Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tuesday's shibboleth

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

— Judges 12:5-6
It's the Tuesday after Labor Day, which means it's time to begin work in earnest -- even in academia. This includes appointments committees from coast to coast and tier to tier.

So here's a little task that faculty recruiters this fall can undertake during their infrequent breaks. Now that Jeff Harrison has revived the issue of elitism in academic appointments, I'd like to suggest a test of Jeff's hypothesis that is as inconclusive as it is indirect: the representation of nondominant accents and dialects in legal academia.

Tower of BabelRegional dialects, notwithstanding rampant social homogenization, do persist in America. This is to say nothing of heritage speakers of languages besides English and speakers of Black English Vernacular. For now, I cast my focus on the geographic dimension of subconscious linguistic bias.

Here are my assumptions, all of them excessively broad and at best lightly backed by evidence:
  1. Regions still matter in the United States, but generally speaking there are only two super-regions: the coasts and everything in between.

  2. The coasts are elite. "Flyover country" is not.

    1. In terms that William Jennings Bryan might understand, we have gone from bimetallism to bicoastalism.
    2. Disagree? Look at the pattern of geographic preferences expressed on FAR forms filed with the AALS. The coasts are the hip place to be.

  3. People who come from the interior of the country, upon contact with their bicoastal social "superiors," react in either of two ways:

    1. They adopt, to the best of their ability, the phonological and morphological markers of bicoastal speech.
    2. They continue, in the ears of bicoastal elites, to sound like rubes.

  4. Even without knowing it, bicoastal elites tend to lower their evaluation of Americans who sound nonelite.
Very well, then. If you are still with me, you might very legitimately ask for a quick way to separate nonelite speakers from their nonelite counterparts. Okay. How about a shibboleth? As the Hebrew Bible recounts, phonological differences between groups have long formed the basis for, well, negative sorting.

Not Gilead, but Megiddo, another Middle Eastern site with warlike connotations

Quick: what day of the week is it? Say Tuesday out loud and record it. In all likelihood your pronunciation will fit one of these two broad patterns:
  1. Bicoastal speech: /tuzde/ (rendered as a near-spondee, with almost equal stress on both syllables).

  2. Interior speech: /'tjuzdi/ (rendered as a trochee, with discernible stress on the first syllable). This is especially true if you speak with a Southern or Midland accent. It won't just be Tuesday that sets you apart from elite speakers of saltwater American English. Many freshwater speakers systematically palatalize the alveolar consonants -- /t/, /d/, and /n/ -- before the back vowel /u/. Dues. News. Tuesday.
Sheryl CrowIn informal, Berlitz-school improvisation rather than formal notation using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the question is whether you say Toos-Day or Tyewsdee. Here's an example, right here on MoneyLaw. Listen again to Sheryl Crow, featured on a recent post:
He's got a daughter he calls Easter
She was born on a Tuesday night
DragonflyYup. Sheryl says /tuzde/. Me? Decidedly /'tjuzdi/. In sociolinguistic terms, I'm on the losing end of a battle whose other skirmishes include the cot-caught merger and the rapid elimination of voiceless /w/ and /j/ from words such as which and human. You'll rarely if ever hear oral distinctions among the words marry, merry, and Mary, even though every speaker of American English can render and recognize /æ/, /ɛ/ and /e/ as distinct vowels. And abandon all hope of finding anyone who uses terms such as mosquito hawk, snake doctor, snake feeder, or even darning needle to refer to members of suborder Anisoptera.

Linguistically as well as musically, we nonelite speakers of flyover English are on the run:
ShibbolethThere is a wound inside me
And it's bleeding like a flood
There's times when I see a light ahead
Hope is not enough
As another
stream surrounds me
And it pounds me like a wave
Alas, Babel.


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