Earth roughly spherical, moon devoid of dairy products, astronomers say

Aristotle was famously mistaken about at least one aspect of the human vocal anatomy: he believed that women had fewer teeth than men. Various people, notably including Bertrand Russell, have pointed this out as an example of Aristotle’s lack of concern for empirical evidence; others have suggested that he was motivated in his assertion by deliberate or subconscious misogyny.

At any rate, the Gendered Dentition Disparity Hypothesis does not seem to be taken very seriously these days, except as a symptom of Aristotle’s thought. I would be very surprised, for example, if a journalist were to interview a few dentists and then write a newspaper article announcing that, hey, it turns out women have just as many teeth as men after all! I would be even more surprised if the journalist were a woman.

And yet somehow I am not terribly surprised to find, on the front page of today’s Toronto Star, an article by Oakland Ross, who, having interviewed a few local voice coaches, reveals that Canadians don’t really say ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’. (Ross is, as far as I know, a Canadian himself; he begins the article with the words “Yes, fellow northerners, there is a Canadian accent.”)

Well, no, of course we don’t say ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’; Canadians, and other people who have Canadian raising, say [ʌwt] and [əbʌwt]. And while I don’t expect that everyone should know the relevant IPA symbols (although it would be nice if they did), it seems to me that it ought to be perfectly obvious to the Star‘s readers how they pronounce these words. I mean, you don’t even have to stand open-mouthed in front of a mirror and count; you just have to listen to yourself (or your neighbour) talk. And I suspect that most Canadians have heard enough Americans talking to realize that the Canadian pronunciation of the word about doesn’t sound very much like the American pronunciation of a boot.

Ross helpfully explains to his predominantly Canadian readers what they really do say:

What Canadians say is “out” and “about” — pretty much the way the words are spelt — but we have a way of forming the vowels toward the front of our mouths and without much vertical space between our upper and lower palates.

Americans tend to pronounce the same two words with the sounds formed farther back in their mouths and with more vertical space — something like “ah-out” and “abah-out.”

Ah, yes. It’s all about the ‘lower palate’, which I guess is some kinda fancy scienterrific term for what I’ve always called the ‘tongue’. And apparently the American pronunciation of the word out is disyllabic.

I’m so glad we can count on journalists to clear these things up.

2 thoughts on “Earth roughly spherical, moon devoid of dairy products, astronomers say

  1. ACW

    I’m an American, and I do not say [əbawt], as your journalist seems (incoherently) to be suggesting. Instead, I say something closer to [əbæwt]; that is, the stressed vowel is definitely somewhat fronted and maybe a little raised.

  2. Bob Kennedy

    I actually think there’s enough cross-dialectal misperception and reanalysis going on with this feature to give the journalist some slack on this one. I don’t know what people typically know of their accent, but I think there are basically three types of Canadians:

    (1) those who have taken Intro Ling and know about the raised diphthong (probably a minority).
    (2) those who know their diphthong is not like the American diphthong, but can’t say how (but also know they don’t say aboot).
    (3) those who have no idea that there is any difference.

    The group in (1) is probably a minority. The groups in (2) and (3) probably could use a bit of fo-NEH-tick help to clear things up. For all three, you are correct in saying that the Star’s readership already knows they don’t say ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’.

    But Ross does point out that the Canadians-say-aboot idea is a myth. It might be one that some of his readership is unware of, but it’s pretty entrenched, too. To flip things around, I think there are also three types of Americans for the same issue:

    (1) those who have taken Intro Ling and know about the raised diphthong (again, probably a minority).
    (2) those who know their diphthong is not like the Canadian diphthong, but can’t say how (and hell, maybe Canadians do say aboot).
    (3) those who have no idea that there is any difference.

    The Canadians-say-aboot myth rests in group (2). The myth has simple cross-dialect difference as its source, with several paths leading away, but ultimately reconverging at the myth.

    First, at some point, a large enough number of American speakers noticed some difference in the diphthong. Not having the diphthong in their own accent, this group used one of their own surface phonemes as an approximation. Candidate substitutions need a round off-glide, so only [ow] and [uw] (or whatever local variant they have) can be used. Personally I think the [ow] subsitution is ideal, if not downright precise, given that many American dialects pronounce a boat very close to [əbʌwt]. Why the other candidate subsitution became standard, I don’t know, but could have something to do with maintaining a diphthongal contour for the subsitution. I mean, this subsitution may have occurred in a dialect in which [uw] is more diphthongal (centralized perhaps) than [ow]. Just a guess.

    Second, given that some American dialects actually pronounce a boot as [əbɨwt], the actual misperception of Canadian about as a boot is not out of the question. Especially in fast speech – it’s probably relevant that about is frequent and functional, and the myth doesn’t generalize to Canadians-say-stoot (for stout) or Canadians-say-poot (for pout).

    Third, in describing this difference to others who have not heard it, it becomes more illustrative (and perhaps even amusing) for Americans to choose [uw] as the representative. Sort of like linguistic slapstick. The result is that an American who has never heard a Canadian may still believe the myth.

    Who knows what will unfold if the [ɛw] innovation takes hold.

    Aside from the mystery about why [uw[ became the easy substitution, there are 2 questions that bother me: why is the equally robust [aj] ~ [ʌj] alternation not marked in the same way? i.e., why is there no myth that Canadians-say-reet (or even rate) for right? and why does working class New England, with a similar or same feature, not have the same myth?

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