Sesame Street does Sociophonetics

“Rosita doesn’t want to speak, ever again! She doesn’t like the way she sounds. She says she sounds different.”
— Big Bird

 

Today I happened upon an episode of Sesame Street that’s all about sociolinguistics.

The vignette touches on sociophonetic variation, bilingualism, ethnicity, accents, identity, and the very real effects of linguistic discrimination: silencing children who speak in non-standard ways. The episode first aired in 2004*, and the relevant story starts at 1 minute, 45 seconds in, and lasts until 12 minutes in. The first musical number is an obvious nod to Pygmalion (with a pig named Henry Piggins, of course!), but luckily that story line doesn’t get very far. In fact, Rosita’s negative reaction to her Eliza Doolittle experience is a very realistic one.

Rosita is a bilingual monster of Mexican origin who has been part of Sesame Street’s cast since 1991 and who regularly speaks and sings in both Spanish and English, with code-mixing. This particular scene focuses on one specific aspect of Rosita’s accent, what linguists refer to as a tensed /ɪ/-vowel. /ɪ/ is also called the KIT vowel, because it’s the vowel that occurs in words like kit, bit, dip, etc. ‘Tensed‘ refers to the quality of that vowel: because there’s no /ɪ/ in Spanish, in Rosita’s accent it’s pronounced more like /i/, so that bit and dip sound more like beet and deep. There is also some mention of how her /p/ sounds (to the ears of the non-Spanish-speaking muppet kids) more like a /b/ than a /p/. But when the pig comes along the focus is really all on the KIT vowel.

A tiny technical quibble here: the only downside to their presentation is the explanation that Rosita’s tense KIT vowel sounds the way it does because she’s bilingual, rather than because she’s Mexican American. We know that monolingual Mexican Americans can have a tensed KIT vowel, too, especially in certain phonological contexts. And because of this and other accent features that are similar to bilingual speakers’ accents, they are often assumed to speak Spanish or criticized for being monolingual. You can read more about Chicano English in this interview with my fellow sociolinguist, Carmen Fought.

Many adults could benefit from watching this episode, especially anyone involved in education and education policy. We know that discrimination based on accent is pervasive among adults, but the specific effect of children who stop speaking up in class because of their accent or dialect has also been documented, such as in the recent work by another fellow sociolinguist, Julia Snell. The potential consequences for educational attainment are profound. If anyone’s interested in learning more about this important area of work, please leave a note in the comments and I’ll be happy to send more resources.

Well done, Sesame Street, for recognizing this issue.

Rosita

Rosita

*Thanks to Ben Zimmer for finding the link!

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Doctor-Directed Speech, and Me

My first memory of a sociophonetic experience that led to an actual research project was when I was about seventeen years old. I was seeing a new doctor in my hometown (Flagstaff, Arizona), and I was surprised to hear myself speaking to the doctor with a very fronted /u/ vowel. I don’t remember hearing the same vowel in my doctor’s speech (I have no idea where they were from), so it was an instance of style-shifting for social purposes rather than phonetic convergence; for some reason, I had acquired a fronted /u/ as part of my doctor-directed speaking style. My post-hoc intuition was that the fronted vowel indexed politeness, deference, and respect (although of course when I was 17 I didn’t use the word indexed). Anyway, I went off to college and then, for a term paper in Natasha’s Warner’s class, I did a little project on /u/-fronting in Flagstaff, Arizona. It turned into my first PhD Qualifying Paper, and my only NWAV proceedings paper.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, to today, when I was again seeing a new doctor. I’ve had some minor but persistent health struggles for the past few years and was meeting with someone new for an initial, half-hour consultation. I’m not entirely sure where the doctor is from; all his education was in England, and he has been in Edinburgh for at least 25 years, and has no strong regional markers. (To be honest, my sociophonetic ‘ears’ were ‘off’ during the consultation because I was just trying to explain my medical situation and I wasn’t paying attention. I know some phoneticians are always ‘on’ but I’m not one of them.) Anyway, we were talking for about 10-15 minutes when this happened:

Me:  “…since I’m American…”
Him:  “Oh, you’re American?”
Me:  “Yes.”
Him:  “Hm, I didn’t pick up on that. You don’t sound it.”

