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Americans Speaking

The liner notes of this 1967 album explain it pretty comprehensively, so I’ll just paste them here:

Americans Speaking is a recording prepared by the National Council of Teachers of English to provide teachers and students with large-scale samples of some of the major varieties of American English, as naturally used by educated speakers. It is the first record to provide samplings of this scale since the inauguration of the Linguistic Atlas project in 1930; thanks to the evidence of the various regional atlases, it has been possible to select speakers whose pronunciation is characteristic of wide and identifiable dialect areas. All speakers recorded represent the cultivated speech of their areas: each had had some college education at the time the recordings were made, and some were postgraduates; no speaker exhibited pronunciation features widely regarded as substandard in his own area.

To permit larger samples than most records of this type provide, only six specimens are given, three from the North, two from the Midland, one from the South, following the regional designations first used by Hans Kurath in his Word Geography of the Eastern United States (Ann Arbor, 1949).

  • Northern:
    • Eastern New England (Topsfield, Massachusetts)
    • Brooklyn, New York
    • Inland Northern (Madison, Wisconsin)
  • Midland:
    • The Delaware Valley (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
    • South Midland (London, Kentucky)
  • Southern:
    • Prattville, Alabama

It is noted that three of the speakers are from the area of the original settlement where local divisions are discussed in the Word Geography. The other three—Inland Northern, South Midland, Southern—come from areas of secondary settlement for which there is as yet no detailed analysis like that in the World Geography or in Kurath and McDavid’s Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States (Ann Arbor, 1961); nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the three principal dialect regions extend west of the Alleghenies and even beyond the Mississippi, with clearly marked subareas.

The fact that these six specimens appear on this record must not suggest any judgment that these are the only models for good American pronunciation. Many others exist-from the older areas, for example, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Charleston; from newer ones, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Denver. It is to be hoped that this record will be but the first of a series which will provide teachers and students with an understanding of the many varieties of cultivated American English.

The selection for each speaker is in two parts: (1) a set text read aloud and (2) a sample of free discourse.

The set text, composed by Mrs. Celia M. Millward of Boston University, was designed to give examples of three types of pronunciation features:

  1. Differences in the pronunciation system. Does fought have the same vowel as lot, or a different one? Does morning have the same vowel as car or as ford, or are they different? Does Tuesday have a (y) glide following the (t)? Does whetstone have an (h) at the beginning?
  2. Differences in the phonetic quality of the vowels and consonants. Do you notice differences from your own speech in the pronunciation of (ai) in five, (au) in out, and the stressed vowels of rode, paper, week, murder?
  3. Differences in the occurrence of particular vowels and consonants. Does greasy have an (s) or a (z) sound? Does creek have the vowel of seek or that of sick? Does sister have the vowel of sick or something else? Does laugh have the vowel of grand or that of father?

In addition to the set passage, each speaker talked informally about some topics of interest to him, and from each of these unrehearsed recordings a selection was made. The topics are diverse: small town life in Kentucky and New England, childhood on an Alabama plantation, a philosophy of teaching, developing the craftsmanship of the professional writer, the duties of a specialized National Guard unit. What all the passages have in common is the fact that the subjects were of such interest that the speakers were unconcerned about how they were talking. From these passages one can observe several aspects of oral communication: (1) possible differences from the pronunciation of words as read; (2) the reduced contextual pronunciations of auxiliary verbs (have, will, are), prepositions (to, of), conjunctions (and, or); (3) the conversational patterns of intonations, stress, and word transitions—and the ways these may differ from the patterns found in reading aloud; (4) some evidence on the complex orchestration of speech that scholars now call paralanguage

  1. Inland Northern: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  2. Inland Northern: conversation
  3. South Midland: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  4. South Midland: conversation
  5. Eastern New England: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  6. Eastern New England: conversation
  7. Alabama: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  8. Alabama: conversation
  9. Brooklyn: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  10. Brooklyn: conversation
  11. Delaware Valley: “My Eccentric Grandfather”
  12. Delaware Valley: conversation

Linguistics fans out there should also check out the International Dialects of English Archive.

Robert Lee: The Ballad of Bruce Lee

[front cover of Robert Lee sings... LP] Robert Lee is the brother of martial artist Bruce Lee. Robert released this album, Robert Lee Sings… The Ballad of Bruce Lee, in 1975 in dedication to his older brother, who had died in 1973. Although he does sing all the songs, Robert has a hand in writing only 3 of them, posted here. The song “Parting”, features lyrics written by Bruce Lee.

  1. JKD – Jeet Kune Do
  2. Parting
  3. The Ballad of Bruce Lee

front cover of Robert Lee sings... LP]

In an article from a 1974 issue of Black Belt magazine, Robert describes his relationship with the late master of Jeet Kune Do. It’s hard growing up in the shadow of the world’s greatest martial artist.

