audiobooks & too much information (with video!)

R-Less Edith Wharton

R-Less Edith Wharton

I’ve been trying to concentrate on writing so I haven’t been posting very often. But something has been on my mind for a while and I thought this would be the best way to resolve it — in my head, at least. 

If you have read this weblog for any length of time you’re most likely aware that I was a professor of linguistics for twelve years before I started writing full time. Linguistics is a huge field — everything from the neurology of speech production to reconstruction of ancient languages to universals in syntax. My field has to do with the sociocultural aspects of language, or sociocultural anthropological linguistics (how’s that for a mouthful?).[1. My best-known publication is English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the U.S. and here’s a pdf excerpt if you’re so inclined.] The Santa Barbara campus of the UC system has what I consider to be the best program in the field, and this is part of their short description: 

Encompassing research traditions including sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, and others, sociocultural linguistics focuses on how discourse mediates the enactment of social life and the construction of the social world.

A couple more basic points: all spoken language changes; all spoken language varies over different kinds of social space. All that just to preface what I’m about to say.

When they started doing the audiobook recordings for the Wilderness novels, it never occurred to me to worry about the varieties of English (or, more simply, the accents) spoken by the characters, and therefore, by the reader. Simply because we don’t know enough about the way English was spoken on the New York frontier in 1792. But we do know more about the sounds of spoken English in 1883 — primarily because some of the people born in the mid 19th century were still around into the 1960s or longer, and their voices have been preserved on tape.[1. There are a few recordings of the human voice around this time, but the technology was in its infancy and the quality is very poor (for example, this recording of President Benjamin Harrison whose term ran from 1889 to 1892).]

My point (and I do have one) is that in my mind, I have an actual sense of the way Anna Savard spoke English. In late 19th century Manhattan, the accent was much like the current day New England accents. The most tangible feature is the loss of /r/ after a vowel — as in John F. Kennedy’s infamous “Paak the caah in Haaavad yaad” (this is referred to as rhoticity).  There’s a very good short video on Youtube on the history and evolution of urban accents over time that provides good examples of rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciations.[2. Some of the explanations I would quibble with, but all in all it’s a good overview. Less serious but a lot of fun: Shit Boston Girls Say and Shit Italian Moms Say. The accents are right on target.] And here’s an example of the way linguists have fun: an article about a study of rhoticity in Hollywood films over time: 

Elliott, N. (2000) “A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.” In R. Dal Vera (ed.) Standard Speech and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training. New York: Applause, pp. 103–130.

Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.

Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.


Anna would sound more like Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, who were both born to upper class families in Massachusetts. The videos below were recorded when they were both quite old, but the accent still comes through, primarily the loss of /r/ after a vowel, the raising and backing of some vowels, and intonation.

So if I had been able to dictate how Cassandra Campbell voiced Anna — and other women of that time and place — in the recording of The Gilded Hour, I might have said “Do your best Katherine Hepburn.” And that would have been a disaster, because unless you’ve studied the evolution of American English on the east coast, it would sound utterly wrong to you. Technically closer to fact, yes. But not a good idea. 

There are no audio recordings of Edith Wharton’s voice, which is a shame, because while she was of a higher social class than Anna Savard, an argument could be made that they would have been very close in the way they spoke. 

I’m very happy with the unabridged audio recording of The Gilded Hour, but when I listen to it, this issue always comes up for me. Some days it would be good to be able to forget my education.

Is Using ‘Firstly’ Grounds for Summary Execution?

Lori Nixon asked a question on my Facebook  page, and I told her that I’d reply over here. Her question:

Knowing that you have studied linguisitics I thought you might be the person to ask this question of. If I am totally off base by posting this question to your FB page, I apologize.

My question; every time I hear the word firstly the hair on the back of my neck stands up.I’ve been known to yell out loud, to no one in particular “that is NOT a word.” I now realize, hearing it more and more often, that I very well may be mistaken. Is use of the word “firstly” correct?


Firstly (cough) I’m happy to get questions about linguistics here, there, anywhere.

