Hidden Language Skills.

I really had no intention of just reposting everything Joel put up at Far Outliers, but the excerpts from A Death in the Rainforest (see this post) are so striking I can’t resist; here’s one about an unexpected linguistic situation:

Not only were young villagers eager to narrate; it turned out that all but the very youngest of them were also able to narrate in Tayap. Many of the narratives were short, and most of them were scaffolded by the narrator’s relatives and friends, who sat on the floor with them and helped the teller remember what things were called and figure out how verbs were inflected. But what emerged in the narrative sessions was that all young people in the village over age eighteen have some active competence in the vernacular, and some of them have excellent active competence—even though they never use it.

Several of the young villagers in their mid- to late twenties were highly proficient storytellers. They spoke relatively unhesitatingly, they had a broad vocabulary, they used a variety of tenses and verbs of motion (which are often irregular in Tayap and very tricky to inflect correctly) in the stories they told, and they also commanded other features of the grammar that showed unexpected mastery of Tayap. The truly curious thing about the speakers is that outside of these sessions, they never displayed their command of the language. I once asked Membo, a twenty-six-year-old woman, what she thought about her twenty-five-year-old husband Ormbes’s competence in Tayap. Membo laughed dismissively. “Oh, he messes it all up,” she told me, “He doesn’t speak Tayap.”

I later asked Ormbes to tell me a story in Tayap. He narrated an almost flawless tale of how he and his brother went hunting in the rainforest and speared a pig. Ormbes turned out to be one of the most fluent younger speakers in the village. That his wife, who not only had been married to him for ten years but also had grown up with him and had known him all her life, was convinced that her husband didn’t speak Tayap, was remarkable—and telling.

I scoured the linguistic literature for a label to name people like Ormbes, and I came up empty. Ormbes isn’t what’s known as a passive bilingual because he is capable of relatively advanced language production. Nor is someone like Ormbes quite the same as what linguists who work with endangered languages call a semi-speaker. Semi-speakers are speakers of a dying language who have perfect passive competence and perfect communicative competence in that language. In other words, they understand everything that fluent speakers say to them, and they respond in culturally appropriate ways, using short bursts of the language. Semi-speakers’ ability to get jokes, interject comments, and actively participate in conversations by contributing a few well-turned utterances here and there is deceptive, and it often masks the fact that they can’t actually say very much. Linguists who work with endangered languages report cases in which their work with semi-speakers has caused extreme embarrassment to a whole community. The linguists have given such speakers language proficiency tests because they assumed that they were fluent speakers (having seen them conversing with fluent speakers, and because fluent speakers identified them as fluent speakers). When confronted with a language test, though—and to everybody’s dismay—the people who everyone thought were fluent, in reality, could barely manage to compose a single grammatically correct sentence on their own.

Young people in Gapun like Ormbes aren’t semi-speakers partly because they can construct grammatically correct sentences, and also because they don’t ever actually converse in Tayap. They actively participate in conversations when older speakers speak Tayap, but their own contributions are always in Tok Pisin. With the exception of lexical items and a few formulaic phrases like “Give me betel nut,” they never use Tayap at all.

Rather than calling the young people in Gapun who can narrate stories in Tayap passive bilinguals or semi-speakers, I’ve taken to calling them “passive active bilinguals.” The convolutedness of that label seems fitting to describe speakers who possesses sufficient grammatical and communicative competence in their second language to use that language, but who never actually do use it because social and cultural factors make it unnecessary or undesirable to do so.

I’m sure it’s not a common situation, but it presumably occurs elsewhere. Einmal ist keinmal, as they say.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Hypercritical prescriptiveness is by no means only a feature of own culture.

    I remember my own Kusaasi informants telling me how the youth of today don’t use proper grammar no more. A cultural universal?

    I can imagine this attitude actually contributing to language death.

  2. I can imagine this attitude actually contributing to language death.

    It is approximately one day too late for me to post this, but: Saving Endangered Languages with Prescriptivism

  3. Semi-speakers … have perfect passive competence and perfect communicative competence [but] they can’t actually say very much.

