crouched on the toilet lid, my heart thumpin' like a cat caught in a clothes-dryer".


empty said...

(Um, you didn't spell Mississippi enough.)

Stuart said...

Obviously you've never been there, otherwise you would know why it's written like that! I spelled it sufficient, sho' did.

Stuart said...

OK, since you don't ask: in Mississippi, you often hear plain folks say "Miss-sippi".

empty said...

Got it. I think I can even say that I wondered about that in the first place.

But, homesick for a world where you get scolded for sass -- that's a new window into our Grumbly.

AJP CROWN said...

Grumbly, I'm glad to see the mole and the guy with the muscles are back. Can't you find another picture of your friend Luhmann (or, better still, a picture of Grumbly -- they can't sue you for pictures of yourself)?

AJP CROWN said...

Yesterday my wife rented a movie called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the entire cast was talking in those wistful, fake-Southern accents. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY! I had to leave the room.

AJP CROWN said...

Oh, wait a minute. Maybe the guy with the muscles IS Luhrmann?

Stuart said...

Psst! They'll never catch me out on that one. It shows L. before he became an administrative bureaucrat, a legal eagle, and then a philosopher pretending to be a sociologist. All that sitting and fretting degrades muscle tone over time.

Stuart said...

The old guy is not a mole, but a crocodile! Notice the jaws, the webbed hands ... An old crock, in fact.

the entire cast was talking in those wistful, fake-Southern accents

Was that not an American cast? Do Southern accents sound fake to you just as they are, or was it Brits again trying for the American touch? It's curious that a lot of people, even those who have gotten at least halfway up the heights of linguistic neutrality, still have their pet peeves as regards accents. The German spoken in Saxony, for instance Leipzig and Dresden, sounds ridiculous and "stupid" to me. It sounds deliberately artificial, like a normal German trying to talk like (the German equivalent of) Beavis and Butthead. Very many West Germans feel the same way, and their reaction to Saxon has made East Germans who speak it very self-conscious. Many of them learn to hide it, with a great effort. It grates horribly, although I know there's no good reason for me to react like that.

Last night I heard a Radio 4 piece on the "Caribbean poetry connection". From 1948 to 1958 the British Council sponsored poets from the colonies (the broadcast centered on Jamaica and the West Indies), paying them for their poems when published, and for reading their work on the radio. Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul emerged from that sponsorship, and portions of interviews with them were played. The speech of both of them sounds to me like country-boy who's been to university, but particularly Naipaul. Naipaul sounds preposterous, with his faux-upperclass intonation patterns. You can hear pretension. I try to fight this reaction on my part, because after all what do I know about British/colonial accents?? But I can't subdue it immediately. How does an American living in Germany come to have such opinions??

The current continuity guy on BBC World Service (which Radio 4 switches to from 1 to 6 a.m.) also has a way of speaking that I would like to identify, so as to convince myself that I'm unjustified in disliking it. The intonation pattern and pronunciation is unremarkable at first experience, although slightly unfamiliar to me - but I keep hearing something like a rustle-and-creak of cardboard underneath the music. The visual equivalent would be looking at a spray-painted mock-up that, on closer inspection, turns out to have been carelessly sprayed, because the cardboard is visible in places.

AJP CROWN said...

Goodness, a cardboard accent. Unfortunately it's now too late to listen to it.

I hate VS Naipaul, but that's maybe because I read that Paul Theroux book.

Yes, it has an American cast, including Brad Pitt. They sound like the BBC doing A Streetcar Named Desire.

When I asked at LH why the Saxon accent was supposed by other Germans to be weird, David Marjanovi`c acted like he'd never heard of such a thing. So I'm glad you've explained it. I could never hear it myself, but I don't think I ever met a Saxon.

I was wondering the other day why -- or how -- certain accents can sound ugly. It's not (or not just) a social thing, I believe. To me a Welsh accent is ugly, a Scottish accent is interesting and an Irish (but not Northern) accent is beautiful. The worst accent, to me, is a Birmingham (England) one, but I've no idea why I feel that way. On the other hand a Geordie (N. E. England) accent, which isn't that different from the Brummy one, sounds great.

SnowLeopard said...

I've often thought it would be helpful to have a sort of accent shopper's guide that set out which regional speech patterns were prestigious in various languages and which weren't. Maybe thought is already going into this behind the scenes, though: the accents of model speakers on the audio courses I use are often more euphonious than what's generally available on the web.

Stuart said...

An accent shopper's guide is a great idea, in principle. The trouble is, though, that you will want to know how reliable the guide is. One indicator of that would be what you think about the accent of the person who wrote it.

