Friday, March 14, 2008

It's Just a Formality

I greatly appreciate the comments sent in by Sam Simian in response to my last piece, “Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy.” Sam has given me some really meaty food for thought.

He mentioned that Nina Weinstein, who has written extensively in the field of ELT, claims her research shows that when we use reduced forms like gunnuh, it’s not because of how relaxed we feel in informal situations, but because of the speed of our speech. I really don’t agree with that. Yes, of course we tend to use reductions like wanna, hafta, and wudduyuh when speaking quickly, but I don’t think that’s the only condition under which we’ll hear native speakers use such reductions:

(mother tenderly talking to her agitated eight-year-old son)
A: Don’tcha think it’s time you made up with your brother, Bobby?
B: No way, Mom! I hate ’im! I hate ’im!
A: Oh, c’mon, Bobby. You know you don’ hate ’im.
B: Yeah, I do! I do! He’s mean!
A: Look. You’re older than him. Shouldn’tcha show ’im it’s not right for brothers to fight?
B: But Mom, he lost my favorite ball. And I never told ’im he could play with it!
A: Tell ya what. If you shake hands with Jimmy and make up, I’ll buy you a new ball ― an' that bat you wanted, the one you saw at Z-Mart. An’ you don’ hafta take out the garbage for a whole week. So? C’mon, wudduyuh say?
B: Awright, Mom. But he better not take my stuff anymore!

Now that conversation just wouldn’t be rushed through. I hope you’ll agree that Bobby’s mom probably spoke quietly and gently to her son to calm him down and persuade him to do the right thing, not that her bribes didn’t help! This is why I don’t think reduced pronunciations are necessarily a result of speaking quickly. I think such reductions can say something about a relationship or the mood set between two or more people in a conversation. The “relaxed” sound of these reductions reflects the relaxed mood Bobby’s mother wanted to create. That’s my take on this. What’s yours?

I found it very interesting that Sam says, “If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka came into my class and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Simian. Wussup?’ I don’t think that the problem would be the reduced form; I think that the problem would be the expression that’s being reduced: What’s up? What’s up? is an informal greeting. I’m a fairly informal person, so I wouldn’t take offense at that being directed at me. However, I would probably explain that Wussup? is a very informal greeting. I would also take that opportunity to explain that most people see the classroom as a formal environment, so Wussup? would usually be considered inappropriate — especially when a student is addressing a teacher.”

I couldn’t agree with Sam more. That choice of greeting does seem inappropriate . . . or does it? I keep wondering what’s happening to how we deal with formality in American culture and how our language reflects this. I think there’s a definite shift going on in formality or in a lack of it, and I think the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred. I’m a child of the 1950s when I do believe there were quite clear lines separating formal from informal situations and the appropriate use of formal language from its informal counterpart. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.

As I said, I’m a product of the decade I grew up in ― I can’t escape it. That’s why it bothers me every time a salesperson or other such person decides on his or her own to call me by my first name without asking for my permission first. (I think they’re told when they receive training for their jobs that if they start calling the customer by his or her first name, they’ll create a more friendly atmosphere and relationship, which will make a sale go more easily.) But being the kind of outspoken person I am, I’ll pipe up right away and say, “Excuse me. My name is Mr. Firsten, thank you.” The perpetrator of the infraction always looks quite shocked at being rebuked, but I guess that’s because most people just let things like that go by without saying a word. Not this customer!

Something similar which happens quite often in my part of the US (South Florida) is that a salesperson or repairperson will address me as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that there are certain relatively small areas of the US where the culture allows this to happen, that is, to use a title like Mr. along with a first name, but that’s really not the case where I live. I think people do it here because they don’t want to bother asking you how you pronounce your last name if they feel it’s too hard to pronounce. Well, I honestly don’t think that Firsten is that hard to pronounce, and it would behoove those people to learn how to pronounce other people’s last names as a sign of courtesy, if nothing else.

Sam says it doesn’t bother him that Michael Mukasey said gunnuh instead of going to during those formal Senate hearings he had to attend, but it bothers me. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur; that’s possible. Yes, I know that Americans prefer informality over formality in many kinds of situations, which means their language will reflect how formal or informal they elect to be, but I do think we should still have sociolinguistic lines that are clearly defined. I’m interested to know how you feel about such things, so don’t hesitate to post your comments. They’ll be well received.

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