Let me clear: this is definitely the first time this has happened to me. That is, this is the first time that a British person has thought that I was British, and said so. I’ve blogged before (though awhile ago now; early 2010) about how my accent hasn’t been changing and isn’t/wasn’t likely to change, but how my inner voice was already starting to ‘sound’ more British, even after only a few months. And how each time I noticed it, it took me by surprise. So here I am, surprised again.

Not that my accent is changing, though. An overall change in accent is very different from the acquisition of a new speech style. I had a good friend visiting from the US for the month July who noted that I style-shift when talking to (at least some) British friends.* After hanging out awhile, either just the two of us or in the company of other Americans, we had lunch with someone born and raised in Edinburgh. After lunch she pointed out that I’d style-shifted, and just like today, I totally hadn’t noticed it. It’s a bit like the experience of having a very fronted /u/ came out of my mouth twenty years ago, except back then I’d noticed the shift on my own, whereas nowadays I seem to need someone else to point it out.

Presumably both the lunch with the friend and the doctor’s office today were cases of some sort of phonetic convergence toward the friend’s or the doctor’s own speaking styles. But my intuition is that this was actually a secondary factor, at least today. If the motivation were solely about alignment with the doctor’s own style then alignment would’ve been gradually building over the conversation such that my Americanness would’ve been clear from my initial speech. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was a consultation with a new doctor. I think there’s something specific to being a new patient with a new doctor that elicits my most accommodative styles. Maybe something about the adoption of a deferential stance, combined with the drive to establish a kind of please-understand-my-problem solidarity.

And coincidentally, a fronted /u/ is appropriate for both dialect contexts.

Okay, so, this last time it took about five years between the first instance of the phenomenon (the fronted /u/) and the related research project, so who knows, maybe in five years’ time I’ll be working on second dialect acquisition (although my collaborator Jennifer Nycz already has a great head start on that). Talk about blatant mesearch! (But then again, what’s a blog, if not that?)


*Including my daughter, but that’s a story for another day!

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When ‘big’ starts with /p/ and ‘pig’ starts with /b/

I’m writing because of another little language acquisition oddity. I’m basically curious to hear if anyone else has known a kid who’s done the thing that my kid is doing. Let me say off the bat: I’m not worried about this at all. I just find it interesting, and frankly perplexing.

My daughter’s now 3;7. (Three years, seven months.) As a family we do that metalinguistic thing that people do when they’re priming kids for learning to spell where we talk about what letters and sounds are at the beginning of words. You know, like…

“‘Hat’ starts with…?”

“Hat. /hə hə hə/.”

“Yes! Aitch. /hə hə hæt/.”

Lately this language-loving kid has been designing her own knock-knock jokes around a similar idea, breaking down words into the onset consonant (always a consonant, sometimes consonant plus schwa) and the rest of the word. Here’s an awww-so-adorable example from half an hour ago:

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“/lə/”

“/lə/ who?”

“Love!”

The oddity is that, for months now, like, since whenever we started doing this kind of thing, my child has consistently — without fail — said that words beginning with /b/ begin with /p/, and vice versa. So she says that “Paula” starts with “B” and “Ben” starts with “P”. (Apologies for the lack of narrow transcription, but fwiw we’re just dealing with your general American English-ish p’s and b’s here, e.g., /p/ is strongly aspirated, /b/ doesn’t have any strong pre-voicing).

If you have at least intro level linguistics you’ll know that she’s reversing what might be basically called a voicing contrast (although phonetically that’s not exactly right; the Wikipedia link has a pretty good summary of why). So, what about /t d/ or /s z/ or other pairs with a voicing contrast? They seem fine; exactly as you’d expect. It’s just /p b/ that always get switched. For example, here’s what happened a few seconds after the previous example (note that she was looking at my ears at the time, and she’s been really wanting earrings)…

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“/bə/”

“/bə/ who?”

