The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 1 Contents Countless Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

Do You Suffer the Embarrassment of Loose Vowel Syndrome?

Dr. Goodword

It is an affliction so embarrassing that no one wants to talk about it, yet it is spreading like Harry Potter books throughout the English-speaking world. The symptoms are slurred speech, confusion, misunderstood utterances. By now you’ve guessed it: I am writing about Loose Vowel Syndrome (LVS). LVS involves the loosening of unaccented vowels until they drop out of words completely!

The origin of LVS is clearly Merry Old England, where Worcester has been worn down to Wooster, library is pronounced libr’y, and laboratory is laborat’ry (lab’ratory in the U.S.) How many young men have seen their naval c’reers destroyed because they thought the forecastle was a sail, given its usual pronunciation, fo’c’s’le /ˈfoʊksəl/? (Do not think for a moment that there are no costs associated with LVS.)

Southerners in the U.S. have borne the greater stigma of this malady. The southern accent is a reflection of the most conservative of the U.S. dialects; it has changed less than any other dialect since the migrations from England. Still, it is a perfect example of the advanced stages of the disease left untreated: the vowels become so loose, adjoining consonants also fall out of words. In rural areas Southerners now pay little attention to the beginnings of words. Alligators down South are simply ’gators, raccoons are reduced to ’coons, tobacco is ’backer, tomatoes are ’maters which can be found in Lana, Jawjuh, home of the famous soft drink, Co-cola and the Georgia peach.

As the disorder spreads to the ears, the resultant mispronunciations begin to sound normal. Many of the words caused by LVS have already made their way into our permanent vocabulary: taint is a c’ruption of attaint, tend should be attend, and curtsy came from courtesy so long ago it has taken on a meaning of its own. Many dictionaries now prefer alarm to the original alarum and chirp to the original chirrup. Aeroplane is now pronounced and spelled airplane since the evaporation of the unaccented ⟨o⟩. If this c’rosion of our language continues, the syrup we slurp today could be tomorrow’s surp.

The best way to understand the seriousness of the problem left unattended is to examine a historical case. We all know that Latin is a dead language, but few realize the cause of death. All the evidence points toward LVS. Just look at Latin words like iterare and castellus. Today they are errer and château in French, pronounced /ʃɑto/, only the /ɑ/ and /t/ remain. The spelling of Latin femina in French, femme, still retains memories of a vowel and consonant long since dropped from its pronunciation, /fɛm/.

The final question is, of course, what can we do to stop the spread of this linguistic plague before English is reduced to several mutually unintelligible languages? We can’t ask the government to step in, since it is part of the problem: most of us now mispronounce that word gov’ment. The Center for Linguistic Disease Control asserts that LVS comprises three sets of symptoms we must watch for, each with a scientific, medical sounding name:

Aphesis /ˈæfəsɪs/dropping an initial vowel, as in ’cept (accept? except?), ’tention (attention), ’rithmetic (arithmetic), ’bout (about);

Apocope /əˈpɒkəˌpi/dropping a final vowel, as in mate, mete, mite, mote, mute (the so-called silent e isn’t silent; it has long since vanished forever in our speech);

Syncope /ˈsɪŋkəˌpi/ (as in ‘syncopation’)dropping internal vowels, as in p’lute, p’lice, prob’ly, cam’ra, s’crete, to s’cumb, to Clyde on the parkway and go d’reckly to the hospital while your car is towed to a g’rage.

So, what is the treatment for this malady? The first step is to reduce alcohol intake (alcohol and vowels don’t mix, either). Second, reduce your stress levels. Stress tends to speed up speech tempo and we need to reduce it. Finally, spending a little time each day actually paying attention to the pronunciation in your favorite dictionarylike alphaDictionary, Wiktionary, or the OEDwouldn’t hurt. If you follow this regimen, you should build up a strong resistance to LVS.

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective
Countless Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 1 Contents