“Divissive”

Barack Obama sometimes pronounces the word divisive with a short i in the second syllable (similar to permissive or dismissive). In his March 2008 speech on race, he says it twice in a row that way, at about the 7:50 mark. (He also uses it in the traditional long--i pronunciation, a la incisive, at 5:44.)

There has been a fair amount of grumbling about Obama and various members of the chattering classes using the “divissive” pronunciation, much of which assumes they are aping the British. That is understandable, given the way the Brits say “vittamin” and “dinnasty,” but it is not correct. The OED lists only one pronunciation for the word: with a long i. A lengthy discussion at the Washington Monthly website (which descends to personal invective at the end in a predictable, almost ritualistic manner) suggests the short-i is an American regionalism, found in New England and the Midwest. (Apparently former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle said it that way.)

Regionalism aside, to my ears the “divissive” pronunciation comes off as an affectation, that is, a case of saying something differently for the express purpose of saying it differently, similar to pronouncing the word “negociate.” One of the first people to gripe about it was Charles Harrington Elster, in his 1999 “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide for the Careful Speaker.” His target was another president, George H.W. Bush, who apparently said “divissive” in his inaugural address in 1988. Elster asks rhetorically: “Was this just a venial bit of Ivy League snobbery, or was the president letting fly with a beastly mispronunciation?” I vote for the former.

Glottal stop

Jamie Oliver glottalizes. So do American young women. How come?

A couple of days ago, I posted in Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education Language blog I contribute to, a post about American glottal stop. A slightly edited version of it is below, followed by some additional thoughts.

The post:

If you associate with American females in the age range of roughly 15-25, or if you are one yourself, I bet you have heard the word important pronounced in roughly this way: imPOR-unh.

I first started noticing this among my students a half-dozen years ago. My first thought was, why are young Mid-Atlantic Americans glottal stopping?–the glottal stop being a consonant-swallowing vocalization found many places around the world but most famously in the British Isles. You can hear it in your mind’s ear if you think of Stanley Holloway singing “With a lih-ill bi’ o’ luck” in My Fair Lady or one of the Beatles saying, well, “Bea-ulls.”

Glottalization, especially on the t sound in the middle and at the end of words, has traditionally been associated with working-class Cockney, Liverpudlian and Glaswegian, but in an interesting recent development (since the 1980s, in any case) it has migrated upward socially, as a prominent feature of so-called Estuary English. This is a manner of speech favored by the middle-class youth of the greater London area, sometimes referred to as “Mockney.” For classic examples of Estuary, listen to the comedian Ricky Gervais or the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; not 30 seconds will go by without at least one glottal stop. (Jamie, especially, also goes in for another notable feature, pronouncing th as f–“I’m firty-free years old.”) Here is Gervais emceeing last year’s Golden Globes; note the way he says settled and variety.

But how did glottal stop make its way to 20-year-old New Jerseyans? Since I have a strange fascination with the many British expressions, as witness my blog Not One-Off Britishisms, I was tempted to view this as another example of the phenomenon. But that doesn’t wash. The Britishisms I chart on the blog are driven by the chattering classes; glottalization clearly springs from a very different segment of society.

When I looked into the scholarship, I found it unhelpful. As the authors of one recent (2009) study note, “While there is an abundant literature on t-glottalization in the United Kingdom, investigation into the linguistic, geographic, and social factors that influence it in American English is in its infancy.” True that. They themselves tested just 58 speakers and found, not surprisingly, that t-glottalization was most common among the young and females. For reasons I don’t completely understand, only two-word combinations were tested–foot away, street outside, right ankle, etc.–not what appear to me to be the most common and noteworthy examples, single words like important, Clinton or button.

There are actually four possible pronunciations of the middle t sound in those words. British “received pronunciation” would give it a hard t. Americans only do that when the final consonant is stressed–pretend, return. Otherwise, we traditionally employ the “syllabic n,” in which the t is pronounced as t, but the subsequent syllable as a sort of vowel-less n. I recall in 1992 that northerners were instructed that the correct pronunciation isn’t Clin-ton but rather Clint-‘n.

Next, there is “flapping,” which Americans favor especially when the final syllable doesn’t end with n; thus, we say latter as ladder and city as siddy. Then there’s the new kid on the block, glottal stop. Getting back to the 2009 study I mentioned, an even more significant shortcoming is that none of the 58 participants was African-American. I say that because my observation is that the main manifestations of glottalization in popular culture are the expression “Oh no she dih-ent” (which originated, I think, as a ritualized audience response on The Maury Povich Show) and many, many rap songs. Glottalization has long been a characteristic of the form, at least as long ago as 1991, when Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Do You Want Me.” In the clip below, (at about the 21-second mark), the male singer raps, “You gotta let me know suh-‘en.”

In the popular music sphere, at least, glottalization has crossed racial lines. Last year the (white female) singer Kesha released a song called “My First Kiss.” Listen to the way she glottalizes little.

As Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out to me, the particular word is a surprising candidate for vocalization in not ending with an n; thus Kesha is glottalizing on a Jamie Oliver level.

I am left, in any event, with the observation that t-glottalization is rapidly spreading among young white female Americans, and the hypothesis that it came to them via an African-American style. How that style came about and how the transfer happened, I don’t know.

Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

Additional thoughts: I had two reactions to the comments on the Lingua Franca post. Number one, linguists are rightfully concerned about the cataclysmic consequences of anyone without a PhD in the field commenting on language matters. I don’t know what came over me. Number two (and more seriously), a couple of the commenters proposed that t-glottalization in words that end with “n” (Manhattan, button), is a fairly long-time New York vocal characteristic. I am inclined to go along with that, and suspect that both the prevalence of glottalization in rap music and in my students stems from this regional pronunciation.

You Say “Scenahrio,” I Say “Scenahrio”

Always seeking new horizons for Not One-Off Britishisms, I turn the focus for the first time to pronunciation. This is not because I have ever heard an American say lefftenant, conTRAHversy, shedule, Re-NAY-sunce, pass-ta, or rahhther. Rahhther, the word in question is scenario.

This term for a future situation comes directly from Italian (scena=scene), and I believe that in contrast to Renaissance and pasta, the British have always pronounced the second syllable in accordance with the original language–to rhyme with car, that iswhereas Americans render it scen-AIR-io.

We have, that is, until now, the age of NOOBs. I have heard more and more Americans say it in the British manner in recent years, sometimes with the telltale syllable drawn luxuriously out. As an example, I plucked from cyberspace an exchange that took place on NPR’s “All Things Considered” this past September. Michelle Norris is interviewing Michael Mackenzie about the European financial crisis.

NORRIS: So if we do see defaults and chaos and uncertainty, could you give us a quick picture of what the best-case scenario would look like and the worst-case scenario as well?

MACKENZIE: Well, the best-case scenario is that it would be relatively quick.

Norris is American and Mackenzie is British, but they both say scenahhrio. You can hear for yourself here. The exchange comes at about the 2:40 mark.