Friday, November 11, 2005

Brie, with a grain of salt

Copyeds, auxiliary forces and other interested parties ought to take a look at NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin's take on NPR grammar and pronunciation -- not because they'll learn anything useful about grammar or pronunciation, but because there's a lot in there about how NPR and its listeners see themselves and each other. And, not coincidentally, a lot of indications that how people -- even journalists -- talk about language says a lot about how they view the world.

Elephant-sitting-in-the-avocado-dip-wise, of course, it raises a favorite question: Why do journalists insist on going on and on about a subject when it's clear they don't know anything about it? But that's a research topic for later. Onward through the fog.

It's probably true, as Dvorkin says, that "language and pronunciation are important to many public radio listeners" and that "listeners are quick to point out examples of any perceived lowering of standards" (though anyone who's taken the Irate Schoolteacher call at a small daily knows that public radio does not bear the pedants' wrath alone). But it's hard to see his answers as doing anything but actively subtracting from the sum of human knowledge:

Should we say "Pah-REE" instead of Paris? The former is linguistically correct, but that sounds très pretentious to American ears.
Uh, no. As Language Hat rather patiently points out, those pronuciations are French and English, not right and wrong. And if "linguistically correct" has any meaning at all, it doesn't have it here. That's sort of like asking whether a cat is "zoologically correct"; of course it is, as long as you weren't trying for a dog or a newt or something.

Mr. Everest also raised a question about when to use the plural possessive on the radio.

For example: should we say "John Roberts' confirmation" or "John Roberts's confirmation?" Mr. Everest is advocating the latter.

In print this is a constant issue. My esteemed colleague Ian Mayes is the readers' editor (aka, the Ombudsman) at the Guardian in London. He has referred to this inappropriate use of the apostrophe as a dropping by that mythic creature, the *"Apostrofly."

One's ears are tempted to steam.
* First off, the apostrofly Ian describes is a cousin of the "greengrocer's apostrophe": random use of the apostrophe to create plurals, for example, as in "The Smith's are coming." It is not used to mark possession.
* Second, you don't pronounce punctuation. "Roberts' confirmation" is not an "inappropriate use" of the apostrophe. It isn't any righter or wronger than "Rehnquist's confirmation" because the apostrophe isn't a sound. The complainant isn't "technically right," no matter what the NPR reference librarian thinks. Mr. Everest (along with Strunk & White and the NYT) favors one way of forming the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in "s"; the AP uses another.
* Which brings us to the most painfully obvious point: "Roberts'" is not a plural possessive because "Roberts" is not a forgodsake plural noun. Obviously, there are exceptions -- "my 4400 class has two Roberts, three Staycees and a Lucifer" -- but this is not any of them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
Use the plural possessive on the radio exactly as you do in real life, in other words: To make possessive nouns plural. Thank you.

NPR is considered by many to be the standard bearer for Standard American English.

Sometimes you just want to pull out your "Elements of Style" and pound the radio into pieces with it. Did ever a sentence cry louder to be in the active voice? Who exactly is it that considers NPR the bearer of that standard -- people whose power goes off whenever Carl Kasell is on?

I don't mean to single Kasell out as an exemplar of anything in particular, least of all bad speech (Frank DeFord, on the other hand, violates several of the Geneva conventions and probably the Law of the Sea Treaty as well). Just because I'd rather listen to Eleanor Beardsley doesn't mean I think she's closer to some mythical American Received Pronunciation. I would suggest, though, that casting oneself as the source of elite speech for elite listeners runs a fairly high risk of reinforcing impressions of ... well, brie-eating elitism.

NPR, after all, is just like any other news organization, only more so. It can go from hypercorrection ("overcharged the government and therefore we taxpayers") to worn-down slang ("46 bucks an hour") in less time -- and probably fewer words -- than it takes to type this. That's the sort of stuff journalism does.* More interesting are its fact-claims about language, as in this correction broadcast during the refugee-evacuee flap. In line with Reagan's "I've been told the Russian language doesn't even have a word for freedom," it's a convenient way of putting the Other Guys in their place, whether it's true or not.

That makes this reader's normative plaint particularly interesting:

Why do I hear NPR announcers pronouncing some foreign names (including their own) and place names with a foreign accent, but others without? It's jolting to hear a story that's mostly in broadcast English but peppered with foreign-accented words.

As well, there seems to be an implicit racism, or "lingualism," or "culturalism" in the odd, inconsistent practice. I can only assume that foreign-accented pronunciations are done in the spirit of respect. But if pronouncing foreign words with a foreign accent is respectful to that culture and its language, doesn't it then follow that there's an implied disrespect to cultures (that) are not given the same treatment?

