Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

LSA 2007: L and S at the ~

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2007

The Tensor is giving other LSA highlights, including the third annual bloggers’ gathering that happened on Friday night. It was fun; as he mentions, we got to meet Justin “Semantic Compositions” Busch in person, plus we saw the Tensor himself with non-purple hair. But I don’t want to talk about that. Conversation topics included how to make the best conlang ever, assuming you’d want to, and how to incorporate learning a language (or as Mark Liberman suggested, chemistry or other things) into a really cool videogame. And I put in a plug for my own Literal-Minded Linguistics Supplement. But enough about Friday night; I want to talk about Saturday night, when (now former) LSA president Sally McConnell-Ginet delivered the presidential address. The Tensor mentions his most memorable moment from the talk: when McConnell-Ginet spilled water on her PC. After she’d hastily mopped off her keyboard, recovered her composure, and continued with her talk, he and Included Middle were muttering things like, “She’s got about a minute, and then her motherboard’s fried.”

However, a friend whom I’ll call Rebecca that I talked to later that evening found something else about the talk memorable. It drove her crazy, she said, how McConnell-Ginet would often exhibit a sociophonetic variation that Rebecca sometimes observed in women’s (and only women’s) speech: a labialized /s/. That is, when she said her /s/, she would simultaneously round her lips as if to say a /w/. “Now far be it from me,” Rebecca said, “to condemn someone’s linguistic variation,” but it was still distracting, because McConnell-Ginet didn’t produce labialized /s/ consistently, or in some patterned way. Sometimes she’d produce a labialized /s/, other times a regular one; that was what really got under Rebecca’s skin. Oh, and about the talk itself? Ah, it was something about words and meaning. You can read the abstract on page 69 of the meeting handbook if you’re interested.

Hearing about this variant pronunciation of /s/ reminded me that on the shuttle from the airport on Thursday night, I’d heard another speaker who, like Adam, me as a kid, Stephen King sometimes, and possibly Tom Brokaw, pronounces his /l/ as the uvular nasal [N]. It was a three- free-year-old boy going to visit Disneyland with his parents, or as he put it, Disney[N]and. And that reminded me of yet another celebrity I’d heard using [N] for /l/: Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life. I’ve started downloading episodes of this program and listening to them on my iPod, and after a couple of hours of listening, I was pretty sure that he was saying “Ira G[N]ass” and “This American [N]ife.” Fortunately, most of the program is other people telling their stories, and the stories are usually really interesting, enough to mitigate the distraction of Ira Glass’s uvular /l/s. Why don’t you listen to a few episodes yourself and tell me what you think of his /l/s? Actually, I’d recommend listening even if you don’t care at all about his /l/s.

2 Responses to “LSA 2007: L and S at the ~”

  1. On your say-so, I listened to parts of the 12/1/06, 12/15/06, and 1/5/07 “This American Life” broadcasts (via streaming MP3). I can convince myself that I hear the uvular nasal when Ira Glass says his name at the 25:48 mark in the 1/5/07 broadcast, but most of the tokens of his /l/ don’t trigger that sensation for me at all.

    Then again, I find the nasality of his voice so irritating that I can barely stand to listen to him long enough to collect many examples. As you say, it’s a helpful mitigating factor that so much of the show is other people telling their stories.

    Incidentally, that 1/5/07 broadcast’s first half is narrated by Jack Hitt, who you may remember as a target of the linguistic blogosphere’s affection from late February/early March of ’04. It’s a great story, and I recommend listening to it, but I expect that he’s making most of it up.

  2. […] Was Never Said Anything About Last month, I said in one of my posts that it sounded like Ira Glass, host of “This American Life”, had a uvular /l/. Justin […]

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