Yesterday’s “TV mystery theme song” on local radio station KFJC — identify the show and win movie tickets to the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto — was Al Jarreau’s recording of the theme to “Moonlighting”, which I recognized immediately. I didn’t call in, because I was working on a posting, but I did recall the show (with pleasure) and one of its salient linguistic features, its

fast-paced, overlapping dialogue between the two leads, harkening back to classic screwball comedy films such as those of director Howard Hawks (link)

— what Deborah Tannen calls the “machine gun style”of speech.

The theme song:

And some highlights from season 1 of the show:

Background on the show, from Wikipedia:

Moonlighting is an American television series that aired on ABC from March 3, 1985, to May 14, 1989. The network aired a total of 66 episodes (67 in syndication as the pilot is split into two episodes). Starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as private detectives, the show was a mixture of drama, comedy, and romance, and was considered to be one of the first successful and influential examples of comedy-drama, or “dramedy”, emerging as a distinct television genre.

And from an 5/26/09 interview with Tannen about Sonia Sotomayor:

Some lawyers have described her courtroom manner as abrupt, but several others said in interviews that it represents nothing more than her direct, New York style.” And this: Judge Martin Glenn “said lawyers generally regard her as representative of what he said is called ‘a hot bench,’ meaning that questions come fast and furious and lawyers have to be fully prepared.” Both comments reminded me of what I’ve called “machine gun style,” the rat-tat-tat impression made on those who expect less directness, slower speech, and longer pauses between turns.

This high-involvement style is stereotypically associated with New Yorkers and Jews, but is more widespread than that. I use the style myself, in a (usually) muted variant, but didn’t realize that until I moved from the East Coast to the middle of Illinois, where the locals found my speech “rude” and “pushy”. Unsurprisingly, it’s most pronounced when I’m in a conversation with someone (like Tannen herself) who uses the style.

(During the question session after a talk I gave at Georgetown some years ago, during which I had a spirited back-and-forth with a very high-involvement colleague, one of Deborah’s students, a Southerner, somewhat accusatorily asked how far from New York City I had grown up. She was gratified when I told her about 75 miles.)


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