Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pahk the Cah

For the uninitiated, that title means 'park the car' in the many English r-dropping dialects, like the Queen of England's and my native Rhode Island's. The rule is simple, drop an r whenever the next sound is a consonant, so, in native mode, I'd say "faw boys," but "four of them." There is a scientific reason for this pronunciation rule, which I won't go  into now because it would take us too far off this blog topic.
Before you get all smug and uppity about how you, would never, ever, ever speak so carelessly or lazily, be aware that the more careful you are in sticking r's in wherever they are spelled, the more careless you are with the vowels and even the syllables that precede them. Speakers who are r-ful, collapse the vowel distinctions between the first syllables of current, thorough, hurricane, heard, and word, not to mention pairs like Barry, beery, Harry, hairy, and very,vary. They even make the first syllable of common names like Karen idential to Kieran, and Mid and far Westerners pronounce horror just like whore. Some r-ful speakers stick r's in where they certainly don't belong, like those from Warshington state who do their warsh. And those are just small examples of the magnitude of r-ful pronunciation sins.

The Queen of England and speakers from Eastern New England and the Coastal South who blithely drop their r's would never, ever, ever be so careless or lazy as to mess up vowel distinctions the way most Americans do. Even the growing numbers of reformed r-droppers on the East Coast haven't yet sunk to that level.

Okay, I'm a linguist and I don't really think it's a sin to do any of those things: drop r's, level out vowel distinctions, or the like. Nor do I think one has sunk to a lower level if they do. I'm just using the terms I've heard self-righteous r-ful speakers use about my native Rhode Island accent. There is nothing sinful about any given pronunciation. Every dialect has its own pronunciation rules.

What is important to realize is that all pronunciation rules are consistent within a given dialect group. All follow clear phonetic rules, and have a raison d'etre. Hate to say it again, but read my book and you'll find out why it is inevitable that vowels get dropped if you are r-ful, and why that is not done if you are r-dropping. (A side note: all the formerly r-dropping accents in America are becoming increasingly r-ful. Why? Well that merits another blog post -- but it's discussed in my book too.)

The big question is, why did Eastern New Englanders, New York City-ites, and Coastal Southerners drop r's for so long when they were swamped by the r-ful accents of the rest of America? Where did the r-dropping come from? Well, we do know why it occurred and why it spread and among whom.

The native dialects of America came from the British colonists, the original settlers. How do we know? There are, of course, no recordings of those speakers, at least not voice ones. But, there are spellings. More exactly, there are spelling errors in the records, letters, and wills written in the 13 original colonies.

What can we tell from spelling errors, and how do we know what they signify? Well, the errors alone, without knowledge of the history of English and also the rules for pronunciation change would not be sufficient.

For example, scholars with no knowledge of historical linguistics, like David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion's Seed, have taken such errors and come to erroneous conclusions about how colonists in Eastern New England and the Coastal South talked. Fischer concluded, bizarrely enough, that because asked is often spelled "arst" in colonial records, that Massachusetts speakers pronounced the r in that word, despite the fact, which he stresses, that they had no r's whatsoever in "Hahv'd" (Harvard) or in any word that had a consonant after an r, such as park (pahk) or yard (yahd). Why would people who dropped r's consistently insert one before the triple consonants in asked? This is especially unlikely since there never was an r in ask, even in Old English manuscripts? Similarly, Fischer claims that Coastal Southerners pronounced master as "marster" because of that spelling error. This word, too, from its earliest spellings in Old English manuscripts never had an r stuck in the middle of it.

It never ceases to amaze me that people make all sorts of judgments about language despite their ignorance of the science of linguistics. They seem to think that just because they speak, they know all about speaking. Sorry. I don't intend to turn this into a rant, so let me just explain where and how r-dropping occurred and how we know.

Some people think that r-dropping was a relatively late phenomenon in English, starting sometime in the 19th century in England. Then, they figured that New England and the Coastal South, where there was ostensibly more contact with England than the interior regions did, simply copied upper class British speech.

