Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Foxworthy's Law

Mr. Verb is right that Jeff Foxworthy has a tradition of sorts when it comes to regional English. I'm pasting in below an old abstract submitted to the 2nd Madison Informal Linguistics Conference, MILC, back in 1998. (The abstract has been slightly cleaned up stylistically.) Note that the abstract's authors, Kloppt & Hämmert, either did not know about the so-called "Southern Shift" involving front lax vowels, or chose not to refer to it.

As it happens, the next MILC, the ninth, is coming up in a month, and I bet the announcement will soon be up at the link given above. So, Mr. Verb, will you dare to show up? Or has being called "the mysterious Mr. Verb" on Language Log driven you even deeper underground? Double dare you to come and wear a name tag with "Mr. Verb" on it.

And some day, somebody needs to do a post about 'NASCAR accent' and Foxworthy's role in it.

Your phonology may be redneck if …: The prosody of “Foxworthy’s Law”

B. Kloppt & B. Hämmert
Fernuniversität des Südens, Muscle Shoals /
Harry’s Smoked Meat & Fresh Game Emporium, Biloxi

Foxworthy’s Law is obviously well-known to every historical linguist, dialectologist, phrenologist, professional bassfisherman and British schoolboy, but to date an adequate phonological account of the phenomenon has been lacking. The Law has been informally stated as: “You may be a redneck if all of your four letter words have two syllables” (Foxworthy 1997).
As is well known, taboo words in English, so-called ‘four-letter words’ (Carlin 1988), have a monosyllabic CVC templatic form, where the vowel is lax. This is exemplified in (1), using the familiar transcription where <*> represents any lax vowel:

(1) CVC: h*ll, d*mn, sh*t, f*ck, etc.

Foxworthy’s Law simply captures the fact that, in the so-called “Redneck” dialect of Southern US English (cf. Newman 1981) such forms are preferentially realized under emphasis with two distinct sonority peaks, the first normally a tense vowel, the second a reduced vowel of variable quantity. More interestingly, this tendentially includes formation of an onset in the new second syllable. With full vowels, this is accomplished via glide epenthesis, illustrated in (2):
(2) Four-letter word, two-syllable cussing
/hɛl/ > [he.jəl]
/ʃɪt/ > [ʃi.jɪt]
/dæm/ > [dæ.jəm]
For other cases, the onset is formed by laryngealization or glottalization, as in (3). (We use [ʔ] here to represent laryngealization and/or glottalization as well as the optional full glottal stop.)
(3) /fʌk/ > [fʌ.ʔək]
The stress patterns of such forms have previously been treated as mundane examples of left-headed feet (φ = s, w), but until now, specialists and amateurs alike (see Dullard 1983, for a strikingly stupid example of the latter) have failed to note the critical role of stress in PROVOKING such templates, established only last year in our own already-classic sociolinguistic study (Bloppt & Bämmert 1997).

Bloppt, K. & H. Bämmert. 1997. “Stress Effects, Health Effects: What happens when you repeatedly insult cops.” Publications of the Tennessee State Prison Hospital 103, 2: 217-218 (Series IX: Papers from the Intensive Care Unit).

Carlin, George. 1988. “The seven words you can’t say on the radio.” Southern Baptist Quarterly 13:666. (See also the response by Jerry Falwell, 14:1–5948.)

Dullard, Elron. 1983. Tensionetics for Germanisten. Reviewed in Der Fachidiot, 1.2.

Foxworthy, Jeff. 1997. The Redneck's Tale. Georgia.

Hämmert, B. 1995. “English Templates: Why all words in Eng have one syll.” Weit hergeholt, äußert unsicher, Ursprung dunkel: Etymological studies. Falls Church: Dimwit Press.

Newman, Randy. 1981. “Rednecks”. Rednecks. LP (“phonograph record”).

1 comment:

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, that's the abstract I was talking about — but I thought it was by you. I might note that speakers with such clear southern shift as in the transcriptions also typically have [ʔ] instead of [t] in final position (definitely 'glottal reinforcement' at least) and almost surely have a vocalized /l/. I guess the authors figured it wasn't directly relevant.