Shame, Insecurity and the
Unstressed Mid-Central Vowel
by Ruthlessly Roving Reporter Miss Deakina Andrea Kirkhamia
On a recent low-stress to stress-free vacation in central Europe with the intention of catching up on my beach reading and doing a spot of jujitsu, I chanced upon an event taking place under the auspices of the University of Mid-Central Swabia entitled ‘Vowels—A Linguistic Path to Inner Peace?’ Gaining entry via my impeccable SpecGram credentials (the security guard is an avid reader who assured me that he’s an occasional purchaser of merch), I was able to eavesdrop on the plenary by Professor Violet Orwell, entitled ‘Shame, Insecurity and the Unstressed Mid-Central Vowel’.
Orwell’s claim in a nutshell seemed to be that an overuse of unstressed mid-central vowels in a language can give rise to a mindset of self-loathing. The articulatory phonetics in play indexes an unreadiness to claim ‘an agentive voice of power and authority’ for oneself and can in some cases correlate with a psychological tendency to centre the locus of control in elbows as opposed to within an internalised construct of the self.
Orwell cited Victorian England as a relevant case. The use of schwa in London dialects increased by a factor of seven throughout the reign of William IV (1830–1837). This, combined with Victoria’s tendency to over-centralise a range of high vowels as a schizoid response to the Kensington System, meant that unstressed mid-centralisation of the majority of English dialects was well established by the mid-central 1850s, resulting in a nation-wide culture of sexual self-repression and sending 8-year-olds up chimneys.