    If that’s the case, what is meant by “perfect communicative competence”?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Our fieldworkers are now reporting back from the first trials of this method. We are still analysing their findings, but one has reported spectacular results from convincing an Amazonian tribe that they are not allowed to discuss abstract concepts.

    Tee hee.

  5. ə de vivre says

    If that’s the case, what is meant by “perfect communicative competence”?

    They appear to mean that the speech of semi-speakers is indistinguishable from that of fully fluent speakers within a very limited set of contexts. A semi-speaker might be able to make small-talk at a party, but couldn’t explain why two of the party guests are avoiding each other or how they feel about the situation.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    I’ve taken to calling them “passive active bilinguals.”

    In other words, they keep significant things to themselves for a long time and then spring them on people when least expected. It’s a mild form of passive-aggressiveness in which one of the two standard features – surprise and accusation – is missing.

    Yes, I know this is not the vulgar understanding of PA, according to which there is a thing called “passive-aggressive comma” (“Please, remember to take your belongings when leaving the train”). I call that a wheedly-whining comma.

  7. January First-of-May says

    I’m sure it’s not a common situation, but it presumably occurs elsewhere.

    Supposedly it happens with Irish outside the Gaeltacht.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    And the converse: rozele is the person to speak to this, but I get the impression that the most vital form of Yiddish in the US is now that among spoken among Haredim, who speak a form which would offend purists in many ways, but who are much the most likely to go on speaking it.

    A rather different but related phenomenon: I was looking at Wella Brown’s Modern Cornish grammar, which is in many ways an excellent production, though from a historical linguistic point of view it’s frustrating that there is no way one can tell what is echt Cornish from what has been supplied by analogy or invention (not a relevant criticism given Brown’s actual objective, admittedly.)

    What is really striking from the standpoint of Welsh, though, is that the language Brown describes corresponds pretty closely to Middle Welsh, or at least to Literary Welsh. It’s hard to believe that if Cornish had actually survived per vias naturales it would not have ended up (like modern spoken Welsh) a lot simpler from the purely morphological point of view. I am filled with admiration for anyone who has actually learnt to handle the extremely complex system described by Brown; it seems to set rather too high a mark to aim at, to me. But then, I believe there are people who actually speak Hebrew nowadays …

  9. ’s hard to believe that if Cornish had actually survived per vias naturales it would not have ended up (like modern spoken Welsh) a lot simpler from the purely morphological point of view.

    Contact? Or is it my bias as a Russian, who first learned Breton ne … ket, and only then the French ne … pas?

  10. It’s hard to believe that if Cornish had actually survived per vias naturales it would not have ended up (like modern spoken Welsh) a lot simpler from the purely morphological point of view.

    There’s all those stories about the Breton onion-sellers conversing with the Cornish. If people really wanted to create a spoken Cornish again, they might seriously consider, instead of just referring back to literary sources, looking at modern spoken Welsh and Breton, and establishing a space somewhere in between.

    It would be a challenge to revive a language whose last native speaker died (maybe?) in 1914. And was never recorded, although it would have been possible. You’d need quite a few enthusiasts willing to put in some work to develop a new standard and then start using it. But it could be done.

    Manx is in a better position, since the last native speaker survived well into the era of tape recorders.

    There are Native American tribes who are attempting to reconstruct their lost ancestral tongue from old records, and between that and related languages that have survived, they might have a good chance of getting something that would serve them as a native language.

    I can see how these revived small languages might keep going among a small band of devotees well into the future. A bit like Esperantists on a more regional level, I suppose. The Hatees of the days to come would have ample opportunity to discuss whether they are real living languages, or something else, and if so, what?

  11. The Hatees of the days to come

    Well, well, well. It looks like the Hatters have become the Hatees. How the tables have turned. (Or is it that the Hatters will hat the next generation, who will thus become Hatees?)

