Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 00:44:45 -0600
From: Mike Salovesh t20mxs1[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Subject: Re: Emma Thompson's jaw

Linda McMillan lindi[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] asked:

This brings to mind another question: I have a friend who was born in
Russia and came to the U.S. when she was about 9 or 10, I think. She
claims that the reason she has such an evident accent is because her jaw
was already set by that age for speaking Russian. Any evidence to support
her claim?

I don't know what "setting one's jaw" might be.

What I DO know is that when I began studying linguistics, I had trouble
with a British linguist's description of "normal" English points of
articulation. (Could it have been Jones?) It just didn't square with
what I saw in my hand mirror as I articulated what should have been
apical stops -- the ones normally spelled with "t" and "d". According
to the textbook, these are done by the tongue tip. I noticed that in my
own speech there was free variation between that articulation and
another, in which the tongue tip touched the LOWER teeth while the
tongue blade -- the part just behind the tongue tip -- touched the
alveolar ridge. I just put the whole thing down to idiosyncratic

Years later, I was working with a Russian speaker trying to get a handle
on Russian phonology. (I had some spare time, and was trying to learn
Russian; she taught it at the community college where I worked.) She
was surprised at how easily I picked up reasonable pronunciation of
Russian palatalized stops.

I then recalled that "extra" stop that I alternate with t/d in English.
Suddenly, it all made sense: my grandparents all spoke Russian from
childhood. They learned English as a THIRD language, as adults. My
parents didn't learn Russian at all. Still, their English included
Russian phonetic elements, which my brother and I incorporated into our
normal English speech. (The same elements occur in the speech of
several of my first cousins.)

There's another notable feature of many Slavic languages whose
influence you can see in native English speakers whose ancestors spoke
Russian or Polish, etc. Watch (I really did mean "SEE"!) the use of the
lips in bilabials ("M", "B", "P"). The upper lip stays still; it's the
lower lip that moves. An observant friend (and firstrate descriptive
linguist) was only slightly exaggerating when he said that "In
Pittsburgh, nobody over the age of 45 has a visible upper lip". That's
exactly what you would expect from the normal Slavic use of the lips in

Habitual use of specific points of articulation on a micro scale can
interfere with learning native pronunciations in a second language. If
neither the learner nor the teacher has a good grasp of articulatory
phonetics, those slight off-pronunciations are extremely hard to
recognize at all. Correcting them without a sophisticated knowledge of
phonetics is probably hopeless.

I cite my own speech (and that of my brother and our cousins) to support
the proposition that pronunciation microvariants can carry through a
couple of generations of language separation from the speech community
in which they are normal.

Maybe I don't know what "setting the jaw" might mean in this context,
but setting the points of articulation usually is not a conscious
process . . . and thus is extremely hard to change.

-- mike salovesh salovesh[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]
anthropology department
northern illinois university PEACE !!!