Saturday, March 1, 2008
Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy
A very interesting thing took place a few nights ago. I was having a wonderful time at a dinner party I’d been invited to. The guests happened to make up a very nice cross section of Americans, including Northeasterners, Midwesterners, Southerners, and even somebody from Guam.
I can’t recall how this came into the conversation around the dinner table, but an animated debate got under way concerning what is or isn’t right in spoken English. A gentleman from upper New York State started decrying what he termed the “downgrading” of English, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. He was especially appalled by pronunciations such as “gunnuh” for going to, the future expression. I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing wrong with that pronunciation, depending on whether or not it’s the appropriate register for the setting and the speakers involved. I explained that going to would be appropriate in a more formal situation, but that “gunnuh” would be fine in an informal setting such as among friends. The basic idea I was trying to impart was that it’s not so easy to say what is “right” or what is “wrong” in areas of language such as pronunciation; that it all depends on the setting and choosing the proper register.
A couple of days later that pronouncement kind of imploded. Once again I was ambushed! I was having lunch, listening to various American senators questioning Michael Mukasey, who President Bush had nominated for the job of U.S. Attorney General. The setting couldn’t have been more formal: Mukasey sitting at a table with hands clasped and a microphone in front of him; a panel of senators asking him difficult questions; reporters and photographers all around ― pretty formal, wouldn’t you say? And then suddenly, while munching on my tuna sandwich, I heard Mukasey say, “Yes, Senator, I’m gunnuh look into that.” “What? What did he say?” I gasped. “‘I’m gunnuh’? He said ‘I’m gunnuh’? Mr. Mukasey! You’re supposed to say ‘I’m going to’! Don’t you know that?” I shouted at the pale, bureaucratic-looking face on my TV screen. “What’s next? Are you gunnuh start saying ‘I shoulduh’ instead of ‘I should have’? And what about when you want to know what your staff is talking about? Do you usually ask them, ‘Wussup’?” I was beside myself. I couldn’t even take the last bite of my tuna sandwich.
Was that concerned English speaker from New York state right? Is English pronunciation being “downgraded”? I’ve been wondering about how much attention we give or don’t give to the way people pronounce. Are there perhaps unwritten rules on what is and isn’t appropriate pronunciation of a given word or phrase in a certain situation? Do people cringe if they hear somebody like Michael Mukasey say gunnuh? And what about shoulduh or coulduh? Why should gunnuh be okay but not shoulduh or coulduh? It seems okay when people say should’ve and could’ve, doesn’t it? Hey! Wait a minute! There’s been a commercial on American TV for years for a vegetable drink in which the character says, “I coulduh had a V-8!” I know he doesn’t say, “I could’ve had a V-8!” and there’s no way on earth that he says, “I could have had a V-8!” No, he definitely says coulduh. Is there a reason for that? Why did the script writer opt for coulduh instead of the other two pronunciations? And why did the director let it get by, not to mention the company that pays for that marketing campaign? Is there something going on here that ELT instructors should be thinking about?
What do you think English teachers should do about all of this? If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka comes into your classroom one fine day and says, “Good morning, Mr./Ms. X. Wussup?” how should you respond? If you have a negative reaction to that greeting, what are you going to tell the student? How would you explain why you cringed when he or she said that? I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on this subject ― so tell me!