Thursday, August 4, 2016

Measuring vowels...

So, it's been over a year since I blogged. My apologies! I did finish my dissertation, graduate, and secure a position as a post-doc. Blogging sorta dropped down the ole priority list. Anyway, I'll try to post more regularly in the future.

Now that I'm Dr. Mountain Man, I have had the pleasure of telling lots of people about my work recently. One thing I did notice is when I described what I did for my dissertation, often people didn't really know what was talking about. So, I figured a blog post could help!

This particular post was inspired by what I did a lot of for my dissertation: measuring vowels. This is a somewhat time-consuming task, necessary but not glamorous (at times it can get boring). However, I have noticed that non-linguists have literally no idea what I mean when I say that I measure vowels. When people asked me what all I did for my dissertation, one of the things I would tell them was 'measuring vowels'. The blank stares were sort of disconcerting. I realized that lots of people don't really know what a vowel actually is, so I decided to remedy that situation!

Caveat: this will be a very nerdy, wonkish post. If you'd like to avoid the nuts and bolts, jump down to the last paragraph.

Most people tend to think of vowels as 'A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y'. This is something that I was taught in elementary school. But, this little mnemonic is really talking about letters. When we linguists refer to vowels, we are referring to the sounds themselves. A vowel is actually kind of hard to define. The typical definition mentions a voiced sound with a relatively open vocal tract. Voiced mean's the vocal folds are vibrating. Open vocal tract means the air can flow with no obstruction, i.e., your tongue isn't really close to anything. So, there are many more sounds that fit this description that the 6 letters mentioned earlier. In fact, depending on the variety, there are about 16 vowels in English. You can hear the vowels in the following words: beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, but, bot, bought, boat, good, boot, but, bite, bout, void, cute (these can vary by region/nation/social factors, etc.).

Since the vocal tract is relatively open and the vocal folds are vibrating, some really cool acoustic things are happening. Your vocal tract is basically a long tube that is closed at one end (your larynx) and open at the other (your mouth and nose). It is a certain length and thickness, and has two main sections: the part behind your tongue (your pharynx) and your oral cavity (I am going to discuss nasality and nasal vowels in another post). The length, thickness, and two part nature of the tube means that it has certain resonant properties (certain frequencies will be enhanced). The buzzing of your vocal folds produces a spectrum of harmonics (basically, it vibrates at a certain frequency and the whole number multiples of that frequency). And, since your tongue can be in different positions, the relative sizes of the cavities (your pharynx and oral cavities) can change. This produces a filter on the harmonic spectrum from the vocal folds. This filter means that certain areas of the spectrum are 'enhanced' and others are not. These enhanced areas are called formants. So, you take the harmonic spectrum that is the result of the buzzing from your vocal folds (the source) and the resonance of the tube and add in the shape and relative sizes of the cavities (the filter), this produces formants, which we can then measure. A picture (from here) is probably worth a couple hundred words:

When we measure vowels, we are measuring formants, which are the result of the relationship between the cavities and their impact on the spectrum. As the tongue moves, the relationship and relative sizes and shapes of the two cavities change, and this produces the different vowel sounds. For example, for the vowel in the word beet, the tongue is high in the oral cavity. This means the pharyngeal cavity (your throat) is relatively large and the oral cavity is relatively smaller. Large things vibrate slower than small things, so the formant associated with the pharyngeal cavity (F1) is relatively low, and the formant associated with the oral cavity (F2) will be relatively high, because it is smaller (both of these are still dependent on the harmonic spectrum of the source).

Now, there is one other aspect that needs to be mentioned. Males tend to have bigger heads and longer vocal tracts that females, and as a result, their frequencies are affected. A longer tube vibrates more slowly, and we hear that as a lower pitch (this is modulated by many, many things, but at its core, males tend to have 'deeper' voices and lower pitch). This affects all the frequencies and their resulting formants. So, when we compare males and females, we have to adjust for these differences. This is called 'vowel normalization'. There are literally books on the subject, so I can't really go into the details here, but think of it as a way to adjust for the difference in vocal tract length while maintaining some of the differences related to pronunciation.

