Friday, June 20, 2008

Dutchified English in the news

There's lots of language news out today, including this piece on the ubiquity of inshallah in Egypt today, by Michael Slackman. He argues that there's been "inshallah creep, to the extreme". A lot of the examples sound like textbook uses, but then comes this:
It is now attached to the answer for any question, past, present and future. What’s your name, for example, might be answered, “Muhammad, inshallah.”
It's presented (plausibly, I guess) as another outward sign of religiosity:
the linguistic equivalent of the head scarf on women and the prayer bump, the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during prayers, on men. It has become a public display of piety and fashion, a symbol of faith and the times. Inshallah has become a reflex, a bit of a linguistic tic that has attached itself to nearly every moment, every question, like the word “like” in English. But it is a powerful reference, intended or not.
Well, it's not like like, but it sounds like a topic for a sociolinguist. It seems unusual to have a straightforward linguistic observation presented in the media. Assuming the story's right, it's refreshing.

By contrast, this piece by Roger Mummert caught my eye. It's got the folksy thing his stuff always has (or so I remember it). That apparently is license to say anything. The piece starts with things like these:
Regional accents may be fading from the American landscape …
Well, really now? In fact, the NYT and other high-profile outlets have run tons on the standard Labovian line that diversity in American English is increasing, not decreasing today. Certainly, there are lots of recessive features, and some varieties are definitely losing ground, but it's hard to paint with a brush that's so broad.

Then comes the news that Mummert is from "the land of the umlaut." Pennsylvania Dutch, as far as I know, lacks the front rounded vowels of Standard German (along with Low German dialects, etc.) that Americans generally mean when they say 'umlaut' — a word like German schön is schee (roughly like Shea Stadium). I don't quite know how people pronounce it when they call him a "löhkle boy." And then:
we invariably slipped into Dutchy talk. “Throw Father down the stairs his hat!” I’d say to my sister in an expression taken straight from a potholder sold at a tourist trap. “And throw the cow over the fence some hay!” she’d counter.
Is this actually Dutchy talk or is it hokey invented stereotype? I suspect the latter.

But then, on p. 2 of the on-line version, things improve dramatically, starting with this:
“When you hear the Amish speak English, they don’t really have a Dutch accent,” said Keith (Butch) Reigart, who teaches classes in Pennsylvania Dutch at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
Good, some non-exoticization of the Amish. (And accurate, from what I know.) It continues with a little on Dutch humorists, and so on. Nice to see something on the topic, at least, and it does have some good stuff.

There have been worse days in the MSM coverage of language issues, certainly.

Image from here.

6 comments:

James Crippen said...

I guess it’s not that important, but I wanted to note that Pennsylvania Dutch isn’t actually Dutch at all. It’s instead a dialect of Plattdeutsch or Low German, which is spoken in the northern regions of Germany. It’s in a separate branch from the Low Franconian languages that include Dutch, as well as a separate branch from the High German languages that include Standard German (i.e. Hochdeutsch) and Yiddish, among others.

James Crippen said...

Oh, and some (most?) Low German dialects include front rounded vowels. The Pennsylvania ones probably lost them due to English influence.

Joe said...

Right, Pennsylvania Dutch is not connected to the language we call 'Dutch', except that they are both Continental West Germanic languages. I think Mr. V knows that, but it is important that you note it, since many readers won't. If I could add some detail:

Plattdeutsch or Low German is actually spoken in the northern areas of the German-speaking world. Pennsylvania Dutch has roots mostly in the Palatine dialects (the Pfalz region), far to the south. (It's close to Mannheim dialect in some ways.) What distinguishes 'Low' from 'High' German is the 'second consonant shift', differences including the t in English 'water' (with similar forms in Frisian, Low German, Dutch) versus the ss in German Wasser. The same patterns exist with k vs ch in make/machen, help/helfen, and so on. Penn. Dutch has shifted forms like German does (although only to the extent of 'central' not 'upper' German dialects). So, Penn. Dutch is not Low German, but comes from a West Central German dialect.

In the US, there's a long tradition of calling about any non-standard variety of German 'Low German'. -- I've heard Bavarian, Hessian, East Franconian and Upper Saxon dialects called that. In that sense, Penn. Dutch counts as 'Low German', but not by the definitions linguists and dialectologists use. There are many Low German speakers in North America, including Mennonites, as it happens, but that's another story.

You're also quite right that Low German dialects have front rounded vowels (virtually all of them, in fact). Pfälzisch, though, like most central dialects, lost them long before people came to Pennsylvania. So, English influence didn't really play a role in that change, though this seems to be widely believed. There is some English influence on the language, of course, like the use of English 'r' sounds by lots of speakers, borrowing of even core vocabulary, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody know more about the use of inshallah in Egypt? My impression was that the word has long been so pervasive in Arabic that it's hard for it to 'creep' very much farther! Is this a recency illusion effect or something?

Anonymous said...

sorry, I've let my reading of the blog get severely neglected these past few months... but how could I not comment on this?

You're right, Verb, "Throw father down the stairs his hat" is some stereotypical concoction of PA Dutch English thanks to the tourist industry... though I've met plenty of people who swear that they say sentences structurally similar to that one in making fun of their own "Dutchy talk" --- I guess that's what Gayatri Spivak would call "strategic essentialism", adopting mainstream stereotypes for in-group identity and distinctiveness...

p.s. is there a more linguistic-y term for this? or do we have to take it from the literary theorist Spivak?

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Anon, I've heard something to this effect before, but third hand.

Still, I'm going to wash my screen and eyes with lye soap after seeing lit terms used for linguistic notions.