Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

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!


Comment from Sam Simian
March 8, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Dear Grammar Guy,

For the last two years, I’ve been teaching low-level ESL students (levels 1, 2, and 3); nevertheless, I often talk about sociolinguistics in relation to pronunciation and fillers (or discourse markers). As for pronunciation, I usually teach reduced forms (for example, wanna, gonna, and hafta) around the same time that I teach contractions (for example, I’m, I’ll, and can’t). As for the sociolinguistic aspect, we discuss formal and informal contexts, and I say that both contractions and reduced forms are more likely to be used in spoken English in informal contexts. However, in an interview on Voice of America that was aired on January 10, 2007:
Nina Weinstein says that, “ … speed of speech [is] statistically significant as a cause for reduced forms, not informality. Though in informal speech we tend to speak more quickly, and so we think it’s the informality, but actually it’s the speed of speech.”

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.

As for fillers (or discourse markers — for example, well, ummm, you know, and like), I usually introduce a fairly simplistic analysis of their function (They are used to hold the floor, and they are used to indicate that one is thinking about what he wants to say.). I also say that some (for example, well and ummm) are more likely to be used in formal contexts, and others (for example, you know and like) are more likely to be used in informal contexts.

I am not as bothered by reduced speech in a formal context as I am by informal fillers or discourse markers in a formal context. I could happily finish my tuna sandwich if I heard Michael Mukasey say, “Yes, Senator, I’m gunnuh look into that.” However, I was almost put off my pizza when I heard Maureen Dowd say, “you know,” repeatedly when she was on a panel of Op-Ed columnists for The New York Times discussing American politics:
In her editorials, she sounds so intelligent, and the content of what she said on the panel was intelligent, but all of those “you knows” made her sound like a vacuous Valley Girl.

Sam Simian

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