Now, that is probably way more information than is necessary, but it points towards what I did for part of my dissertation and other research. I record a person, and then I transcribe what we said. I then locate all the vowels in the speech stream, and then I measure the first and second formants (F1 and F2), normalize the data. I then run statistical tests to compare the results, based on all sorts of linguistic and social factors. So, now you know what we linguists mean when we say we 'measure vowels'. We are actually measuring the frequencies of formants, which are the result of a filter (the resonance of the vocal tract and the articulation - where and how their tongue and jaw are positioned) placed on the source (the vibration of the vocal folds). Simple, right?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

HCHS 2015 Commencement Address

This past Saturday, I had the great honor and privilege to deliver the commencement address at Hancock County High School, my alma mater (Class of 2000 represent!). Naturally, I talked about my experiences as an Appalachian in our post-modern culture, and how my life was shaped by the values instilled in me by my homeland. Becoming proud of being a mountain man was a process for me, and I hope the graduates can have an easier path embracing their local identity  (or not, if they choose not to).

Several people have asked for the video, so I decided the most effective way to share it would be here. So, below is the video! If you'd like a copy emailed to you, just let me know at or in a comment (be sure to put your email!)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Appalachian Code Switching

Today's post is a self-reflection, brought on by the following two articles:

The first speaks to something that I understand completely: code-switching. It's a fancy word that basically means you talk very differently depending on where you are talking and who you are talking to. As a mountain man with deep mountain roots, I have a way of talking that demonstrates these roots and my favorite place, Hancock County, TN. However, I am also an academic who presents in front of people often, typically about research where I am presenting data and information about language. Somewhere along the way, my way of speaking became ways of speaking. I don't remember the time or the place, and I don't really have one concrete moment when I 'changed', but I can hear it now. I hear my voice when I talk to my family or friends back home, and I also hear it when I present or in my daily life here at the university, and never the twain shall meet. People often tell me that they are surprised to hear that I come from the mountains. I'm not gonna lie, that actually hurts more that I thought at first. I suppose it hurts because I'm afraid that that person thinks that I've turned my back on my homeland and my home people. I most certainly have not done so, but that fear is real.

I can't pinpoint exactly why my speech changed. I know all the linguistic and social reasons from the linguistics literature, things like accommodation, the influence of standard ideologies, stigma, audience design, etc. But, I'm not sure any one of these is the key, perhaps it's the sum of the parts. In any case, this article resonated deeply with me. And, I am going to try to let my home voice out more away from home, because that's really who I am.

The second article speaks to my work. While the author is talking about fiction, the point is still valid. There is a growing body of linguistics literature on Appalachia. Much of it, though, has been written by people not from the region. This is not to slight their work. I know many of them and their work is stellar and thought-provoking. Their methods are sound and many of their conclusions have clarified my thinking and spurred my own work forward. At the same time, they are not writing about a region they've embraced and breathed since birth, or about people they've loved with, worked with, joked with, or mourned with for a lifetime. They see the region as worthy of study and the people worthy of having a voice, and that is completely admirable and righteous. But there is something about a native writing about home. You have a knowledge that is greater and more profound than someone looking in could ever possess. Perspectives about how things are that come from living in a place, participating in a society, and interacting with people that builds up over a lifetime. As a dear friend and fellow Appalachian academic says quite poignantly about this particular insider/outsider issue:

But I also feel down deep in my soul that they are never going to understand us like we understand ourselves. There is truth in what you say, though, about us-- as insiders-- having our own blind spots. I think the best way to think about it is insiders/ outsiders each have their strengths and limitations, but as long as our hearts are pure we can be allies. We need allies; it makes things easier. But they need to be open-minded people who understand that there are things about us and our language that they will never be able to understand.
We need to write about home, and we also need others to write about us. It's a symbiotic relationship where each has a perspective that the other needs. I fully agree that both sides must be well-intentioned.

