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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 349-352
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Language Planning on the Playground
Rudolph C. Troike, University of Arizona
One of the great mysteries of language is why it changes. We are usually able to recognize a change only after the circumstances which initiated it are lost in the mists of myriad interpersonal interactions. Occasionally the author of a lexical innovation can be identified--as in Thomas Jefferson's famous coinage of belittle in 1797. But in most instances, especially in pronunciation and grammar, the locus of a change and the processes [End Page 349] behind its spread or rejection are beyond retrieval, and linguists can only offer after-the-fact explanations. These usually draw on the geologist's principle of UNIFORMITARIANISM--the assumption that natural processes (such as erosion or the linguistic influence of one person upon another) have operated in the past in the same way as they may be observed to operate in the present.
The initial basis for a distinctive characteristic of American English early commented on by British travelers--its relative uniformity compared to the regional diversity in England--is usually said to lie in the process of LEVELING, by which diverse usages brought into a community or area by immigrants from different speech areas are over time winnowed out, as children growing up in the community, in the process of interacting with one another, adopt one or another of the competing forms they hear among their elders. However, we are rarely able to capture live examples of this process in action, leaving us with only the assumption of its operation. Here I wish to document my experience as a participant in such an actual event.
The subtropical lower Rio Grande valley in the extreme south of Texas, where I grew up, was predominantly occupied by Spanish speakers until the 1920s, when irrigation and citrus cultivation were introduced, attracting English-speaking colonists primarily from the Midwest and other parts of Texas (my parents were typical: my father was from Chicago and my mother from East Texas). I was a member of the first generation growing up amidst this juxtaposition of different regional patterns of speech, out of which we assembled our own unique amalgam.
Emblematic of this process was a playground discussion I vividly remember during the third grade (1942), when one member of a group of boys in our class had taken note that some of us pronounced dew and do alike, while others said the former as /djuw/ (d + you) and the latter as /duw/ (as in doom). On the spot we constituted an impromptu language academy and, after some debate, concluded that those who distinguished the pronunciations had the weight of spelling on their side (ignoring the fact that dozens of other words spelled differently are pronounced alike), and so we voted in favor of the wisdom of maintaining the distinction, a compact I have remained true to until this day. We did not know, of course, that dew as /djuw/ was Southern, /duw/ Northern. This kind of decision making undoubtedly happens thousands of times a day throughout the nation and is quickly forgotten as we go about the important business of growing up. But it is precisely such peer decisions that ultimately lead to making the speech of each community different and influence the course of linguistic history. [End Page 350]
Much of leveling occurs unconsciously, however, as we interact with our peers and others in our formative years and choose certain usages over others or fail to acquire distinctions constantly made in our hearing by parents and grandparents. Thus, I somehow failed to notice that my mother, like most Southerners, distinguished the vowels of horse and hoarse, and that my father, like most Northerners, distinguished the vowels of pin and pen. And, like most of my peers, I wound up with a leveled variety of speech that Raven McDavid once jokingly called a "creole." That the product was very un-Texan later caused me some embarrassment when I taught at the University of Texas and was constantly identified by my students as...