Dr S H Elgin, Linguistics, Phonetic spellings

George: I’ve started a new message here in Anything Goes so as to stick with the rules.
Your conversation with Dr Elgin: please tell all!

(by sidhetaba for everyone)

30 comments Add yours
  1. Hi, there, Sidhe.

    This is going to get a little complex. There were two parts of the question. The first part's easy, but the second part isn't.

    As we were discussing earlier, a modeling technique was invented. The modeling technique could be used to improve 1) your body language 2) your writing skills 3) elimination of an accent 4) improving voice quality.

    My first question had to do with learning to write effectively. I consider myself a fairly good writer; not skilled extemporaneously, but rather good when rewritten. I was going to model Truman Capote, who's my favorite writer. I asked Dr. Elgin if modeling in shorthand would be effective. She said she didn't think so. The modeling technique is effective in terms of the time spent doing it; shorthand would drastically reduce the time spent, and hence would be counter-productive for this enveavor.

    The second one is hairier. I was inquiring about accent reduction. As a preamble, I spent some time doing that. Not much, but enough to know what it felt like. When you do accent reduction, really what you're doing is called "code-switching". African-Americans do this a lot when they change their speech to sound more "white". My question was this: is the process of code-switching conscious or unconscious? Do you have to consciously change the way your mouth muscles form an "I", for example, or are the mechanics subconscious?

    She said that the decision to code-switch is conscious–but the mechanics of exactly how to move the mouth, the inflections of the voice, etc, are handled by the subconscious mind.

    The nice thing about our conversations was that she was very willing to reply so promptly. I received this detailed email from her the very next morning. Just as she noted in her book about speaking with experts, she was downright eager to speak to me about the love of her life–linguistics. She is a very nice lady.

    Much to my dismay, however, I couldn't continue my modeling endeavors. My lifestyle changed, and I began to "burn the candle at both ends", so I had no time to do the things I wanted so dearly to do…

  2. By the way, I see no reason whatever that the modeling technique wouldn't work with plate shorthand. You could get tracing paper, and trace directly over the shorthand in the books. After several hours (25 hours was suggested for the voice; more might be needed for written material), your own shorthand should closely resemble the plate shorthand.

  3. Thanks for that information, George.   Does code switching occur when you switch actual languages? Or does it just happen when you switch from one version of a language to another?   There are many examples of changing from one version to another in English. Most of the Newfoundlander's I know do it without thinking, they speak "Newfie" — that's what they call it — or they speak English. High school kids do it between the halls and the classroom. West Indians do it — each island has it's own patois, and most levels of society can speak that particular patois, but in more formal situations they speak a more standard international English.   I'm utterly fascinated by this modelling concept tho, and I haven't read her work recently enough to remember what she said about it. Off the top of your head, can you advise which of her books talk about it most?   At the time I was reading her work, I was much more interested in her theories about language and perception — the Chomski-esque "language shapes perception".   How would you model voice changes?   I studied the language Dr Elgin constructed, called La'adan. It had some absolutely amazing concepts in it. My favourite was a single word that more or less translated in English as "a-community-holiday-that-was-going-to-be-a-lot-of-work-and-probably-not-much-fun." The language was developed to express the perceptions of women in a (fictional) society in which women were treated as less than 2nd class citizens. Creating a language must be an incredible amount of work.

  4. Speaking of patois, I had an amusing incident recently when my Belizian friend's family was visiting. They were chatting away in creole, as they call it; now and then courteously throwing a comment my way in standard English. I was feeling proud that I understood most of the chatter, when his mother turned and asked me "how much o'clock is it?" By reflex, I gave her the dirtiest look, not sure I had heard her correctly. Seeing my surprised expression, they all looked at eachother and busted out laughing, realizing she had forgotten to "code shift" for me.

  5. Sidhe:

    Code-switching can be either intra-language or cross-language. African Americans do it all the time in the US –albeit rather poorly; they've found that by "sounding white" they get treated better.

    From my own perspective, I wanted to lose an accent which I felt didn't serve me too well. I chose Peter Graves, whose gravelly voice spoke Standard American English. He did a lot of audio-books, so the material was easy to find.