Yet, to write about home requires a certain distance. The very thing that gives you a perspective can also cloud it. A distance that allows you to see how unique certain things are, or alternatively, how common. A distance that allows you to understand what is lacking, and, what is in abundance. A distance that allows you to see the indelible imprint of home in your life, and also to see how that imprint has colored other perceptions. A distance from home, to see it more clearly, and yearn for it more deeply.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More about House of Cards

Yesterday, I posted about Southern vowels. I wanted to go into a bit more detail here than what appeared in the article I mentioned yesterday. You may want to take a couple minutes and read it before continuing...

Basically, people outside the South have the misconception that all Southerners sound the same. We Southerners have the same misconceptions about regions outside the South. Ever heard a Southern lament the way that 'Yankees' talk? Yankees could be anybody from Maryland northward. Or we'll say 'New Yorkers sound the same' etc. Most of this comes down to experience with the language varieties. A person with lots of experience with particular varieties can detect some differences; those with less experience can't. When we don't have much experience, we rely on the little that we do know - namely stereotypes.

Back to Kevin Spacey's accent in 'House of Cards'...

Ask a non-Southerner with little experience with Southern Englishes to mimic a Southerner and you'll get two things: monophthongization and r-lessness. Monophthongization is when a vowel sound that can be two different sounds becomes one. That's a fancy way of saying that words like I, my, and right sound more like Ah, mah, and raht (phonetically they are [a:, ma:, ɹa:t], though the vowel sound varies). Outside of the South, these words use two vowel sounds, moving from something like the first vowel in father ([a]) to something like the vowel sound in pit ([ɪ]). In the South, these are realized as one sound. r-lessness refers to when an /r/ sound occurs after a vowel. In some varieties, there is no /r/ (think most British accents, Boston, old time Charleston accents, etc.). So, the word car sounds sort of like cah (with different vowels). That type of pronunciation used to be found across parts of the South, but it isn't anymore (I'll touch on this in a later post).

Spacey's accent in HoC is decent, but not perfect. He is supposed to be from Gaffney, a relatively small town in the SC Upstate. It is much closer to Appalachia than Charleston, geographically and linguistically. His accent should sound, as mentioned in the USC Times article, more like Lindsey Graham (here's a video of Graham speaking). However, Spacey doesn't sound like this. He sounds more like someone from the coast of SC (here is Fritz Hollings, Charleston native and SC pol who Page Ivey references in the article). But, this really wouldn't be right either. The Frank Underwood's accent is using is older than his generation. It would be more like someone his father's age, or perhaps older, from Charleston or thereabouts. I am going to guess that Spacey doesn't have very much experience with Southern accents, and probably none with Upstate SC accents. So, what does he do? He relies on what he knows, the stereotypical 'Southern' speech, with monophthongs and no /r/'s.

Now, this is a minor quibble, and, being totally honest, a pretty nerdy one at that. Spacey is a fantastic actor, and he does a passable Southern accent (even if it is a bit off). Frank Underwood is a brilliant character, and his schemes just might not feel the same without that little bit of Southern sweetening brought on by Kevin Spacey's attempt at Southern speech.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Back into the Blogging game! Southern Accents

Well, it's been awhile since I posted. Mainly due to the fact that I'm writing my dissertation (should be done by the fall!). In any case, I wanted to get back into my blogging, and I will try to write more frequently. The posts will most likely be shorter until I finish my dissertation, but that may not be a bad thing!

I was recently interviewed for a faculty/staff newspaper here at USC. The reporter wanted to talk about the Netflix series 'House of Cards' and Kevin Spacey's Southern accent (see here for a pic of the article). This was inspired by the recent Vox article on the same topic. The reporter had seen that piece, and she knew that linguists at USC looked at Southern English. We had a lively time, and I think the article turned out well.

