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04 Maj 2004 @ 13:28
When I am an old man I shall say dadburn it  

...and I shall mean it, too. (I may also wear purple, just to keep people guessing.)

In a recent post at Language Log, John McWhorter ponders the use of rural dialects as a signifier of advanced age in certain genres of broad comedy:

An old Bugs Bunny cartoon of 1944, THE OLD GREY HARE, depicts Bugs and Elmer Fudd as old men going through their usual antics with canes, gray beards, spectacles and the shakes. But these aren't the only traits indicating their having reached their twilight years. Bugs, as an oldster, talks in a hillbilly accent.

But Bugs Bunny as a young "man" spoke in a Brooklyn/Bronx patois. Why would he have shifted into an alien moonshine dialect as he got older?

[JPEG  image: A frame from 'The Old Grey Hare'] McWhorter cites several more examples, and then reflects that "this way of depicting seniors' speech in the old days may have reflected a demographic reality": as people gradually migrated from rural areas to urban ones and raised families there, this gave rise to communities whose elders still spoke with a certain backwoods je ne sais quoi, but whose young'uns talked all citified. In the world of Bugs Bunny, then, where the principles of language variation and change are taken no more seriously than the law of gravity, it is only natural that a streetwise young rabbit from the Bronx should ultimately mature into a rustic old hare. (Nota bene: Zoological taxonomy is also somewhat bent in the Looney Tuniverse, and Linnaeus himself could not have determined whether Bugs belongs to genus Lepus or genus Oryctolagus.)

Well, I've got news for you, sonny: it still reflects a demographic reality for some of us. My one surviving grandparent was born and raised in Macon, Ga., and this is clearly reflected in her accent. Her three children, born in the American south at six-year intervals but raised in cities all over the United States, sound progressively less southern. As for me, I spent the first 17 years of my life in Raleigh, N.C., but by that time many of my classmates were the children of people who had come to Raleigh from places like Arizona and India to work for companies like Glaxo and Northern Telecom; my accent does not sound particularly out of place in urban areas of southern Ontario. (My sister, who is considerably more linguistically permeable than I am, sounds like whoever she's been talking to lately.)

So if you took a linguistic snapshot of these three generations of my family, you might conclude from it that a strong regional small-town accent is a marker of age, and if you made cartoons on the basis of that snapshot, then an elderly Bugs Bunny would sound a lot like my grandmother.

 
 
 
(Deleted comment)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 4. Maj, 2004 12:46 (UTC)
Re: Interesting...

Absolutely. (Heck, I know Montrealers who say y'all.)

And I just happen to have on hand quantitative evidence that shows how right you are. Here's a map from an article in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of English Linguistics that shows the prevalance of seven lexical items that are particularly characteristic of New Orleans speech. Sure enough, three of the words are food terms (beignet, cush-cush, and boudin).

(Deleted comment)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 4. Maj, 2004 13:48 (UTC)
Re: Interesting...

Lagniappe is on the list, too, by the way.

(Deleted comment)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 5. Maj, 2004 11:17 (UTC)
Re: Interesting...
Is there any thought that cush-cush is linguistically connected to couscous? With some sort of possible African/slave trade derivation?

Yup. I don't know the details of the history behind it, but both cush-cush and couscous are from Arabic kuskus. Couscous came into English by way of French (which is reflected in its spelling); what I don't know is whether cush-cush also came to English via French (thanks to the Acadians) or whether it came via one of the African languages. (DARE says only that cush-cush (or just cush) is "of Afr orig, ult from Arabic.")

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 5. Maj, 2004 10:52 (UTC)
Re: Interesting...
(Heck, I know Montrealers who say y'all)
Yeah, but that's a conscious introduction (at least on my part).
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 5. Maj, 2004 11:23 (UTC)
Re: Interesting...

So? I never said anything about why you say it....

Of course, I know Montrealers who say beignet, too, but generally because they're speaking French. And there's a restaurant in Toronto that (in its pretentious early days) had on its menu a "beignet of the day," which I always referred to as the "doughnut du jour." (Yes, I know everybody seems to spell it donut these days, but I insist on keeping the ugh in doughnut.)

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