Thursday, October 19, 2006

sound change

I'm interested in all language change - and I think there's enough of it in our daily lives to fill our plate, without digging into history and speculating about how things used to be. The reason I say that is that I'd like to get at the reasons for it, and those should be easier to find now than anything we could speculate about in the past.

The other day I encountered one of my sons' previous preschool teachers, who was visiting from Chicago- she had a new life, was living in the Ravenswood section of the city- and was clearly happy to both be there in Chicago and back in our small town for a visit. But what struck me most about her was that she had picked up a completely new set of vowels- her words sound different now. She was using what they call the northern cities vowel shift, one of the more profound changes to our sound system these days. But where did it come from? I almost asked her. She would not likely know the answer, though; I get the sense that half the time this stuff is unconscious. She just wants to sound like the people around her, the people in her set, her friends, maybe. But where did they get it? I don't even believe that these northern cities have a collective sense of geography about this stuff (we're going to devise an accent that will set us apart from places further south)...nor do they pick up exotic tongues from the boats on the Lakes, though proximity to Canada may have something to do with it.

Another interesting sound change is the merger of w- with wh-. For most people today, witch and which sound alike, and fortunately this causes very little confusion, as they are used in different environments. Same with weal and wheel, wile and while, wen and when, etc. The reason I mention this is that I encountered an ancient theory called the theory of functional load, which said that a merger like this is more likely if it causes less misunderstanding in practical terms to the language and to practical considerations. The theory was put forward by Martinet, I believe, who was part of the structuralists, who saw languages as complete interconnected organisms. This theory went out, I'm sure, and has been virtually forgotten, except by me, but nevertheless I mention it for a few reasons.

First, it implies that the language almost has a mind of its own. It buckles in the spot where it's able to, because it's too difficult to buckle in other spots. It merges wh- and w- because it can, and that makes life simpler, and because that allows room for more consonants or sound combinations to appear and be remembered. And it won't put too many people out, so why not? But an interesting aspect of this change is that the people are collectively going along with it, as if they're saying to themselves, ok, I'll do that, it doesn't make any difference anyway. But who thought of it?

Labov seemed to think that a lot of these changes were motivated by social class- somebody somewhere wants to sound like somebody above them- and this could be true for quite a few sound changes, but I'm not sure it would be true for this one. People don't even know this one is happening! They're letting the h sound go because it's easier, because it doesn't make any difference, etc., and they're doing it collectively, and for the most part, they don't even hear it, let alone consciously decide how to make the sound. I don't believe there's any social movement involved at all.

The ongoing simplification of the sound system is probably a response to the complication of it somewhere- somewhere beyond my analysis. We have more sounds now, more to remember, so somehow we have to simplify, somewhere where it doesn't matter. That's a reasonable explanation- but I'd like to see it proven. I'd like to know what's at the bottom of this.
Most of all I'd like to know how millions of people can go along with a collective scheme that nobody devised- yet just seems to be the best one to actually work and make the language have one less consonant cluster.

Again, I believe the best analogy is traffic- where you by necessity must be super-conscious of what others are doing; where you by necessity have your own goals and constantly act in response to others, at the same time keeping the system going and automatically accepting innovations that work in your favor; and where, half the time, you couldn't even tell me how it came to pass that you arrived home so quickly.

Now while I'm at it I have this bug about what linguists refer to as "restrictions"...English has "restrictions" against such things as p and s in a cluster at the beginning of a word, so that although we can say tops with no problem, we borrow words like psychology and psoriasis only under the condition that we don't have to pronounce the p. This restriction was presented to me by a Greek phonetics professor who had a shade of disdain for English speakers and their inability to just say the p. What's up with that?

Well, to this day, I don't know. But I have a sense that we don't walk around with restrictions, things in our heads that say "I can't, I can't." On the contrary. A brief overview of human behavior shows that this is not how things work. Just look at the paths on a college campus. Certain places are worn to the quick; others are untouched; and it's often unrelated to the signs the poor doomed grounds crew puts out telling everyone to "please don't walk here." We are always looking for short-cuts- and using them- and at the same time, looking for ways to simplify, to organize, to remember fewer details. We set up this system as a matter of survival, but when it comes to language, we have to rely on a collective sense of simplification, because it doesn't do much good if only one of us simplifies by ourselves. I'd like to set down this sense- that really what happens in language is people using the well-worn habits of the people around them- innovating when they have to, simplifying when they can- and not really worrying about restrictions. It's not that we can't, it's that we don't, because as an innovation, its price is too high in our present system of habits.

A cold fall morning, dew on the grass, you try to decide whether to cut across the grass, save yourself a couple minutes on the way back from a meeting. If others had gone there before, the grass would be worn to dirt, and wouldn't make your shoes wet. But nobody's gone there before- so you see that, by cutting across the grass, your feet will get wet and make you uncomfortable all morning. The price is too high. You take the sidewalk. You wimp! But the grounds crew likes you.

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