For one Alaskan, David Bowie’s death is… a bit complicated.
“Just imagine walking out of an airplane and seeing ‘Breaking News [Insert Your Name Here] Dies.’ And that was a very weird feeling.”
UAA linguistics Professor David Bowie — pronounced BOO-wee, but spelled b-o-w-i-e — has a vexed relationship with the celebrity he shares his name with. He resented the musician until he was in his 20s, when something changed.
Like many 15-year-olds growing up in Connecticut, for a stretch of time I was obsessed with David Bowie. After the singer’s death, I was curious if he’d ever performed in Alaska, but I got sidetracked when Google informed me there is a different David Bowie — still living, very close by, and in fact extremely receptive to a telephone call out of the blue.
“Like I tell my students every semester: I don’t expect you to end up pronouncing my name right, it’s fine, I will answer to either. But just so you know: It’s BOO-wee.”
Alaska’s David Bowie studies language — particularly the subtle regional differences that shape vowels, like the ‘o’ in his name–an alphabetic anomaly that’s particular to his upbringing in southern Maryland.
“In most of the United States it’s ‘Bowie.’ But in Maryland and Eastern and Central Texas it’s (pronounced) BOO-wee.”
In spite of that nuance, not everyone is so observant of regional differences in vowel sounds.
“The first name kind of primes the pronunciation of the last name. You see David, then you see something spelled B-o-w-i-e — it must be Bowie.”
Besides the name, Bowie bears little resemblance to the rock star he shares a name with. He’s 45, has glasses, spiky brown hair, and is wearing a silver bow-tie. The floor of his office is covered with collapsed heaps of linguistics books. He was born in 1970, on the cusp of the British singer’s rise to American fame.
Bowie says his parents weren’t hip enough to know they were consigning their son to a difficult few decades of jokes, chuckles chortles, jests, and — I presume — bullying.
“To share the name of a bisexual rockstar when you’re going to a semi-rural Southern high school isn’t really the most comfortable thing in the world.”
Bowie didn’t listen to his name-twin’s music. He even resented it a little. He was going to change his name at 18. But then, like many young Americans, his identity flipped when he went to college.
“And suddenly sharing the name of a celebrity was kind of fun. I’m just like, ‘Ya know what, I’m gonna own this.'”
Not only did he start listening to Bowie, he started caring — developing opinions on whole albums and eras of the performer’s career.
“Which is my favorite Bowie period…I think it changes,” Bowie paused before rolling his eyes. “There’s no pun intended.”
Bowie studied linguistics in college. The way he tells it, it was sort of an arbitrary decision that gradually morphed into an academic career. By graduate school he was drawn to the ways dialects differ within religious communities.
“Looking at, actually, Amish teenagers when they do the Rumspringa where they go out into the community, and looking at what happens linguistically.”
That project never materialized, but the line of inquiry brought him to Utah, then Florida, and eventually Alaska, where he’s developed an interest in how English has transformed in a place it’s really only existed for about a century.
“There’s a few scattered things here and there, but really very little on Alaskan English, and vanishing little on pronunciation, which is my focus.”
His dream is to one day have a dialect atlas for Alaska — something that could take decades, even outlast him. It would map the local idiosyncrasies of speech — lexical differences like snowmachine versus SnowGo — or nuances of who uses a long, Inupiaq-inflect ‘a’ sound, as in Anuktuvak Pass. Bowie’s passion is finding the subtleties of speech that communicate more than just their surface meaning — the distinction between language and grammar that he first encountered inside a linguistics textbook.
“People have these rules that they’ve come up with and that they say are really important. But really what’s going on is people are actually using a system, people are using an actual system of language. And that system includes split infinitives, that system includes sentences ending with prepositions. And that system is what we use to express ourselves and to be able to communicate with each other. And if people are successfully communicating with each other who cares if they follow your dumb rules?”
Like the rock icon, Bowie is also a bit of a rule-breaker, albeit with phonemes and syntax rather than genre-and-gender bending. He cares deeply about sound — less for the technical specifics of a sentence, a consonant, or a song-note than the effect it has on the listener.
“At some level I just kind of enjoy music to match a mood. I mean, right immediately before this interview I switched Pandora on and was listening to very, very angry old school rap. Because that is what worked for the moment.”
And in that, Bowie is maybe just one little vowel sound away from a performer who always aimed to leave an impression.