Monday, October 10, 2016

Tina Fey Nailed The Philly Accent

Saturday night, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon appeared on Weekend Update as "White Women from Suburban Philadelphia." Apparently suburban white women are the "the swing vote within the swing vote" which was the premise for having them on the show. It seemed like it was also at least partially to make fun of Jimmy Fallon's softball treatment of Trump.

I'm blogging about the sketch in appreciation of Tina Fey's performance of the Philadelphia Accent. First off, you should watch the sketch:

Over at AV Club, they criticized both Fey and Fallon for their accents:
Despite how the two pronounced “hoagies,” the performances (and accents) were all over the place, with Fey not bothering to do hers once she launched a Fey-esque attack on Mike Pence’s anti-gay, anti-woman agenda.
The sketch might not have been funny, and Fallon clearly didn't know what he was doing, but Tina Fey was on point, in my professional opinion. It's not surprising Fey should be able to perform the accent since she's originally from Upper Darby, which is right next to Clifton Heights in Delaware County. That corner of DelCo actually has an interesting place in the study of the Philadelphia Dialect. R. Whitney Tucker wrote one of the earlier descriptions of the dialect in 1942 while he was at Pennsylvania Military College, now called Widener University. At the time, he said
I think that the real heart and centre of this [Philadelpia] dialect was originally, and still is, a few miles to the south, in the eastern part of Delaware County.
So how did Fey (and Fallon) deal with the accent? I previously blogged about Chris Matthew's native performance of the dialect by running through a list of the dialect features, but this time I ran the sketch through the FAVE-suite! So up ahead is a detailed phonetic analysis of Fey's performance.

Overall Vowels

First up, here's Fey's over-all vowel system. I look at plots like these all the time, so this is inherently meaningful to me, but I'll try to break it down a bit.

There's  a few top-line things I see here. First off, she's moved her /ahr/ vowel (as in start and far) way up to be right next to her /ɔ/ (you can hear it when she says "in charge"). That is exactly correct, but her /owr/ could be higher, since pore, poor, pour are all merged in Philly, and is usually the highest backest vowel in the system.

She's also got a nice separation of /ay/ (as in ride) from /ay0/ (as in write) in a Canadian Raising pattern (you can hear it when she says mice). This is one of the more established features of the Philly accent now. There's also an /ey/ (as in face) and /eyF/ (as in gay) separation. This is less commonly discussed, but before consonants, eight is pretty similar to eat in Philly, while word finally (like gay) it's much lower, almost southern sounding. But, when I look at Fey's /ey/, /eyF/ difference in detail, it's not especially consistent.

One thing that looks like she's overly doing it is /uw/ fronting (as in scooter). She has it as far front as her /Tuw/ (as in do). Philadelphia is known for its /uw/ fronting, but usually it is much fronter following coronals than it is elsewhere, so I would expect to see /uw/ further back here.

She's also got some kind of /ɛ/ /æ/ merger that I can't account for. That's not a Philly thing that I know of. One last thing that caught my ear is some kind of consistent /ʌ/ backing (as in Trump). That isn't usually described as a feature or ongoing change of the dialect, but it sounds authentic to my ears.

Vowels in Detail

But let's get into more of the guts of the system. In the over-all vowel plot, there's a really good split between the tense and lax short-a (/æh/ and /æ/ respectively). But the Philadelphia split-æ system is complicated, but partially overlapping with related systems. So how'd she do in detail?

Based on limited data, I'd say she more or less nailed it. Her /æ/ before /s/ in jackass is tenser than the  one before /k/ (although, a friend on facebook said they didn't think it sounded authentic). Her /æ/ in grandpa is a bit lax, but I think that's forgivable given the preceding consonant-liquid cluster. Most impressively, she's got a properly lax [æ] in her two repetitions of Indiana, and in banging. I would expect those to be the most likely to be messed up by someone trying to do an impersonation.

Incidentally, I think it could be the fact that she correctly had lax [æ] in Indiana that the AV Club thought she stopped doing the accent, since most American accents would have tensing there.

Honestly, this distribution of data makes me think that she's just got the split system natively. I haven't tried to compare this performance to something less affected, so I can't tell if she just always does this.

I also looked at her vowel dynamics a bit.

A few things jump out. First, I think she did a really good job on the phonetic quality of /aw/ (as in clown). I've found that it's basically a falling diphthong, and the most advanced tokens have a later F1 maximum, which she pretty much nails here. She also has a clear Canadian Raising pattern between /ay/ and /ay0/, with maybe some monophthongization of the pre-voiced tokens that's producing a strange trajectory. It's also possible that she's doing the /ey/, /eyF/ split in the formant dynamics, but I wouldn't put too much stock in that.

Here's what her /ɛ/ /æ/ and /æh/ vowel dynamics are like:

Clearly very good dynamic differences between /æ/ and /æh/. I included /ɛ/ here (labelled "e" in the plot) just to get another look at that weird /æ/~/ɛ/ merger. It seems to be there more or less in the dynamics as well. I really don't know what's happening there.


I also did some quick and dirty coding of Fey's consonants. One of the things I noticed is that Fey was doing quite a bit of (dh) stopping (a dental stop in words like the and this). When I tallied it up, it looked like it was actually about 20% of her tokens, which is a bit low for Philadelphia.

stop deleted fricative
count 4 4 13
proportion 0.19 0.19 0.62

She also had only one /str/ sequence, but she backed it to a very clear [ʃtr] in street.

I haven't tried to touch her /l/ vocalization or darkening at all, cause I think I have a tough time with that perceptually, and I don't have a fancy script for analyzing it like I do for vowels.


