Do You Speak D.c.? Georgetown Linguists Study Washington-Area Language (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Do You Speak D.C.? Georgetown Linguists Study Washington-Area Language

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're going to focus on something we do all the time, every single day, whether in person, on the phone...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:22
...over the computer...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:24
...via text...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:26
...or for those of us who still remember how to use a pen or pencil, with a letter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1

00:00:31
In turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret...

SHEIR

00:00:40
In other words, we'll be talking about communication and the many ways we here in the Washington region reach out and touch someone, metaphorically speaking, I mean.

SHEIR

00:00:53
We'll explore how D.C.'s drivers and cyclists sometimes get their signals crossed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2

00:00:59
We know this is a safety issue and we know what we could do to fix the safety issue.

SHEIR

00:01:04
And we'll discover what ancient fossils are trying to tell us about climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3

00:01:09
We had this major thermal maximum, the hottest time that we know of, and it came on very fast.

SHEIR

00:01:15
Plus, revisiting the bygone days of newspaper row.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #4

00:01:18
There was more of a news community, it was more a group.

SHEIR

00:01:21
And getting steamy with the Washington romance writers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1

00:01:24
I think a lot of people now are in the closet reading it. I hate to say that because I don't think it's something that you should be ashamed of. But there really are people who do that.

SHEIR

00:01:41
But to kick things off today, if you've been surfing around Tumblr or YouTube, you may have come across a bunch of videos showing people pronouncing this specific set of words...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2

00:01:51
Garage or schedule...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #5

00:01:54
Schedule, figure, jaguar, lieutenant, water...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #3

00:01:57
Lieutenant, water, advertisement...

SHEIR

00:01:59
And answering this specific set of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #4

00:02:02
What is a bubbly carbonated drink called?

#5

00:02:04
What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?

#4

00:02:08
A soda.

#5

00:02:09
That's a cart.

#4

00:02:09
Cart.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #5

00:02:09
Cart.

SHEIR

00:02:11
It's called accent tag and the internet meme highlights the many ways people speak English across the world. Now, it just so happens the accent taggers you're hearing now all hail from the same corner of the world, namely...

#4

00:02:22
Washington D.C.

#5

00:02:24
Washington D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #6

00:02:25
I'm from D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #7

00:02:26
D.C. in the house.

SHEIR

00:02:28
But the question is, do they all have the same accent? And actually while we're at it, is there even such a thing as a D.C. way of speaking? Well, it just so happens that researchers at Georgetown University's Linguistics Department are trying to answer that very question, through something they call...

MS. ANASTASIA NYLUND

00:02:45
The language and communication in the D.C. Metropolitan Area Project or LCDC for short.

SHEIR

00:02:51
That's Ph.D. student, Anastasia Nylund. She and her fellow LCDC'ers have interviewed nearly 150 Washingtonians and listened to recorded interviews from the 1960s to get a clearer idea of how people in the D.C. area talk. And not just how people talk actually but what people talk about.

NYLUND

00:03:08
How people tell stories.

SHEIR

00:03:09
What people tell stories about.

NYLUND

00:03:11
And how people use language to sort of situate themselves in the social life of this city.

SHEIR

00:03:17
Let's start with that first one, how people talk. Nylund says she's found that when you ask folks in D.C. if they speak with an accent...

NYLUND

00:03:24
A lot of people will say, "Well, I don't really have an accent."

SHEIR

00:03:27
But they also say they're often perceived as having one.

NYLUND

00:03:30
So I've got people telling me, some people think I'm from the South and other people think that I'm from the North and I'm wondering where they get it from because I'm a Washingtonian. Or people hear a southern drawl and maybe it's there but I don't hear it. I'm not southern, I'm a Washingtonian.

SHEIR

00:03:48
And that, Nylund says, shows how closely language is connected with identity. And ever since D.C. became the nation's capital in 1791 its language and identity have been richly influenced by African-American culture.

NYLUND

00:04:01
And so some people will definitely say that Washington speech is African American speech and the most probably distinctive is some of the local words, like bama, for kind of an un-cool person. Jont, for pretty much anything, any noun can be replaced with "jont." "Cised," to be cised about something, psyched.

SHEIR

00:04:22
But as Anastasia Nylund's colleague, Patrick Callier attests, the study of African American English in D.C. goes beyond words.

MR. PATRICK CALLIER

00:04:30
Yes, so some of us have been looking at how sound systems in African American English in D.C. have been changing over time.

SHEIR

00:04:37
Like, say, certain vowels.

CALLIER

00:04:40
I looked at the pronunciation of the vowel in glide or pry or price and in traditional southern vernacular, be it white or African American, that would be pronounced like "glahd" or "prah," right.

SHEIR

00:04:53
But as he and his team have analyzed LCDC's archival recordings from the 1960s.

CALLIER

00:04:57
Basically what we've seen over time in D.C. is a slight decrease in overall use of this "prah" pronunciation among African Americans, particularly among African American women.

CALLIER

00:05:09
No, Patrick Callier may have the vowels covered but Jessi Grieser another PhD at Georgetown, is all about the consonants, in particular, T-H.

MS. JESSI GRIESER

00:05:19
So, saying "dat" instead of "that" and how much that comes out.

SHEIR

00:05:23
And Grieser says a number of factors seem to affect how much it comes out among speakers.

GRIESER

00:05:27
And who they're talking to, what they're talking about, whether or not the person they're talking to is also white or black.

SHEIR

00:05:33
Grieser recalls interviewing this one woman about her traditionally African American neighborhood and how she thinks it's changing.

GRIESER

00:05:39
As she was talking about her neighborhood becoming integrated, she started using the more standard English as opposed to African American English variants. So she was using "dat" and "de" and all these things as she was, as the neighborhood was black and as the neighborhood became whiter, so did her speech.

SHEIR

00:05:59
Examples like these, Anastasia Nylund says, demonstrate how fluid language can be, as it reflects the ever-changing social, cultural, political and economic landscapes of Washington, D.C.

NYLUND

00:06:10
Language isn't something that just happens. It's not just something that we're born with. It's something that we use, you know, creatively kind of as we go through our lives.

SHEIR

00:06:19
And the beauty of something like The Language and Communication in the D.C., Metropolitan Area Project, she says, is how it can capture some of that language and, she and her colleagues hope, bring about a greater understanding of this dynamic and complex place we call home.

SHEIR

00:06:52
The LCDC team just received a grant to build a brand-new website so that is in the works but if in the meantime you'd like to know more about the project, including how you can participate in an interview, you can visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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