Friday, 11 April 2014


I often waffle on about finer points of language, and I have an interest in differing versions thereof. Many's the time I've had to point out that despite all my pedantry, in many situations, especially pronunciation, I not only concede but insist that there are alternatives, mostly regional.

It's fun of course, to compare these, and a little light-hearted teasing across the Atlantic doesn't do too much harm. 

Something crops up from time to time when discussing this stuff, and it dawned on me today that one of the problems that arises is a very useful way of explaining a much larger and more serious problem, that of being in a privileged position, not realising it, and subsequently dismissing those who aren't. 

I've been on a bit of a crusade lately with regard to dismissive behavioiur, and it's going to come up in a very long and difficult post I have planned for later on this month. You see, I am committed to the idea that for human society to move forward - or even continue at all - we have to start listening to one another. You've heard me emphasize that before, and I make no apologies for repeating myself, because it is really important. 

Listening to one another is harder than you think. Not all things we need to listen to come in the form of statements. Some don't even come as words. Perhaps it's more to do with paying attention than anything else, but for clarity we communicate with language most of the time. So the example I'm going to give you connects twice with the larger issue at hand.

OK, so as you cannot possibly have missed, North Americans speak differently to the English. I'm specifying English, because while there are many different accents in England (and even that is a point I have to explain sometimes), English accents are further removed in their vowels from North American than Irish or Scottish. Accent differences are mostly to do with vowel sounds. Most North American vowels are different to English vowels, but some are more different than others. The one we are talking about today is O.

I could go and find audio or video clips to demonstrate this, but the whole point of this post is to show what happens when you try to explain it without using those, but you can always look them up yourself later.

There are several ways to pronounce O of course, there's the O in "go". We're not worried about that one. We're looking at the O in "cot". Just in case you aren't aware of it, this English O is not like the North American O. In fact linguists devote a lot of time to studying how this O varies within North America. As language changes over times, the O changes in different places. 

Linguists refer to this issue as the "cot/caught" merger. That means that in some places in North America these two words sounds exactly the same. They are homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds the same but has a different meaning to another word. Sometimes it's spelled differently too. In this case it is.

So, if you come from an area where cot and caught sounds the same, you have merged those words into homonyms. It's part of your natural accent and you really don't think about it, and as I stipulated earlier, it's neither wrong nor right, it's just a variety of accent.

In other parts of North America these words do not sound exactly alike. They are similar, but they are distinguishable. They are not homonyms. 

In English accents, with no exceptions I can think of (although there may be some obscure accents in deepest Cumbria or something, I'm sure somebody will put me right) these words sound totally different. More different than any American can ever make them. 

But I can't tell you why. Because neither vowel exists in North American. I can't say "like ......" because there are no examples. 

Inevitably if you have this discussion a well-meaning North American will say "Spell it phonetically!" But that doesn't work. Phonetic spelling requires that all those using it have the same accent.

You can see this in any North American dictionary. Look up the word "cot" and see what it says. Chances are it says "caht". That is a perfectly reasonable attempt at demonstrating how cot is prounounced in North America. But that's not how "cot" is pronounced in England.

How is cot pronounced in England? I can't show you, because in a dictionary published in England the pronuncation of "cot" is "cot". I hope you are beginning to see the problem, and at this point if you are confused, you'd better find an audio clip.

The problem is that both the American and the English dictionary maker thinks he's right, and he's certainly not wrong.

Increasingly, however, people don't buy dictionaries in hard format, they go to websites. The biggest of these are based in North America. Guess which "phonetic" spelling is given?

Sometimes the English pronunciation is given as an alternative, sometimes it's just ignored. 

It's a question of numbers, to a certain extent. But already it is possible to see a creeping Americentrism coming in. So, if your own accent is English, as mine is, it starts to get a bit tedious after a while, and I often find myself rolling my eyes at it being assumed that North American accents are the default and that mine is an alternative. 

Still, at least mine is sometimes acknowledged. Imagine if your accent is from New Zealand.

New Zealand English is as valid a form of English as any other. Have you EVER seen its phonetic version given space, anywhere? No, neither have I. 

I'm sure North Americans don't think New Zealand English is wrong, or lesser. It's far more likely they don't think of it at all. Too far away, too few speakers, of no importance or interest really, unless you like the scenery in Peter Jackson movies. 

When you are used to not just your language, but your version of it, your accent, being the default, you forget about the others. They don't matter to you.

In fact I absolutely guarantee, that if I contacted the webmaster of an online dictionary and asked him to add the phonetic explanation for New Zealand English to all his entries, he'd dismiss me and give to further thought to it. If I even got a reply. 

I don't think it's of earth-shattering importance either, and my guess is that New Zealanders just roll their eyes at it. They're probably well-educated enough not to need it.

The point I'm trying to make is that this doesn't just happen with phonetic explanations in dictionaries. It happens with EVERYTHING

The things that you are used to, are familiar with, that you think of as normal, are your defaults. This is quite normal. It's not a crime. But at some point you have to be aware that your defaults are not definitive. Not just how you talk, but everything you do. What you wear, the music you listen to, what you eat and how you think about things. Many things you take for granted as "normal" are not. They are just your cultural defaults.

Sometimes we sit up and pay attention because white privilege, or male privilege, or western privilege or whatever is pointed out. With a bit of effort we can sometimes grok this. But it has to be pointed out first.

Here's an online quiz that's not as silly as most of them:

I'm not sure just how accurate that is (I got 7 by the way) because I am quite certain that black people go fishing. I could find other faults with it too, but it does make an interesting point.

And then, just when you think you've got that, I'm here to tell you that this is also an Americentric quiz. I assure you LOTS of white people will score low. Try in Lithuania. 

No, this isn't a "How White Are You Quiz" at all. It's a "How White American Middle-Class Urban Are You?". The very people who created a quiz to make a point about defaults and stereotypes fell into the same trap.

Of course they did. It's where they are.

We have to work hard at seeing things outside our own defaults. We have to take off our culture-tinted glasses. When you make the effort to seek out similarities in people from far flung places, it turns out that in all the really important things we are the same. We all have hopes and dreams. If we get bogged down with differentiating people by cultural details we run the risk of missing out on humanity. 

Cultural differences are lovely, they're fun. This is why we travel, or at least read about different places, different people, different ways. But we must constantly remind ourselves that not one of them is superior, especially not our own. We must not forget this. We must never get comfortable in our defaults. 

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