Saturday, November 07, 2009

Verb forms: seent, spunt, skinded

Sometimes people start off with a linguistic peeve and piece together a better picture of things. That looks like what Betty Winston Bayé of the Lousiville Courier-Journal did in this article, called
Speakers haven't 'seent' the harm of casual language
(It's short … it's better for you to read it than for me to summarize it.)

The piece caught my eye mostly because it deals with a common linguistic phenomenon that's not so common as a peeve: Many speakers simplify final consonant clusters, so that -nt is pronounced as -n, for example. So, dent gets pronounced as den. (Let's just leave aside for the moment the huge number of speakers who pronounce it with a glottal stop — that's relevant to the broader structural picture but not of immediately concern to my point.) A lot of research by sociolinguists has shown that people do this more often in words like dent that happen to end in the pattern and less often when the -t or -d is marks past tense, like in went, sent, and so on. For non-linguist readers, Winston Bayé is observing a hypercorrection, that is, where speakers who do this simplification are aware that they do it. They try to avoid it, but ending up adding a final consonant where it wouldn't normally appear, like seent for seen or spunt for spun. This bothered her enough to write a piece about it, so she talked to some linguists who make the usual points about informal speech and so on. (It's interesting that hypercorrection is really not about casual speech in some sense.)

The piece starts out feeling like it's going to be a rant about a peeve, but it seems like over the course of the article you can feel how Winston Bayé is actually wrestling with the notion of socially charged linguistic variation: We have good reasons for using distinct and distinctly non-standard varieties, but we can pay a price for it. She remains really concerned about the latter point but seems to get the former point. I don't know how journalists think about such a tone, but I find it kind of refreshing to see what's in some ways an opinion piece that lays it out that way.


Vance Maverick said...

Agreed. She doesn't really get around yet to asking why she believes there is a single standard of propriety, and that the only concern is whether it has been met....maybe in the next column.

Tangentially, I've always figured that "wuz" was an "inaudible provincialism" (in MFK Fisher's term) -- but seeing it here I wonder: is there an accent in which it marks an audible difference?

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, I was thinking about 'wuz' too. There IS the [ʌ] pronunciation in stressed position that might bug people who somehow expect a full vowel. But I was wondering if it's about more reduction -- in the context she gives, a lot of speakers can get it down to basically a fricative. But I'm not sure.

Maybe a peevologically attuned reader can tell us more.

John Cowan said...

Mark Twain has a clear distinction in Huckleberry Finn, between Jim, who always says "wuz", and the white characters, who always say "was". This leads me to think that [wɒz], or something like it, was standard in his day, and [wʌz] a non-standard variant that spread upwards. [wɒ] is, after all, the usual outcome of ME [wa], as in wash, water, etc., though later sound changes have eliminated [ɒ] almost completely from U.S. accents in favor of [ɑ] or [ɔ], Eastern New England being an exception.

Once Twain (and probably other humorists) used it, it stuck as a tag of non-standard speech even after it became obsolete as an indicator of pronunciation.

Mr. Verb said...

Sounds very plausible to me. (I didn't remember Twain's pattern.) Thanks!

Vance Maverick said...

It sounds plausible to me -- but I don't think it's right. Search this Google Books edition, for example. Lots of "wuz", no "was" at all. (But "wash" shows up, so the indexing looks sound.)

Vance Maverick said...

I take that right back. See the top line here. John is right. Google must have blocked "was" as a common word.

Vance Maverick said...

Coincidentally, someone just linked this site -- check how "palashdave" provides two pronunciations for the word.

(The most obvious conceptual defect of this site is that users record words in isolation.)