There are two problems with this. One is that spelling error evidence I noted. The other is that it doesn't explain why all of Eastern New England except for Martha's Vineyard consistently and uniformally dropped preconsonantal r's. Having lived in the Maine wilderness in the 1950's and in rural Rhode Island for 25 years, I can tell you that farmers, hunters, canoe makers, plumbers, well-diggers, and lumbermen in such places would never have copied upper-class British speech. You've heard Hugh Grant speak. Would you suddenly start talking like him? Of course not! Why would ordinary folk who had, actually, very little contact with the British upper class suddenly start mimicking them?

Moreover, we know that people don't change their speech to sound like other people's even if they hear it on a regular basis. All nonstandard speakers all over America who say "dis" for this, "trow" for throw and "muvvah" for mother have heard the two standard "th" pronunciations (compare thy and thigh)on TV, in the movies, in school, and from their physicians, all of their lives. Still, they don't use the "th" in their ordinary speech.

Actually, the evidence for r-dropping begins with the Paston Letters, written in Norfolk, England between 1420 and 1504 by the Paston family, members of the gentry, but not actual royalty. Going through some manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, I have also found evidence of r-dropping by whoever wrote them down. This doesn't mean Chaucer was an r-dropper, but that some scribes were. There are two kinds of evidence that r's are being dropped. One is an error in inserting an r where older manuscripts show it being consistently absent. The other is omitting the r where older manuscripts consistently have it. So, in the Chaucer manuscript, the spelling "dor" for do shows that the scribe knows that r sometimes appears in spelling where he doesn't pronounce it, so that he's not quite sure if an r belongs in a word or doesn't. Either way, he wouldn't pronounce it. In the same text, we find "mo" for more. The scribe drops the r in more, so he doesn't spell it.

Another example is "arnser" for answer in the Paston Letters. Going all the way back to Anglo Saxon, we can find no r in the first syllable of answer, although there is a word final one. Answer comes from Anglo-Saxon "andswer." The "and" syllable is related to Latin anti 'against.' The "swer" is what, in modern English, has become swear. So answer originally meant 'to swear against.' However, swear in Anglo-Saxon wasn't perjorative as it is today.

I can hear you thinking, "What has this to do with the "arnser" misspelling?" Everything. Only an r-dropper would make this mistake, because an r-dropper knows that, in his or her dialect, an "ar" indicates the "ah" sound. For me as a kid, for instance, the "ar" in park indicated that the a should be pronounced "ah" as opposed to the "a" in at or bad. To the Paston who wrote "arnser," this indicated the pronunciation "ahnsa." (As we'll see below, if you drop your r's, a final er is pronounced "uh.') One of my sons spelled socks as "sarks" when he was in the first grade. That's not a spelling error an Iowan child would make.

In those Colonial records in America, then, "arst" indicated "ahst". Nobody pronounces the "sked" no matter what dialect they speak. Try it. It's impossible unless you say "ask + id" and since the e of the "ed" ending was lost long ago, it has become "ast" for everyone. Oh, and "marster" would have been "mahsta." Why would they spell the final "er" correctly? Well, there were some spelling rules and although people deviated from them, they did preserve the r's they didn't pronounce in some instances.

"Aah," you think, "How do you know that this was not actually pronounced 'er' and wasn't just a case of being aware of the standard spelling?" That one is easy. All over the English speaking r-dropping world, a word final "er" is pronounced "uh," in Britain, South Africa, Australia, and America. So, to have that uniformity, the original r-dropping accents must have dropped that final r as well, resulting in an "uh." Try curling your tongue to make an r. Now as you do so, uncurl it. You'll find yourself making an "uh."

Also, recall at the start of this posting, I noted that a word-final r is pronounced by r-droppers if the next word begins with a vowel, but dropped if the next word begins with a consonant. So, all r-droppers did pronounce the final "er" with an r in some circumstances, so that spelling was reinforced in a way that "ar" or "or" wasn't.

My next posting on this subject will talk about the colonists, where they came from in England, and how they talked. Pennsylvanians, don't worry. I'll explain why that state has always been r-ful, even though it's on the East Coast.