NPR team and the perils of transcription

Yesterday on NPR’s Morning Edition, a piece announcing a new NPR feature:

NPR Team Covers Race, Ethnicity And Culture (by David Greene and Gene Demby)

NPR this week is introducing a new team that will cover race, ethnicity and culture. Code Switch is the name of the new blog. Code-switching is the practice of shifting between different languages or different ways of expressing yourself in conversations.

Greene and Demby chat for a while about code-switching, with examples, bringing in linguist Tyler Schnoebelen as a consultant at one point. But if you read the transcript rather than listening to the segment, you might be puzzled.

(Point of pride: some years ago, Tyler took the graduate introduction to linguistics course from me.)

Two sections from the transcript, with the problematic stuff boldfaced:

(1) … GREENE: I’m from Pittsburgh. I mean I might say to someone on a Sunday y’uns going to the Stealers game?
DEMBY: You say y’uns?
GREENE: Absolutely. …
DEMBY: Stealers.
GREENE: Instead of Stealers – that’s, you know, that’s a different kind of speaking …

(2) … DEMBY: We decided to call it Code Switch because we thought it was a very good way to kind of evoke the dialogue we wanted to have between cultures. We all hopscotch between these very different ways of expressing ourselves. I spoke to a social linguist named Tyler Schnoebelen who explained how this works.

TYLER SCHNOEBELEN: Everyone has multiple styles. It would be really weird if you just spoke the same way all the time, no matter what was happening and who you were talking with. So you can switch between Hindi and English or Spanish and Portuguese. But you can also do what my mom does, which is when she gets angry she gets a Southern accent.

In (1), there are problems with the representation of two characteristic features of Pittsburgher English: the 2pl personal pronoun (and its pronunciation) and the treatment of certain vowels before the liquid [l].

The transcriber has chosen to represent the 2pl pronoun as y’uns, which suggests that it’s pronounced [yʌnz] or [yʊnz], whereas in fact it’s pronounced [yɪnz] or [yɨnz] — so that the customary orthographic representation of the pronunciation is yinz. From the Wikipedia entry on this regional variant:

Yinz is a second-person plural pronoun used mainly in southwest Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, but it is also found throughout the Appalachians.

Yinz‘s place as one of Pittsburgh’s most famous regionalisms makes it both a badge of pride and a way to show self-deprecation. For example, a group of Pittsburgh area political cheerleaders call themselves “Yinz Cheer,” and an area literary magazine is The New Yinzer, a take-off of The New Yorker. A DJ crew of Philadelphia-based Pittsburgh ex-pats bills itself as Philadelphyinz. Those perceived to be stereotypical blue collar Pittsburghers are often referred to as Yinzers.

On to the mystery of Stealers. The transcriber apparently didn’t know about the Pittsburgh Steelers pro football team, but even correcting for that, there’s the problem that two different pronunciations are represented by the same spelling — when that pronunciation difference is the whole point of the exchange.

The point at issue, from the Wikipedia page on Pittsburgh English, in its section on the /i/~/ɪ/ and /u/~/ʊ/ tense-lax mergers;

Examples: steel and still are pronounced [ˈstɪl]; pool, pole, and pull are pronounced [ˈpʰʊɫ] … explanation: Before the liquids /l/ and /r/, the tense vowels /i/ and /u/ are laxed to /ɪ/ and /ʊ/, respectively.

The result is that Steelers is pronounced by many Pittsburghers as [ˈstɪlɚz] (rather than [ˈstilɚz]), so that the first two pronunciations transcribed as Stealers would be better represented using standard orthography as Stillers (while the third, with the non-regional pronunciation, should have been transcribed as Steelers).

On to passage (2), with social linguist. What Demby actually said was sociolinguist (Tyler is a sociable man and could be described as a social linguist, but it’s his role as a sociolinguist that’s important here). Granted that social linguist and sociolinguist are pronounced very similarly, for a great many speakers they are distinguished by the vowel in the second syllable — [ə] in social linguist, [o] in sociolinguist (even if the [ll] of social linguist is simplified to [l]). Presumably the transcriber wasn’t familiar with the technical term sociolinguist.

Now a bonus: a comment on the NPR site from someone with the handle Cool Hand Luke:

No not everyone does it.

Some of us take pride in speaking properly.

It was inevitable: someone always maintains that they have no stylistic variation in their speech. If the examples of code- or style-shifting given by linguists (for brief mention in the media) involve regional or non-standard variants, the objector maintains that they speak without any regional accent (or lexical items or syntactic constructions), though such a thing isn’t possible, and they maintain that they always speak standard English, but there’s quite a lot of variation within standard English (it’s just that this variation takes some time and space to explain). (On this latter point, see Ann Zwicky’s compact discussion in her article “Styles”, here.)


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