American englishes

stress patterns (the good kind) and ancestors

QUARANTINE, n. I resisted writing about this word for a few weeks, but here we are. “Quarantine” comes to English through Latin, and it originally meant one of three things: the period of 40 days of Christ fasting in the desert, the period of 40 days during which a widow can remain in her dead husband’s home, or the period of 40 days during which a ship that might be carrying plague had to remain offshore. It’s that third one that’s most relevant to our current situation, but you see the running theme of “period of 40 days.” Latin for “forty” is “quadraginta,” Italian is “quaranta,” nothing too surprising there.

Maybe let’s not focus on the forty days thing. Ours is already longer than that.

So “quarantine” has been on my mind for all the reasons you’d suspect plus one you might not: this viral video, in which Brooklyn-born comedian Vic Dibitetto yells about the government a lot. (If you watch, you might want headphones, there’s a lot of swearing. Not kidding about the yelling, either. Plus use of the word “cocksuckers” as a slur, which is reprehensible for so many reasons. Nobody in the current US government has the generosity of spirit or the skill required to perform competent oral sex, and we should not offer them such praise.)

Anyway, the part of the video that is relevant to this newsletter is at 0:54-55, when Dibitetto says the word “quarantine.”

Listen to that stress pattern. Quarantine. That beautiful long vowel in the final syllable. When I say this word in my boring, upper-middle-class-white-CNN-news-anchor accent, it’s quarantine. The stress falls on the first syllable.

The way Dibitetto pronounces “quarantine,” that’s a trace of Italian. I don’t mean to say it’s an Italian accent—clearly it’s not. Dibitetto may not speak Italian. He may not have been raised by parents who spoke Italian. But he probably grew up among other Italian-Americans and this quirk of pronunciation—among others—has persisted in their English over generations. And if his neighborhood had kids in it who weren’t Italian-American, they might have picked up this accent, too. We learn from each other.

And all of that is so cool.

There’s this concept in linguistics of a “substrate,” an under-layer. When two languages coexist and one is the language of the minority, or the language of the conquered or the oppressed, that language is the substrate. Sometimes substrate languages disappear from the historical record—speakers assimilate or die out—but they still exert their influence on the language of power and prestige. Last time this newsletter talked about numbers, I talked about why counting is so weird in French, and the answer is a substrate language. Ways of counting or naming things or speaking that originate in the substrate often get absorbed by the superstrate, the powerful language.

American regional accents are this patchwork of influences from other languages, sometimes ones we’re not even aware of. Here’s an example that is very contested: the verb “dig” as in “understand” or “appreciate,” as in 1930s jazz musicians saying “You dig?” or “I dig it,” here’s what Wiktionary has to say about that:

From African American Vernacular English; due to lack of writing of slave speech, etymology is difficult to trace, but it has been suggested that it is from Wolof dëggdëgga (“to understand, to appreciate”). It has also been suggested that it is from Irish dtuig. Others do not propose a distinct etymology, instead considering this a semantic shift of the existing English term (compare dig in/dig into).

Traces of Wolof in AAVE! As I have said before, my personal rule is that the dullest etymology is the most likely, so any time I’m emotionally invested in a word’s history, there’s room for doubt, but this idea—that the descendants of enslaved people kept some small part of their ancestors’ language alive, even as new generations changed English and made it their own—is so poignant.

Even if this particular example isn’t true, there is a larger truth here. Vic Dibitetto’s speech and your speech and my speech (even though I said it was boring earlier!) bear the marks of the people we grew up with, the people who raised us, the people who raised them, and generations beyond that. Even spoken language is a palimpsest.


Also on the subject of American English and stress patterns, here is a fun twitter conversation about spotting non-American actors doing American accents, hat tip to my friend Jenny from Reading the End.

An anapest in this case means “miles aWAY” and a dactyl would be “MILES away.”


I did read some books this week, but I didn’t finish very many books. This is at least partly because I spent my time writing fiction, which is good because supposedly that is my job. It’s also partly because of quarantine, but I think I have talked about that enough.

If you are in need of some hopeful non-fiction, I recommend this NYT Magazine article on helping neighbors to start gardens, which is lovely. Austin Kleon telling us to make bad art, too is also great.

I will talk about books next week, unless I am too busy making bad art. I hope you find time to read or make some bad art of your own this week, or whatever gets you through!