As has been documented in full on this blog before, contemporary speakers of American English vacillate a great deal in their pronunciation of broad and flat [a] in items of foreign provenience. This is due largely to a kind of inferiority complex stemming from a lack of acquaintance with foreign languages, which results in speakers routinely favoring the broad vowel (as in swap) over the flat vowel (as in flat).
With the current prominence of Afghanistan and the Taliban in the broadcast media, the latter name for the dominant Afghan regime can be heard pronounced in several ways as far as the [a] vowels are concerned, not to speak of the variation in rendering the [l] and the [i]. Perhaps this vacillation has its origin in former President Barack Obama’s constant pronunciation of Taliban with broad [a] vowels and a palatalized [l], the latter resulting in the same [i] as in leave rather than that in live.
The normal––i. e., unfatuous, unself-consciously “foreign-sounding”––pronunciation is clearly the one that does not mimic Obama’s.
Every language has idioms that appear repeatedly in speech and writing. From the strictly grammatical viewpoint, however, they don’t always make sense. Such is the American English idiom “You know what?,” which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as:
1 —used to emphasize the statement that comes after it You know what? I never trusted her. She lied to me again, but you know what? I really just don’t care anymore.
2 —used to get someone’s attention Hey, you know what? I’m hungry.
Senseless idioms are a good example of the arbitrariness of language.
All languages of the world involve accompanying gesticulations by speakers, but not all such actions are meaningful (convey meaning). When a speaker or hearer raises his/her eyebrows to signify incredulity or lack of comprehension, this is widely understood as a paralinguistic sign that may substitute for a speech act such as an expression of doubt in words. But such meaningful gestures are very much in the minority.
Contemporary American English is widely utilized by its native speakers with a mesmerizing assortment of gestures––mostly hand gestures–– that are not meant to convey any meaning at all and must be deemed silently senseless to their producers as well as to their interpreters/interlocutors. Whereas women are traditionally viewed as being more “expressive” or “emotional” than men during acts of speech, in twenty-first-century America both sexes produce these meaningless paralinguistic signs in great profusion. Why they do so is anybody’s guess. Perhaps senselessness is just a sign of our times.
Meaning is a very interesting category, existing in the shared mental space between humans and the languages they use to communicate with each other. As something intangible except in its consequences, linguistic meaning is always something liable to misunderstanding, reinterpretation, and even perversion.
One current example of perversion is the meaning of the word ‘caveat’ in American English, which comes from the Latin phrase caveat emptor, used originally by lawyers to mean ‘let the buyer beware’. Nowadays, the first word of the phrase is commonly used to mean something like ‘exception’, when it normatively and traditionally has meant the following:
1. A warning, admonition, caution. (OED)
2 a: a modifying or cautionary detail to be considered when evaluating, interpreting, or doing something;
b. a warning enjoining one from certain acts or practices;
c. a cautionary explanation to prevent misinterpretation.
(all three of the latter meanings from Merriam-Webster’s Online)
Even when it comes to language use, dear readers, remember: caveat emptor!
My late wife Marianne Shapiro, demonstrably the most versatile and accomplished American Italianist of the 20th century, taught me a word which she herself used quite frequently, viz. ‘rebarbative’, meaning ‘Repellent; unattractive; objectionable (OED); ‘serving or tending to repel or irritate : crabbed, repellent’ (Merriam- Webster).
Unfortunately, in Marianne’s experience this word’s usefulness came up frequently because she worked in a field replete with epitomically rebarbative academic types.
In our own day, this word retains more than a routine usefulness for everyday speech, given the sorts of people (and not only academics) one tends to encounter in everyday life.
In a telephone conversation with my old friend and loyal subscriber to this blog, the nonpareil prosthodontist Dr. Simon Gamer (known in Russian by his name and patronymic, Семён Максимович), a book on Lenin came up, and Dr. Gamer remarked that the book (which I had given him) contained numerous corrections by me of typographical errors. I then retorted that this behavior was in line with my “punctilious self,” and the good doctor agreed with me.
