Saturday, December 17, 2016

What's in a name?

Atlas Obscura had an article on the Canadian raising, a peculiarity in the way Canadians pronounce certain vowel sounds, most notably the word "about". The article seeks to explain why we pronounce this word the way we do, and why Americans don't hear the way we actually say this particular word. The article says:
Canadians also have a diphthong there, but a much weirder one than ours. Instead of starting with “agh,” they start with a vowel that’s mapped in a mid-range place, but one that is, bizarrely, not represented in American linguistics, period. This is an exclusively Canadian sound, one that the vast majority of Americans not only don’t use where Canadians use it, they don’t use it at all. It’s completely foreign.
As a linguistic analysis, this works: it explains more clearly than any other analysis I have read not only how we actually pronounce "about" but why the Americans have trouble hearing the sounds we actually use. The word choices in the article reveal some interesting assumptions on the author's part: the word "weirder" and "bizarrely", in this context, appear as synonyms for "foreign".

Reading this article put me in mind of one of my early memories: at the age of five or six, my great aunt taught me to say my last name.

 The name "Spragge" actually has only one syllable. If you're curious, the last "e" is silent (some spellings omit it altogether) and the "g"s are hard. How can a one syllable word be so hard to say that anyone, even a little kid, needs to have someone teach it?

As I learned it at a tender age, the name Spragge uses a particular vowel sound. Like the vowel sound in "about" and many other English words, it contains more than one distinct sound, which makes it what we call a dipthong, or a compound vowel. We pronounce our name with a short "a", and a short "a" followed by a hard "g" sound is quite difficult to pronounce without a dipthong: try saying the word "bat" followed by the word "bag". If your tongue works like mine, you will find yourself saying "b-at" but "bayg". That doesn't quite apply to "Spragge", however; as my Great Aunt insisted to me, we don't pronounce it like "bag". We use a subtly different dipthong. As I say my own name, the "a" sounds flatter then the "a" in "bag", and I know I put my tongue farther back in my mouth when I say the initial "a" sound in "Spragge". According to Wikipedia, the Canadian raising affects this particular dipthong ([eɪ̯]).

What is in a name? Many things; including, perhaps, a way of looking at the way we make an identity for ourselves using the deceptively simple process of turning sounds into meanings.

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