Last week’s discussion about the British vs. the American pronunciation of the word, idyll, reminded me of the much loved Gershwin song from the 1930s, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. Dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers introduced the tune in their 1937 movie, Shall We Dance?
“You like potato and I like potahto/ You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto,/ Let’s call the whole thing off,” warble the stars.
Spoken language conveys more than the meaning of the words themselves; it gives the listener clues about the speaker’s origins. When meeting someone for the first time, we judge them on appearance, but also by the way they sound.
Is their voice distinctive in pitch or tone? Is their conversation a rapid-fire, staccato burst of sound, or is it measured and slow? What kind of accent can we detect? What kind of language do they use: an extensive vocabulary or lots of slang?
We absorb each of these cues subconsciously, but they contribute to our overall assessment of an individual, which is based on our own assumptions and prejudices.
Next time you meet someone new, take a moment afterward to think about how you have assessed them based on their speech. Further acquaintance will determine if your judgments are right or wrong.
In the song, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, the varying pronunciations denote class differences between the two characters, but love triumphs nonetheless. In real life, it isn’t always that simple.