  12. SFReader says

    I’ve met Mongolians who haven’t spoken Russian for several decades (since 1980s) and therefore assumed that they have forgotten it completely.

    It turns out Russian language once acquired is not that easy to forget – after a few initial awkward minutes, they forget that they have forgotten it and start speaking in pretty fluent (though accented) Russian.

  13. David Eddyshaw says


    Although there is inevitably a great deal of English influence in modern spoken Welsh, I don’t think it is really the thing which has driven the morphological simplifications that I had in mind: those look like the result of pretty natural language-internal processes. Moreover, I think they antedate the era of mass intrusion of English. And although English and Welsh have both developed periphrastic present and imperfect tenses using a verb “be” as auxiliary, the details of how the systems work are actually significantly different: the Welsh forms are not limited to dynamic verbs, for example, as in English.

    The specific Breton/French analogy you cite is there in Welsh too ([ni] … ddim), but the same process has occurred not only in English but in German, in various spoken Arabics and in Berber, at least …


    Tempted as I am to attribute all this to Celtic substrata, I think that sort of thing is best left to John McWhorter.

  14. he specific Breton/French analogy you cite is there in Welsh too ([ni] … ddim), but the same process has occurred not only in English but in German, in various spoken Arabics and in Berber, at least …

    Yes, I remember:) I especially enjoy Arabic analogy. Berber has triple negative:-E It would be great to trace the spread of the feature. There are numerous Arabic-Romance, Celtic-Romance, Arabic-Berber, Germanic-Celtic, Germanic-Romance overlaps, Romance and Berber overlapped too.

    More generally I would really love to find some Africa-to Europe grammatical borrowings (and Celtic-to Africa).

  15. Triple negation.

    That does not change the point though. We are not at the stage where we can predict: “in this language such and such cycle will operate and reach stage II 300 years from now”, neither we can explain why Lithuanian is Sanskrit.

    All we have is that contact can induce changes. It does not mean it should be used as a universal answer, but it is the only answer that looks like an answer. It systematically leads to what we call “simplification” (whether the word is correct or not), the neighbouring language underwent intensive contact with a whole collection of languages and Welsh has been in a rather intimate contact with English.

  16. I have a freind, he is originally from Kinshasa (more originally form a village in Angola I think), but he has spent most of his life in Russia. I still can’t understand him sometimes; he stays within his phonology and his French is sometimes easier than his Russian.
    His Russian wife speaks creolized Russian. That is: she would substitute some case forms and complicated words with prepositional constructions (za and na) with nominative when speaking to other Russians.

    Complicated words: слезоточивый газ “tear gas”. She would say газ за глаза (gas za eyes).

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    My (very subjective) impression is that French phonology is a good bit easier for most speakers of West African languages than English phonology, with a vowel system that would not be too atypical for West Africa*, fewer peculiar consonants like [θ] and [ð], relatively simple syllable structures on the whole, and a much simpler stress system; I would think that Russian is also at the harder end, what with its consonant palatalisations and vowel reductions in unstressed syllables.

    *Well, apart from the front rounded vowels: but a lot of Africans just unround them.

  18. January First-of-May says

    His Russian wife speaks creolized Russian. That is: she would substitute some case forms and complicated words with prepositional constructions (za and na) with nominative when speaking to other Russians.

    …that’s just Bulgarian isn’t it?

    (Probably not really, but Bulgarian looks a lot like that to a Russian.)

  19. neither we can explain why Lithuanian is Sanskrit.
    Well, I assume you know it isn’t, but just in order to help kill a myth: the similarity between Lithuanian and Sanscrit, and also with PIE, has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, it has kept some features other languages have lost, like a rich case system or (in dialects) the dual, but it also had undergone significant changes, especially in the verbal system. Having a rich case system is an areal feature it shares with the neighbouring Slavic and Uralic languages. Despite what some excited people (even IEanists) said, a Lithuanian speaking his own language wouldn’t be understood neither by a Vedic Indian, nor by a Proto-Indo-European.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Way back in school I learnt Russian alongside a Bulgarian-speaking fellow-pupil, which was depressing: still, I was encouraged by his difficulties with Russian cases.

