February 22, 2006

Bosses with Antennas on the Tap


The Great Vowel Shift originally described (I believe) by Otto Jespersen illustrated by this chart happened around 1400.

Now, according to Professor William Labov and others, there's a similar "Northern City Shift" occurring in American phonology.

There's something kind of funny about this clip, where Professor Labov is interviewed by Robert Siegel on the topic of strange-sounding accents and pronunciation. If you've done much listening to NPR, you'll know that Siegel is one of those people who appears to have an accent all his own, which he shares with no other individual or regional group. He is the sole living example of it, the product, perhaps, of an extremely Tiny (Yet Dramatic) Vowel Shift that only seems to have affected a single individual. (Jesse Jackson is another one of those accent-unto-themselves people. There are probably others, though I can't think of any right now.)

As for the Siegelian accent, how to describe it? It's a little bit Dick Cavett, a little bit Kermit, with maybe just the barest hint of Latke Gravis around the edges. The vowels give the word "closed" a new meaning. He says the word "news" in Siegelian several times a day, but there's something especially cool about it here, where he uses it as an example against which to judge other, less otherworldly ways of pronouncing that sound. Terrific.

(via Maud Newton.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 22, 2006 02:14 AM | TrackBack

Thanks Frank...
I'm a dork, but I love this stuff. You read Bryson's 'Mother Tongue' right?

The great vowel shift is amazing, but the really quite recent development of what we think of as the 'british accent' is interesting too. How do these things happen?
May they never stop happening...

Posted by: marc w. at February 22, 2006 03:12 AM

I'd like to nominate Sam Waterston as someone who has an accent all his own.

Posted by: Gantbot at February 22, 2006 04:37 AM

Good point, Gantbot.
I'd like to nominate basically everyone at NPR. Yes, Siegel qualifies, but then, so must Bob Edwards, and Anne Garrels, and Joanne Silburner (this one is completely weird), and Garrison Keilor. Ladies and gentlemen, *Peter Overby?*
I think it's something they look for when making hiring decisions.

Posted by: marc w. at February 22, 2006 06:34 AM

Cary Grant. In fact, friends of mine named their newborn son "George" because they liked the way that Grant pronounced it ("Joh-dge!"), in that great comedy masterpiece, "Bringing up Baby."

Posted by: David Cummings at February 22, 2006 06:51 AM

Pretty obvious but Christopher Walken.

Posted by: josh at February 22, 2006 01:25 PM

It appears to me that the interviewee has a combinbation of accents. I definately hear the Cleveland, OH accent which is unique in it's own right because you have 1/4 of the population of Cleveland with that accent, 1/4 with a southern accent, 1/4 with a Brooklyn/NY accent and finally 1/4 with the Afro-American urban accent. The thing that throws you off is that he has that obviously "fake", perhaps intentionally pompous quai-British accent like that of Kelsey Grammer and the characters of Niles and Lillth on his TV show.

Posted by: Zaphod at February 22, 2006 01:39 PM

everybody has their own accent to some degree or another, as no two people will pronounce the same word the exact same way, nor will they perceive the same word exactl the same- hence sound shift occur. the "northern city vowel shift" is pretty great, and gives most ling profs an excuse to make outrageous attempts at sounding like they're from chicago, detroit, or milwaukee.

Posted by: kendra at February 22, 2006 04:22 PM

Stephen Hawking.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at February 23, 2006 11:01 AM

As I remember, Labov has been a defender of Black English and a critic of those who deem it "bad English".

Posted by: drydock at February 23, 2006 09:02 PM

Ebonics is a cool word and thing. The Great Vowel shift, however, dating back to 200 years before dictionaries even existed happened as a migratory and simultaneous evolutionary thingy.

Posted by: Leslie at February 27, 2006 04:07 AM

I'm from Cleveland, and this whole thing about us havin accents is brand new to me! What most people don't know is that people in the suberb of Parma, right outside of Cleveland, have their own accent. Me, being from both places, am a mix. But the whole idea of us sounding really different from the rest of the US is balogna! :-P

Posted by: Katie at August 19, 2006 08:00 PM