Saturday, January 06, 2001

THIS IS DANGEROUSLY close to being on-topic, so I offer my apologies to the tiny if not nonexistent subset of those who care to read my rants about anything but language. My topic today is the new vowel shift. Those of you who know something about linguistics know about the original vowel shift; I, a veteran of one linguistics class, retain only the skeleton of the idea.

I first heard the idea of a new vowel shift 15 or so years ago from my brother Terence. One of his professors noted that before long the standard pronunciation of "desk" would be "dusk" and the standard pronunciation of "test" would be "tust." It sure doesn't seem like 15 years ago, and so this prof's time frame was probably a bit off, but I'm noticing a very strong trend, especially among young women, toward reaching for the laziest vowel possible.

A resistance to the "desk" version of "e" is well established among young women and, at the risk of exhibiting regional prejudice on top of my apparent age-ism and sexism, Southerners. That's why we have "ink pen." Of course pens have ink, but members of the vowel-shift set have to add this bit of clarification to alert listeners that this "pin" they're talking about isn't the cousin of the needle.

My vowel-shift theory centers on an aversion to the long vowel, or at least to any vowel that betrays some semblance of effort on the speaker's part. (The "e" in "desk" isn't a long vowel, but it does require a bit more effort than the "uh" that produces "dusk.") So the young woman who does traffic reports on WMAL says "Spring-filled" instead of "Springfield." The heavy-metal song "No New Tale to Tell" actually says "Tell to Tell." Dot-com ads talk about "e-mell" addresses. As a shy person and horrible public speaker who tends to mumble his impeccably pronounced words, I find it odd that this lack-of-putting-oneself-on-the-line speech pattern is so common among people who clearly lack nothing in the way of self-confidence.

THERE'S YET ANOTHER phonograph-needle-scratching radio ad. (Sorry to dwell so much on radio; I swear that's a very small part of my life.)

I believe it's FreeCreditReport.com that inserts an even-more-nonsensical-than-the-other-ads' needle scratch after something like "Who will enjoy their presents more? Little Tommy? Little Tammy?" before launching into a diatribe on credit-card companies' interest-rate profiteering.

IT'S NO BIG loss to any readers, I'm sure, but I did want to acknowledge that I quickly gave up on my spam chronicle. There's just too much spam to keep up with.

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