  21. David Eddyshaw, there is a genre, when another my freind asks him about Lingala words.

    “no, sky is likolo and knee is likolo. Likolo – likolo. no-no, likolo is a knee and likolo is sky. Listen, likolo – likolo. No, not likolo, likolo. Likolo is a knee.” And then they proceed to moto, moto and moto (fire, person and the French word for motorcycle).

  22. likolo, likoló, móto, mòto and moto respectively. Why I remebered this, is that French moto is mɔto, another complication for a Russian:)

  23. Bill Thurston, a linguist who has researched Austronesian-Papuan contact in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, divides language change into two essential types: esoterogeny, wherein people complicate their language to make it more difficult for outsiders to learn it, and exoterogeny, wherein people simplify their language to make it easier for outsiders to learn it. Austronesian and Papuan (non-Austronesian) languages in PNG had very different grammatical patterns when they first came into contact, but many have become more similar over centuries of contact, while others, like Tayap, have remained harder for outsiders to penetrate.

  24. I had a similar frustrating experience once with a Tamil speaker patiently explaining to me the sounds of the different letters of the Tamil alphabet: na, na, na. Worse yet, I knew about phonetics, and knew they were really [n̪, [n], [ɳ]. They sounded exactly the same to me. I hope I have a better ear now.
    (While double-checking WP, and found that the page on Tamil language has recordings of several Tamil tongue twisters. Sure! I’ll take them.)

  25. David Marjanović says

    esoterogeny […] exoterogeny

    I don’t think such trends are often deliberate. Rather, languages spoken only in esoteric contexts (by small communities of all-native speakers) can afford to accumulate irregularities that, I guess, often come from changes that make the language easier for speakers. Languages often spoken in exoteric contexts will be learned imperfectly and passed on imperfectly, and are perhaps more likely to accept changes that make them easier for hearers.

  26. Yes, exoterogeny (or even creolization) happens willy-nilly when large numbers of refugees from another language group try to learn the language(s) of their new neighbors and kinfolk, and that has happened very frequently among the small, fragile communities in PNG. Every village has lineages from other villages that usually speak different languages. But there are also lots of accounts of specialized esoteric vocabularies used by hunters (incl. fishermen) and gatherers to avoid saying the names of the animals and plants they seek. Some highland villages have a specialized “pandanus language” when they go off to gather the fruit. It’s not just the names of dead people that are taboo, at least for a period (because names tend to get recycled). They’ll often use names from neighboring languages, as if fish, fowl, or fruits are more monolingual than the people hunting them.

  27. marie-lucie says

    drasvi: French moto is mɔto

    Not for me! (and in general my pronunciation is quite conservative). I say “moto”. However, for the derivative le motard ‘motorcycle rider, especially a dangerous one or a policeman’ I say “mɔtar”.

  28. marie-lucie, thank you! Actually the transcription (that I copied form WIktionary) is a bit misleading here.

    Both French sounds differ from the Russian sound. Russian Phonology in Wikipedia: “For most speakers, /o/ is a mid vowel [o̞], but it can be a more open [ɔ] for some speakers
    It is my impression too: [o̞] or [ɔ], a bit more close than a pure [ɔ]. For me an emphasized “textbook” version of French /ɔ/ is more like an unusually refined “o”, while /o/ is a half-way-to-u sound.

    It is possible that the guy said exactly [moto], but it was the second sound that made me realize: “oh, now he said a close [o]!”. It is also possible that for my other freind (they both are musicians) this new o did not complicate anything and he just though: “it was a French word”.

