NPR’s Code Switch did an interview about language a few months ago and it stayed on my mind because of how bad it was. I gave it a re-listen and I’d like to point out just why it’s so bad. You can listen to the episode below. It’s episode 42 and it’s called “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners”. The interview in question starts at the 14:47 mark. The hosts, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, talk to Brent Blair about what it sounds like to be American. I couldn’t find a transcript of the interview, so I made my own, which you can find here. I’ll summarize Blair’s points below and briefly point out why they are wrong. The linguistics behind each of the topics that I discuss below is complex, but I will try to keep things simple in order to keep things short.
1. We understand this quote unquote “American dialect” or “Received American Pronunciation” based on culture and media: what sells.
No, we don’t. We (I mean linguists, people who study dialects) understand American dialects (plural) based on how the dialects sound. Non-linguists (and linguists when they’re not studying dialects) understand dialects through an array of socio-economic and linguistic factors.
“Received American Pronunciation” is not a thing. Blair is mixing up General American and Received Pronunciation, the accents with the highest prestige in the US and the UK, respectively. Many national newscasters in the US use General American on air (for example, Brian Williams). In the UK, Received Pronunciation is used by the Royal Family and members of parliament (with exceptions, of course). Mixing up the names of these two dialects is so incredibly basic that it’s hard to believe someone would make it. It’s like someone talking about the Boston Yankees baseball team. Or the band Led Sabbath. Or President Abraham E. Lee. The term General American is not without its problems.
2. What we understand as the American dialect comes from the West Coast, specifically Hollywood, and what Hollywood has considered the standard American dialect. This dialect is “vanilla” – its features do not include “twisty or harsh R sounds or twangy stuff or dropped AH” (quotes from Blair).
It’s probably not surprising that a theater professor would think that Hollywood is responsible for our thoughts on American dialects. Blair is almost correct on this – the dialect used in many popular movies is indeed General American. It doesn’t come from Hollywood, though. The dialect known as General American comes from the eastern part of the US, and it is often considered the dialect of the Midwestern region of the United States, not California. General American is believed to not have any regional or ethnic features, but obviously this is nonsense. It is a mish-mash of various dialects. It’s also (as far as I can tell) not really used in dialect studies anymore.
The terms “vanilla”, “twisty”, “harsh R”, “twangy”, and “dropped AH” are not used in dialect studies. These terms are problematic. For example, the dialect that Blair is calling standard, the one from Hollywood, uses an R sound. This is one of the ways that linguists describe dialects: whether they include a post-vocalic R or not. Linguists use the terms rhotic to describe dialects which pronounce the R when it comes after a vowel, and non-rhotic to describe dialects which do not pronounce post-vocalic Rs. The Boston dialect is classically non-rhotic, with Hahvahd Yahd (Harvard Yard) being a common term used by people imitating the dialect (Notice that the Boston dialect doesn’t drop all of its Rs, just the ones which come after a vowel and before a consonant. No one in Boston goes to watch the Pat_iots or B_uins play). So, do rhotic dialects have “harsh R sounds”? I don’t know because I don’t know what the hell that means. What does “twangy” mean? What dialect sounds “twangy”? Does Nelly sound “Twangy” (he’s from St. Louis)? Does Taylor Swift (she’s from eastern Pennsylvania)? Can I say that this whole interview sounds “twangy” or should I use the more technical term: shitty?
3. Regionalisms in dialects are disappearing rapidly. Today a person from Atlanta, Georgia, sounds like a person from California. You can’t tell the difference between people from Houston, Chicago and New York. On the contrary, dialects in rural areas are still diverse.
Blair couldn’t be more wrong about this. Literally the first page of William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America says “People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media. One can find this point of view in almost any discussion of American dialects […] This overwhelming common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong.” THE FIRST GODDAMN PAGE. Of a book that is sure to turn up in any Amazon or Google search on dialects in America. There is no way that Blair’s name showed up in a Google search of dialects in America.
Even though the Code Switch hosts didn’t need to read past the second page of Labov’s book to get better info than Blair gave them, if they had made it to page 35, they would have read “The dialects of Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles are now more different from each other than they were 50 or 100 years ago […] On the other hand, dialects of many smaller cities have receded in favor of the new regional patterns.” Again, exactly the opposite of what Blair told them. Labov also does something which Blair does not: he backs up his claims with (decades of) research. I guess they do linguistics differently in the field of theater studies.
