Intonationally Left Behind

March 25th, 2009

So, living away from English for a long time, one naturally starts to worry about losing touch with the language as-it-is-spake, especially when one’s contact with one’s home culture comes primarily through reading things on the internet, as opposed to talking to fellow countrymen or watching topical television.

One regular shock is hearing peoples’ names.  I always assumed that Gwen Stefani was pronounced like the name “STEphanie”, not “stePHAnie”.  I took it for granted that Sarah Palin’s name was pronounced like the “palin” in “palindrome”.  I’m still not sure how Catherine Zeta Jones’s “Zeta” is pronounced.

But there is another, more long term and less immediately noticeable gap: the intonation gap.  I was watching an old 50’s movie, and some young woman (note: not a teeny-bopper who was standing in for “the crazy way crazy kids talk”, but a regular person) used the expression “Isn’t that swell?”  Which, in itself, is kinda dated.  But what really stood out to me was that the primary stress was on “swell”, the secondary stress on “isn’t”, and “that” was unstressed.  Nowadays, I assume, the stress pattern would be Primary: “Isn’t”, secondary “that”, tertiary “swell” if it were said in a non-question tone, and the reverse in a question tone.

What’s interesting is that not only was the 1950’s phrasing different than today’s, but it was recognizably 50’s. There was a definite 50’s feel.  Even if the word “swell” had been replaced with a more modern “great”, you could still immediately place the speaker as a 50’s speaker.

Which must mean that the same thing is going on today.  Even if you keep up with the new words and phrases, there must be some sort of gradual intonation shift, which will grind inexorably forward.  And unless I start listening to English, as opposed to just reading it, I’m going to end up sounding like a time capsule of the 1990’s.

3 Responses to “Intonationally Left Behind”

  1. Victor Vorski Says:

    Actually I think our speaking patterns are fixed in our youth.

    We were recently watching a Japanese movie from the 1950’s and all the women spoke… Like granies do now… I wonder if all the gyaru will also be speaking the same way when they are old ladies. Scary thought.

  2. Johnny Says:

    As far as people’s names go, I’ve found this site to be indispensable:

  3. bugbread Says:

    Wow. I just started scanning down the list on that site, and the FIRST name I recognize, I’ve also been pronouncing wrong (Aaliyah). I’m scared to read the whole list.

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