“Pierced ears!”

This is a made up example but it represents the way she last long approached the basic game mentioned above:

“What letter does ‘big’ start with?”

“/bə bə bə/ P!”

“What letter does ‘pig’ start with?”

“/pə pə pə/ B!”

So this is a different thing, obviously, than if her responses had been “/pə pə pə/ P” and “/bə bə bə/ B” — maybe there are multiple things going on here, one about the sounds, and one about the letters. (Note: this is yet another reason why I do not do acquisition research!) She can currently recognize and name the capital letters P and B but she can’t write them and doesn’t talk about them as much as other letters. Neither P nor B start off any of her names nor ‘Mom(my)’ nor ‘Dad(dy)’ and so frankly we just don’t talk about them very much.

I think what gets me about this is how totally regular the pattern is. Where did this come from? Why only the bilabial plosives? I would love to hear your guesses. As I mentioned above, I’m not at all concerned about this in terms of her future spelling ability. She’s in Gaelic Medium Education and they don’t (need to) learn how to spell in English for a long time yet.

gaining balance

 

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Sometimes I blog about things that I feel too awkward talking about face-to-face. This is one of those things.

I don’t want to make too big a deal here, but I’ve got a little PSA. It’s about something I feel like I’ve always known, something I assumed everyone knew, something that I thought was common knowledge, common sense. But then, a few years ago, an elderly acquaintance said it, and I was stunned. I chalked it up to a generation gap or maybe a difference in education. But then, a senior academic also said it, and again I was stunned, and again I chalked it up to a generation gap. Although this time it was odd because he had said it about a member of his own family. And then, one day, one of my own family members said it — someone younger than me, even. I was floored, and I had lost my age-based explanation. It occurred to me that this is just something that some people have thought about and other people haven’t.

That probably applies to most things in life, but this is something that I have some personal investment in.

What I’m talking about is the use of the word ‘real parents’ to describe an adopted child’s biological parents.

It doesn’t take a long to see why the term ‘real parents’ is is problematic: if the biological parents are the real parents, then the adoptive parents must be something other than real. Fake? Imaginary? Artificial? While I quite like the idea of being a ‘surreal’ parent, especially because the parenting experience is so often surreal, I don’t think that’s the first implication that comes to mind (unfortunately).🙂

I’m sure that none of the people who I’ve heard use the term ‘real parents’ actually thinks that I am less of a parent to my child than my child’s biological parents. And I’m certainly not going to deny that giving birth is any less ‘real’ than raising a child. (And wow if there isn’t a ton of realness involved in fostering, as well…!) The point is not who is more ‘real’ than who, but just that all parents are ‘real’ parents, and so using the term is not a good way to distinguish between different relations to a child. Different families will have their own ways of referring to these relationships, too, but I’ve personally not met a someone who had been adopted who refers to their own biological parents as their ‘real parents’. (That said, I would also not be surprised if I was wrong about that; please leave a comment below if you have some counter evidence!)

Implications of fake parenting aside, the use of the term ‘real’ can lead to confusion. Imagine if someone were to ask me, “Are you her real mother?” How should I answer? I could say “yes” based on the fact that my daughter calls me “mom(my),” thinks of me as her mother, is legally my child, and will be parented by me for the rest of my life. Or I could infer what they’re asking and answer “no” because I’m not her biological mother. Both are right and both are wrong. Similarly if someone were to ask me, “Have you met her real father?” I could truthfully say “no” if I were to infer that they were asking about her biological father, or I could truthfully say “yes” since I’m married to the person who she calls “dad(dy)” and who parents her daily and will parent her for the rest of his life. Regardless of whether or not the term ‘real parent’ is insulting, at the very least it is potentially ambiguous and confusing.

But then why is it so pervasive? Why am I apparently in the minority?

