Wednesday, April 18, 2012

So like you know what I'm talking about, right?

At first I thought my interest in linguistics was because these days I'm listening more than reading or writing. Trapped in a car for close to four hours a day, I listen to the radio - politics, music, books radio, old time radio shows.

But that's not really it. I've always been a bit of a weirdo when it comes to shifts in language. For example, it irritated the hell out of me when people started pronouncing Uranus as yer-uh-nus just because we're all a bunch of mental adolescents who can't help but giggle at the name of a planet. This is what happens when people acquire Latin skills. When we just called it a a butthole, poor old YOURANUS didn't have to be embarrassed hanging out there in space.

Then there was that push for newscasters and TV people to pronounce resources as reZORsez. Thankfully that died out quickly.

Or how about when Anita Hill was testifying before Congress. Our big national debate was whether Clarence Thomas putting a pubic hair on a Coke can was sexual haRASSment or sexual HAIRessment.

I don't limit my critiques to the spoken word. The print media comes under fire, as well. Consider yourself lucky to have missed my ranting and raving in response to what I was sure was a trending overuse of had been when was was grammatically correct. Misplaced past perfect progressive makes me crazy. I would pull out my red pen and mark up the Chicago Tribune for its sins against the English language.

It would follow then that I've become aware of two more recent vocal trends. One is mostly manifested on the television - specifically on political talk shows - and the other is everywhere, especially where young adult women gather.

The first, the one I hear mostly on television, is the habit of beginning sentences with the word so. It's used heavily by experts, pundits and the like when they've been asked a direct question about how something works or if they're asked to provide some factual evidence for their current stance on any given issue.

The other, far more annoying in its widespread usage and its physical effect on me is what I used to call sleepy voice. Sometimes Chloe would phone me early in the morning and while she spoke, I cleared my throat. Repeatedly. So much so that if MathMan was in the room, he'd ask me if I had a problem.

Turns out though, this speech pattern has a linguistic name all its own. Vocal fry.

Think the Kardashians or a roomful of young women. Here are some examples...


There are some fiery pedantic arguments over the subject. I mean venomous exchanges between linguists and linguistical hobbyists. I'll bet some of those commenters angrily flared their nostrils while they pounded out their lively responses to the articles. Who knew linguistics nerds were so passionate about anything other than schwa?

Right about now you're probably thinking that getting a job and out of the house was supposed to make me more normal.

Look, I'm trying, okay?

So (see, there I go doing it, too!) as I read the comments on one of those articles, I remembered another vocalization that gets my attention and not exactly in a good way. One of the commenters noted that many of the NPR reporters now seem to mimic the way Ira Glass and his cohorts speak on This American Life.

Naturally, I tuned into NPR this morning to confirm this fact. Fact confirmed. But it also prompted me to wonder if there's a linguistic term for how Ira Glass pronounces the letter l. Now for those of you familiar with Ira Glass, imagine him reading those last two words. Letter l. Can you hear it in your head? You know, Chris Christie has the same verbal quirk in case you need another point of reference.

And, of course, it has its own term. It's called a Dark L.

You can hear it in this great piece from Ira that made it around the internet a few months ago. I could show you a video of Governor Christie, but I like you so why would I do that?


None of this is meant to insult. Well, except for the vocal fry and beginning sentences with so. Stop that!

I'm certainly not devoid of my own linguistic oddities. I have a mashed up accent that can't decide if it's Southern or Midwestern. It's both with a definitive bent toward whomever I'm speaking with or listening to.

And I can absolutely understand why young women would want to lower their voices in register. I'm often mistaken for a kid on the phone. Can I speak to your mother? Sure, let me give you her number. Be sure to tell her I said hello.

It took about a year of MathMan's taunting to get me to pronounce cement with the emphasis on the second syllable. To get me to say inSURance instead of INsurance and umBRELLa instead of UMbrella. A few years in the South have sort of undone that,  but I'm able to switch back and forth pretty easily because even if I don't speak with a clean Midwestern non-accent accent, I'm aware of when my words begin to drawl out like a hot afternoon.

Even so, I still have trouble with pen and pin, but I bet if I remembered to say pen with the vocal fry, I'd get it right. Peheheheh(rumble)n.

All of this is to say what exactly? I have no idea. I just wanted to share so you could tell me that you notice these things to, that I'm not losing my mind and that maybe I should turn off the radio and enjoy the sequestered silence, perhaps get some fresh ideas for stories, clear out the cobwebs strung across my brainpan, listen to my own thoughts for a while.

Okay - let's not go crazy.

Your turn. Ready to rumble? What language trends have you noticed? How do you abuse the language?

54 comments:

  1. I abuse language by abbreviating my words when I talk in real life.

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    1. My daughter does that, too, Meleah. Precious is now presh, for example.

