Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Answer 2: Hey, Danny Boy, I'm Billy Bob

Today's question came from robin s:

"I have a question about 'accent traveling'.

When we were in Ireland a few summers ago, I heard people say "shar" for "shower" in the same way that people in parts of Louisville (where I'm from) say "shower". Could the remnants of an Irish/Celtic accent remain in a largely Irish neighborhood/region of a city, even though no one around there had ever even remotely seen Eire?

It seems so to me - just asking you for a reality check. Thanks!"

Why, yes, madame! Zis is possible. I mean, luke at me? Am I French? No! Buut I can steel speak wiz a French accennnt on a blog, even zo I am note from France and 'ave neverr seen une filme de Jerry Lewis.

Note how I did the bad French accent by the way. French doesn't have the "th" sounds of English and so they sub in with the closest sounds, which are z and s. Also, they do not distinguish between the vowels in heat and hit, as well as luke and look, so the latter of each pair (hit and look) get pronounced with the vowel of the former (heat and luke). Also, I tried to stick some indications of French placing stress on the final vowel.

Of course, this has nothing to do with Irish, but I haven't seen any French movies where they speak in bad Irish accents and debate coconuts in order to study the dialect's obliteration. To get to the actual question:

Is it possible for people to retain bits and pieces of their grandparents' or great grandparents' dialects even when they've never been to the home of the accent to hear the real thing? Mais oui! Yeah, sure. Have language / accent, will travel. In fact, it's not just possible, it's de riguer. (I don't know what's up with me and the French thing today. Just go with it, okay? okay, I'll try to stop.) Seriously, this is how language works. People from central to west asia move into Europe speaking "Indo-European", which becomes Germanic, which becomes West Germanic, which becomes English, which becomes Irish English, which becomes American English with some Irish hints in the hills of Kentucky. Amazingly, it's possible to tract just bits of that old Indo-European from the plains of West Asia still in the language of Louisville.

One thing that will control how much the language changes is who the children, in particular, speak with. If almost everyone they speak with has a standard Kentucky Southern accent or standard American accent, particularly if that accent is socially prestigious, they are liable to drop almost all of the old Irish way of speaking that they heard from their parents. However, if the group is somewhat isolated from other speakers or if there just is a community of old Irish-tinged speech that people want to belong to, feel a part of, then more will hang around. And, depending on tons of factors, this can go on for generations. English, for instance, has been under enormous pressures and Old English is essentially unintelligible to a modern speaker today, but I've always heard that contemporary Icelandic is pretty similar to old Norse in many ways.

So one possibility is just that a few words have stuck around, but there are a couple other possibilities.

1) Sometimes people get it into their heads to revive traditional ways, or what are perceived as traditional ways. And so they study Irish history and read folktales books and watch RiverDance, picking up little Irish-ey things here and there. Whether or not any of this has much to do with their actual ancestors' language or culture is not as clear. Their great-great grandparents may have wanted to slit their throat if they had ever seen the Lord of the Dance. More relevant to the question, people might listen to contemporary Irish English and pick up some bits of that, when their ancestors emigrated 250 years ago with an Irish dialect that didn't sound much like what's current. Anyway, in short, sometimes people recreate a past in themselves instead of continuing one.

2) Co-evolution of language. Sometimes languages that were once the same language, but have now split off, evolve in similar ways. English has been dropping its old case endings on nouns for hundreds of years. One tiny vestige is the who/whom distinction, where, roughly, who is nominative and whom is accusative. Old English was filled with case, but it's all disappearing now, and so, there might be pressures in contemporary Irish English and in American English to drop whom from the language, even though there's no direct connection between the two accents anymore.

If I had to guess, I actually like the separate evolution idea based on the example of "shower" to "shar". English is rather ambivalent about how many syllables are in words like "fire" "flour" "tire" "shower" "higher" "hire". My guess is that all of you will have different opinions about how many syllables are in those words. For me, "fire" is usually one syllable, though it's super easy to make it two. I'd want to say that "flour" is usually two syllables, but I can get away with one syllable and not sound too weird, though it is kinda southern. (I'm guessing a one syllable "flour" will very southern to some of you.) By default, I want to say "higher" is two syllables, while "hire" is one, but if I put them in phrases and try not to think about it, they sound almost the same to me. "did you decide to hire her?" "Aspen is higher up than Denver." Shower fits this same pattern. If you say it alone, I'm guessing most of you will think "shower" is clearly two syllables, but I can almost get away with one syllable in "did you shower this morning?" but it's not as easy as some of the other words. Anyway, there could be one syllable pressures in certain dialects of English, including southern and Irish. If so, "shar"'s not inherited, but created separately.

By the way, there are likely actual answers to your question, but you'd have to ask a dialectologist for them. These people travel around the world, mapping dialects, their changes, features, etc. They might know a bit about the Irish-influenced version of Kentucky English. Um, yeah, but I'm not one of them.


Precie said...

Amazingly, it's possible to tract just bits of that old Indo-European from the plains of West Asia still in the language of Louisville.

That's so cool.

Robin S. said...

This really is cool. Thanks for taking the time to do this, paca!

Anyway, there could be one syllable pressures in certain dialects of English, including southern and Irish. I agree, not that you needed that in order to be right! The generation prior to mine in Louisville, people of Irish ancestry (and there are a boatload of them) - they were often the grandchildren of Irish immigrants. Maybe great-grandchilden. My greatgrandmother (I was born about a year before she died, so this isn't my memory) would 'tie one on' at parties and dance some kind of a jig, with everybody in a circle around her, clapping. She drank like a fish.
And I think having living ancestors like our Honora still around for so many of the generation before me, coupled with the soft-edged slurred sounds of a Southern dialect - kind of connected. So I think it was a bit of both things you described.


writtenwyrdd said...

If memory serves, the dialect spoken by the relatively isolated inhabitants of Appalachia were considered a true hold out of the Elizabethan English from the days the area was first settled? N'est pas?

At any rate, last I heard (in college, 25 years ago) it was considered a true dialect.

Is this germaine to the discussion at all? Is it pure bunk or what?