As if that wasn’t enough, here’s a story from NPR about dialects NOT disappearing!
4. Globalization, commercialism, and our careers have made us say “We all want to sound the same”.
5. This “vanilla” Californian dialect, or this blending of dialects, and/or the disappearance of regionalisms is not due to class or race, but access and power. (It’s hard to tell what they are talking about here. They use the term “placeless”.)
Things kind of break down around point 5. Blair has dug himself into a hole and he can’t get out. He talks about how people of color are only allowed to use the Vanilla-fornian dialect based on the culture that is employing them and their relationship to systems of power, but it is unclear what he means and he is unable to explain. He only offers an immediate anecdote – the interviewer Meraji is able to say “Latino” with a Puerto Rican accent on NPR, so maybe she would allow herself to use more Spanish on air in the future. But Spanish isn’t a dialect. Meraji would allow herself to speak Spanish on NPR if she knew her audience would understand her. Blair wraps it all up with something truly bizarre when he says, “So for me, when we’re accent stereotyping, it just means we haven’t fallen in love enough with that community to understand its diversity and its complexity”. I don’t know what the hell this guy is talking about.
So who’s at fault here? I think partial blame falls on both sides.
First, Blair should be blamed for not saying no to the interview. If NPR called me up and asked me to talk about theater studies, I would say no. Because I’m not a theater scholar or professional. If someone called you up and said “Hey, we want to talk about theoretical mathematics on the radio,” would you say “Sure! I took math in high school. Let’s do this.”? No, of course you wouldn’t. But they called Blair up and he said, “Ummmm, I speak a language. Get me on the phone!” And then he proved that he knows about as much about language and dialects as I do about theater studies. It’s not that Blair can’t know anything about dialects in America, it’s that he showed he doesn’t know anything about dialects in America. If he had gotten everything right, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.
Some of the blame also goes to the people at Code Switch though. If they wanted to talk about language and dialects, why didn’t they call a linguist? Why did they think calling a theater professor, who as far as I can tell has not written anything on language, would be ok? In an earlier part of this episode, the hosts have a discussion about the magical negro and they talk to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor and researcher who has published on representations of people of color in various media. Thomas is at the University of Pennsylvania, the same university as Labov, who I quoted above. She literally could have transferred them over to his office. Or they could have talked to Walt Wolfram or Natalie Schilling or John Baugh. Any of these people would have been far better than Blair.
Ok, I’ve been pretty hard on everyone in this interview. You may be thinking, jeez, this guy just doesn’t like it when people talk about language. That’s not the case. I don’t like it when prominent news organizations talk about language and get it so wrong (I see you, The New Yorker). If you want to hear a really great interview on language and linguistics, go listen to this Top of Mind interview (download it here). The host, Julie Rose, and the guests talk about filler words (um, uh, you know, etc.), which is – like dialects – a linguistic topic with a divide between what the public thinks and what linguists have discovered. To discuss this topic, the host invited two linguists who have researched filler words, Alexandra D’Arcy and Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein. I hope other interviewers listen to this and learn how to discuss language on air.
If you are interested in learning more about dialects in America and/or dialect discrimination, follow the links behind the researchers’ names in the previous two paragraphs. Most of them have written books and articles aimed at the general public. Walt Wolfram even has a movie about African American speech coming out and it sounds amazing. I’m not saying that all of the things you will read are going to be positive – discrimination based on language happens and it is terrible. But the research put out by these and other linguists is fascinating and it can actually do what the NPR Code Switch interview attempted to do: make you more informed about language.
Hat tip to Nicole Holliday on Twitter for pointing me to this Code Switch episode. Holliday would also have been good for this interview.
Update 14 June 2017:
Almost immediately after posting this article and sharing it on Twitter, Gene Demby reached out. Gene is one of the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch. According to him, this episode “was the source of much consternation”. Gene wanted to talk to a linguist but was overruled by an editor. He has also said the Code Switch will do better in the future and that they have an episode about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) coming up. I’d like to thank Gene for clearing things up and I look forward to that episode.
Also related to this post, Kevin Calcamp reached out to say that Blair’s views are not representative of the study of linguistics in theater and performance studies. Kevin says that theater/performance scholars have a good understanding of linguistics. I believe him. He also pointed out the complicated nature and the various ways of incorporating dialects into theater/performance studies (follow the tweet below to see more). Thanks, Kevin, for explaining things.