Let's stick with English for a moment, assuming someone publishes a guide to English accents. If you know that that person speaks with a Texas cowboy accent, you may well have doubts about his familiarity with posh accents. He may not recognize them as posh, or if he does he may not think them "euphonious". If, on the other hand, you don't know anything about the accent of the guide editor, you have not even that clue to his qualifications.

We generally assume that a person's accent is closely bound up with a specific cultural background, and that this suggests he knows certain things rather than others. Whether these assumptions are valid or not can emerge only from closer acquaintance with that person.

Things get even more difficult when you are learning a foreign language. Unless you know quite a bit about the social niceties of the culture where the language is spoken, you are in no position to judge what this or that accent in that language suggests about the social position of the speaker, or in what sense it might be regarded as "euphonious". Since by assumption the language is foreign to you, the culture will be also (apart from book larnin'), so you will be effectively clueless as to the accents.

One thing you might do is find some well-educated person who speaks good English (in our case) as a secondary language, but has the foreign language as his native one. One might suppose that his advice about accents in his languages would be "reliable". But what does reliable mean? Suppose the foreign language is German, and the speaker is a Saxon. He is unlikely to think that Saxon sounds weird. You would end up learning to speak German with a Saxon accent, and would be laughed out of Hamburg.

There are a lot of Turkish immigrants in Germany. In Southern Germany, it's not unusual to hear a simple Turkish factory worker speaking good Bavarian German. It's initially quite funny, but you have to get used to it.

SnowLeopard said...

Sorry you disliked "euphonious"; next time I'll look for something more palatable. These concerns are all valid enough, but I suppose I fail to see how your critique is peculiar to an accent shopper's guide as opposed to a guide of any other sort -- you always wonder how reliable the author is, how well the material was researched, and so on, regardless of the subject matter. In most cases, that doesn't defeat the project. Absent knowledge of the author's reputation, or a special endorsement from a trusted insider, my typical approach is to look for intrinsic evidence: how detailed is the recommendation, does it offer supporting reasons that make sense to me, does the recommendation come from an individual or a committee, what evidence is cited to illustrate the point, and so on. And note that a good accent shopper's guide should not assume that the learner is necessarily looking for a prestige dialect: depending on who you're trying to impress and/or fit in with, that could backfire. Instead it should discuss the various considerations so the shopper can make an informed decision. But upon further reflection, a responsible guide would probably just end up recommending a neutral "newscaster" accent in the vast majority of situations, and so may not be terribly interesting. Oh well.

Stuart said...

SnowLeopard: there's nothing wrong with the word euphonious in my books! I put it in quotes for two reasons: 1) to indicate I was mentioning a word used by you, and 2) to remind us that different people have different opinions of what "euphonious" means. There's the cowboy: "He may not recognize them as posh, or if he does he may not think them "euphonious"'. And later down in my post: 'Unless you know quite a bit about the social niceties of the culture where the language is spoken, you are in no position to judge ... in what sense it might be regarded as "euphonious"'

I suppose I fail to see how your critique is peculiar to an accent shopper's guide as opposed to a guide of any other sort -- you always wonder how reliable the author is, how well the material was researched, and so on, regardless of the subject matter.

A guide to antique cars, or to incunabulae, or to 20th century music: these don't require the author to be antique, or sleep in a crib, or be able to carry a tune in a handbasket, for him to count as reliable. How well the material was researched etc. does count. And his accent makes no difference to your evaluation.

In contrast, as I was suggesting anyway in a mildy humorous manner, one can't help feeling that the accent of the author of an accent shopper's guide must be taken into account when judging how reliable the guide is. This is because we perceive accent as closely intertwined with social background. A cowboy ísn't expected to appreciate the niceties of posh, nor is a superior person expected to appreciate the niceties of country speech.

Because the actual use of accents, not to mention evaluation of them, is such a difficult matter there would be a temptation, as you wrote above, to recommend a "neutral" "newscaster" accent. Note the scare quotes around "neutral": not because I dislike the word, but because I am doubtful whether "neutral" is any more of a help here than "posh" or "country speech".

The word "neutral" mimes neutrality and objectivity, but it ain't necessarily so. Describing the roles of accents in social life can be compared with describing the positions of players in a baseball game. Suppose you asked someone who didn't know the game very well: "what position does Buehrle play?". That person might think to hide his ignorance and weasel out of giving a clear answer by saying: "he plays a neutral position". Does that mean that Buehrle plays in the center of the field? Depending on how large the field is, that might be pitcher or second base. It indicates that the person answering the question is probably himself way out in left field. Even the BBC has discarded the idea of a "neutral" newscaster accent. It now lets almost anyone from anywhere read the news.