I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a few weeks now after hearing Ira Glass use the term ‘real mother’ on an episode of This American Life. Again, I was stunned. I went to Twitter and Facebook anticipating an outcry and actually only found a handful of tweets and a couple posts calling him out on it. It also turns out that the episode was a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired in 2002. So I did a wider Google search for any reactions to the episode prior to 2015 and found some discussions from 2010, after it had also been rebroadcast, including this blog post which basically says the same thing I’m writing now. But, all in all, very little in the way of discussion on the interwebz. So are we-who-blog-on-this-topic in the extreme minority? As someone who works on language variation and change, my first thought is to consider this a particular example of language change in progress, one in which with those of us in the ‘adoption community’ are hanging out at the beginning of the S-curve. (I may have adopted only recently but I’d thought of myself as a future adopter for most of my life.)

So… to Google Ngrams!

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ parent

At least when we look at the data from Google Books, we can see some evidence of change, namely an increase in the ‘biological’ and ‘birth’ terms, and maybe a slight decrease in the ‘real parent’ term, although actually not by that much. The big jump for the former two is not surprising, really. What is a little surprising is that ‘real’ has been outpaced by both ‘birth’ and ‘biological’ since the 1960s, which maybe explains why I had the impression that it was common sense. On the other hand, there’s no information within the Ngram search about domains of use; perhaps all these authors are people involved with adoption talking amongst themselves. It’s also not totally clear why ‘biological’ is so much more frequent than ‘birth’. For that, let’s consider gender.

Starting with moms:

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ mother

(Note that this probably includes instances of the use of ‘real mother’ meaning ‘big’ as in “a real mother of a car” http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/mother_1)

In contrast to the ‘parent’ chart, ‘birth’ is much higher than ‘biological’ for references to mothers. This is interesting to me because I’ve seen online discussions that expressly disfavor the term ‘birth mother’ because it’s felt to be too dismissive of the actual relationship, focusing too much on the first and ignoring both the nine months leading up to the birth as well as, in many cases, the caregiving that the biological mother did post-birth. At the same time, to just talk about ‘biology’ is could presumably also be felt to dismiss those same emotional or caregiving aspects of the relationship, but for some reason, ‘bio mom’ is what I most often see in online discussions that I’m a part of.

Now let’s look at dads:

Google Ngram of ‘real / biological / birth’ parent

Since mothers are the ones doing the birthing, that particular gender difference isn’t too surprising, but at least now we can maybe see why ‘biological’ outpaced ‘birth’ in the ‘parents’ graph. I’ve personally found the term ‘birth father’ awkward when I use it with my daughter, for that very reason. Unfortunately, ‘biological father’ is just such a mouthful for a 3-year-old! Maybe that’s why some people fall back on saying ‘real father’ — it’s short and easy! But then again so is ‘bio dad’, which I might use when my kid’s older and can understand what’s meant by ‘bio(logical)’. On another note, I wonder what accounts for the steady increase in the use of ‘real dad’. I would love to know more about the kind of texts that that term appears most often in. Has there been a rise in plots of novels that hinge on revealing that someone’s father is not really their father, for example? But now I’m getting sidetracked.

EDIT: An astute observer and Ngrams user suggested on Facebook looking up the also-somewhat-problematic term “natural parent/mother/father” as well, which shows an interesting recent downward trend. That’s actually still the term used by my own family’s adoption agency. Anyway, I decided to just present all the terms together into one plot. (I also tried “first parent/mother/father” but it wasn’t frequent enough to make it onto the chart.) Interesting results overall: people talk about birth mothers, biological fathers, and then real mothers and fathers:

A comparison of referring terms

In short: Adoption is complicated! Referring terms are complicated! But what I do know is that parenting is very real, regardless of the way in which a parent becomes a parent.

My daughter on Christmas Day, 2015

My daughter on Christmas Day, 2015

PSA over. Thanks for reading, and for letting me be real.🙂

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How does a 2-year-old remember a funny accent after many months?

