Say What?!

Although I grew up outside of Chicago, I’ve spent the last decade split between the East and West Coasts. Now, after 5 years in Los Angeles, my husband and I are settling into life as Michiganders. Aside from the longer days and lower cost of living, the biggest differences I’ve noticed are linguistic. People speak differently here, and for me it’s like coming home. After a decade away, I am back in a state where people drink pop instead of soda. And, at long last, I’ve returned to the land of the Northern City Vowel Shift.

Speech is constantly in flux, whether or not we are aware of it. Regional dialects diverge, giving us the drawls of the South and the dropped r’s of the Northeast. More recently, cities in a large swath of the northern Midwest are reinventing their vowels, especially the short vowels in ben, bin, and ban. From Syracuse to Minneapolis, Green Bay to Cleveland, these vowels have been changing among Caucasian native English speakers. The vowels are now pronounced with a different positioning of the tongue, in some cases dramatically altering the sound of the vowel. A wonderful NPR interview on the subject is available online in audio form and includes examples of these vowel changes.

I must have picked up the Northern City vowels growing up near Chicago. When I arrived in Boston for graduate school, friends poked fun at my subtle accent. They loved to hear me talk about my can-tact lenses. And I can’t blame them for teasing me. The dialect can sound pretty absurd, especially when pushed to the extreme. It was probably best parodied by George Wendt and the SNL cast in the long-running Super Fans sketch.

I have long been in love with the field of phonetics and phonology, or how we produce and perceive speech sounds. Creating and understanding speech are two truly impressive (and often underappreciated) feats. Each time we speak, we must move our tongues, lips, teeth and vocal folds in precise and dynamic ways to produce complex acoustical resonances. And whenever we listen, we must deconstruct the multifaceted spectral signatures of speech sounds to translate them into what we perceive as simple vowels, consonants, syllables. We do all of that without a single conscious thought – leaving our minds free to focus on the informational content of our conversations, be they about astrophysics or Tom and Katie’s breakup.

Experiences in the first couple years of life are critical for our phonetic and phonological development. Details of the local dialect are incorporated into our speech patterns early in life and can be hard to change later on. As a result, everyone’s speech is littered with telltale signs of their regional origins. My mother and aunt spent their early years in a region of Kansas where the vowels in pen and pin were pronounced the same. To this day, they neither say nor hear them as different. Imagine the trouble my mother had when she worked with both a Jenny and Ginny. I’ve noticed major differences between my husband’s dialect and my own as well. My husband, a native Angeleno, pronounces the word dew as dyoo, while I pronounce it as doo because in Chicago the vowels yoo and oo have merged.

These days I’m watching phonetic development from a front-row seat. My baby has been babbling for a while and I’ve watched as she practiced using her new little vocal tract. She would vocalize as she moved her tongue all around her open mouth and presumably learned how the sound changed with it. From shrieks to gasps to blowing raspberries, she tested the range of noises her vocal tract could create.  And as she hones in on the spoken sounds she hears, her babbling has become remarkably speech-like. The consonants and vowels are mixed up in haphazard combinations, but they are English consonants and vowels all right. Through months of experimentation, mimicry, and practice, she has learned where to put her tongue, how far to open her mouth, and how to shape her lips to create the sounds that are the building blocks of our language. And just as she was figuring it out, we went and moved her smack into a different dialect. She will have to muddle through and learn to speak all the same. And once that happens, it will be interesting to see where her sweet little vowels end up.

Leaving Los Angeles

There’s something odd about Los Angeles, something I’ve come to fully appreciate only now that I’m moving away. Time passes differently here. Of course, the human perception of time is always malleable and subjective. Time flies when you’re having fun while a watched pot never seems to boil. It often feels like the pace of time picks up as we grow older and more set in our work and home routines. We ask, How is it June already? And of 2012, no less?  Before living here, I knew that our perception of passing time changes from one minute to the next, one day to the next, and certainly one year to the next. But I didn’t know that it changes by area code.

I’ve spent the past five years in LA and the five years prior to that in Boston. While those five years in Boston felt like four years in my subjective perception of time, my five years in Los Angeles felt like nothing. I don’t mean that they passed quickly; I mean that they didn’t seem to elapse at all. In sunny Southern California, each day is nearly identical to the ones before and after. In West LA where I live it’s never too hot or too cold. It never snows and rarely rains. Trees are always green with foliage and some flower or another is always in bloom. Easter feels just Halloween feels just like Christmas. We have only cardboard decorations and the music pumped through speakers at the outdoor malls to tell one holiday from the next. That and the calendar. The changing dates on our datebooks, paychecks, and receipts are a constant if paltry reminder that time marches on.

The timelessness of life in LA can be deeply unnerving, most of all when one looks in the mirror. Although we don’t feel it, time is passing and taking its toll (as does the strong southern sun). Sometimes I wonder if the popularity of plastic surgery out here is more than a consequence of the movie industry. Perhaps people here go under the knife because of how the years can slip away, unnoticed and unmourned. They shouldn’t be older, yet clearly they are. Time passes with or without our knowledge and consent.

Right now my husband and I are in the midst of a big transition. Our belongings are already en route to Michigan, our new home. We are headed back to a land that has weather, for better or for worse. Although I’ll miss friends and family in LA, I’m looking forward to experiencing seasons and observing the passage of time. Each day will be part of a season with its own unique temperature and palette of colors. And my daughter will learn the holidays by how they feel – from the blaze of July Fourth to the biting cold of each New Years Day.

%d bloggers like this: