Hard Tundra

Adventures in cross-dialect understanding in the One Big Happy strips of 2/1 and 2/2, both featuring Ruthie and Joe’s playmate James:



The generic Tough Kid. James is hard to place socially, beyond the fact that he’s supposed to be hard-core working class. The features (phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic) he exhibits mix stereotypes of several American working-class dialects (white Southern, AAVE, northern cities, etc.). Some are common to working-class speech in many areas (that there, ain’t); some sound like the redneck stereotype (monophthongization of /aj/ in hired in #1, but apparently with some rhoticity preserved); some sound like stereotypical northern-city working men’s speech (word-initial /θ/ realized as a stop, either dental [t̪] or alveolar (the standard realization of English /t/), as in what’s spelled TUNDRA in place of the standard /θʌndǝr/ in #2).

James seems to be presented here as a generic working-class American kid (of uncertain race, ethnicity, or regional origin).

Beyond this, he’s represented as socially marked, through the use of eye dialect — spellings that represent features of ordinary informal speech (clipped ‘cuz for because, lemme for let me, final t/d-deletion in ol’ field for old field, so-called “g-dropping” in foolin’ for fooling) and aren’t normally represented in print (because almost everyone uses them), but can be included as an evaluative judgment on characteristics of the speaker. Toughness. Lack of education. Disrespect for “proper behavior”. Ignorance. Dirtiness. Loutishness. And more, possibly in combination.

To put the best possible face on this suite of attributions, I’ll refer to the fictional type James represents as the Tough Kid (thereby making glancing allusions to the Dead End Kids, the Bowery Boys, the Little Tough Guys, the Wild Boys, (the older) Boyz in the Hood, the Sharks and the Jets, and the rest of the young and rugged).

Tough Kids are often presented in popular culture as figures of fun (as in the strips above), but such portrayals not infrequently come with an undertone of contempt, especially when the characters mingle with middle-class characters, against whom the Tough Kids stand out as inferior in various ways.

Cross-dialect (mis)understanding. In both strips, James misinterprets something other characters say: an expression as spoken by other characters: [hard] in #1 (where it’s intended as a pronunciation of hard), [tʌndrǝ] in #2 (where it’s intended as a pronunciation of tundra). In both cases, his variety of English merges pronunciations that are distinct in standard English:

#1: SE [hard] hard vs. [hajrd] hired: merged as [hard]

#2: SE [tʌndrǝ] tundra vs. [θʌndǝr] thunder: merged as [tʌndrǝ]

Step back from this example for the moment, to look at a simpler one: the merger of the low back vowels [a] and [ɔ] in American English varieties that merge them as [a], so that there are (many) speakers for whom cot and caught are homophonously [kat]. Call them Mergs. Meanwhile, there are also a great many speakers for whom the vowels are differentiated — call them Diffs — so that for them cot is [kat] and caught is [kɔt]. (For the record, I’m a Diff.)

(The full set of facts is much more complex than this,of course.)

When Diff speakers first hear merged pronunciations, they will be baffled, and they will misunderstand: for them, Mergs say bizarre things like I munched on a stock ([stak]) of celery and They arose at Don ([dan]). If they’re going to interact successfully with Mergs, Diffs will have to learn — tacitly or explictly — that for some other people (Mergs), things like [kat], [stak], and [dan] are ambiguous, and Diffs will have to be prepared to cope with this like any other ambiguity, by using context, personal experience, and background information to pick out the intended interpretations as best they can.

(Not every Diff will appreciate what Mergs are doing here. Some will treat things like arose at Don ([dan]) as inadvertent errors — sometimes willfully doing so even after they understand that Mergs are saying what they intend to: “Oh you meant to say Dawn ([dɔn])”, they will maintain, correctively.)

On their part, when Mergs are first confronted with differentiated pronunciations, they’re quite likely not to notice. They’ll perceive things through the filter of their phonemic systems, and so will treat the a-ɔ difference as just like myriad small differences in pronunciation that we all are accustomed to ignoring for the purposes of extracting the semantics in what we hear. With sufficient experience with Diffs, they will come to understand that Diffs make a meaningful discrimination that they do not, but they might still view a Diff’s ability to tell whether another Diff has said Don or Dawn as magical.

Now to James and his hard thunder. I’m going to do the hard part of this very carefully, making (crucial) distinctions most people aren’t accustomed to making, so read the next two paragraphs (set off by dashes at the beginning) slowly.

— In #1, monophongization of [aj], resulting in the merger of hard and hired as [hard] — or, at least, in pronunciations that others perceive as identical. In the first panel, Joe asks Ruthie to spell “hard” — that is, he produces [hard] — and Ruthie asks for the word in a sentence, then using it herself in a sentence in the second panel (“Is it too hard for you to make a sentence out of it?”). That is, Ruthie doesn’t merely produce [hard], but uses the positive-grade form hard of a lexical item, the Adj HARD, an Adj form she pronounces [hard] (as do the other kids). All this in James’s hearing.

— James is then (indirectly) asked to use [hard] in a sentence and offers a sentence that uses the past-tense form hired of a lexical item, the V HIRE, a V form he pronounces [hard] (as against what we take to be the other kids’ pronunciation, the standard [hajrd]).

On the surface, this is funny because James appears to have confused, or mixed up, two different words that “everybody” discriminates, and there’s a certain degree of humor in gaffes or fumbles in general. So James is a buffoon.

But it might be worse than that. Given the previous context, it should have been clear to James that Ruthie and her brother were talking about the Adj lexical item HARD, but James seems to have disregarded that evidence to misunderstand their intentions (and then act on his misunderstanding, to offer the example sentence “they hard some other dude”). That would make James not just a buffoon, but a dumbass: a stupid kid.  Then the humor would be mocking: put-down humor.

You can spin the last panel positively, by supposing that James is playing the buffoon deliberately, making a pun on hired vs. hard that he knows the other kids will appreciate. Showing off for them. Sharing a joke with them.

Wish I could read his facial expression in the last panel.

So much for hard. The thunder part is probably a lot simpler. It looks like a recurrent Ruthie theme in OBH — Ruthie coping with words or phrases she’s unfamiliar with by assimilating them to phonologically similar material she is familiar with (Rockefellers / rocky fellows, for example). What #2 adds is the effect of (apparent) homophony, rather than mere phonological similarity, due to  the phonological sysem of James’s non-standard variety, yielding tundra / thunder.

One Response to “Hard Tundra”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I can attest to the Mergs not hearing the differences that Diffs hear and say: I had a colleague from the Midwest (Merg) who claimed that she actually could not hear the differences in my (Diff) pronunciations of the canonical triplet marry, merry, and Mary.

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