This is for you, NWAV44!

The biggest annual conference in variationist sociolinguistics, NWAV, is taking place right now in Toronto. There was a time in my life when I would’ve never missed an NWAV, but this is the second year in a row that I’ve had to skip out.* It’s not worth explaining why, but suffice it to say that I’ve been looking for any upsides to staying at home while everyone’s off conferencing it up in Canada. The biggest upside, of course, is that I get to hang out with my little family, which features one particularly awesome little girl who I’ve blogged about before (like, a lot). In fact, I’ve blogged about her so much that people are starting to get the impression that I actually work on language acquisition (I don’t)! What I do work on is sociophonetics. This is a post that combines both topics.

dora_screenshot

This time last year, my daughter was occasionally watching Dora, The Explorer. Unlike a lot of other American animated shows we get in the UK, this one was never dubbed, but was shown with the original American voices. For those of you who haven’t endured this show personally, one of the characters on the show is a fox named Swiper. I guess he’s the only ‘bad guy’ on the show, although he’s more mischievous and naughty than ‘bad’. His catchphrase is “Oh, man!” which he says if Dora and Boots succeed in stopping him from pulling off a heist. You can see an example of it here.

swiper_screenshot

Back when our family watched this show we would joke around about it, imitating Swiper’s catchphrase, and in particular over-emphasizing the quality of his tensed, pre-nasal /æ/ vowel, a feature which is typical of many Northern American English varieties but not UK ones. (The symbol /æ/ refers to the sound in words like bat, ban, trap, etc.) We would all take turns pretending to be Swiper and say “Oh, man!” with extra tensing, extra nasality, or both. (For a cool phonetic analysis of the relationship between nasality and tensing, or the lack thereof, I recommend this paper by Paul De Decker.)

And then many months passed during which time we did not watch Dora. Our kid went from about 2 years, 5 months old to 3 years, 2 months old.

Tonight is a Friday night, and since we are not opposed to having our child sleep in on Saturday morning if at all possible, we are a bit looser with the evening routine than most nights. This includes a little extra TV-watching. So tonight at dinner, I was mentioning all the shows that we haven’t watched in a very long time, to see if she’d be up for trying any of them again. When I mentioned Dora, this is what happened:

  • Me: “How about Dora The Explorer?”
  • Kid: “Dora! I don’t like Swiper.”
  • Me: “Yeah, you don’t like Swiper.”
  • Kid: “He says me an.”
  • Me: “He’s mean, huh.”
  • Kid: “No, he says me, an.”
  • Me: “Me-an? No he doesn’t…”

This went on for a few more turns before finally, “Oh! You’re saying that he says ‘Oh man‘!

Apparently the raised, tense quality of that vowel in ‘man’ was so extreme that her (British) toddler brain had processed the vowel nucleus as /i/ (as in me, bee, fleece, etc.), either as the onset of an /i/-/æ/ diphthong or as a distinct word from ‘an’. That’s kind of cool. But even more so is the fact that she used to joke around saying “Oh, man!” just as much as my husband and I would, and I never perceived her as producing anything phonetically different from what we were doing. In other words, back then, she never produced it as ‘me an’. So her production imitation was spot-on, but when recalling this form from memory she didn’t recall the phonetics (an unusual pronunciation of the correct vowel) but rather the phonology (the structural elements of the system that are phonetically closest to the phonetics).

All this from a few seconds at dinner. But which I might have missed, had I been at NWAV.

Just for fun, I will leave you with this amusing Dora spoof from SNL. Thanks to my childhood bestie and mother of three, Aubrey Brown, for telling me about it.


*P.S. Even though I’m not there, my name is on a poster that’s being presented at NWAV later today. Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson and William Cotter (both at the University of Arizona) are collaborating with me and Mirjam Eiswirth (University of Edinburgh) on a project on Arizona English. The poster title is, “Northern Arizona: Sound Change and Dialect Contact.” My previous work on Arizona English is here: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~lhlew/arizonadialect.html

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What’s Gaelic for Gavagai?

