Date: Tue, 24 Jan 1995 00:26:25 CST


Subject: Re: TV and dialect

Mike Picone asked some questions about [U] before /r/. Rather than regional

dialect, this item seems to me to be language change. In my 37 years of

teaching, it seems I've heard an increasing frequency of [por] for [pUr] and

other similar words. Picone's 'tour' is one of them. If you examine which

vowel distinctions we have before /r/ (however realized phonetically), you'll

see spelling evidence, if not regional/social evidence,of the collapsing of

vowel distinctions in this context. When I was in high school I was taught

(later taught it myself) that [por] is a [pUr] way to say that word; it

reveals hillbilly ignorance. Well, don't we hear [po[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]] in British

English? So my teachers were wrong! I don't think the [U] realization

of -or/spelled words was common in our family, so I agreed with the teachers,

smugly. As I've "matured" I've gotten a broader picture. Do the paradigm of

vowels before -/r/ and see how many you have -- more than 5? If more than 5,

you're not very modern. We all know about Mary, merry, marry. And maybe we

know about mere, mirror vis-a`-vis high front vowels. Well, the high and

mid back vowels want to get into the act. Most young students at Missouri

have no high back vowel before /r/. As with 'sure' (= "shirr"), the medial

vowel in the name of the Show-Me state is now said, by many-many young people,

as "err" (the way dictionary editors usually want you to say the word). That

is, the high back vowel, whether tense or lax, has merged with /o/ before

/r/ when it has a spelling that suggests "o" and has merged with the mid

central "retroflex" vowel when its spelling suggests a "u" of some sort.

Some stubborn words like 'pure' resist the dialectal preparation for the

millenium, but it's not far behind in the parade. I don't think I would

have noticed this development if I hadn't been shamelessly passing out

questionnaires asking students and their friends to fess up to saying

'Missouri' with -uh or with -ee, the fessing depending on attitude toward

each of these "correct" pronunciations. Look for an article from me on

this in a year or so (Am Speech if they have the good judgment to accept my

humble submission). Within a few years I began noticing a high incidence of

'err" in the middle of this great American word! (my tongue is in my cheek

here, but you'll have to wait for my article to find out why.)

So, Mike, it ain't just a penchant for snootiness. It's a patriotic

language change that sends today's yuppies on tores of distant shores

where they're shirr to get a good tan, fer shirr. The 'shore' pronunciation

of 'sure' always seemed, in my wisdom-filled youth, to reek of more ignorance

than did 'pore' for 'poor'. So there!

Of course there's some regionality; there almost always is in language change.

When I left the South Midland tones of Texas and came to Missouri, I was

struck by the apparent fact (I didn't do a systematic count) of the much

higher incidence ot [por] in Midwestern English, both North Midland and SWINE.

I hope younger scholar is beginning to trace this item. A good research

project for an assistant professor seeking heavy stuff for tenure things.