    Now, you might think you can do this with your own natural ear and your subconscious mind, mimicking what you hear and changing your accent to match. The conscious mind isn't equipped to do this, as I found out. Much to my surprise, my accent was far worse than I had consciously detected.

    What you do is speak along with the speaker, sentence by sentence, as he is speaking. Our brains have a "mismatch detector"; your subconscious mind endeavors to match the voice it's mimicking. There were some surprises.

    I knew, of course, that I spoke the word "bite" differently; Southern American speech treats it like a simple vowel rather than a dipthong. But I didn't know, for example, that we speak some consonants differently. For example, the "ble" sound in the word "possible" is much different in Standard than in Southern American English. The difference is hard to articulate, but, boiled down, the "l" and the intervening vowel are pronounced with different cheek,tongue, and throat muscles.

    I found that my cheek and throat muscles ached badly after doing these exercises. Apparently, Southerners and Westerners use different muscles while articulating.

    One can use this modeling technique to change voice quality, too. If your voice is too high-pitched, or whiney, or nasal, those differences become abundantly clear when you do these exercises.

    Modeling to improve voice quality takes about 25 hours to change; accent reduction takes longer, depending upon your age and your natural language-learning ability. Dr. Elgin specifically warns against going too far; you don't want to sound like an exact match of Peter Jennings, only to change your own voice–unless you want to become a mimic.

    This technique works miracles in learning foreign languages, too. With adequate practice, one could probably learn to speak the target language with very little accent.

    Unfortunately, burning the candle at both ends prematurely ended my lessons. I'd certainly have succeeded in my endeavor had I persisted. For the most complete information on this technique, check Success the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.

  6. Thanks, George. I'll get that one out again. And I think I will try the modelling on "plate" shorthand, it seems like a good idea, since my shorthand looks like a bomb hit it when I'm going fast.   I think that's when the notes are referred to as "going cold". The shorthand is so abominably written it's impossible to decipher without some idea of the content, which you would have retained later in the day or even the next day, but the next year?   Apropros the statement: "they've found that by "sounding white" they get treated better." Language is a very powerful way of identifying a cultural background. The history of the world is littered with examples of ruling classes speaking differently than the ruled. That's one of the reasons American spelling is so different from UK or even Canadian — a deliberate action to establish a separate cultural identity. People who want to move classes usually take on the speech of the class to which they want to move.   JES: I, also, am rather proud of my code-switching comprehension. I used to work with a lot of West Indian nurses who spoke their various patois and mostly I understood. They used to say completely shocking things and laugh at me when I looked shocked, because I couldn't answer back in kind. The appropriate replies didn't work in "standard" English.      

  7. Billy: apropos the statement "different spelling is an attempt to establish a separate cultural identity": I'm not sure I agree with that statement completely. I did some research on this topic.

    Spelling reform was started by a large group of intellectuals at about 1890. As strange as it might seem, most of them were English expatriates. Benn Pitman was one of the most eminent proponents.

    The effort gained steam all the way to the 1920s; entire books are written in it.

    I haven't found out why the movement died. Looking at the "big picture", it was probably the Great Depression.

    Despite this, several of the proposed changes were kept; you'll see "color" spelt without the "u", and "catalog" spelt the way it's spelt. I have no idea why some changes were adopted while others died…

  8. Billy:

    Moreover, there was a British Spelling Reform Association at the time. For some reason, almost none of the changes were kept, although I remember the word "re-enter" was once spelt "re챘nter". Original editions of Agatha Christie novels had their share of spelling oddities.

    But by and large, the effort failed in England. Perhaps the English's love of tradition killed it.