The word ‘punctilious’ is very useful: it means ‘showing great attention to detail or correct behavior’, a punctilio being (according to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary online “a nice detail of conduct in a ceremony, a procedure, or in the observance of a social or moral code : a point of behavior about which one is fastidious.”
An astute reader of and long-time subscriber to this blog, Lone Coleman, who is a native speaker of Danish and speaks English perfectly well, alerted me to the fact that not all accents are the same, hence this addendum.
It is true that certain accents are harsher than others. The closer a non-native speaker’s accented English approaches standard English, the better the “music” of the outcome. Occasionally, a typical accent (like the French) can even seem charming and easy on the ear. C’est le ton qui fait la musique!
The likening of language to music has a long history. No further evidence is needed than the phrase in English of speech being “music to one’s ears,” etc. Since English is now the world’s lingua franca, many people are heard speaking the language who are not native speakers or who have learned to speak it imperfectly and do so badly. One is tempted to call this kind of speech cacolalia, a nonce word combining the Greek element for ‘bad, evil’ with the Latin for ‘speech’.
When one hears such cacolalia constantly on the BBC World Service (as does Y-H-B in the middle of the night), as a musician one is left with the impression that this is speech produced by a human instrument played badly, as one would hear emanating from a musical instrument played badly. This phenomenon actually brings up a genuine linguistic mystery: why is it that human beings who use language as non-native speakers routinely do it so badly? In other words, why is cacolalia the norm? What is it about the human linguistic capacity that prevents speakers from learning to speak a foreign language well?
Interestingly, this phenomenon concerns the phonic aspect of speech and not the grammar. There are innumerable people, for instance, who speak English with perfect grammar despite their cacolalia, and next to none who do so with an impeccable English accent. ¿Quién sabe?
On today’s NPR program, “Morning Edition,” the reporter Brendan Byrne kept saying [ashtronaut] instead of [astronaut], exemplifying the change in the speech of some speakers of American English that Y-H-B has written about in American Speech. Here is the article:
MISCELLANY A CASE OF DISTANT ASSIMILATION: /str/ -> /ftr/ lW ATHEN SOUND CHANGE INVOLVES ASSIMILATION, the typical case is one of contact assimilation: the sound that becomes similar to its neighbor is immediately contiguous to the latter. Assimilation at a distance does occur but is a relatively rarer phenomenon when it involves consonants; vowels assimilating to each other in neighboring syllables are quite com- mon, a typical example being that of umlaut (cf. Hock 1986, 64). The recent history of American English includes a sound change that seems to have gone unattested in the scholarly literature.’ This is the change of /s/ to /fl before /tr/ (i.e., a PHONEMIC CHANGE), which involves a palatalization of the initial sound in the cluster /str/, typically in initial position but not exclusively. Thus, for instance, speakers who regularly manifest this pronunciation replace the Standard American English [s] of strong, strategy, strength, Australia(n), restrictive, interest rate, industry, extra, and even history (when pronounced with syncope of the medial vowel) with [I]. The degree of palatalization is not uniform, so that the phonetic realiza- tion can stop short of the full-fledged “phonetic power” of the American [f] found in words like short, shape, ash, etc. (More about the phonetic details later.) This phonemic change seems to be neither dialectal nor regional.2 Over many months of listening to radio and television broadcasts and observing the pronunciation of speakers in the New York area, I have noted it as a regular trait in the speech of the following persons during their television appearances: Richard Nixon (miscellaneous sound bites); Howard P. (“Pete”) Colhoun (panelist on the PBS program Wall Street Week, 9 July 1993); Tracy Austin, Mary Carillo, John McEnroe (USA and CBS broad- casts of the US Open Tennis Championships, Aug.-Sept. 1993); Rick Barry, Hubie Brown (TNT broadcasts of NBA games, 1990-93 seasons); Dick Vitale (ESPN broadcasts of NCAA basketball games); and Cokie Roberts (regular panelist on ABC program This Week with David Brinkley) .3 Based on their overall speech and what can be ascertained about their origins, these speakers are from California (Nixon and Austin), Flushing, Queens, New York (Carillo and McEnroe), New Jersey (Barry, Brown, Calhoun, and Vitale), and Washington, DC, by way of Louisiana (Roberts)-which sug- gests no obvious geographical pattern. Admittedly, this is a highly limited sample, but I have deliberately singled out public figures whose pronuncia- tion is continuously open to observation by others who might wish to confirm for themselves the existence of this trait. I have also registered it among many other (nameless) speakers as a more or less regular phenom- 101