Cheap shots at people's names aside, isn't that an interesting idea? A universal foreign accent you can apply to foreign words as a mark of respect? Which NPR does all the time with "Iraq" -- too bad it's a French accent rather than an Arabic one, but it's the thought that counts.**

I'm not sure what the cure for any of this is, because I'm not entirely sure what the disease is. But I think it has something to do with why American public broadcasting is never going to be a mass-audience medium. That's a shame; for all its faults, NPR is a remarkable resource (leaving aside how far it stands above the generally fetid state of American broadcast journalism). I wonder if there's something in the For Elites By Elites navelgazing that somebody might want to address.

* Doncha love it?
** One suspects NPR would cringe at the non-elite pronunciation "eye-RACK," but at least it gets one of the vowels.


Blogger 37921 said...

Those foreign accents on NPR bother me too. The one that really makes me laugh is Mandalit Del Barco. She is their West Coast reporter, and her stories usually have some ethnic angle. When she says her name at the end of a report she uses an exaggerated Spanish accent. But when she gives the dateline, it's "LOSS ANN-JA-LISS".

Doesn't her tongue gets whiplash from switching accents in the middle of a sentence?

7:09 PM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Oh, I'm all in favor of giving people leeway with their own names. I've been fighting for decades to have my surname pronounced in the traditional way. But a large chunk of the rest of the world insists on sounding the 'R' after the 'T', which wouldn't be so bad EXCEPT THERE IS NO GODDAMN 'R' after the 'T'. Or anywhere else in the thing, for that matter.

Sorry. 'Scuse me. Won't happen again.

I'm not real bothered by the accents; a program with Del Barco followed by Beardsley followed by Kasell strikes me as a pretty nice selection of American speech. But I do think NPR is blowing smoke if it thinks (a) that there's some mythical, feature-free "standard American" out there and (b) that its staff is uniquely possessed of same.

8:47 PM, November 12, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Was that NPR thing broadcast or only written? If only written, I would guess the question is whether you should say "Roberts nomination" or "Robertses nomination". The two punctuations in the written text are probably meant to reflect the two pronounciations, no? At least, I hope so. That's how I've always liked to punctuate my possessives. So for me: "Wiles's theorem" but "Roberts' nomination". I wonder if there are any lab results on how people say possessives with names ending in S and Z sounds.


2:56 AM, November 13, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dunno about lab results but as a person who's last name ends in s I and others around me have always used the "Robertses" construction.

9:13 AM, November 13, 2005  
Blogger language said...

This question comes up a lot, and I usually tell people to write as they speak: if you say "Bob Robertsez book," write Roberts's; if you say "Bob Roberts book," write Roberts'. One can go into all sorts of details and qualifications, but that's a simple rule that will get people safely through most situations.

3:56 PM, November 13, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I thought in using both I was bravely going against all the style manuals alone...

2:28 AM, November 14, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

For what it's worth (and I don't think this is too far from Hat's suggestion), I'm in favor of pretty much any possessive style rule that lets you be consistent and move on to something that needs more attention. (For you Missourian fans, that'd include last week's declaration that people who graduated from high school in 1965 are "60-somethings"; how many sets of eyeballs did that one skate past?)

The AP tries to write a rule for everything. "Singular proper names ending in S" get the apostrophe, no matter how the "S" is sounded:
Dickens' novels
Descartes' theories
Agnes' book

Singular common nouns ending in "S" get 's unlss the next word begins with "S":
the witness's answer
the witness' story

Not to get too far off topic, but one reason the stylebook is such a cool cultural document is its tendency to write "rules" for almost anything. There's a one-edition only mandate from the early 1980s, for example, declaring that American Indians mustn't be called "Native Americans" because their ancestors crossed over on a land bridge from Asia. The "official" framing of political violence (see posts yesterday over at Language Log) is of particular interest and will probably end up the Official HEADSUP-L Dissertation Topic.

But don't defy the stylebook. The stylebook wants to be your friend. Feel the warm embrace of its noodly appendages and yield ...

9:59 AM, November 14, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

There's that darn Law of Prescriptive Retaliation again. It's a "one-edition-only mandate," not a "one-edition only mandate."

10:55 AM, November 14, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

There's that darn Law of Prescriptive Retaliation again. It's a "one-edition-only mandate," not a "one-edition only mandate."

10:55 AM, November 14, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Late to discussion, but enjoying it very much. I saw this piece when it first ran and thought 'what he doesn't know is a lot ...'

My comment: In print, we don't *pronounce* anything. Which is one of the few perks ...

11:11 PM, November 16, 2005  

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