Garage sociolinguistics

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Read the above title aloud before you continue. I have a real problem about pronouncing it. Let me explain. In the fall I was quite unexpectedly forced to move house.My new home has not only an off-street parking spot but also a standalone structure (pictured at left) intended for storing an automobile (but actually occupied by garden tools, boxes, unused furniture–you know how it goes). Uttering the name for this outbuilding plunges me into a sociolinguistic minefield.

The suffix –age that terminates various English nouns including several that denote purpose-specific locations or premises (anchorage, brokerage, cellarage, vicarage, etc.) generally rhymes with ridge. That is, in the International Phonetic Alphabet (henceforth IPA) it’s [ɪʤ]. And while no one objects to vicarage being pronounced vícaridge, my dear departed mother firmly disapproved of the word garage following the same pattern and thus rhyming with carriage, i.e. being pronounced gárridge. (I’m using an acute accent to indicate informally where the stress is. The IPA would be [ˈɡæɹɪʤ].)

The gárridge pronunciation is “common,” mother claimed. She meant that for her it was a shibboleth signaling membership in the London-area working class. She grew up in a middle-class area of Surrey, in southern England just outside the (lower-prestige) post-code areas of south London. She aspired to become upper-middle, and apparently thought that having offspring who said gárridge would put her aspirations in jeopardy.

The approved pronunciation in our family was gárahdge (IPA [ˈɡæɹɑʤ]: initial stress, final consonant IPA [ʤ] as in judge.)

In unassimilated French words like ménage (IPA [menɑʒ]) the suffix -age has the ah vowel of spa (IPA [ɑ]) and a consonant sounding like the s in measure (IPA [ʒ]). Some English speakers use the French pronunciation for the suffix in garage. With stress on the first syllable, that yields a pronunciation I can write informally as gárahge (IPA [ˈɡæɹɑʒ]), but most Americans stress the second syllable, which gives garáhge (IPA [ɡæˈɹɑʒ]; to be more exact, it’s typically [ɡəˈɹɑ:ʒ], but phoneticians should note that for simplicity I’m ignoring both vowel reduction and vowel length).

So we have at least five possible pronunciations: gárridge, gárahdge, garáhdge, gárahge, and garáhge (IPA [ˈɡæɹɪʤ],[ˈɡæɹɑʤ],[ɡæˈɹɑʤ],[ˈɡæɹɑʒ], and [ɡæˈɹɑʒ] respectively.)

I eventually emigrated from England and escaped its class-stratified dialects. For many years I worked as a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I became an American citizen and acquired many Californian pronunciation habits, including the habit of saying garáhge.

However, eventually I emigrated again, to Scotland. I now live in Edinburgh with a partner who was raised on a farm in Northern Ireland, where gárridge is the only normal and acceptable pronunciation. (Notice how one person’s awful is another person’s normal; what’s unacceptable in one community can be obligatory in another.)

My partner hears garáhge as pompous and affected: a pseudo-French pronunciation that one might hear from a bow-tie-wearing English Tory lord. Not quite my image of myself.

When I slip up (as I frequently do) and say garáhge, my partner either mocks me (“Eww, it’s in the garaa-aa-aah-ge!”) or just yells “Garridge!” to steer me toward the right dialectal path. Like most nonlinguists, she is no relativist about dialects.

Interestingly, my family’s gárahdge cuts no ice with her: It is apparently the vowel of the second syllable that sounds false, not the stress position. Gárridge is what she wants to hear, and she will accept no substitutes.

So I’m in a sociolinguistic quandary. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous ridicule, or to take arms against the dialect of my family of origin and, by opposing, offend them.

I, of course (like most linguists), am a dialect relativist. I see nothing inherently wrong or ugly in a pronunciation of garage that rhymes with carriage. My goal is to become the smoothest of dialect-switchers, selecting gárridge when in my partner’s presence, and garáhge when talking to Americans, and gárahdge when talking to my brother; suiting the form of each utterance effortlessly to the social context. I’m just not finding the switching very easy as yet.

But it reminds me of the remarkable fact that most speakers of most languages accomplish analogous things all the time, manipulating dozens of dialectal and sociolectal variables. The question of how they manage to do it is part of what the subdiscipline called sociolinguistics is about.

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