AMERICAN SPEECH 70.1 (1995) enon, and my southern correspondents in places like Birmingham, Ala- bama, have confirmed its incidence in that part of the country. Taking all this into account, I would venture to say that it is a general American innovation, and that it is gaining ground. Such are the facts, to the extent that I am able to present them. What makes this case more interesting than the mere registration of a phonetic peculiarity is its phonologicalsignificance. But in order to understand the innovation from the point of view of the sound pattern of American English, we need to back up one step and ask several questions. Is the pronunciation of strong, for example, with [I] instead of [s] properly an assimilation, let alone an assimilation “at a distance”? If so, what is being assimilated to what and in what phonologicalrespect? Finally, in deciding these matters, are there special acoustic data concerning the phonetic realizations of /s/ and /t/ when these phonemes occur before Irl that need to be taken into account? The questions are intertwined; consequently, my discussion will have to do a bit of zigging and zagging between them. First some phonetic details. Judging by the evidence in Olive, Green- wood, and Coleman (1993, 279, 281), the cluster [str] seems to have a peculiar acoustic character. The center frequency of the frication noise of the /s/ moves down rapidly from the high value expected for /s/ (ca. 5 kHz) to a very low value (ca. 2 kHz or even less) right before the onset of voicing for /r/. And what is even more remarkable, there is often no abrupt cessation of the fricative noise (or none long enough to count as a stop), that is, it appears as if there really is no stop. Nevertheless, the uncharacter- istically gradual amplitude change in the noise is apparently enough to cue to the listener the presence of the stop /t/. The spectrogram in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 281) shows this-but without any com- mentary in the accompanying text that recognizes the oddness of the realization of /t/. This acoustic evidence suggests that the initial fricative-phonetically- could be a retroflex [f], just as the voiced fricative noted above (n3) is probably the retroflex [zj. The spectrogram in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 94, fig. 4.8), where the center portions of the voiced fricatives are shown, also makes it clear that retroflex [zj and the sound  are practically identical; this would presumably apply to their “voiceless” counterparts. In fact, judging by the spectrograms in Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993, 173, fig. 6.26; 180, fig. 6.31), the retroflex realizations of/s/ are acoustically similar enough to be judged as fronted realizations of I/f. In my own auditory perception of the speakers I heard, I can testify that I consistently heard varieties of [f] and not retroflex [a]. More importantly, none of this disturbs the status of  as a realization of /Jf and [zj as a realization of /3/. 102
When Y-H-B commented on a woman server’s behavior in addressing him recently while he waited to be served at his Stammtisch at The Dorset Inn, he used the word “ebullient,” but the woman’s look of incomprehension revealed that the word was unknown to her, so he switched to “effervescent.” The server, nota bene, was an elementary school teacher who should have known better, but such is the state of the knowledge of the English language among its American practitioners that often useful words are not within their ken.
In any event, here is what ‘ebullient’ means according to the OED Online:
1. That boils; boiling; agitated, as if boiling.
2a. Of the humours of the body: Agitated, hot, effervescent.
b. Of drugs and diseases: Causing heat and agitation.
3. figurative. Of energy, feelings, influences: Gushing forth like boiling water;bubbling over, overflowing, enthusiastic. Constr. with.
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