      I'm bad about overusing the word thingy to replace anything I can't remember the name for. Everything is a potential thingy these days.

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  2. Oh, baby, do I know what you mean! The "vocal fry" thing has bothered me from the first time I heard it! And I think you and I were listening to the same interview on NPR regarding the use of "So," to begin a sentence. I'll bet it was this one: http://www.npr.org/2012/04/04/150003129/the-race-to-create-the-best-antiviral-drugs.

    The misuse of the word "myself" bothers me. "I, myself" is bad enough, but the proliferation of its use in place of "me" (I heard someone say "The Judge went with myself and a Deputy...") sends me off the tracks.

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    1. I'm SO glad it's not just me, Snad. And ditto on the I, myself mess. Come on, people!

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  3. Language? It's no big deal, I stopped listening to people in 1986.

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    1. Bill, This is why I need you around. You keep me grounded.

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  4. Bill's got half the answer, and the remainder involves not turning on the tv either.

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    1. Thunder, no TV? What? Are you joking? What if I only watch America's Next Top Model with the volume at 0?

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  5. How do you abuse the language?

    Mostly by cursing.

    Also works when I hear Chris Christie talk.

    What aggravates me is the overuse of 'literally'. No, it is not an intensifier. You did NOT "literally" die.

    Also pronouncing 'masonry' as 'masonary'. Is a masonary like a visionary?

    And don't get me started on 'nukular'.

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    1. Zombie!!! Yes. Literally has been abused beyond recognition. I feel like Sheldon Cooper is fighting to get out of my mouth when I hear it misused. "You realize you're not LITERALLY dying, don't you?"

      I won't get you started on nukular. It's a particular bugaboo of mine, too.

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  6. The misuse of a word that really got to me a few years ago was when well educated people began saying impact when they meant affect. Then there's 'speaking to' a topic rather than a person or 'going forward' when from now on is meant.

    There are also irritating phrases, just a few of which are:
    Let's just agree to disagree.. (because you are wrong)
    Everything happens for a reason. (No, it doesn't)
    I'm sorry but .. (Sorry and but do not belong in the same sentence)
    It is what it is. (wtf)
    My bad. (ditto above)

    This could grow into a very popular thread.

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    1. susan - Oh, the misuse of impact. Lord, how that still drives me crazy. Your entire list is included in my list. Add to that "so there you go" and the morphing of nouns into verbs. For example, gifting.

      Disclaimer: I'm guilty of using all of these at some point. I am very ashamed.

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    2. Well I'm ashamed to say I've been heard saying 'whatever' in that irritating teenage manner.

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  7. My one pet peeve with language is the misuse of "anymore."

    You can't use "anymore" without a negative. "Anymore" is not a substitute for "now."

    It isn't like that anymore. Good! Have a cookie!

    It's like that anymore. Bad! I grit my teeth in your direction.

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    1. Oh, yeah, Sarah. That's one that wasn't on my radar, but now you can bet I'll be noticing it everywhere. One that gets used here in the south is might could. Although that cracks me up more than it makes me grit my teeth.

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    2. Do you cut on lights there or carry your kids to school (rather than TURN ON the lights and DRIVE YOUR KIDS to school)? After 17 years in the south, well....I fear I've acclimated.

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  8. Oh, Jesus. This is one of two absolute best posts I've read this week. And...they're stealing this and have given a new name. How original. ;-)

    Barf out...gag me with a spoon, totally tubular..I'm shurrrrrrrrrrrr!!

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    1. Thank you, Gina. Who would've thought we'd need a Valley Girl Redux?

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  9. The whole L thing went over my head, I didn't get it. Maybe I've heard it so much I don't realize it's wrong?

    When people say they "would have went" I want to stab them in the eyes.

    As to the vocal fry, I wish more women had a lower vocal register. I have a very deep voice and when I hear a high pitched female whine I want to cover my ears. I once read it's harder for women to get hired when they have a high pitched voice because it hurts the ears of coworkers over the long haul.

    "It is what it is" removes all responsibility from the speaker of this phrase. HATE IT!

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    1. Suzy, I know you've spent much of your time in L.A. so maybe that's why you didn't hear the L thing. A few of the commenters on the threads about the Dark L mentioned that they were from California and couldn't pick it out either.

      About the lower register for women, I'm with you. I know when I'm with other adults, I attempt to bring my voice into the lower ranges. At work, it makes a difference in being heard and taken seriously, I'm sure of it.

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    2. I've been driven crazy by this Dark L thing since childhood. I had a friend in elementary school who pronounced L's that way, and it was always an issue for speech therapists at the time. I have a hard time listening to Ira Glass because of it. And I could not listen to Stephen King reading an audio book of one of his own novels because it distracted me so. I just today heard a Stephen King interview on "Fresh Air" and it prompted me to search the web for the phenomenon, which is how I found your blog.

