Listening to Bears Fans. Reading the Goon Squad.

Where I come from, you can call your football team Da Bears. When the mayor retires after 21 years, you can print a headline proclaiming Da End. But where I live now, adults don’t pronounce things this way, although kids sometimes do. For example, my four-year-old says da, and also mudder, fadder, and brudder (mother, father, and brother).

Whether from dialects or children, everyday life features many pronunciations that differ from our own. How do we, as listeners, respond to this cognitive load? Linguists have long debated this question, but no consensus has emerged. Some studies suggest that we normalize variant pronunciations, such that we effectively hear the instead of da. Others suggest that we prefer to savor and remember the actual pronunciation da, with all its idiosyncrasies.

We could review the results of these studies, but it’s more fun to read a novel. I just finished the latest one by Jennifer Egan. Admittedly, A Visit From the Goon Squad does not use many variant pronunciations. But it does use over twenty protagonists. (Not mere characters. Protagonists). That’s an unusually large number, particularly when the chapters also zigzag through time. But Egan turns this cognitive load into a pleasure by artfully alternating between normalization and idiosyncratization of the protagonists — that is, by sometimes collapsing the identities of people, but other times emphasizing their differences.

It works. And I’m not the only one to think so: “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile,” wrote Ron Charles in his Washington Post review.

So why not? If we treat the characters in Goon Squad as if they were variant pronunciations of words, we actually get a pretty good summary of the debate within linguistics, and hopefully a few new insights into this unusual novel.

The Chicago dialect offers just one example of a variant pronunciation, in which da stands in for the. We can easily find others. In lisped speech, pronunciations like thorry stand in for sorry. In the speech of Japanese learners of English, pronunciations like prastic stand in for plastic.

If we normalize while we listen, we mentally place variant pronunciations into the same group, despite the fact that they differ from one another. To do this, we need to construct at least a crude model of the speaker: here, “Chicagoan” or perhaps “midwesterner”. We use the model to clean up the speaker’s pronunciations, such that da becomes effectively the. The paradox, however, is that we jettison this model almost as soon as we construct it. We remember that we heard the, not that we heard them from a person with a different dialect.

Under the normalization view, then, totally different speech sounds can play the same role for listeners. In Goon Squad, different protagonists can play the same role, too. Consider Joceyln and Rhea, teenagers growing up in the Bay Area during the 1970s. According to Rhea’s narration, they are so close as to effectively be the same person. They have done everything together since fourth grade, from hopscotch to quaaludes. “I know everyone Jocelyn knows,” says Rhea. “We stand in for each other.”

But of course, just as da and the are not actually the same pronunciation, Jocelyn and Rhea are not actually the same person. Their experiences diverge dramatically when Jocelyn meets Lou, a man old enough to be her father, and begins an affair with him. Rhea, shocked, tries to normalize the situation by constructing a model of what has happened. “I made Jocelyn repeat each detail of this story,” says Rhea, “until I knew everything she knew, so we could be equal again.”

Years later, Jocelyn and Rhea visit Lou as he lies on his deathbed in Los Angeles. Although Jocelyn and Rhea, now in middle age, have led very different lives, we can still witness the effects of normalization on their characters. Lou refers to them not individually but as “You (plural)” (also the title of the chapter). He asks them to stand on each side of his bed, mimicking the way they used to stand on each side of him in nightclubs. Just as listeners remember words but not dialects, Lou remembers that he had pleasant relationships with the girls, not that one of relationships was a sexual affair while the other was a platonic friendship.

If we normalize and mentally group da and the together while we listen, we enlarge the number of pronunciations that fit the profile for the. This seems like a reasonable listening strategy, but it can sometimes lead us astray. A midwestern dialect speaker may also say doze. If we group doze and those together while we listen, we do not merely enlarge the number of pronunciations that fit the profile for those. We also collapse the distinction between two otherwise independent words of English (doze = “sleep lightly”). As a result, we may not always interpret the speaker’s meaning correctly.

Goon Squad illustrates this aspect of normalization by creating — and then collapsing — a distinction between blondes and brunettes. Rich or famous people have blonde hair. Not-so-rich or famous people have dark hair. One of our protagonists, Stephanie, has dark hair. When her Hispanic husband sells his record production business at a profit, the couple move to the upscale community of Crandale, New York. At the country club, Stephanie befriends Kathy, who has blond hair:

Kathy’s elevated status in the pecking order of local blondes gave Stephanie an easy and neutral entrée, a protected status that absorbed even her short dark hair and tattoos; she was different but okay, exempt from the feral scratching that went on among some others.

Can a brunette become a blonde?

The distinction between brunettes and blondes, enforced elsewhere in the book, collapses here, coinciding with Stephanie’s rise to the upper class. Stephanie does not cease being brunette, of course, but the country club community mentally removes this idiosyncratic feature, normalizing her into a blond.

Dialects, children’s speech, lisps, and accents offer obvious examples of variant pronunciations. Actually, however, every pronunciation is a variant one. Different people have different voices — women’s voices differ from men’s, for example. Sometimes people speak loudly, sometimes softly. Sometimes they speak quickly, sometimes slowly. So even if we only listened to adults who spoke our own dialect of English natively without a lisp, we would still confront a heavy cognitive load. The pronunciation of a simple word like beach differs every time.

If we normalize while we listen, we mentally place these variant pronunciations of beach into the same group. We construct a model of the speaker, as before, but with more context-specific information. For example, suppose a person is speaking very slowly, perhaps to a relative who is hard-of-hearing. As a result, her pronunciation of beach becomes more similar to peach. But since our mental model of the speaker includes the information “speaking slowly”, we clean up her pronunciation and effectively hear beach. Once we jettison the model of the speaker, however, we do not remember that she spoke slowly; all we remember is that we heard beach and not peach.

Can a beach become a peach?

A Visit from Goon Squad demonstrates this point with a passage about Kitty Jackson, a nineteen-year-old who has already achieved fame as a movie actress. Jules, a not-famous writer, is working on a celebrity profile of Kitty and has the following to say:

All that can be said for sure is that in presence of Kitty Jackson, the rest of us become entangled by our sheer awareness that we ourselves are not Kitty Jackson, a fact so brusquely unifying that it temporarily wipes out all distinctions between us — our tendency to cry inexplicably during parades, or the fact that we never learned French, or have a fear of insects that we do our best to conceal from women, or liked to eat construction paper as a child — in the presence of Kitty Jackson, we no longer are in possession of these traits; indeed, so indistinguishable are we from every other non-Kitty Jackson in our vicinity that when one of us sees her, the rest simultaneously react.

I vote to include this passage in every future linguistics textbook. Under Jules’s analysis, any person can stand in for any other person, as long as she is not Kitty Jackson. Similarly, under the normalization theory of linguistics, any pronunciation of beach can stand in for any other pronunciation of it, as long as it is not peach. Under Jules’s analysis, it does not matter that one person cries inexplicably during parades while another never learned French; observers find these traits indistinguishable. Similarly, under normalization, it does not matter that a person pronounces beach slowly in some contexts but quickly in others; listeners find these variant pronunciations indistinguishable.

In a future post, I’ll discuss how certain aspects of A Visit from the Goon Squad illustrate the opposing point of view: that one protagonist or pronunciation does not stand in for another, and that we do retain the idiosyncrasies of variant protagonists or pronunciations. In the meanwhile, thanks for reading my attempt to interleave dialect research with a book-club-style analysis. I’m not the pioneer of this approach, by the way. Da Superfans did it first in their analysis of The Davinci Code on Saturday Night Live.

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6 Responses to Listening to Bears Fans. Reading the Goon Squad.

  1. Christian DiCanio says:

    I think most linguists would say that variability is constrained by the number of categories present in a language (e.g. Manuel 1999) and by which social factors are linguistically encoded. But, there are a number of cases where the lack of sources of variability constrains ones perception. For instance, Polish has 6 oral vowels: /i, ɛ, a, ɔ, u, ɨ/. However, if you produce a word with the vowel [o] instead of [ɔ] or with [e] instead of [ɛ], Polish listeners will quickly say that you are mispronouncing things. Spanish only has 5 vowels. Listeners don’t bat an eye when someone uses [ɔ] for [o] or [ɛ] for [e]. Similarly, when I have attempted to speak Trique (trying to get all 9 tones right), listeners have much difficulty understanding me.

    Now, I’m not a native speaker of either language. Perhaps I have always horribly mispronounced words in these languages. However, it strikes me that perhaps we, as English listeners, put up with much more variability than one would assume (from our phonological categories) precisely because we have so much sociophonetic variability. Are we “outliers” as far as linguistic variation is concerned? If we are, then is this whole debate of “how much variation is stored” even pertinent to all languages? Is this simply a self-centered debate?

    Aside from this, your posting reminded me to finish the peaches I bought over the weekend.

    • annepycha says:

      If I understand you correctly, your hypothesis is that listeners should be better at accommodating variant pronunciations if their native language exhibits a lot of variation. This would seem to be obviously true for cases when we are listening to other dialects: the more experience with dialects, the better we should be at listening to them. But it is less obviously true for cases when we are listening to everyday sub-phonemic variation: here the prediction is, the more experience with dialects, the better we should be at handling sub-phonemic variation — a very interesting idea!

      I don’t think it’s a self-centered debate. Many other languages exhibit a lot of sociophonetic variation, even if not all do (and even this is an open question — maybe they all do).

  2. Christian DiCanio says:

    Yes, this is essentially the hypothesis I had in mind: experience with variation trains listeners to attend to subphonemic variation (in general). Although, it seems clearer now after you’ve stated it. 🙂

    I suppose the debate seems a bit biased to me because English exhibits so much variation (dialectal variation, discourse-specific speech styles, idiolectal variation due to the number of speakers, etc.). However, it is a reasonable starting hypothesis that all languages’ listeners attend to variation in the same way, at least perceptually.

    I’m still unconvinced that speakers accomodate variation the same way though. Perhaps this is where my ambivalence comes from. As a foreigner living in France, I am always amazed at where people seem to misunderstand me. Often, when I say “Excusez-moi, ma langue maternelle n’est pas français. Est-ce que vous pourriez me parler un peu plus lentement, s’il vous plaît?” it does nothing to change how speakers address me. This might have more to do with accepted attitudes towards foreign-speakers though (and come to think of it, perhaps this has some influence on accomodation?)

  3. annepycha says:

    That seems like a really cool hypothesis to test. I’m intrigued. But much of the socio-conditioned variation that I am aware of is not actually sub-phonemic (e.g., interdental fricatives get neutralized with [d] and [t]). So I wonder what single mechanism, if any, would account for increased skills in both socio accommodation and everyday sub-phonemic variation? Maybe there should be two groups of listeners: those exposed to a lot of neutralizing socio variation and those exposed to a lot of non-neutralizing socio variation.

    That’s funny about the French. Presumably they have tons of experience with foreigners learning their language, so you think they would be more accommodating. Contrast with the Turkish. They have much less experience with foreigners learning their language, but are incredibly accommodating of any attempt whatsoever.

  4. Suzanne van der Feest says:

    I’ll keep you updated on when we finally finish our paper on how 24-month-old Dutch listeners deal with dialectal variation (not on the subphonemic level) – we have two groups, one exposed to different dialects on a daily basis and one who is mostly familiar with one of the dialects. To give away the punchline, the kids who are exposed to two dialects can quicker adapt to variation 🙂 Cool post! 🙂

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