Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cultural Capitalism

This turned up on Facebook today, and I liked it, because I'm one of those autodidacts who isn't always sure how to pronounce certain words because I only encountered them in reading, and sounded them out.  (My mother taught me phonics, and insisted that I sound out unfamiliar words, so if I mispronounce one of your pet words, blame her.)

But almost immediately I began to wonder whose mispronunciations do deserve scorn, which led me to reconsider whether and why we phonetic readers deserve "admiration."  (Aw, shucks, ma'am, I'm just doing my job.)  Do we deserve admiration because we're struggling to rise above our lowly, deprived origins?

This tweet was appropriated on Facebook to illustrate the concept of cultural capital, "non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means" as Wikipedia defines it.  It's associated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (who wrote a fair amount about language use as an aspect of cultural capital), and it's a useful idea, but as invoked here it makes me uneasy.  

Whose "admiration" is involved here?  I'm not interested in being patronized by people who imagine themselves better than I am by reason of class origins or prestigious schooling, and I don't think most phonetic mispronouncers are.  (Awwww, how cute!  He's trying his best, but he still gets it wrong.  Too bad he didn't have my advantages.)  Remember that one of the most famous targets of scorn for mispronunciation is Yale-schooled, born-with-a-silver-foot-in-his-mouth, George W. Bush, because of his tendency to pronounce "nuclear" as "nukular."  I once had an informative exchange with my liberal law-professor friend on that issue.  She insisted that "nukular" is not a regional variation -- she claimed that she's never heard any other Texan pronounce it that way -- but some sort of individual aberration specific to Dubya.  Even if she's right, why does she (and many other people) get so angry about it?  If it's a speech impediment, it's not something Bush does on purpose, so it's wrong to make a moral issue out of it.  But even if he deliberately chose to mispronounce the word (which I don't believe), what does it really matter?  I've observed before that liberal Democrats seem more obsessed with, and angry about, Bush's deficiencies as a speaker than they are about his actions that really hurt large numbers of people, and probably because they never really objected to his actions. (That's shown by how quickly they accepted the same actions when Obama adopted them.)

I don't think Ms. Fateman meant to imply that people should be scorned for their pronunciation of certain words.  It a well-noticed limitation of Twitter's format that it doesn't convey nuance or complexity.  But her tweet, and the way it was invoked on Facebook, reminded me how thoroughly entangled questions of status are with trivial (but clearly high significant) matters like the pronunciation of words.