Although my last name is also Lee, I am not related. In fact I am Korean, not Chinese. I appreciate Bruce Lee as a martial artist/actor, but I’m no expert or huge fanatic. However, as an Asian-American male, I grew up with little or no role models that “looked like me”, except for Bruce Lee. And, sadly, I can’t think of really any other Asian-American figures in pop culture or politics or literature, etc. that I can really look up to in the way that African-Americans might look to Martin Luther King or Muhammad Ali, Caucasian-Americans to Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain, Latin-Americans to Cesar Chavez, etc…

Maybe it’s unimportant or superficial. I’ve certainly found my own role models of various ethnic and national origins, but I have to admit that I do have respect and affection towards Bruce Lee for being a strong, heroic, leading man, rather than the nerdy, harmless, un-masculine stereotypes that is more often the images Americans see of Asian-American males, or Asian males for that matter.

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita and Poems

In 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published, in a small edition by an obscure French publisher with a penchant for pornography. Graham Greene pronounced it one of the three best books published that year, and “Hurricane Lolita” (as the Nabokovs referred to the intense publicity) gathered strength and swept over the Nabokov family, living at the time in Ithaca, New York.

The colossal fame and recognition had been a long time coming: the Nabokovs (Vladimir, his wife Véra, and son Dmitri) had spent the last few decades in near-poverty, travelling one step ahead of the Second World War (Véra was proudly and vociferously Jewish) and the Russian Revolution (both the Nabokovs’ aristocratic lives had gone up in smoke). Dmitri, when asked where his home was, answered that he hadn’t one — just “little houses by the side of the road.”

[publicity photograph of Nabokov] Lolita was composed between 1949 and 1953 (a novella featuring similar themes was written in 1939, and real-life incidents also contributed, perhaps), and is a road novel both literally and fictionally: the endless trip that Humbert Humbert drags Dolores Haze on to avoid awkward questions is the same trip the Nabokovs themselves took, Vera driving, Nabokov writing, the two of them catching butterflies along the way.

Once the novel hit the bestseller lists in America, the Nabokovs realized that this meant the end of their peripatetic life, and they settled in a hotel in Switzerland for the rest of their lives. Thanks can be — and presumably were — given to the formidable Véra who had twice rescued the manuscript from being tossed into a fire, as Nabokov wrestled with the book and realized that it might make him not so much famous as infamous.

[front cover of Spoken Arts Lolita LP] During the Sixties Nabokov was in high demand as a speaker (his presentation and reading skills honed by years of teaching literature at Wellesley and Cornell), and this LP captures Nabokov luxuriating in the acclaim both Véra and himself thought rightfully his. As with most examples of authors recording their own work, it’s a dramatically flat reading, Nabokov treading sonorously through his own text in his French-inflected English. (You can hear Nabokov reading excerpts from Pale Fire as well as Lolita with sparkling animation as the result of an appreciative audience being present courtesy of the New York Times.)

[photograph of Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty] The portion of Lolita read here consists of Humbert’s final confontation with the mysterious Clare Quilty (memorably brought to the screen in rather inflated fashion by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film), who has managed to wrest Lo away from Humbert’s cloying embrace. Thanks Sluggo for encoding this LP for me.

  1. Lolita: Part Two, Chapter 35
  2. The Ballad of Longwood Glen
  3. Rain
  4. Lines Written in Oregon
  5. On Translating “Eugene Onegin”
  6. An Evening of Russian Poetry
  7. The Swift
  8. The Discovery

Update: I’ve been alerted to a two-part video interview with Nabokov and Lionel Trilling about Lolita.

Update again: Nabokov’s unpublished novel-in-progress The Original of Laura is due to be published by Random House in November! I’m conflicted about this as it’s being done against his wishes, and posthumous novels are rarely satisfying, but second-rate Nabokov is better than most fiction, so …

Gangster Fun: Come See Come Ska

[front cover of Come See Come Ska] Gangster Fun was a Detroit Third-Wave ska band active in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although beloved of the local scene and an influence on later bands that would be better-known such as The Suicide Machines, they never really hit it big. That was a shame, because they were one of the best ska bands ever, even outranking heavyweights like Bim Skala Bim and The Toasters.

This is their first LP, Come See Come Ska. It was produced by Mike E. Clark, who would later produce albums by George Clinton, Insane Clown Posse, and Kid Rock, and issued by the imaginatively-named English label “Ska Records”. Very few copies were pressed, and I’ve even had a member of the band ask me for a copy (I found mine for 50¢ at a Kiwanis sale).

  1. Wish You Were Here
  2. I Don’t Care
  3. Can’t Remember Her Name
  4. Find a Way Out
  5. O-Soo
  6. Social Animal
  7. Informer
  8. Red Light
  9. 32 Train
  10. Old Hat New Tie
  11. Mario’s Hideout