Give it a gander! I'll try to locate an online copy, and I'll update this post.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Family Feuds, Error, Word Crimes, and ORNL

The genesis of this post was a lively 'discussion' that I had with a family member. Most of you know me (and the fam), and know that we don't ever back down when we 'discuss' things that we are passionate about. I know, I know, those with Reed blood being argumentative (wait, I mean discursive...), a shocker, right? In all seriousness, some of the things we discussed also came up in popular culture, which I will make reference to later.

The 'discussion' (ok, argument) was about language. The other family member (a very intelligent, articulate professional) and I were discussing language and my research. We got to the idea that is fundamental to linguistics, that basically all varieties of language (dialects) are systematic and rule governed, and that native speakers don't make errors. (We weren't talking about ums and uhs or false starts, we were talking about structures that are non-mainstream). For example, double negatives. This is where an utterance has more than one negative word, such as 'I don't got none'. Now, before your heads explode, let me explain why this isn't an 'error'. Some of you will say, 'Two negatives make a positive', which is true in mathematics. But, that axiom is not true for language. In fact, that logic of two negatives making a positive isn't true for tons of languages, because they require double (or more) negatives for a sentence to be grammatical. A classic example is French 'je ne parle pas anglais', which is literally 'I no speak no English', or better 'I don't speak no English'. And there are hundreds of other languages that require the double negation. So, if 'logic' is your answer, then you'll have to say that other languages (and most varieties of English...) are completely illogical. Or, you could realize that rule is fake, hasn't ever really been part of language, doesn't reflect the actual usage of language, and was a bugaboo of some pedants from several hundred years ago. 

You might argue, as my family member did, that we are talking about English, not French (or Russian, or Spanish, or the hundreds of other languages). That's a valid statement, but not supported by language. Here's why: no native speaker would misinterpret 'I ain't got none' as the person having some. In fact, most non-natives wouldn't either. That statement means in any natural variety of English that the speaker doesn't possess any of whatever the topic of conversation is. I could further add that we don't use mathematical logic of negatives anywhere in language. For example, (I may have used this before, but it is still good...), if a toddler were about to put a penny in a light socket, and you said, 'Nonononononono', the child wouldn't add up the no's and then divide by 2 to check whether or not he/she should proceed with the electricity experiment. Additionally, multiple negation is present in Englishes spoken all over the world, from Great Britain to the US to South Africa to Australia and beyond. On a more technical note, 'I don't got none' has a subject (a Noun Phrase), and a predicate (a VP composed of do support with a negative marker, a verb, and an object [a pronoun that happens to have negative polarity]). No structure of English was absent. So, no 'rule' was broken. English simple sentences need a subject and a verb, with optional objects. This sentence meets those requirements, and has the optional object. My family member understood this, and was not arguing that English grammatical structures are inherently logical, but was adamant that certain constructions were inappropriate for certain contexts. Their point was about the fact that people react to language, and sometimes there are long-standing usages (in certain fields) that can be considered 'wrong'. Ah, I understood the miscommunication (see below for the denouement...).

This familial argument came right on the heels of Weird Al Yankovic's 'Word Crimes' parody going viral (if you haven't seen it, link). Full disclosure: I like Weird Al, and I think for the most part he's witty. I thought the song was funny (and much better than the original), but also terribly misinformed and in all actuality, quite mean. I won't belabor the point about why all the stuff Weird Al mentions aren't errors (much less crimes...), many others have done so much more eloquently than I could, see here and here. But, the fact remains that a song saying that native speakers can commit crimes with their language has millions of views and was shared all over my social media feeds. Why would something so pedantic be so popular?