There are two approaches to this firstly business. The one you were taught in school (and the reason Lori gets all itchy when she hears it) goes something like there is a right and a wrong way to say xxxx or bad grammar is evidence of a lazy mind and/or low intelligence. We are all taught that in school, because in school they are teaching you to read and write.  The written language is different from the spoken language in a dozen ways, but the most important (for this conversation) is this: the written language conveys complex information over time and space. It needs to be consistent, goes the reasoning. And quite logically.

Did you know that Shakespeare used a lot of alternate spellings when he signed his name?  Spelling was a fluid thing back then. The printing press made uniformity in spelling (and other aspects of language) a priority. Printers could hardly make a profit if they had to print the Bible in twenty different dialects of English — and English spoken in Cornwall and in Yorkshire were very different. The solution was to pick one variety of English, call it ‘correct’ and everything else ‘wrong’ and to convince the general public to go along with this. And they pulled it off. Amazing, really, to think about.

All of this (abbreviated) background is just to make a point: there’s a prescriptivist approach to language that began to develop with the invention of printing. Somewhere along the line somebody (many somebodies, but not in an organized fashion) decided that if there were rules for the written language to make it more useful and perfect, there ought to be rules for the spoken language. Spoken English should be consistent and homogeneous. For that to happen, there had to be one spoken variety of English that would be seen as good or right or grammatical. And again: the general populace was drawn into accepting this as truth.

So that’s the prescriptive approach you learned in school. In that world view, ‘firstly’ is not a word. As evidence people will say: it’s not in the dictionary.

The Language Instinct, PinkerNow here comes the other approach.

Academically trained linguists study human language. The acquisition of language is hard-wired into the human brain, whereas writing is a skill that has to be laboriously taught and practiced.  Most linguists study the spoken language. 

The spoken language is inherently flexible, always changing, never static. Hard-line prescriptivists insist  that it is possible to have a homogenous, non-varying spoken language, if only we were  disciplined enough to speak correctly. But any linguist will tell you that an idealized, homogenous variety of any language is a myth.  You could propose that the world would be an easier place to live in if we were all the same height and weight, but variation is a biological imperative in all aspects of being human. Including language.

So the prescriptivist says: You hurt my ears when you speak such slovenly English. ‘Firstly’ is not a word. Off with your head. Off with all the heads of all the people who say ‘firstly’ because that’s the only way to preserve the beauty of our language.

The linguist says: Okay, we’ve got a morphological neologism that is spreading its wings. Let’s see where it’s showing up (in space) and who’s using it (sex, age, and other factors). 

The Grammar of PolarityExcept the origin and spread of ‘firstly’ — which drives the prescriptivist to the point of murder — is only vaguely interesting to the linguist. It’s one small phenomenon in a universe of shifting language. Academic linguists study things like huge shifts in the vowel systems of people who live in a wide arc from Chicago to Buffalo, something that’s been going on for a long time. They study the syntax of multiple negation in specific varieties of English, or compare that point of syntax across varieties of English.  To name just two of a dozen directions a linguist might go. The Wikipedia page on linguistics has a long list of linguistic subfields.

embiggenThe bottom line is this: as a linguist I have to say to you that ‘firstly’ is a perfectly cromulent word. Click the link, read the bit in Wikipedia. It will make a lot of this come to life in a far more entertaining way. I’ll wait here while you do that.

To summarize:  You won’t find cromulent (or firstly) in a dictionary, but new words pop up constantly and a lot of them end up embiggening the language.   Despite the howls of protest from third grade teachers everywhere, you simply can’t nail the spoken language down.  This is true for new words and for the way we string words together into sentences and every other aspect of language.

The variable nature of language actually serves an important function. Variation is emblematic. And I’ll stop there because by now I’m boring everybody to death.  And if you are just waking up now, the short answer: Firstly is in fact a word. 

Off to San Diego: Linguistics

I leave tomorrow to give a paper at the University of California/San Diego. Two or three times a year I get invited to come tell people about my work in linguistics, and I always accept because it’s a way to stay in the academic loop and talk to people with similar interests and new perspectives.

This particular talk is about the way children learn stereotypes from animated film, but I’ve talked about a lot of different areas of my research, from legal issues to real estate. Really.  To give you an idea of what I’m doing this time, here’s a chart from the first edition of English with an Accent based on an analysis of characters with speaking roles in Disney animated films that came out before 1998.  Proof positive: I am an academic nerd. Click for a somewhat less fuzzy image.