Sunday, July 30, 2006

Linguistic Ignorance Undermines Victorian Pretention
Q: When is a diphthong not a diphthong?
A: When it is a consonant sound that happens to be represented by a digraph in English.

I've become somewhat obsessed with reading the Amelia Peabody mysteries in order, now that I'm back in a place with a fabulous and easily accessible public library. They are set in the Victorian and post-Victorian era, with an upper class family of British archeologists as the main characters. The narrator amusingly evidences her class prejudices by ocassionally badgering those around her about their pronunciation and grammar, and at various points linguistic knowledge is bandied about. However, at the end of one of the more recent books, I got to this passage:
"Did you catch de lady?"

For a moment I thought the childish treble was Evvie's [another grandchild's] - but Evvie never abused her diphthongs in that fashion. I had only known one other child who did...
And I had to backtrack and look very carefully at what the child in question had said. Nowhere in that sentence is there any evidence of a vowel sound made up of what is actually two sounds, except the [eI] in "lady," and I failed to see any evidence of abuse there.

Clearly, what she meant to refer to was the substitution of [d] for [ð], otherwise known as the voiced alveolar fricative. Which is all well and good, (if also showing a misunderstanding of common childhood acquisition patterns of the sounds of English,) but it does not make pronouncing "de" instead of "the" an abuse of diphthongs. It rather ruined the overall air of overbred Victorian pretention for me, because I had to stop and get all analytical about a misuse of linguistic terminology.

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