07 May 2007

welcome to New York, linguist

i am currently in Ithaca, New York, my soon-to-be home for the next five years. i'm here doing apartment hunting for when i move here in the fall to start my grad work in linguistics at Cornell. as i was driving in along interstate 86 this afternoon, shortly after entering New York there are two spots where the road crosses the Allegheny River. at both of them, there are signs that read:

Allegheny River

i did a double take as i passed the first one. did that say what i thought it said? a (fairly narrow, all things considered) IPA transcription of the native pronunciation of Ohio, the original name of this river? if there hadn't been a second, identical sign a few miles down the road, i might not have fully believed it.

while this is cool, i honestly have no idea what the NYDOT thinks they're accomplishing with these signs. it's safe to say that the percentage of the population that knows IPA is effectively zero. even though the basic pronunciation can be surmised by someone who doesn't know IPA, because the symbols are fairly common, they will certainly wonder at the little dots and squiggles around some of the vowels. i suppose piquing the driving masses' interest in linguistics with such signs could be useful if there were any explanation for them whatsoever, but they are completely devoid of context unless you have the pre-existing knowledge necessary to make the couple of logical steps to relate them to the sign announcing the passage over the Allegheny.

i don't know who lobbied to get those signs put up, and they still seem rather silly. but maybe it's just a sign that New York is a good place to be a linguist.

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