Right after this, I heard about Oak Ridge National Laboratory's proposal for 'Southern accent reduction' classes for employees (link). Yes, the lab that has been in East Tennessee for over 7 decades now has some type of problem with Southern accents. Thankfully, they called this off (only after backlash and bad publicity). This is related to errors and Word Crimes because a perception that certain language usage (in this case, the way one sounds) is wrong. The main thrust of this is that Southern accents don't sound right in a very technical setting, so speakers would be worried about 'how they sound' rather than what they say. In sum, the Southern accent heard in a technical presentation at a lab would be a type of error or word crime. Not going to lie, this really really made me angry, for many reasons. The lab tried to say that it was merely acting out of regard for an employee's request. Fair enough, I respect that. But, the problem is deeper. Why would an employee want accent reduction if they are a native speaker of English? 

The heart of these issues is not really related to language itself. Most people don't like to hear this, but these notions are historically rooted in class and status. To say that a native speaker sounds wrong, does incorrect things, or commits word crimes isn't about the language itself. I showed earlier that the logic argument falls flat, so does the idea that it's an English thing, and native speakers don't commit fundamental errors. What these ideas are rooted in is that we put our feelings toward the people speaking onto their language, and we have immersed our culture in this negative feelings. We do this because we want to create and maintain social grouping and social status. 'Could care less' is wrong? No, but if I can deride someone else's usage, that somehow elevates me. Employees with Southern accents not appropriate for technical jargon? Only if you want to project your feelings about the South onto speakers, regardless of their personal capability. Now, not everyone who adheres to some of these notions are classists. My family member is certainly not a classist, but the notion was there. It's because of these long standing ideas that permeate our culture. That's why a song about stylistic things can be so popular. That's why a lab that has been in the south for generations can think offering Southern accent reduction is a good idea. Our society has been formed around the idea that there are some language features, accents, and varieties that are good; others are bad or wrong. At the core, however, it really isn't about language. It's about social grouping.

Now, I want to end this post with some caveats. There are social repercussions for language choices, trust me. I am a native son of Appalachia, proud of my homeland and my language. I know all about these repercussions for using non-mainstream forms. There are established mores for usage in all walks of society. If you are a journalist, your articles need to adhere to the style guides for whatever publication you write for. If you are on TV, you should adhere to the general customs of news broadcasters to be taken seriously. If you are at ComicCon, you better know your memes, pop culture references, and quotes to be accepted. If you are texting friends, you should probably throw in some emoji, textspeak, and maybe even, gasp, use numbers for words or you will sound weird. This isn't an argument for anything goes. As a linguist, I love the structure and rules of language. That is what lead me to my career path. To see how our minds create, manipulate, and bring grammar to life is what gets my academic blood pumping. However, I also know that these rules are completely arbitrary. They have arisen for lots of historical, social, and random reasons. They have changed, are changing, and will continue to change. That's part of what is so fascinating! So I know that language has rules, but native speakers don't break them. In fact, native speakers are the ones who make the rules! But, we are social animals, and we don't live in vacuums. We interact and form groups. For some groups, the need to demonstrate who is and, more importantly, who isn't a member is crucial. We want to show our membership, and one easy way is language. Some groups have animus toward other groups, so they disparage their culture, dress, and language. But, it isn't really the dress or language, it is the people who make up that group. Some groups elevate other groups, and want to emulate them. So they copy their culture, dress, language, etc. But it really isn't the dress or language, it is the status of the people in the group. 

So, finally, if you look down on a person or a group's language, think about why. Look at yourself and ponder what it really is that you think is so wrong. Is it really double negation, 'could care less', or whatever feature? Or the fact that feature is associated with people not in your group or a group you want to associate with?

Oh, yeah, and by the way, we ended the family argument learning from one another. My family member was referring to the appropriate usages based on long-standing distinctions (like those I mentioned earlier), and the possible bad reactions for using the inappropriate one. I showed that it really wasn't the language, and that there are social repercussions (the real root of our argument, my family member thought I was saying there weren't social repercussions). We both spoke our piece, and we both learned. And I think I won, they think they did, but more importantly, we still love one another deeply...that's how we Reeds roll.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hillbilly from a hillbilly's perspective


One of those words that can be an insult, a term of endearment, an epithet, or a rallying cry. I have been called a 'hillbilly', and I've referred to myself as a 'hillbilly'. A quick google image search shows a plethora of terrible images, from toothless men in overalls to a strange picture that meshes Hillary and Bill Clinton's faces together (hill+billy = hillbilly... yeah, real witty...). But, few of these are positive, and most are downright negative and pretty offensive at that. Many times, people refer to a person as a hillbilly due to a lack of some kind of social refinement (i.e., something that doesn't adhere to expected urban/suburban norms). These are the sources of all the jokes and jests. Others use it as a term of endearment.