      I also found other posts, which point out another name for it: Uvular Nasal Tap
      For example:
      https://quote.ucsd.edu/phonoloblog/2006/01/24/253/

      Vocal Fry drives me nuts too. I hear it more and more frequently these days, mostly but not exclusively in younger women. It seems to have replaced the "Valley Girl" vocal pattern of several years ago, in which vocal pitch rises at the end of sentences, as if the speaker were asking a question. Could this reversal, the lowering of the voice into a growl, be some kind of reaction to that?

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    3. Hi, Mark. Thanks for the comment. Now that you mention it, I tried to listen to Stephen King read his "On Writing" and I had the same trouble you did. I was distracted by the L.

      My oldest daughter is home for the summer and she brought her vocal fry with her. I have to restrain myself from saying something about it because Suzy (see above) is right. I prefer it to a high-pitched female voice. I have a newish co-worker who does this incredibly shrill voice thing that I think she believes sounds more professional. It's painful. I find myself speaking in a lower register when I talk to her. I guess I'm trying to subliminally get her to take it down six octaves.

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  10. I mispronounce words all the time intentionally like ja-lop-pin-nos for jalapenos, but to be fair I got that one from a Mexican who would say that to his wife to em-bare-ass her in the produce area of the supermarket when they shopped.

    I don't understand putting the em-pha-sauce on the second sil-lable thing?? I usually put it on the first one.

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    1. Kulkuri - that's like MathMan calling gyros JI-ros. He also calls me Lis-er. Thankfully, he doesn't em-bare-ass me much. Much.

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  11. The Ira Glass piece (which I love) is also an excellent example of vocal fry, because he and others on his program practice it regularly as part of their sound. Modern? Edgy? Sophisticated?

    My latest (almost gleeful) abuse is to go along with the trend of saying "I'm good" when I mean I'm fine, or I have nothing to add or I don't need anything else. I first used it in a poker game (where it meant I don't need any cards or I'm not going to raise). Now I use it in restaurants and phone meetings. I hate it and I love it and it's a guilty pleasure. To me it feels like choral singing, where the rest of the parts sing their notes and the bass part gets a natural, a note that feels like it pulls against the grain, against the scale, against the other parts. I'm pulling naughtily against correct grammar - leaning out over the edge while looking at Mom, waiting for her to yell at me.

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    1. Hi, Steve. I think the Ira Glass folks do use it as a way to sound cutting edge. And then it becomes habit. I noticed the last time I saw Chloe with her friends, when one started it, the others followed.

      I love that use of "I'm good." Your description is perfect. I'm using the word "fiddlesticks" subversively. I replaced my old standard "fuck" with it and now it's habit. I get some funny looks, but it feels better not to be dropping the fbomb around.

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  12. I think my voice is lower than most women's so I don't have to drag anything out.

    If I get around a southern for two seconds I have almost immediately adopted their southern accent.

    Right now I notice that I say crick instead of creek. I say wash but not worsh. There is no r in wash I want to say whenever I hear that. I have been saying like and so and have been trying to stop doing that. I also say just a lot which is beginning to irritate me. I don't have to justify myself!

    People in southern Indiana do have a slight southern accent that the people north of Indy do not have.

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    1. Lib, isn't it funny how you start with a word and use it for awhile then drop it? I catch myself say "fixin' to...." instead of saying "getting ready to..."

      You're right about that Southern Indiana accent. When I first went to Ball State, my friends were from northern Indiana and Chicago and they teased me about my slightly southern accent. That's when I tried to train myself to speak devoid an accent like newscasters.

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  13. My biggest peeve over the last few years is the loss of the past tense. People go on with examples such as "then he throws the pass to the tight end who runs in for the touchdown and the team wins the big game." No! He threw the pass the tight end ran it in and the team won the game. The news/ sports caster however wins ( has won ) my loathing for the next decade at least.

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    1. Bandobras, that's true, we are hearing less past tense. Now I'll be noticing that everywhere, too!

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  14. It annoys me too. Especially the "everything sounds like a question" raise in voice at the end of a sentence. And the fact that (sorry no offence meant) American pronunciation is creeping into UK English. I can live with the regional UK accents.

    My mum used to tell us off for saying cauter past instead of a qwarter past for a quarter past 5.

    People are also changing the meanings of certain word because they have digested the thesaurus and find more than one use for a word . can't think of an eg at the moment.

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    1. Oh, Wendy, the uptalk is enough to make me want to run from the room.

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  15. Vocal fry! It has a name...wow.

    I get driven nuts by the business news misappropriating words that then become what they want regardless of the actual meaning. My husband would say ever it was and shall be, language is fluid. I would say, bullshit, which as far as I know still means what it should.

