Date: Thu, 23 Mar 1995 00:24:30 EST


Subject: Re: 'see' or 'say'

My familiarity with the Northern Cities Shift is merely anecdotal,

based on eaves dropping in airports. In that regard, I came across an

utterance that is emblematic of what Labov describes as the low vowel

part of the shift in the north. As I was awaiting a flight, I overheard

not entirely unconsciously (is surreptitious listening unethical or illegal?)

two gentlemen talking and one, bragging or bemoaning exploits of the day

prior said, "Last night I lost my wallet in the bar." His vowels in the

first (last), fourth (lost), and sixth word (wallet) of this sentence

were all fronted from what are their cardinal positions (at least for me)

in Gen'ral Umurican.

My experience with the so-called Southern Vowel Shift is more direct,

and I suspect I may be undergoing it myself. I find it easier and easier

to pronounce the accusative form of the first person personal pronoun

with a mid front vowel in contrast with the high front vowel it became

as a result of the GVS. I hear this change all around me. But the

third person singular nominative form {he} does not seem to be affected

so. And many other words don't either.

I could run through many other examples, but I really have some questions

here. First, what does this example say about the Neo-Grammarian

dictum about the irreversibility of sound change? {me} was [me] then

became [mi] and now is [me] again?

The first time I talked to students about the SVS, a student

asked what I first reacted to as a stupid naive question but which I have

since come to see as crucial in this case. We were working through the

exercises in Walt's book on these contemporary vowel shifts, and

a student asked, "How are we supposed to know what the underlying

vowel is to apply the rule to?" (Extreme paraphrase from memory).

I said something like, "Well, you just know." And I went on about how

we have real time evidence that people pronounced

this pronoun with a high front vowel but that now some people used a

mid front vowel and blah blah blah.

Now I question the nature of this evidence. First, as I understand it,

Labov's work here seems to posit a homogeneous speech community that

has since diverged in accord with these shifting patterns. Where is the

evidence that the community was homogenous? What looks like change

and an actuation problem may not be that at all. It may be the case

that we have a continuity of several varieties all along (like for

400 years) and social scientists are simply now becoming aware of

that fact and are trying to explain it in the context of a bad

paradigm (i.e., XXXXXXX). It may be that some people said

[me] and never [mi] all the way back.

The other point I wish to raise is that this so-called

vowel shift may be simply a lexical change, that via

lexical diffusion may be later interpreted as a chain shift.

To use the introspective paradigm (I am my best informant,

if we can trust Noam), for me--which may phonetically be sometimes

[me] for me, but only variably--{we} and {he} are still [wi] and

[hi] for me. More importantly, others whom I have heard say [me]

for {me} show NO CHANGE WHATSOEVER in other areas of the pronominal

system in regards pronunciaton.

What Labov claims to be a vowel chain shift on the basis of limited

evidence provided to him by various students, I would suggest, might

be limited lexical change or a misinterpretation based upon lack

of appropriate historical evidence. Certainly, any such claims

must be supported by more quantitative evidence than is provided

in the 91 article or the most recent tome.



Terry Lynn Irons t.irons[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

Voice Mail: (606) 783-5164

Snail Mail: UPO 604 Morehead, KY 40351