  29. And the converse: rozele is the person to speak to this, but I get the impression that the most vital form of Yiddish in the US is now that among spoken among Haredim, who speak a form which would offend purists in many ways, but who are much the most likely to go on speaking it.

    to my eye, the situation with yiddish is more mundane:

    two increasingly divergent dialects, one (contemporary u.s. hasidic yiddish) with a reasonably large cradle-tongue population and almost no formal language education**, the other (YIVO yiddish [self-identified as ‘standard’]) with a very small cradle-tongue population and extensive formal language education (mainly of L2 speakers)**, both closely identified with specific (largely incompatible) positions within a somewhat shared culture. predictably, language change works very differently in each, and neither likes the other’s choices.

    i may be missing what DE’s driving at, but i don’t think it maps all that well in either direction* onto the tayap situation. partly because it’s not a question of simple/unipolar purism: my understanding is that most hasidim who think about it at all think YIVO yiddish is just as “bad” as YIVOniks think hasidic yiddish is – they just have less access to anglophone academic contexts to yell about it (and generally care less). i would like to be able to link to video of this talk but the series doesn’t have videos publicly posted. here’s a bit of the abstract:

    …speakers from both communities recognize the inevitability of language change; at the same time, the same aspects of language change that are valued as “authentic” in one community are often disparaged as “inauthentic” in the other. When elaborating on these language attitudes and ideologies, speakers tend to focus on the use of particular words and phrases, such as new Yiddish coinages or borrowings from English, since they lie at the surface of the linguistic system. However, these divergent views on the nature of language change may also have a tangible impact on the grammatical properties of the language.

    fwiw, i think there is a scattering of passive active*** bilinguals in the yiddish picture. mainly yiddish cradle-tongue folks who’ve left the hasidic world, but share its assessment of the language as not meaningful outside of its embedding in that way of life. and with a second, shrinking, set of folks (neither hasidim nor yiddishists) who think of themselves as less fluent than they are because their use of yiddish was mainly with older relatives & in limited contexts (and generally were explicitly encouraged to become english-primary as kids).

    * is proverse the opposite of converse? properly it should be nike, i suppose.

    ** this will change – possibly a lot – this week, as the yiddish duolinguo drops using a hasidic reference dialect (i’m interested to see how deeply they go beyond pronunciation with the dialect-specific side of things!).

    *** AC/DC? switchy? verse? amphibious?

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    The Lingala for “fire, star” is actually mɔ́tɔ̀; “person” is mòtò; mòtó is “head” (and “motorbike.”)

    The usual orthography doesn’t distinguish e/ɛ or o/ɔ, but the language itself does.
    I believe some of the Young People of Today don’t make these distinctions any more, though. I don’t know what the world is coming to.

  31. properly it should be nike, i suppose.

    I laughed!

  32. David Marjanović says

    Russian Phonology in Wikipedia: “For most speakers, /o/ is a mid vowel [o̞], but it can be a more open [ɔ] for some speakers”

    I think describing it as a monophthong is a mistake. Rather, it has such values as [u̯o], [oɔ̯], [u̯oɔ̯], [oɔ̯ʌ̯], [u̯oɔ̯ʌ̯] – though my impression of these is probably exaggerated by velarization of the preceding consonant.

    …and the whole thing is endolabially rounded, while French uses very visible exolabial rounding (which spreads to the preceding consonant, too).

  33. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Yeah, those [oɔ̯] values are common enough to be considered stereotypically Russian… but I get to hear Russian so seldom that I can’t tell how frequent they actually are.

  34. marie-lucie says

    Many years ago I attended some Russian classes. One of the most common words one teacher used was “Xorosho” (sorry, I can’t use a Russian font), but it sounded closer to “Xarashoa”. I think he was from a Russian family but raised in Canada.

  35. David Marjanović says

    That’s normal. /a/ and /o/ are only distinguished when stressed (and the last syllable is stressed in that word); unstressed they merge somewhere around [ʌ ~ ɐ] (always unrounded).

  36. I did not know that, what DM, AB and marie-lucie said: that Russian o’s sound as diphtongs.

    Actually, I am interested in this thing (perception of foreign sounds) as such.


