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06 April 2004 @ 10:58
Come again?  

When I was a little linguist, it impressed me greatly—and, come to think of it, it still does—that we are able to know as much as we do about the pronunciation of languages that stopped having native speakers long before the arrival of the phonograph. Much of this knowledge comes from painstaking comparative and internal reconstruction, of course: we can figure out what Latin had to sound like in order for it to make sense that the modern Romance languages all sound the way they do, and we can undo the Great Vowel Shift to re-pair Middle English short and long vowels, and so forth. But the part that really tickles my literary-minded linguistic fancy is that we can also learn quite a lot from verse. If we understand the organizing principles behind a particular verse form, then we can use poetic meter to tell us how many syllables a word had and which one was stressed, and we can use rhyme schemes to tell us what the segments were.


Now, imagine the plight of a historical linguist some thousand or so years hence, who is studying late twentieth-century English, and who for some reason or other (pick your apocalypse, or just imagine that the Compact Disc has become as obscure as the Phaistos Disk) has no access to recordings from the period. Our hypothetical future scholar nonetheless has access to printed song lyrics, including the following:

I am walking
Out in the rain,
And I am listening to the low moan
Of the dial tone again.

Ani DiFranco, "Both Hands"

She says it's arthritis to the power of ten,
It's been in her family since I don't know when,
She tells you it's going, but here it comes again.

Weddings Parties Anything, "She Works"

[mp3 clip]

[mp3 clip]

The linguist would be perfectly correct (if a bit rash) to infer from the above (sans audio) that in late twentieth-century English there existed two variant pronunciations of the word again, one with an /ε/ in the final syllable, which rhymed with words like ten and when, and the other with an /ej/, rhyming with words like rain.

Prefectly correct... but for the wrong reason. Y'see, I, having been around in the late twentieth century meself, have access to recordings of each of these works, and I can tell you that Ani, who is American, sings again with an /ε/, and the Weddos, who are Australian, sing it with an /ej/ (well, really more of an [Λj]; did I mention they were Australian?). Rhyming be damned!

Nuværende humør: nerdynerdy
Nuværende musik: see post
-entangledbank on 8. April, 2004 15:13 (UTC)
This does worry me: we take variations in Pope or Dryden as evidence of change going on, then see eye-rhymes in Shelley or Keats that I'm damned sure they didn't actually say. But the historical linguists looking at Latin or Greek do come up against similar problems, and just have to say 'this was probably influenced by the analogous form...', all rather hand-waving, but sometimes necessary, and obviously justifiable (though whether justified or not is perhaps beyond our ken and lost to entropy).