Monday, January 28, 2008

Clenched-jaw dialectology

OK, it's not just the comments that are better than the blog here, but also the correspondence I get. I've got time only for the sparest comment right now this but have to post it immediately:
Dear. Mr. Verb-
My Joie de Vivre suggests that I write to you and your colleagues for a bit of advice. Earlier on this fine January day, I watched the always entertaining and provocative television program, CBS Sunday. As you know, this is a show that is known for taking journalistic risks and innovative reporting styles. You may remember such fine segments as, "At the Cooperage: A Career for Today and Tomorrow" and "Liniments: Are they for YOU?" But, I digress…

On this morning's titillating program, in a segment that examined the role of dialect coaches in films, a dialect coach for the film Fargo raised my Wisconsin hackles by professing that the Upper Midwestern dialect results, in part, from our need to constantly clench our jaws during our long, harsh winters. Then, using homey Upper Midwestern phrases and an exaggerated dialect, she entertained and regaled the anorexic commentator, who cackled like one of the Sisters Wyrd.

Now, I'm just a nice girl from Wisconsin who went through nearly 20 years of public schoolin' in the land of clenched jaws, but, based on your research and knowledge, is our distinct dialect based on climate-induced clenching of the jaw? This may be a surprise to some who live outside of the CST, but I grew up with central heating and I have never before heard this hypothesis. I'd like to confront this theory in a response that I plan on sending to this program but I want to make sure that I'm not challenging a well-known fact.

I appreciate any assistance that you are able to provide and I shall wait, patiently, in my fishing shack on Beef Slough with a six pack of Leinie's, a block of headcheese and clenched jaw to keep me warm.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Digital Immigrant
Brilliant, just brilliant. Your letter, I mean. So-called 'climatic' theories of language structure and change abound -- among serious scholars in days of yore. Once upon a time, the famous consonant shifts of High German were attributed to mountain life -- huffing and puffing up the mountains caused them to turn stops like p, t, k into fricatives like f, s, h. Historical linguists today learn about this mostly for yucks. But today, this bizarre tradition apparently continues among some benighted few willing to talk on national TV about how language is shaped without benefit of any knowledge of linguistics.

In short, the claims you describe having heard are not up to cocktail party standards, even in my circles.

More to follow …

7 comments:

Ben Zimmer said...

In the Northeast, folk-phonetic descriptions of jaw-clenching usually relate more to class than climate, as in the lockjaw variously ascribed to Locust Valley, Long Island, and Larchmont.

Wishydig said...

Lovely. Was this dialect coach Liz Himelstein? She sounds like a practitioner of the Joan Washington method. (here and video here.)

You know walking in and out of the cold causes sinus trouble too which gives that pharyngeal quality to diphthongized sibilant umlauts.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Mr. V, this letter is brilliant. This person should start a blog or publish a novel or something.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, yeah. And my area's accent is because everyone has a sinus condition...

Sheesh.

Although, of course, if just the original settlers in the area were fighting off the cold, their kids would get the accent by hearing it ... so central heating wouldn't eradicate it. You know, it works...

Mr. Verb said...

The role of ear infections in phonological acquisition. Am I the only one who smells NIH money?

Mrs. Digital Native said...

Hey wishydig-
Yes, you're right, the dialect coach in question was, indeed, Liz Himelstein. Thanks for everyone's commiseration. Aye, it warms me on this January night.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, that and some brandy and the fire you're cooking your panfish on will warm you every time. But you'll need the earflaps soon ... 42 F in Madison right now and a call for -7 tonight.