    It was instructive for me to listen to my Arab friend speaking (carefully and slowly) in Russian.
    She said /dva/ “2” as dva’ /dvaʔ/.
    ʔ here describes blocking air passage abruptly (without accompanying release though). It would never occur to a Russian to do that.

    When a word ends in a vowel, I relax: “dvaₐ…”

  37. I do not understand what happens here phonetically though (unsurprisingly, I do not know phonetics).

    1. I do not understand if there exist such a thing as a pure monophtong in the wild (unless extra-long). There is always transition from the preceding consonant and to the following, and (as in the example above) prosody of the langauge in question.

    2. I do not know if it is possible to formally distinguish between diphtongs and effects of this transition and prosody. These two situations are different phonologically, the question is whether they correspond to two different phonetical realities.

    As DM said: “my impression of these is probably exaggerated by velarization of the preceding consonant.

  38. From the Illustrations of the IPA series, Russian: “The /o/ vowel is a diphthongoid, with a closer lip rounding at the beginning of the vowel that gets progressively weaker [ᶷo] or even [ᶷɔᶺ], particularly when occurring word-initially or word-finally under the stress, e.g. očen’ [ˈᶷoˑt͡ʃʲɪn̠ʲ] ‘very’, okna [ˈᶷɔᶺkn̪ə] ‘windows’, moloko [məɫ̪ʌˈkᶷɔᶺ] ‘milk’.”

    So, diphthongoid.

  39. with a closer lip rounding at the beginning of the vowel that gets progressively weaker

    This I understand. But it is about evolution of rounding. DM also noted that in French rounding spreads to the consonanat to the left.

    This I do not understand:) Like a diphtong, but not quite a diphtong?

  40. David Marjanović says

    I didn’t even know that term, but the transcriptions look accurate to me.

    The link is missing the top-level domain (which was replaced by the LH default).

  41. Others have recently wondered about the diphthongoid.

  42. I can hear [oɔ̯] at the beginning of очень when it gets over-emphasized, as in “ну очень дешево, ну очень”. It’s much harder to discern in fluent speech. Russian textbooks also claim that the vowels in feet and loot are also “diphthongoids,” the only such in English.

  43. the vowels in feet and loot are also “diphthongoids,”

    Hence they can be transcribed /i/ and /u/, /i:/ and /u:/, or /ij/ and /uw/, among other renderings. This is an example of why I try to avoid IPA when discussing English pronunciation here.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    “Diphthongoid” seems an unhelpful term to me.

    Surely a diphthong is either a diphthong or it isn’t, phonetically? The sound either changes quality as it goes, or it doesn’t. The distinction suggested at the stack exchange link doesn’t work: in languages which have unequivocal diphthongs, it’s just not the case that they always have an equal duration of two components.

    There seem to be two potential complications:

    (a) a phonetic diphthong can behave exactly like a monophthong structurally in all contexts: Agolle Kusaal [iə] [uɵ] pattern exactly as if they were long monophthongs, for example, and you could (if you wanted) analyse English [ij] [uw] as “long vowels” in a similar way.

    (b) diphthongs and monophthongs may be in variation even in the same context within a word, depending on things like emphasis, speed of utterance, register and so forth. This seems to be what’s going on with Russian; but it seems to me that rather than invent a new term for the phenomenon, you’d be better off just saying that Russian /o/ is realised as a phonetic diphthong in certain circumstances.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Hence they can be transcribed /i/ and /u/, /i:/ and /u:/, or /ij/ and /uw/, among other renderings.

    Phonetically, they’re often [ɪi̯ ʊu̯] in most accents. How they’re interpreted at the phonemic level is the can of worms you’re trying not to open.

  46. ktschwarz says

    “Most” accents must be an exaggeration, or Justin Timberlake wouldn’t have occasioned so much comment for singing “it’s gonna be me” as “it’s gonna be may”. (For those who’ve never heard of that, see Ace Linguist.)

