|I will never forget the first time I became aware that language had meaning for people beyond what information they wanted to relay. I was around 7 or 8 years old. We had lived in Kingston Rhode Island since I was a small baby, and on this particular day I’d been playing with a little friend, Karen, who had a fantastic new doll. Christened “Dawn” by her manufacturer, Topper Toys, she was a small Barbie-like doll–made only for a couple of years in the early 70’s. The Dawn Doll was a robust fad, spawning a whole line of doll-friends and accessories. Dawn, the original, was blonde, slender and fetching in a mod blue halter-top dress circled by a white chiffon mini-skirt. How I envied my friend that sleek doll. I had to have her.
However, when I went home and breathlessly announced to my mother that I wanted a “dew’-one dahl” she looked at me as if I’d told her that Karen’s household had come down with head lice, or her mother took phone-sex calls for pin money. She said, “You want a what?” I repeated myself slowly, as one might to a deaf grandmother or a foreigner. To my disappointment, my boon fell on deaf ears except for the offending form of its delivery. My mother sat me down then and there at the kitchen table for an impromptu elocution lesson–the first of many, aimed explicitly at preventing me from acquiring a regional accent, something she evidently equated with bourgeois inelegance, which strikes me as weirdly pretentious now that in hindsight it is clear to me that we embodied a middle class habitus in every way. I dutifully mimicked her pronunciation, articulating “Dawn Doll” over and over in the hope that my earnestness might convince her to get me the doll. Eventually, with periodic reminders in the form of a raised eyebrow from across the room or deliberate lip-sync when she overheard me slip, I learned to make “Dawn” sound like the boy’s name “Don.” She counseled me also that “doll” should sound like the other two, with a nice round open /o/ (in linguistic parlance, which my mother did not know).
Thus I learned that , if in fact I still even wanted one, I should ask for a /don dol/, not a /du’^n dahl/. More importantly, I internalized the social truth that the way we speak evokes feelings and judgements from others–powerful others who might give or withhold things we want and need. Over twenty years later, when I grew up and became a linguist (take that to your shrink), I learned that the homonym cited by my mother as the correct (or “Standard”) form was in fact a shibboleth of her own native Massachusetts speech–where, incidentally, the man’s name Don commonly sounds more like Standard Dawn–are you confused yet?? Furthermore, one of the very first iconic sound changes that I studied with respect to phonetics, phonology and sound change was the “low back merger” of North American English, commonly referred to by sociolinguists as…drum roll please….”the Don/Dawn merger!”
I studied linguistics at University of Pennsylvania for my first three years of grad school, and later earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.This is my blog about my research experience and interests. Throughout my graduate and post-graduate career I have chosen to study aspects of my own culture in the hope of gaining a more comprehensive understanding. In addition to plans and thoughts about ethnographic projects, readers will occasionally be treated to posts on language, since linguistics was my first academic love and remains a favorite topic.My projects always center on some topic that has been eating at me, personally, for some time. I studied the economies of households because I have lived in several different kinds of households in my life (nuclear, stepfamilies (2), single parent (me), cohabiting, married), and I study dance because I am a ballroom dancer. I like to combine my passions. Fortunately for me, anthropology is the consummate neutral–it goes with everything!