College professors never quite know what will prompt their students to think.
For Ed Battistella, a modern Henry Higgins who teaches linguistics at Southern Oregon University, the pronunciation of one word got his class interested in learning more about dialects and starting a survey about this region's unique speech.
The word: syrup.
Battistella tells students in his beginning linguistics course that whether people say "sir-up" or "seer-up" offers clues about where they grew up. Then he makes a statement that really gets their attention: Like it or not, you are judged by your speech.
Last term, he had his students focus on the nuanced way in which Northern Californians shift their vowels when they say "mither" instead of "mother" and "thot" instead of "that" and how these speech twists are creeping into Southern Oregon.
"The vowel shifting also occurs in Portland, but in a slightly different way," he says. "And there are some general Northwest features too, like pronouncing 'don' and 'dawn' the same."
He and his students are curious whether the vowel shift in the southern part of the state is more like Portland or Northern California.
When his students return for the winter term, they will gather more examples — do you pronounce "coupon" as "coo-pon" or "cue-pon"? — and search for other dialect patterns.
A Southern Oregonian might be heard saying: "Moother, we hof to buy the eggs and melk before the cuepon expires." A Northern Californian might say, "Mither, we hof to buy the aigs and melk before the coopon expires."
The project is just one way that the professor proves that language is a reflection of life and is ever-evolving.
Battistella, who earned a bachelor's degree in Slavic languages and literatures from Rutgers College and a master's and Ph.D. in linguistics from City University of New York, has a lot of fun with language.
He blogs, invents words and is completing his fifth book, this one on the linguistics of apologies.
In early January, Battistella, who has spent his career scientifically studying language, will be recognized for his research by being inducted into a rarified group — the 2013 Class of Fellows — by the Linguistic Society of America.
He receives the honor along with such well-known linguists as Deborah Tannen, whose best-selling book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," has been translated into 30 languages.
Since arriving at SOU in 2000, Battistella has published a book on language attitudes, "Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others?" and another book on a legendary mail-order English course, titled, "Do You Make These Mistakes in English? The Story of Sherwin Cody's Famous School."
One of Battistella's favorite quotes is an indicator of his academic drive.
In a posting on his blog, literaryashland.org, he paraphrases Noam Chomsky, another Linguistic Society of America Fellow, who reminds people in academics that if they "are still researching the same things in their 50s as they were in their 20s, they are doing something very wrong."
Take, for example, social media's impact on language.
Twitter is a word-play frontier and Battistella embraced it by posting a word he created every day in 2012.
Twitter followers at http://twitter.com/literaryashland learned "gastimate" is a verb to judge whether you have enough fuel to make it to the next service area and "bossculation" is when the person in charge changes his mind often enough to be disruptive.
His favorite Non-word a Day from the 366 he posted: "velsh, n. onomatopoeic term for the sound of Velcro opening."
He laughs when he says the word aloud.
"Research should be enjoyable," he says. "If not, you should find some other line of work."
Maybe he could invent the word "emjoyment" to describe a job you enjoy.
Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.