Two paralinguistic observations about Ariel Levy’s endless feature on Caster Semenya (New Yorker, 2009.11.30):

  1. On the New Yorker podcast, host Blake Eskin deployed Northeastern Elite American English, in which any and every word that could use the vowel [æ] in a stressed syllable instead uses [ɑː]. The standard examples are Mazda, plaza, pasta, and names like Tanya and Julianna. Canadians use [æ] on the whole, as do lower-class Americans and Americans with accents (e.g., from Buffalo). But that sounds twangy and uneducated to the northeastern elite, which prefers [ɑː].

    Eskin consistently called Caster Semenya [ˈkʰɑːˌstɘɹ] Semenya. In other words, Kahhhster. (Actually Kʰahhhster, with a strongly aspirated K.) If we are to believe Old Farmer’s Wikipedia, the only ah in Sesotho languages is in fact [ɑː]. But in American (and Canadian) English, the only rational pronunciation of Caster is just like the word “caster” (as in caster sugar or broadcaster) – with an [æ].

    But that’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is how Levy’s pronunciation drifted from [æ] to [ɑː] until, at interview’s end, there she was calling the athlete she’d actually met and talked to [ˈkʰɑːˌstɘɹ] Semenya. Using that pronunciation won’t gussy Semenya up any more than that “painfully uncomfortable… garish” makeover did.

  2. Here are all the proper names of South Africans appearing in the article (when full names are given):

    • Jeremiah Mokaba
    • Phineas Sako
    • Caster Semenya
    • Zola Budd (pseudonym)
    • Johanna Lamola
    • Nelson Mandela
    • Makhenkesi Stofile
    • Jacob Zuma
    • Phat Joe (pseudonym)
    • Lolly Jackson
    • Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
    • Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya
    • Saartjie Baartman
    • Leonard Chuene
    • Harold Adams
    • Debora Patta
    • Molatelo Malehopo
    • Dorcus Semenya
    • Funeka Soldaat
    • Julius Malema
    • Benedict Phiri
    • Maphela Semenya
    • Wilfred “Wilfie” Daniels
    • Kobus van der Walt

    Are these names indicative of a flourishing and integrated multicultural society or of an ungovernable nation of competing ethnic groups?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.12.17 13:23. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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