  9. Well, it's a moot point — the originators of the spelling reform movement in the US may have been without ulterior motive, but I'm pretty sure the "authorities", when they started teaching the reformed spelling, would have been clearly aware of the possibility for change in cultural identity and approved that particular motive.   English is, however, a living language, so changes are more likely to be organic than imposed. The French and the Quebecois are having a very hard time trying to impose specific standards on their populations. Even tho it is officially frowned upon, "le weekend" is firmly entrenched in both populations.   I don't think it's going to be long before we are speaking a form of "Panglish", the lingua franca of many of Dr Elgin's novels. It doesn't exist — totally fictional — but conceptually it's a combination of Russian and English.   Russian is losing influence now that the USSR is no longer, and the universal language will likely be an organically changed English — mixed with elements of many other languages and or dialects, including Ebonics — which is taking over the teen-age population all over the world.

  10. Forgive me if this was already mentioned but didn't Pitman push rather hard for English spelling reform?

    And, I recall reading somewhere that John Robert himself thought that all students in the US should dump the Roman alphabet and switch to HIS. (Imagine that!)


  11. Marc:

    He sure did; the movement gained quite a lot of steam from 1890-1929. More than a few books have been written in it.

    Benn Pitman was one of the most vocal proponents of this spelling reform. His nemesis Andrew Graham was also deeply involved. Later on, George Bernard Shaw had a hand in it.

    The interesting thing to me is that they were mostly Englishmen doing the pushing.

    But like Billy said, the gov't might have had a hand in it, trying to establish an American identity. At this point, I don't have any research to back this, but it does seem reasonable. After all, some of the changes became permanent.

  12. Marc, didn't St Dr Gregg do that in the 60's? So the movement wasn't then dead. And there have been revivals since then, I think. There was a strange phonetic alphabet that my cousins learned as a "precursor" to learning the Roman alphabet in the 1970's. I remember thinking at the time that it was silly, but there was a significant movement in the educator community and they actually taught the phonetic alphabet.   Does anyone remember what it was called?    

  13. IJD: It did look very like that, though I do not think that's what they called. Frankly, it seems to me that the whole idea would be fraught with perilous possibilities — kids never learn Roman and can't read properly, kids never learning to spell properly because they have two spellings in their heads — the phonetic alphabet and the real (English, Canadian or American) spelling.   Spelling reform would be lovely, but it's going to have to be a grassroots organic movement — which is already occurring e.g. 'sup and my personal favourite ho.

  14. Well, George, the printing movement may not have erradicated cursive, but it seems to have had some effect, at least. When I was in fourth grade, we were required to write everything in the new cursive we had learned, but as soon as fifth grade hit, it was back to printing! The teachers teaching handwriting often don't know how to write cursive correctly themselves. I remember us laughing in elementary school at hearing that in the "olden days" there were grades for penmanship. We may as well have not learned cursive at all.

  15. JohnSapp:

    You printed after the second grade? No kidding! In my day, nobody printed, ever, after the second grade. I only switched to printing because I found that it was more legible than my cursive.

    This is as mindboggling to me as another piece of trivia I read–that most 20-year-olds haven't a clue how to work a typewriter.

    My, how our society is changing.

  16. JohnS:

    Now, you've got me thinking.
    It's funny: my generation–the ones who even knew about it–lumped the printing-only movement along with other progressive ideas "those liberal kooks had"–like open classrooms, etc.(The 1970s was a progressive era in a lot of areas.) By about 1980, it seemed to have died; relatives of mine who were educated in the heady years of the 1980s were taught to write in cursive, all the way through high school.

    But perhaps the movement DID catch on in some areas. Did you write in print from fifth grade, all the way through high school? Was cursive then used primarily for signatures?

    It would be interesting to hear how widesspread the movement became, and what prompted its resurgence. Does anybody know?

  17. We learned cursive writing in the third grade but were never graded on it.  Graduates of the school system I attended in NJ in the 1940s and 1950s never learned to write cursive–at least they didn't learn it in school.  Some of them still complain about that to this day!   My cousin, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, learned to read and write using a system which (of all places) the Pitman Publishing Company produced where there was a symbol of reach sound.  I remember her writing some great stories using some really big words (big for someone in first grade!) and was impressed later on as she transitioned to "real" spelling.   I find it funny that people think there is a "correct" cursive style.  Even in RIGID Copperplate, there are numerous letter variations.  In Spencerian Script, it gets even worse because "personal style" was stressed with variations in shading and in letter construction.   Marc  

