Wednesday, February 06, 2013

WNW: Utahns and "Mountain"

Today we have another edition of Word Nerd Wednesday inspired by where I live: Utah.

That, and the idea of judging people based on their accents. But we'll get to that part in a minute.

Many people love poking fun at the Utah accent, as if it's somehow inferior and unique to their own speech. I did a post some time ago about how, in words with a long A followed by an L, the A is often changed into a short E, so sale sounds like sell, and whale sounds like well.

I had a lot of readers telling me that this was a only Utah thing. (Actually, it's not. It happens in a lot of places. But I digress.)

As I've mentioned here before, everyone has an accent (yes, you, too). Standard English pronunciation doesn't exist in nature. Actors often work at developing what we think is "correct" American English. And they work hard at it.

Another interesting tidbit is that national news stations, for some reason I don't know, have a lot of big-name anchors who hail from the Midwest, so many Americans hear that accent and view it as the standard. This is why people from Ohio and thereabouts often swear that they have no accent! (But oh, they do. They do!)

I recently found this report on a study done at Brigham Young University, not surprisingly, addressing a common pronunciation seen here in Utah: the mysterious dropping of the T in words like mountain and the city name Layton.

It's become such a joke that I regularly see newscasters going overboard in pronouncing the T. "As you can see, the inversion has made it hard to see the . . . moun-Tains."

They almost pause before the T and then accentuate it so the word comes out totally unnatural sounding. But I'm sure they do that because hoity-toity viewers have written in, saying that come on, please don't fall for the  lower-class Utah accent! Speak correctly! Use the T!

But the study found that most Americans drop the T.

I know; you're thinking that Utahns say mountain differently than you do! Maybe. The key is that Utahns drop the T in a different way than the the rest of the country.

Here comes the mini lesson. I promise it'll be brief and easy.

When we speak, air vibrates our vocal chords. When the air is cut off, the sounds stops. Simple, yes? Sometimes as we speak, we purposely block the air for a split second.

For example, think of casual conversation when you use a sound to say no: "Nu-uh."

Say it aloud. Do you hear how your voice stops between the vowel sounds? It's more like Nu. Uh. When we stop the air (and hence, the sound) during speech, it's called a glottal stop.

When Utahns drop the T in mountain, there's a glottal stop in place of the T, followed by the air (and sound) continuing through the mouth.

What do other Americans do? They drop the very same T. Here's the difference: After the glottal stop that cuts the very same T, they release the air through their noses, creating a softer sound than releasing it through the mouth.

So contrary to the belief of some people, the ones who love snickering over the Utah accent, the majority of Americans don't actually use the full T sound in words like mountain. It's not just Utahns who drop that T.

Instead, Utahns release the same glottal stop through their mouths instead of their noses.

Listen to the difference yourself:
Through the mouth (Utahn)
Through the nose (other areas)

Please note that neither way of saying mountain is more or less correct, and that both drop the T, just in different ways.

It's amazing to me how such a small thing can stir up such scorn and debate, especially when every single area of the country has these kinds of quirks.

My purpose for bringing up issues like this is in the hope that we'll be more understanding and less critical of one another, less judgmental over something as simple as the way another person uses a single word.

I personally know a woman who has an accent in English because it is her second language, although she knows it better than most native speakers. When she first came to the States, some people on first meeting her thought she had to be dumb because she had a strong accent.

The reality: She had an advanced education that included something like half a dozen languages. By the time she was eighteen, her education was the equivalent of an associates degree.

In later years, as her accent softened (and, I believe, as the country softened in its attitudes), people started to see her intelligence, and some people assumed she must have a Ph.D. or two in her pocket. They were finally listening to her words, not her accent.

It's safe to say that the idea of judging someone based solely on their speech hits close to home, because that woman is my mother. And I can guarantee that no matter what her accent is like, she's smarter than many of us!

(Love you, Mom!)

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