  47. David Marjanović says

    …Actually, I think, I should have written [ɪ̯i ʊ̯u].

  48. My wife said: ‘George, I’m so unhappé!
    Our darling’s now completely frappé!’

    @ktschwarz: thanks for the link. A very interesting piece! I wasn’t aware of the Timberlake song but I’d been wondering about “happ-ay” for years. I only wish Karen had dug even deeper. Mick Jagger, like Eric Burdon before him, adjusted his native accent to sound more blues-y, probably imitating his favorite (mostly African-)American singers. Karen says:

    I listened to influential black blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, and Fats Domino, but they had no ME-breaking at all! (There was some lax-HAPPY, but remember that that is a different feature…)

    Yes, there is definitely some lax-HAPPY there, especially – I think – in the accents of Delta blues singers. (But no “may” for “me.¨) Skip James, for example, “opens up” the final sound in money, worry, whiskey. Perhaps English singers attempting to imitate that pronunciation end up with [ɪi] or, perhaps, they just can’t help hearing [ɪi].

  49. @ktschwarz: thanks for the link. A very interesting piece!

    Seconded! I just wish it had been a little more carefully transcribed; sometimes the words on the page don’t match the words being sung, e.g., “In fact you can take everything except for m[ɪi]” (should be “you can keep”).

  50. David Marjanović says


    Ah yes, [ɘ], the HAPPEH vowel.

    (Also the most common value of the Polish y, conveniently.)

  51. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Or listen to MLK’s happY in ‘country’ and ‘philosophy’ here (at 1:00 and 1:05):


  52. David Marjanović says

    Those are barely more open & central than [ɪ], as if he’s aiming at RP and slightly overshooting.

    I’ve also finally listened to the Timberlake snippet. That’s almost [əɪ̯].

    The second occurrence of Stevie Wonder’s “13-month-old baby” ends somewhere between [ɛ] and [æ]. That phenomenon has been a fixture of… some kind of American singing style for something like a century at least; I have no idea why (or why not).

  53. Andrej Bjelaković says

    I don’t think he’s aiming at anything, I think a lot of US English had that kind of happY if you go back far enough (speakers born 1850-1900, say), and some dialects kept it well into the 1920s, when MLK was born.

    The singing style [ɛ] is probably then originally an extension of that (it’s easier to sing opener vowels more loudly), and then it just stuck as a tradition.

  54. David Marjanović says

    Makes sense.

  55. In the Flaming Lips’ song Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, singer Wayne Coyne pronounces the name with a very open final /i/. Reportedly, the Japanese musician this song was inspired by (Yoshimi of The Boredoms, OOIOO, etc.) found the pronunciation gratingly wrong; to her it sounded like “Yoshime”.

  56. On esoterogeny, see François’s 2009 paper, aptly named “The languages of Vanikoro: three lexicons and one grammar”: three languages of one island, identical in how they put words together, yet very diverse in what those words are, apparently through hyperactive local innovation (his earlier thought are in conference materials, here and here.)

  57. Wow, that’s wild.

  58. I recently saw Richard James talk, and he had a very clear [ɪz] in plurals like therapies and responsibilities. (His accent was a weird mix of UK and US; here’s the video clip if you want to check him out.)

  59. David Eddyshaw says

    he had a very clear [ɪz] in plurals like therapies and responsibilities.

    So do I: surely that’s unremarkable?

    Final [ɪ] in words like “happy” was standard in older RP. In Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson rebukes herself for being so [sɪlɪ] about Trevor Howard. (Suppresses tear, keeps stiff upper lip. Great movie.)

  60. So do I: surely that’s unremarkable?

    To you, obviously, but not to me — I’m sure I’ve heard it before, but it was this thread that made me notice it, and I thought I’d put it here. You don’t hear that kind of thing much on this side of the pond.

    Great movie.

    Yes indeed; my wife and I have been meaning to rewatch it for some time now.

  61. David Marjanović says

    So do I: surely that’s unremarkable?

