Posts Tagged ‘American dialects’

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change starts off by spelling out one of the difficulties in linguistic research and communicating it to the public:

In many areas of culture or technology, some older people will embrace and welcome the new. But in thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say, “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talked when I was young.” Most of us adhere to what one may call the Golden Age Syndrome: the belief that language once existed in a state of perfection, and any change is a decline from that state, to be resisted. (p. viii)

This really is the first and greatest of hills that linguists need to get over in order to talk about language to the public. I wouldn’t be surprised if linguists also have to get their undergrad students over this hill. So it’s good that Labov starts by surmounting this hill because the majority of the book is about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other non-standard varieties or dialects (linguistics pro-tip: non-standard does not mean substandard, it just means “not at all or not as highly privileged as the standard”). It’s also good that Labov is the one writing this book. He is a legend in the field of linguistics and his writing is clear and direct.

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Chapter 1 is a bit of a primer on linguistics. It tells non-linguists what they need to know to read this book and it summarizes the arguments of each chapter. It begins with something that might be shocking to many non-linguists:

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 […] This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong. (pp. 1-2)

I made reference to this idea in a previous post and Labov is right that (some) people think everyone sounds more similar today than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago – even though the opposite is true. I’m happy to say that Dialect Diversity does an excellent job of showing why American dialects are diverging. The CliffNotes version is: people do speak differently than they did when you were a kid, but their dialects are actually more different than they were back then and they are different in different ways. (I’m not good at CliffNotes. Read the whole book)

At the end of chapter 2, Labov makes an excellent point about our knowledge of language and what we do with it.

Most importantly, the (ING) variable [pronouncing the g in running vs. no pronouncing it in runnin’] is a prototypical example of orderly heterogeneity. It does not interfere with communication: we know that working and workin’, dunking and dunkin’, mean the same thing. Furthermore, the variation of (ING) works for us to establish levels of formality and informality and in any given context, the level of –in’ also tells us something about the social status of the speaker. In a word, we understand (ING). That does not prevent us from attacking Sarah Palin for “dropping her g’s.” Public rhetoric about language is always several stages removed from reality. Because we understand what (ING) is all about, we can always pick it up and use it as a club to beat our opponents on the head and shoulders with, linguistically speaking. (p. 16)

So even though people understand what is being said – and why it is being said in a certain way – we still can’t get over criticizing others (especially women and minorities) for the language that they use. The (ING) variable is even more perfect because everyone – everyone? Yes, everyone – uses it in at least some cases.

I have no notes on chapter 3 except that it is very interesting. Fun even. I guess it was too fun for me to stop and take notes 🙂

Chapter 5, “The Politics of African American English” discusses the divergence of Black and White English in America and how this is affecting African American literacy (the divergence is described in chapter 4). One of the most eye-opening passages in this book comes even before Labov talks about the Ebonics controversy (which Labov was right in the middle of). Labov writes about the ways that researchers have tried to influence the methods of teaching students who are native AAVE speakers.

To do this [giving children who speak AAVE the capacity to understand and use both AAVE and standard English], it is generally agreed that contrastive analysis is helpful: putting the two systems side by side and showing the learner how they differ. […] Contrastive analysis thus depends on and develops knowledge of both systems, for both children and teachers. It is generally understood that knowledge of other groups and different cultures reduces hostility and prejudice toward them. Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who have had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them. Nevertheless, efforts to use contrastive analysis in the teaching of reading have brought forth a series of political firestorms of increasing intensity which have defeated one program after another. (p. 73, bolding mine)

The sentence I put in bold is shocking and depressing and maddening all at once. But maybe more important is the fact that contrastive analysis sounds logical. It’s no wonder that idiots killed it. Never underestimate people’s desire to force others to speak like them and only like them. Teachers have the power to accept or delegitimize students’ speech and they should be careful with how they use this power. The reason this matters is because it denies kids an education. Labov shows on the following pages that people who said AAVE is “bad English”, “slang” and “ignorant and careless speech” – that is people who did not know what they were talking about, and did not know the linguistics behind AAVE – were able to shape the debate and force unproven and unhelpful teaching methods onto already marginalized children:

The same political reaction to the recognition of AAVE by the school system can be observed in a series of controversies that followed [the negative and uninformed reaction, published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, to early research on AAVE]. In case after case, efforts to use linguistic knowledge of AAVE for contrastive analysis were reported and condemned as programs for teaching children to speak a corrupt brand of English. The idea that African American children spoke a coherent dialect of their own was consistently rejected […] (p. 74)

Labov then goes on to show how complaints about AAVE, or Ebonics, are usually thinly veiled admissions of racism. The dialect is used as a publicly acceptable way to disparage all black people; linguistic discrimination being the last allowable act of bigotry in high-minded liberal corridors. The examples he lists are vile and I don’t want to repeat them here, but in something any linguist could see coming a mile away, the people trying to satirize AAVE end up showing that they do not know how AAVE works. To these Labov only writes “Here again one can see the distance between public discussion and linguistic reality” and calls these hot takes “uninformed reaction[s] masquerading under the ‘helmet of wit’”. They are this but they are worse than that. People who stopped studying math in high school don’t make claims about how math should be taught. But people with high school English under their belt feel comfortable in pedant-splaining to others how language should be taught.

After this Labov shows why linguistic knowledge is important in teaching – through the efforts made by him and other researchers once they were given room (and funding) to develop successful methods for teaching children who speak non-standard varieties such as AAVE. Labov and his colleagues developed contrastive analysis books to help children learn to read. If you’re wondering why those books were written in standard English, it’s because of the teachers’ reactions. Labov says

The battle for the recognition of AAVE in the classroom […] might be won, but it would be a long and expensive battle, waged at the expense of children who could have learned to read under a more realistic approach. The approach that has been taken in The Reading Road and Portals [the material developed by Labov and colleagues] is to provide contrastive eanalysis for the teachers rather than for the students. (pp. 92-93)

Linguists who try to point out that all dialects are rule-governed and that no dialect is better than any other dialect and that non-standard does not mean substandard often receive a sneer from language peevers, “Then why did you write your book in Standard English? Hmmm?” It’s for the people who are not proficient in dialects other than Standard English. The dialect of Standard English is something people can easily acquire because there are more than enough resources out there to teach it. The materials on non-standard dialects are a fraction of what there is for the standard dialect. Books are written in a dialect, by the way. It just happens to be the slang of prigs.

The last two chapters in Dialect Diversity in America take a look at the long history of the shifting dialects in the United States, specifically the Northern Cities Shift. Labov stretches his thesis across almost 200 years of history and ties it to the political switcheroo made by the Republican and Democratic parties. I’ll admit that these chapters lost me a bit, as I found some of the claims a bit more hard to grasp than in the previous chapters. I’m not doubting that Labov has done his research, I just think that the arguments in Chapters 7 and 8 didn’t seem as iron clad as the arguments in earlier chapters. I think, however, that people who are more into sociology, anthropology, politics and/or history than they are into linguistics might find this part of the book is their favorite. This book was, after all, written for non-linguists. If anything, it takes linguistics out of the research lab and applies it to the real world.

I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American dialects.

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012) is available from the University of Virginia press for $19.50. There is apparently an online collection of audio to accompany the book, but I did not review these (I got my copy of the book from the library and I can’t remember seeing a reference to the online audio. Maybe it’s in the 2014 edition). You can find a glowing review of Dialect Diversity in America by the distinguished linguist John Baugh here. (PDF for those behind the paywall).


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On the Vocal Fries podcast, Professor Carmen Fought made a wonderful analogy about accents. Prof. Fought said:

Everybody who speaks a language speaks a dialect of that language. So you speak a dialect, I speak a dialect; a dialect is not a bad thing, it’s something you can’t help. It’s like the make and model of a car: like, you have a Honda, but then it has to have a model like a Civic or an Accord. You can’t just say, “Oh no, no, no, I just have a Honda. It doesn’t have a model.” It’s the same thing. You can’t say “I speak a language. I don’t speak a dialect.” No. Everyone speaks a dialect.

I really like this analogy and I’m going to use it in the classroom. You should go listen to the whole episode (and all the other episodes!) here: https://vocalfriespod.fireside.fm/9. The episode’s topic is the Chicano English dialect. The analogy comes about 14:30 minutes in.

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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.

Map of the dialects of North America. From The Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (2006; Map 11.15).

Map of the dialects of North America. From The Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (2006; Map 11.15).

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.

Pointing fingers

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.

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