Recent reading roundup

Un article fourre-tout touchant à plusieurs points linguistiques : les préjugés liés aux accents en anglais et allemand, les racines françaises de l’anglais, la réforme de l’orthographe allemand …

  • 2004-08-08

I finally caught up with my favourite blogs. How hard it is to get back on top of your reading after missing just ten days’ worth of blogging! Anyway, here are some commentaries inspired by the latest crop.

Mark Liberman and Eric Bakovic continue Language Log’s campaign against the regrettably pervasive phenomenon of accent prejudice. Their new articles have shifted focus from the US to the UK situation and go on to consider how disregard for accents that deviate from what is perceived as neutral or standard pronunciation, tagged as exemplary, or simply one’s own may be related to negative emotions: rooted in disgust or reinforced by shame.

How accent prejudice works differs between speech/national communities (the former may be contained in the latter or vice versa). In German dialects, the regional component seems to be stronger than the social class component, and many figures of public life speak in a way that makes it discernible where they grew up. I don’t have much of an accent, because my family origins go back to two different parts of Germany with me grewing up in a third one, and my parents insisted on us children speaking “Hochdeutsch” (standard German). But this “standard” was no more than a bleached variety of generic southern German (quite unlike the pronunciation taught to future actors, which is the only German pronunciation standard in existence). Of course, there’s the never-ending north-south rivalry (or “Bavaria against the rest of the world”): some Bavarians scorn northern Germans, whom they call “Prussians”, and some northerners wrinkle their nose at anyone from south of the river Main, assuming that they are all jingoistic, parochial dumb-asses. I got a dose of this anti-Bavarian prejudice when I was a student in Heidelberg; it was a bit confusing because I grew up in Frankonia, which, while part of the Land of Bavaria, has a very different family of accents (and yes, there is a Frankonian separatist movement promoting the separation from Bavaria); and because I don’t even feel like a Frankonian.

Oh, and on the subject of Frankonia… more precisely, I grew up in Middle Frankonia, one of Bavaria’s seven administrative subdivisions (read, counties). There is one largish urban agglomeration there, consisting of three towns the social composition and history of which are quite different: Nürnberg, Fürth and Erlangen. In each of them, some of the natives speak slightly different varieties of the Middle Frakonian dialect. And even non-dialect speakers’ accents can be slightly different. Which is particularly striking if an accent carries over into someone’s German accent in a foreign language. Hearing Henry Kissinger speak, it is clear to even my untrained ear that he doesn’t have a German accent, he has, to this day, a Middle Frankonian accent with the vowels and plosives (d, t, p and b in particular) and l sounds typical for Fürth, the town where his origins lie. (This phenomenon is so strong that I keep focussing on his accent every time I hear him on TV, which totally distracts me from what he is actually saying.)

Nowadays, the accent prejudice situation has become nastier with the thoughtless disregard of far too many Wessies — people from what the Federal Republic of Germany used to be before the reunification — for the Saxonian and Thuringian accents and dialects. Since the dialects spoken in the former DDR, as Eastern Germany used to be called in German, differ quite strongly from the West German ones, accent prejudice provides an easy outlet for intra-German xenophobia. Shame as an emotion that reinforces this dismal situation certainly comes into this — or shame’s cousin, defiance. I could go on telling anecdotes, but this post is long enough already. I hear the situation is getting a little better among young people, and hope this is true.

I wonder if the particular nature of the ties between accent and social class in the UK are in any way related to what is covered in this intriguing article by the Language Hat, namely the French and English components of Modern English. Language Hat quotes at length from an article on W. Rothwell’s Anglo-Norman On-Line Hub. The topic is, more or less, “How did all those French words get into English in the first place?” Over here on the Continent, folklore says that French came to the British Isles after the Norman conquest of 1066, that it existed side by side with English, with each language spoken by distinct social classes, and that then some merging process took place. This simplistic but apparently fundamentally correct view is, however, not what scholars have long thought:

The failure of scholars to appreciate fully the importance of Anglo-French in the making of the English lexis extends from individual words right up into whole areas of the culture of medieval England. For example, for the authorities on English etymology ‘troglodyte’ is adapted from the Latin and first attested in the middle of the sixteenth century - an example, one might be tempted to conclude, of the well-known re-birth of scientific interest in many fields that characterized this period. However, the term is found in French, only thinly disguised, in a Cambridge manuscript that may date from the late twelfth century and that has been available in published form for nearly seventy years. The adaptation of the word from the Latin took place in England some three and a half centuries before the date given by the authorities, but it was taken into the vernacular of the literate laity - French - not English. This example shows that a more measured approach may perhaps be called for when contrasting the ‘darkness’ of the Middle Ages with the ‘light’ of the Renaissance.

Hear, hear. The recent medievalist revival as a driving force for a better understanding of English etymology!

In The beauty of Brummie, Mark Liberman is, I think, a little tough on the BBC. The page he quotes is from h2g2, after all, not editoral content, but an online community effort. The page footer contains a disclaimer, stating “Most of the content on h2g2 is created by h2g2’s Researchers, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.” I believe it is unwise of the BBC to host such stuff. But on the journalistic side, the BBC Black Country home page, while not geared towards pro-Black Country accent activism, is much more interesting and has a fascinating Real Audio file of Tony Butler, a Brummie/Black Country accented journalist, talking about accent prejudice. A Brummie acquaintance — whose accent I find very melodious — pointed me to this page.

Oh, and Mark Liberman has discovered the German spelling reform, which is turning into the verbal and cultural equivalent of civil war. What a hateful mess. I will blog this — I’ve procrastinated long enough. The short version: No, I wouldn’t have made the exact changes the reform enacts; no, I don’t use all of the new spellings (I left Germany before the reform came out and don’t even have an good knowledge of the new rules); yes, there are a few things in it that irk me, in particular concerning compound verbs and capitalisation; in retrospect, they should have done away with noun capitalisation altogether; no, it would be utter folly to “take back” the reform. And it already is utter folly to turn the debate into a four-way shouting match between “conservatives”, “progressives”, intellectuals and politicians. And newspaper editors, so make that five. I’m particularly critical of the intellectuals, who should know better. Mark Liberman raises interesting questions, among which the metaphors that frame this pseudo-debate, the role the state should, or indeed has in taking decisions about language-related issues and so forth. One caveat, however: Adolf Muschg is quoted calling the reform “as unnecessary as gout”. This is first of all a mistranslation — gout is Gicht in German, and the original reads “Kropf” ie a goiter. Secondly, “überflüssig wie ein Kropf” — superfluous like a goiter — is an idiomatic expression. So we shouldn’t read too much into this metaphor. There are much better examples of disease-analogies to be found in this pseudo-debate, starting with the totally inappropriate “dyslexia” charge.

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