    Ah, so the spelling has been lying to me again.

    I do have [ɪ] as the HAPPY vowel, including in therapy & responsibility (four times in a row in that one), in part because L2 teaching is conservative (and English-as-L2 teaching used to aim at RP), in part because I wasn’t explicitly taught to use the FLEECE vowel for this purpose – the German long/tense vowels are banned from such fully unstressed positions.

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    I got Don Kulik/Angela Terrill’s grammar of Tayap for my birthday (thanks, Ma!), and it’s just as good as you’d expect.

    Kulik has a great deal to say about the sociolinguistic situation of the language: it seems that older full speakers not only relentlessly disparage the Tayap of young speakers but also the Tayap spoken by each other, to a degree that Kulik found that this was a problem in compiling his dictionary: for even quite everyday words, one fluent speaker would vigorously deny the correctness of the forms given by another, along with their general linguistic competence. According to Kulik, there is no concept of the language as shared by the community of speakers: each has his/her “own” Tayap, which is always naturally better than everyone else’s. This also means that there is no particular feeling that the language is a sort of common property needing to be preserved: a speaker has his/her version, so they’re all right, and if other people don’t – well, that’s their own problem.

    It’s a wonder the language has survived as long as it has …

  63. David Marjanović says

    An actual case of prescriptivism killing a language, instead of sustaining it as so often advertised? I’m impressed.

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    Hard to know how much weight to place on this given all the other factors stacked against the language’s survival, but Kulik does commit himself to (p346):

    In fact, this inability to satisfy all the current speakers of Tayap is a feature of the language that may be contributing to its demise. I was continually struck by how vigorously (and, to my mind, gratuitously) senior speakers of Tayap discounted and ridiculed one another’s linguistic competence. Early on, I stopped trying to discuss Tayap in groups of old people because any discussion of any aspect of the language would inevitably result in bickering.

  65. That would be delightful as fiction but is depressing as reality.

  66. Competition as a mechanism for language maintenance, or elaboration, makes sense to me. I’d like to know, though, how communication in Tayap happens outside the situation of informing a fieldworker. Are people less aware of their differences? In other words, does everyone say “ain’t”, but some tell linguists that it’s wrong and that they themselves never say so?

  67. David Eddyshaw says

    Kulick (sic: apologies for continually misspelling him above) in his actual grammatical description sets out a lot of differences between the speech of older and younger people, of a kind which are on the whole pretty familiar from language death scenarios elsewhere, such as wholesale levelling of morphological irregularities, loss of “proper” subordinate clause marking and so forth. He doesn’t in fact describe a lot of variation among older speakers: given the tiny size of the speaker community, I suppose this is not surprising, really.

    So it looks as if the speakers’ perceptions of what is going on with intra-speaker variation are basically wrong, apart from cases where they are picking up on language death features among the young: and even there they seem to be overstating the changes, to the marked detriment of younger speakers’ willingness to actually use the language even when they still can.

    I suppose this just illustrates the traditional fieldworker’s axiom that you should pay no attention to what informants say about their language, but profound attention to what they say in their language. (Yes, there are exceptions … it works for European languages, though …)

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Inter-speaker variation, I should say. I doubt whether the good people of Gapun would take kindly to fieldworkers pointing out intra-speaker variation, any more than our own dear prescriptivists do. (And Chomskites presumably find the concept incoherent in principle.)

  69. Andrej Bjelaković says

    re: therapies etc.

    There’s a bunch of UK speakers who have [i] in therapy but [ɪ] in therapies etc.

    I think it’s the intermediate stage for RP, undergoing happY tensing, moving from [ɪ] in both to [i] in both.

  70. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s pretty much my idiolect, though I think I may not always do happy-tensing in Real Life, as opposed to introspecting about it as at present. I don’t actually speak RP, though few Brits notice the differences, which reflect my youth in the remotest parts of Yr Hen Ogledd. This may have some bearing on my happYness, though.

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