I am going to use the reaction about 'hillbilly' as a proxy for the Appalachian region as a whole. In my experience and research, people tend to have two reactions to Appalachia: a place that is home or a place that is somehow backward (or both, more on this shortly...). If you think about it, the term 'hillbilly' is very similar - a badge of honor or an insult. This, to my linguist and linguistic anthropologist friends, will be no surprise. Marginalized groups re-take the insults/epithets hurled at them and use them as a term of self-reference and pride/endearment, the academic term for this is 'reappropriation'. This is typically an attempt by a group without power to usurp those with power. By reappropriating the term, i.e., using it as a source of pride, the maligned group removes the ability of the word to belittle (at least in theory). But, as always there are many dynamics at play. Most of the time, you have to be a member of the group to use the term in its reappropriated way. If not, it can and will be interpreted as an insult, the previous meaning. Those who are not members of this group routinely misunderstand this as thinking it's okay to say the term (think the 'n-word' and African-Americans as another example) because members of the group use it with one another. This is, obviously, not the case.

Back to 'hillbilly'. Its roots are in Ulster (Northern Ireland) and Scotland. The majority of settlers into Appalachia were Ulster-Scots (also called Scotch-Irish). In lowland Scots, there were two terms, 'hill-folk' and 'billie'. The latter basically meant 'guy, dude, bloke'. So, melding these two terms you get 'hill-billie', meaning a person from the hills (Harkins 2003, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon). The original meaning was something relatively innocuous, to reference where a person was from. So, why the change to a (possibly) pejorative?

I have made it clear in earlier posts how the shift can happen (check them below!), so I won't belabor the point here. To quickly rehash, the Appalachian region was considered the wild frontier, thus those from there were wild. Then, as other regions progressed technologically and economically, the region was seen as backward, and its inhabitants too.

This post came to mind for two reasons. One, this article by Annie Lowery in the NY Times about Eastern Kentucky. She looks at data about Eastern Kentucky. The data is very grim, and her solution is basically to leave. The most maddening part is where she calls Appalachia and the Deep South a 'smudge'. While no one can refute the data (facts are facts), she doesn't seem to even try to understand why someone would want to stay. The history, connection, or roots to a region apparently mean nothing, and leaving is the only option. The second reason this post came up was this brilliant response by Silas House. He responds to Lowery, and does it in a way that puts into words how so many feel. (Full disclosure: Silas House is one of my literary heroes. His novels are some of my absolute favorites, and I am an unabashed fan. This doesn't change the fact that his blog post expresses the complexity of how many feel about their home region.)

In the end, Lowery's article basically says that to live any kind of life, people in Eastern KY need to leave. House's response is essentially maybe there is more to it than what an outsider sees. It's the same with the term 'hillbilly', and the region as a whole. Outsiders see the backward nature, the poverty, the destruction -- and wonder how could anyone want to live there? Or even be associated with such a place? Insiders, and I am proud to call myself one, see something else. We see the negatives. The poverty, the environmental degradation, the exploitation by politicians and industry is readily seen. But, we also see something else. We see home, we see history, we see potential. I have said many times that as the land rises, so do my spirits. There is a special calling of home, especially when your home is so misunderstood. That is why I am a hillbilly, and may I forever be one.

'As the horizon shortens, and land falls back,
Majestic as they rise, these pillars this beauty,
My soul worships at the altar
of these Cathedrals of Earth'