Dueling dialects

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Fri Aug 20 06:03:06 UTC 2004

On Aug 20, 2004, at 12:14 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Dueling dialects
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> At 9:53 PM -0400 8/19/04, Wilson Gray wrote:
>> While chatting with the locals down home in Texas, my brother
>> mentioned
>> that the star of a certain movie was Gary Cooper. He pronounced the
>> name in the St. Louis dialect, so that it rhymed with "merry souper."
>> Said locals immediately burst into peals of laughter and kept asking
>> him to repeat the name so that they could laugh some more. When asked
>> for the proper pronunciation, the locals responded with, approx.,
>> [ge:IrI kUp@], wherein "U" is the "oo" of "Booker." Further discussion
>> revealed that, though the locals had obviously noted the difference
>> between their pronunciation of "Gary" and that of my brother, what had
>> struck them as ridiculous beyond words was his pronunciation of the
>> "oo" of Cooper as approx. [u:].
>> After I had related this story to a European-American friend who
>> wasn't
>> a St. Louisan, he commented, "Well, no wonder they laughed at him.
>> Everybody knows that the proper pronunciation is [gaeri]!"
>> -Wilson Gray
> You bring up, I believe, the issue of pre-rhotic front non-high vowel
> neutralization vs. differentiation, which is certainly not constant
> across European-American dialects.  As a duellist who happens to hail
> from NYC, I maintain the classical 3-way distinction:  Mary [e],
> merry [E], marry [ae].  -arry names like "Barry" or "Harry" (I could
> never understand those "Harry"/"hairy" puns) have the [ae] vowel of
> "bat".  The key (or so I've rationalized it) is the closed syllable
> indicated by the geminate.  "Mary" and "Car(e)y", on the other hand,
> have the "long a" that also shows up in "fairy", "hairy", etc.  And
> "Perry", "Kerry", "Terry" have the open E (epsilon) of "bet" (albeit
> with R coloring).  So what of Gary Cooper?  Well, he's a one-R Gary,
> so he rhymes with Mary--no [ae] for him (for me).  Garry Moore, on
> the other hand, in principle does get an [ae].  I know, talk about
> your spelling pronunciations...
> Needless to say, this description does not characterize all NYC
> speakers, much less the class of European-Americans as a whole, most
> of whom quite blithely merge all these pre-R vowels.  Careless of
> them, but what can I say?  (Well, if I were dInIs, I would impugn
> their ancestry and intelligence, but we New Yorkers are much too
> polite to indulge in that sort of activity...)
> l[ae]rry (not to be confused with Frank Lary [le:ry], the old
> Yankee-killing Tiger pitcher)

In other words, Larry, the old pun, "It was a great party and everybody
was feeling merry... Till Mary got pissed and left" wouldn't work for
you any more than "Chicago Which Hunt" worked for me.

Actually, with reference to the anecdote, there are a couple of aspects
of it that I find odd or funny-ha! ha!. Why didn't the difference
between my brother's [gEri] and their [ge:rI] also strike the local
yokels as worthy of derision, whereas his [kup at r] versus their [kUp@]
had them virtually rolling in the aisles? They laughed their asses off
wrt [u] v. [U] and totally ignored [E] v. [e:]. That's odd.

On the other hand, I found it rather amusing that my friend ignored the
[kup at r] v. [kUp@] dichotomy and smoothly and unexpectedly introduced
the [gEry] v. [gaeri] dichotomy in its place. I'm quite accustomed to
hearing [gaeri] instead of [gEri], so that dichotomy doesn't strike me
as either odd or funny. But the way that he subtly pointed out to me
that there's more than one way to skin a phonetic cat, catching me
totally off guard, did make me laugh.

-Wilson Gray

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