  18.      In Philadelphia Parochial Schools of the fifties, children were taught Palmer cursive in the first grade. In many schools lefties were forced to write with their right hand. The Phillie Public School students began a more simplistic form of cursive in third grade. Students of both school systems material are still being graded on handwriting skills. There is still a handwriting component in the curriculum and itnstructional materials are readily available. Sadly some teachers show a poor example on the daily chalkboard and parents give teachers a hard time over low penmanship grades.      When my parents and their siblings graduated from the eighth grade in the early nineteen aught aughts (1900s) their lower middle class penmanship was surprisingly refined and quite beautiful. This certainly enhanced their self images and they maintained an air of dignity even though they performed difficult manual labor for long hours.        I have found that a teacher's penmanship  on the chalkboard  greatly effects classroom management and environment. Children learn best by good example. Parents respect professionalism.        Since the beauty of well written Gregg Shorthand has drawn many of us to the system, I believe that execution of form is an attainable goal and should not be sacrificed in the development of speed. Self discipline brings its own rewards. Careless , poor penmanship (whether long or shorthand) does not have to be self- perpetuating. Since most of us are not being graded and since our jobs are not usually dependent on our shorthand speed, and since our attainment of shorthand skills is a matter of personal choice, why not give beauty of execution the same weight as reading comprehension and speed development? This I believe would be a worthy and admirable approach that would reap its own rewards.     DOC  

  19. Thank you, Doc, for a beautifully reasoned argument for taking your time and doing it well. I'm going to try George's modelling technique to fix my errant outlines. I agree with you on the learning by example, but it wasn't 'til after I stopped teaching ballet that I realized telling wasn't nearly as effective as showing. No matter how hard you try to explain something, the learners will "model" what you do. So if you don't focus on perfect arms, all the kids in your class will have lousy arm movement.  

  20. Well, George, it would seem odd to people my age to NOT write term papers in print. Shoot, it would seem odd to today's kids not to type a term paper (rough draft).

    I was recently trying to explain to a 10 and 13 year old that cursive is faster and more convenient than print. They accused me of lying in order to convince them to suffer through practicing it…

    Good point, DOC.

  21. John:

    I learned something in this discussion! I just didn't know that learning in print had been executed in the US; the few people I had asked didn't know anything about it.

    But it appears by the examples offered that I was wrong; that's a good thing, I think. Studies had shown that learning cursive slowed comprehension by a full year.

    It's mind-boggling from my 43-year-old perspective that people write term papers in print; in my day, absolutely nobody did that (not even me!)

    About cursive being faster than print, I think I'd beg to disagree on that one. The same studies mentioned found that writing in print was just as fast as cursive; this is one possible reason that it might have been implemented in your state.

    On another note, I wonder how many states adopted the Pitman Phonetic Alphabet?

  22. It's utterly fascinating: obviously education in the 50's, 60's and 70's in Quebec was very different than other places.   I learned to write cursive in grade two. By grade four we had to submit assignments in cursive. In grade eight, when most of us learned to type (on manual typewriters), teachers gave us the option of papers in cursive or typewritten.   I remember in grade nine chemistry, we were told by the teacher that whatever method we used, printing, cursive or typed, the papers had to be legible — and from grade ten on only typed papers were acceptable. At that time I did a fairly brisk trade in typewriting for hire, mainly for the jocks who had taken extra PE instead of typing.   George: I know they used the phonetic alphabet in Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal in the 70's, but it didn't last into the 80's.

  23. Billy:

    Your experience mirrors mine pretty closely.

    In my Southern State, in the 70s, we learned cursive in the 2nd grade. After that, all our work was done in cursive; anything different would have raised an eyebrow.

    This continued all the way through high school–I graduated in 1980.

    A few people learned to type- perhaps 35%. But no one turned in any work in it. I'm not sure why. We could have turned in typewritten work, but nobody did it. Perhaps the cursive-only environment was merely custom/tradition.

    I never knew a single person who ever printed at school, not even me.

    The varying customs of this issue, as mentioned in this thread, are very interesting to me, too.

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