Meanwhile there's Jimmy Fallon. I'm not going to go into detail with him, cause as he said in the sketch, his accent was all messed up. Here's his overall vowels, and his dynamics.

Yeah, so it looks like he's just vacating his back vowel space, and also monopthongizing a lot of things? Basically, this isn't anything.


In conclusion, Tina Fey nailed it, and Fallon didn't know if he was coming or going. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Open Question: "I'm a big fan of yours"

Linguists, I've got a question. Is there any distinction to be made between (1) and (2)?
  1. I'm a big fan of Rhianna.
  2. I'm a big fan of Rhianna's.
I find both acceptable, but think I think I would prefer (1)? For pronouns, though, I think they must be possessive pronouns.
  1. *I'm a big fan of you.
  2. I'm a big fan of yours.
  3. *I'm a big fan of her.
  4. I'm a big fan of hers.
But I think it's strictly animacy based, since for inanimates I think the possessive form is ruled out, or is at least worse.
  1. I'm a big fan of coffee.
  2. *I'm a big fan of coffee's.
  3. I'm a big fan of Star Trek.
  4. *I'm a big fan of Star Trek's.
  5. I'm a big fan of it.
  6. *I'm a big fan of its.
I don't think the acceptability of (1) is related to a sort of corporate entity reading of "Rhianna." Both of the following seem fine to me:
  1. I'm a friend of Joel.
  2. I'm a friend of Joel's.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sound of Silence

One counterintuitive thing about doing linguistic analysis is how much time we spend analyzing structures and elements that are silent. That's probably pretty confusing for people when they first learn about it. For example, compare these three sentences:
  1. I want a cookie.
  2. I ate the cookie.
  3. I ate cookies all day.
In your grammar lessons in school, you probably learned that the words a and the were called "articles," but linguists usually call them "determiners." Most people describing the sentences in 1, 2 and 3 would say something like:
"Sentences 1 and 2 have determiners in them. Sentence 1 had a and sentence 2 has the. Sentence 3 doesn't have a determiner."
A linguist, on the other hand, when describing these three sentences would be likely to say:
"All three sentences have determiners. Sentence 1 has a, sentence 2 has the, and sentence 3 has a silent determiner."
Silent determiners is just scratching the surface of all of the possible silent words linguists have postulated. A really common kind of reaction to all the silent words is "Bullshit!" Actually, that was my reaction when I took my first syntax course, but eventually, I was convinced.1 For a lot of the silent elements linguists have proposed, there's usually some good reason or evidence for doing so, but we do have to be careful not to over-hypothesize silent elements to make the data work. This is the really interesting tension of abstractness.

Here's an example I'm dealing with in my own work, involving how Philadelphians have traditionally pronounced their short-a in words like mat and man. Usually, Philadelphians have a "tense" or "nasal" sounding short-a when the sound following is an /m/ or an /n/. For example, man is tense, but mat is lax. But this only happens if the /m/ or /n/ is in the same syllable. So the word ham comes out tense, but the word hammer comes out lax, because the /m/ is in the next syllable, if you sound it out (ha-mer). Plan is tense, but planet is lax (pla-net).

One weird exception to this pattern is the word exam. Exam usually comes out lax, even though the /m/ is in the same syllable when you sound it out (ihg-zam). One way of analyzing this is just to say "Ok, exam is just an exception to the rule." But, I'm going to make a different argument, which is that every time a Philadelphian says exam, they're actually saying an abbreviated form of examination, and in examination, the /m/ is not in the same syllable (ihg-za-mih-ney-shun). So the word exam is lax, because it's really examination.

One objection to this argument is that examination looks like it's exam+ination, so how do we know that what people are saying is examination and not just exam without -ination added to it. Well, let's look at some other words that end in -ination. We have imagination. If we abbreviate imagination, like "I've totes got a wild imag," we get out ih-majh which means the same thing as imagination, and it has stress on the second syllable. This looks like exam (ihg-zam), which means the same thing as examination, and has stress on the second syllable. What happens if we never add -ination to imagination? We get out image (ih-mijh), which doesn't mean the same thing as imagination, and has stress on the first syllable. That doesn't look like exam at all. This makes it seem more likely that exam is an abbreviation like "I've totes got a wild imag", and is not just a bare word, like image.

But there is no word ehg-zum, so does that mean that the root exam can only ever appear attached to -ination? That's not so weird if you look at other words that end in -ination, like destination. Dest never shows up as its own word. But it seems to show up in related words like destined or destiny.

There's also a little bit of historical evidence that exam was originally an abbreviation. If you look at some of the earlier examples of exam in Google books, authors used to end it in a period, like you would for any abbreviation. For example, J.M. Barrie (more famous for writing Peter Pan) in his 1889 book An Edinburgh Eleven wrote:
I knew a Snell man who was sent back from the Oxford entrance exam., and he always held himself that the Biblical questions had done it.
That period followed immediately by a comma makes it pretty clear that in this sentence, exam is an abbreviation. And if you look at Google ngram patterns, exam seems to be increasing in frequency relative to examination.

So exam looks like it was historically an abbreviation of examination, and the fact that Philadelphians have traditionally pronounced it with a lax short-a suggests that it still is an abbreviation for us, unconsciously.

This is just one example of how language is not a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" game. There is a lot of silent structure to language that we're not consciously aware of. It takes a mixture of clever reasoning and empirical data to work it out.

But I'm guessing there's still a few people saying "Bullshit!" out there.
1. I actually once wrote a post on my undergraduate blog about how I thought PRO was absurd, and Norvin Richards left some really nice and patient comments on it. I'm kind of embarrassed about that now.

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