Nothing highlights Quine’s gavagai problem like trying to learn a new language through books written for babies.

IMG_20150925_210550

 

My daughter has been attending Scottish Gaelic immersion preschool for just over a month now. I don’t know any Gaelic myself, and when she came home with some children’s books in Gaelic (courtesy of the awesome incredible fantastic amazing Bookbug programme), she wanted me to read the books to her. Presumably, learning a language via children’s books is not a bad idea; isn’t language learning one of the reasons we read to them? But since everyone in our house is a beginner, I looked into possibly getting the Bookbug’s ‘baby’ books and ‘toddler’ books, so I could personally work up to the ‘preschool’ books she brought home. And thanks to the amazing generosity of the Scottish Book Trust, today I got to try to teach myself Gaelic using a very simple baby book.

IMG_20150925_210604

Turns out, I can’t figure out the meaning of half the words in this one book without a dictionary (there are only ten words in the whole book, besides ‘bèibidh’). Take the first image in this post. Bèibidh is just ‘baby’. But what might ‘brèagha’ mean? Or the image directly above this paragraph; what do you think ‘snog’ means? Take some guesses. I’ll tell you later. Don’t worry about the pronunciations, by the way; Gaelic Bookbug is so brilliant, they have audio books you can read along with (the book in question is Fìor Chiad Leabhar nam Bèibidhean Beaga)

IMG_20150925_210821

To be clear, I adore the Bookbug programme and am in no way whatsoever complaining about the quality or choice of books. This is how good books for babies are written! I just never really noticed before, or perhaps I should say I never personally felt so acutely before, the gavagai problem.

Why? Because adult second language textbooks aren’t structured like baby books. (I imagine this is the kind of thing that language acquisitionists think about all the time; my apologies to the experts.)

Okay, any guesses for ‘toilichte’, above? For what it’s worth, here were my guesses for all three:

  • brèagha:  bending, or playing, or maybe happy
  • snog:  shy, or sweet, or maybe naked (thumb-sucking seemed too complicated)
  • toilichte:  clapping, or maybe something like warm or cozy

And here are the definitions from one dictionary I have:

  • brèagha:  beautiful, fine, lovely
  • snog:  nice, lovely, attractive, likeable
  • toilichte:  pleased, happy, glad

See what I mean? To be fair, if I had to find photos of babies to exemplify those words, I’d have a hard time! Because gavagai, of course.

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Two weeks later: ‘English’

This is a brief addendum to my previous post from two weeks ago about my daughter’s emergent and idiosyncratic typology of language types. Today she mentioned a new one: English. And what it seems to mean is ‘speaking correctly’.

We were reading books at bedtime. The books we were reading were among the ones that she has memorized. They’re particularly short and simple and, therefore, boring if read straight off the page. So, one way to keep it fun is to change up the words to say new, silly things. For example, instead of saying, “That’s not my panda, its ears are too fluffy,” it’s more fun to say, “That’s not my panda, its ears are too bubbly!” Anyway, we did this for a few books until at one point I was going a little overboard with it and she said in a breathless, laughing-too-hard voice, “No, stop! Speak English!

Of course this one anecdote doesn’t mean that she thinks ‘English’ means ‘speaking correctly’. When I stumble over what I’m trying to say or say the wrong word for an object, she doesn’t tell me to speak English. So it’s probably more likely to be her new word for what I called ‘unmarked’ my previous post, meaning something like ‘speaking normally’. It’s probably the context of reading out loud that especially made it seem to me like it had a twinge of ‘speak it the proper way’. Or maybe it’s just me making a big deal out of nothing because I’m a sociolinguist and I’m sensitive to contexts in which ‘English’ becomes equated with moral judgments of that which is ‘good’. Or (and I doubt this is true, but I like it) maybe what she means by ‘English’ is ‘calm and predictable’!

Anyway, the next thing to find out is if ‘America’ can ever be ‘English’…

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