    Pet peeve, "niche" said neesh. Ick. I remember when I first heard it on a design show and now it's everywhere. Bugs me every time.

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    1. It has a name, Lyra. Your husband is right, of course, language evolves with us, but can't we at least try to hang on to some standards?

      I'm going to remember to never say neesh around you. I think I typically pronounce it nitch, if I say it at all.

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  16. Well, "major league" morphed into "majorly" sometime in the past 30 years, and the t seems to be disappearing from the word report, the latter no doubt thanks to Colbert.

    Language changes constantly, with pronunciations shifting and words dropping in and out of usage, so there aren't many usages that annoy me, with one exception: the use of the word grow to replace perfectly good terms like "expand" or "improve." E.g., grow the economy. I'm not sure when I started noticing it, but to my ear it always sounds flat-out stupid.

    One nice thing -- we now all have a technological excuse to invoke when misusing a word in print: automatic spell check. You start typing one term, Word is sure you meant a different one, and you get to blame the software instead of your own ignorance.

    You want to hear some neat pronunciations? Listen to little kids learning to read when they see words for the first time and sound them out phonetically.

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    1. Nan - there's another one! Majorly. And grow the economy is majorly batted around on C-SPAN, MSNBC, etc. No wonder you're noticing it more.

      You're right about listening to little kids sounding out words. It's very cute. I used to have a hard time not laughing when our kids were learning to read.)

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  17. So, my kids tell me I use 'so' a lot. The Kids still use 'like' and you know' much on campus and there is also ample chopping into pieces; even some of The Adults are using 'whatevs.' Whatevs, back to the libary.

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    1. So I hear what you're saying, Randal. Me, too. I hear myself saying so way too often. I think it was Lib who mentioned it - I also use just too much.

      Whatevs, indeed.

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  18. I hate that all the reporters on NPR's Planet Money sound like they are 14 years old and doing their first news report. Not only do they start every statement with "So," they do that upward-inflection at the end of their statements that make it sound like a question even though it should be a statement of fact. And then they finish with, "right?"

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    1. Sue J - they seem to be breaking all the old rules over there at NPR. I know there has always been a certain NPR way of reporting and reading the news, but now I'm far more interested in learning what that means.

      I really need to get a new hobby.

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  19. Sue J, that "right?" inflection at the end of statements drives me up a wall. All the young hotshots in tv seem to do it. I think it started with Ezra Klein, then Chris Hayes, now even Rachel Maddow. I wish they would watch footage of themselves and consciously stop doing it.

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  20. I'm still adapting to how certain words are pronounced over here - manDATE-ory springs to mind.

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  21. I tend to say wtf a lot, when it's actually quicker to just go with whatthefuck.

    Today I got a bill from the water mitigation folks. In their cover letter they wrote the following colloquial malapropism(which is typically relegated to speech--I'd never seen it in print before): "Enclosed is a check that needs endorsed..."

    I wondered if that was an Oregon thing, that tendency to use "needs" as a passive verb, and then present a past-tense verb typically set off by "to be" since I've heard it spoken so often. So--I googled it. Turns out it Scottish! http://www.dailywritingtips.com/this-sink-needs-fixed/

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  22. It's in in-home problem-- a family member says AK-rut instead of accurate. Mispronouncing accurate is just wrong. I guess it's not a problem if you don't "member" (shorthand for remember?).
    Our local news station has taken to asking viewers to Tweet, or post a Facebook comments on a news story of the night, (for lack of good reporting?), then they read select comments during the news report.
    Posting any yahoo's opinion of a story is not news!

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  23. One that has now bugged me for over forty years is PLEADED. The defendant pleaded guilty? No. No. NO!

    I don't care that style books have somehow declared it acceptable. It still looks and sounds like shit.

    Plead is a very cool word.

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    1. THANK YOU! It's nice to know I'm not alone in my annoyance. I miss the past tense of this word.

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  24. The one phrase that I hate with the heat of a thousand suns is: "My bad." Honest to God, just typing it raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels. I am working hard to break my daughters of the habit, all the while knowing it makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy. I don't care. I can live with linguistic quirks and local variants (it is "rufe" not "ruf" over one's head; we have a creek not a crick running through our backyard). I cannot stand lazy speech that implies a lack of sincerity.

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  25. Suzy and Lisa - do you ever hear people say "boughten"? As in "I would've boughten it but it cost two much?" :-D

    I hear this one every once in a while and my word radar goes berserk.

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  26. I use the word "anyway" instead of the word "so". I apparently use the vocal fry, too. I pronounce it "Ennnywaaaaay". My daughter does the same thing. [sigh]

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  27. I totally agree about NPR reporters trying to sound like Ira Glass. I don't like it. Did you ever take a linguistics course? I need to take one as a prerequisite and I'm thinking of taking it this Summer.

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