Thursday, December 14, 2006

Maybe we can all just get along (sometimes)

Barbara Wallraff's Word Court responds this week to a query about the (now firmly established) verb to text. The issue is the connection to text message, in part, as a redundancy. The query ends with this question and her answer begins this way:
Q: Who makes the rules for a new use of words?
A: We all, collectively, make the rules about new ways to use words.
Wallraff goes on to put this verb into the context of 'retronyms' where formerly unmarked words become (at least somewhat) marked through cultural change -- acoustic guitar after the rise of the electric guitar, etc. I applaud this piece of reasonable advice. Some eggnog for the Judge and drinks all around, put'em on the Verb account.

Interestingly, the last question she takes this week involves another topic of interest here in the Upper Midwest: Someone writes in saying that they're noticing to lose being pronounced like to loose, and loosing for losing. It's not quite clear to what extent this is written versus spoken usage, but Wallraff treats it as a spelling problem, comparing the voiced sibilant to booze, clues, twos:
It's obvious what the problem is, but anyone who can spell most of these other words ought to be able to get "lose" right.
I'd love to know where the query comes from. I've noticed this lose > loose thing too, and have wondered whether it might reflect more than a mere spelling problem: As Tom Purnell of the Wisconsin Englishes Project (along with a growing team around the state) has shown, Wisconsin English speakers do a fair bit of what looks like final devoicing, and similar patterns certainly exist well beyond this one state.

The pattern is famous for the Upper Midwest mostly from Saturday Night Live's old Da Bears (that phrase with an emphatically fortis [s] at the end, not a z sound). For the phonetically inclined, Tom and his folks have reported on this in a couple of recent articles in American Speech and the Journal of English Linguistics. Another member of that project, Joe Salmons, reports that he hears this especially often in certain regionally-marked words and constructions, like in the phrases let's have some beers and I'm going to cut my hairs. (Both instances of mass noun to count noun have been suggested to come ultimately from German and other immigrant languages. The latter is pretty salient and rare here, but lots of people regard the former as normal usage, as I guess do people from some other parts of the country.) That regional pronounciations would surface especially in such stereotypes is no surprise.

But if the WEP guys are finding patterns that sound and look acoustically like this in laboratory conditions, you gotta wonder how it'll make itself felt in regional grammar beyond the low-level phonetics. Two closely related verbs (yup, it always comes back around to the verbs, doesn't it?) might be a good place for the confusion to start spreading.

This has ramifications for the study of sound change: What Tom et al. are finding looks like utterly regular sound change as far as I can tell, yet we're getting it bubbling up to public consciousness in ways that some would instantly identify as 'lexical diffusion'.

Just some ramblings during a mid-morning break ...

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