"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Linguistic Note And Much Squeeing

First of all, I should apologize for the long silence on this blog--though I doubt anyone's noticed. What with sorting, packing, and hauling all of my earthly possessions across the pond and then dedicating most of my mental energy to traveling, I haven't had much time to write about the more geeky side of life.

However, even though I'll have to postpone my reviews of the rest of Series 5 indefinitely, I'm certainly not giving up on this blog altogether. If you'd like to keep up with my travels, you can find that here, but this is the place for me to talk about things that I love. And so I have two things for you right now:

First, as I write, I'm listening to the Doctor Who Proms, which was a brilliant Doctor-themed concert that took place just a few days ago. As of the time of writing, you should still be able to hear it online (I'm listening to it in Austria) for three days more from this site. I highly recommend it, and not just because it's Doctor Who stuff. The DW music has always been wonderful and brilliant, and I'm buying the Series 5 soundtrack as soon as I can get my paws on it, but the concert also featured other, non-DW pieces. Unfortunately, it's not downloadable, but if the BBC has any sense at all, they'll release it for purchase someday.

So, on to point two. As you may have gathered, the DW music was the "Much Squeeing" bit of the title; we now move on to the "Linguistic Note." I direct your attention to this article from the BBC. The majority of the article will only be interesting to you if you are an economist, a politician, or an ecologist, but about halfway down, under the heading "Reputations", you will trip over a quite unexpected nugget of sociolinguistic goodness. The article is speaking about Tony Hayward's replacement by Bob Dudley as CEO of British Petroleum following the Gulf spill. Amid all the political and business-oriented maneuvering, we find the following paragraph:
Many say that, from a public relations point of view, Mr Dudley has the advantage of being American and speaking with an American accent. He grew up in Mississippi and, according to BP, has a "deep appreciation and affinity for the Gulf Coast".
Woah, hold the phone. Alright, yes, the article says they're choosing him because he's Managing Director and he's been running operations and so forth, but there's not a word about how effective he's been, what his leadership skills are like, what his plan is for BP, or how he plans to deal with the crisis from here. No, the critical bit is his accent.

I've speculated before that the British accent is often perceived negatively by Americans. In the cinemas, Brits are nearly always (a) eccentric geniuses or (b) villains. Except when the majority of the main cast has some sort of British accent, accented characters usually seem to fall into one of these two categories. I happen to believe that this is because the two dialects (Americanglish and Britainglish) are so similar that British speakers are easily understood by American audiences, but the unfamiliar accent (which Americans may associate with Europe, tea, aristocracy, and James Bond) adds a bit of foreignness and distance and, thereby, menace. I also tend to believe that (some) Americans are therefore trained to associate Britainglish with negative feelings: something of a combination of an inferiority complex from their basic education (think of the rustic guerrilla Americans in the Revolution versus the sophisticated, well-dressed British) and a sense of stupidity and vulgarity derived from the stereotypical Brit as arrogantly intellectual and posh.

I guess I should mention at this point that these hypothesis are developed sheerly from my own observations and experiences and my conversations with other Americans of my generation. I don't have any solid evidence, but I would like to study this further.

Anyway, here's an example of these same ideas from the BBC itself. The Britainglish-speaking Mr. Hayward is, consciously or not, perceived as remote, supercilious, and cold; he isn't "one of us." But Mr. Dudley, just by the way he talks, is marked as being in our in-group. He's American; he knows, he understands, he cares, because he's one of us. I'd bet that Hayward and Dudley could do the same job with the same level of success from here on out, and Dudley would be favored by Americans because of his hometown and his dialect.

That opinion is, of course, based solely on the linguistic evidence. I'm unfamiliar with the previous circumstances, although I know that Hayward is not in favor because of his conduct over the last few months. Anyway, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Dudley actually does any better, although that may not matter as much as whether he is perceived to do better. The perception of familiarity, aided by the sociolinguistic information, is the essential PR point.

Sorry if you're asleep. Hope you enjoyed the Proms, in any case. :)

UPDATE: At about 1:10:00 in part 1 of the Proms, one of the composers goes all synesthetic and starts talking about the "colors of orchestral music." Oh, that's just delightful!