Book Review: Dialect Diversity in America by William Labov

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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Book review: Dog whistles, Walk-Backs & Political Handshakes by McCutcheon and Mark

As the authors state in their foreword (pp. xii-xiii):

This book represents an attempt to defang the slang and crack the code. In writing this, we tried to think back to when we were new to Washington and wishing, like wandering tourists lost in a foreign city, that we had a handy all-in-one-place phrasebook.

I would say they have largely accomplished this. Dog Whistles, Walk-backs & Washington Handshakes is an up-to-date glossary of American political terms. I think that people interested in language and politics would find this book enjoying for a few reasons. First, the book is well referenced (always a plus). The authors are not trying to discover the first known use of some political code word, but rather to show that politicians from all sides use this type of language and that you are likely to come across it in tomorrow’s newspaper or news broadcast. So their references mostly come from very recent sources, which is refreshing. The foreword and introduction make nuanced points about language and slang, and the authors back up these points with references to reputable sources.

Dog Whistles has appeal for people who follow American politics, since although they are likely to already know some of the terms in here, they will probably find some they don’t know or haven’t thought about. That’s because the book isn’t just made up of eye-catching terms such as Overton window and San Fransisco values. Readers will appreciate the care that the authors have taken to explain each term. For example, here is the entry for the seemingly innocent term bold (p. 40):

Bold: A politician’s most common description of their own or their party’s proposals. It manages to be a punchy, optimistic-sounding break with conventional thinking and deliberately vague all at once.

Image copyright ForeEdge and University Press of New England
Image copyright ForeEdge and University Press of New England

But the book is not just for language and politics heads. In the introduction (p. ix), the authors recognize the problem that people who do not closely follow politics might have when reading about or listening to their representatives:

For most of the population – let’s call them “regular, normal people” – time spent listening to legislation, operatives, and journalists thrash over public policy on cable or a website can often result in something close to a fugue state, induced by the repeated use of words and phrases that have little if any connection to life as it is lived on planet Earth.

Later (p. 129), the authors explain the importance of their glossary by saying that:

Knowing the meanings of such specialized political terms can help cut through spin meant to obscure what’s really going on in a campaign. When politicians use the cliché, “The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day,” they really mean, “I wouldn’t win if the election were held today.”

I am all for educating people about the intricacies of language, especially when that means explaining the ways that politicians use words and phrases to trick people.
I am, however, not sure that all of the terms deserve being placed in this book. I feel like a glossary should include words that are at least nominally used by a group of people. But in their attempt to be current, the authors have included phrases such as hardship porn. This is a phrase coined by Frank Bruni of the New York Times and it only returns two hits on Google News – the July 2015 article in which Bruni coined it and an October 2015 book review in the Missoula Independent. However influential Frank Bruni is, this term has not caught on yet.

This is really nitpicking though (something us academics excel at, thankyouverymuch). I really found this book enjoyable. If you like politics, language, or both, you will probably enjoy it too. You can check out the interactive website here: http://dogwhistlebook.com/ and even suggest you own term.

 

 

References

McCutcheon, Chuck and David Mark. 2014. Dog Whistles, Walk-backs & Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech. ForeEdge: New Hampshire.

Twumping Bachmann

Michele, we need to talk. I’ve been hearing these crazy things about you. I mean really crazy things. At first, I said to myself everything’s cool because these crazy things match your crazy eyes. It’s what makes them sparkle.

But there’s something bigger at stake here.

The fact is, Michele, you’ve been ignoring me. How many times does a normal Joe like me need to tell a Member of Congress to tweet their Congress member? I thought that’s what Congress members Members of Congress were good for. I also thought we were off to a good start. I followed you, you followed me, things were looking up. But where have we followed each other to?

It’s the 11th hour now and you still haven’t thrown the Hail Mary. I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in you. I’m going to have to Twump™ you. It sounds cute, but in this day and age, being Twitter dumped is like being really dumped. Like for real for real.

I wish you the best of luck in your craziness and your gay conversions. Here’s hoping your program will work on your husband. I know there are lots of gay men out there just waiting to embrace Marcus Bachmann.

[Update – Jan. 4, 2011] See what happens when you don’t tweet your Congress member, Michele?

A Homophobic Tea Partier? I Don’t Believe it!

I think I’m going to throw away my I Love Troy, MI carrying bag now that women can be mayor there.

In her defense, she is obviously a pilgrim.

In other news, the rest of Michigan is still not a nice place to be gay.

Warning! Assholes are Closer than they Appear!

Geoffrey Pullum and I have not always agreed on everything. I like to comment, and he hates comments. But in a recent language log post, Mr. Pullum mentioned talking to his son about “the ghastly crew of obnoxious multi-millionaires who dominate the newspapers, and how they keep threatening to achieve success even in the political arena.” And that’s when his son turned him on to the fact that we are living in “the age of the assholocracy.”

At first, I thought I agreed with Pullum. It really does seem like there are a ton of assholes in power these days. And it seems there are even more assholes vying to get into power. It’s easy to believe that the age of the assholocracy is upon us.

But then I realized that we’ve always been living in an assholocracy. Assholes in power has long been the rule, not the exception. Just open a history book. Those things are chock full of assholes. It’s a wonder there’s room for anyone else. Or, even better, go ask someone who’s not a white middle-class male. They’ll tell you all about the assholes in power.

Mr. Pullum uses Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin as examples of the assholocracy we’re living in. But these people are downright pussies (to continue the anatomical analogies) compared to previous media moguls and Italian or Russian leaders. Is it possible we’re at the end of the assholocracy and the start of the pussypublic? You wish. (Again, just following the anatomy metaphor.)

Instead, I think these assholes are starting to be assholes to their own kind – the other white middle-class males – at an equal rate that they historically were assholes to other kinds of people. The assholocracy has gone into self-destruct mode, or what political scholars refer to as a dicktatorship.

Dear Basic Finns Party,

I see you have recently changed the English name of you political party to The Finns. I regret to inform you that I already have a party called The Finns. Rather than go down a messy legal road (we all have names to protect, am I right?), I’m prepared to make a deal with you. I’ll give you two options: Either you can change the name of your party or we can join forces. Once you take a look at my party’s ideals, I think you’ll choose the latter option. It may seem like our parties are totally different at first, but in fact we are quite similar.

But first, the differences. Instead of hating Muslims (like your party does), my party hates Evangelical Christians. Instead of hating blacks, my party hates whites. Instead of hating homosexuals, my party hates heterosexuals. And instead of hating non-Finnish people, my party hates only Finnish people.

I know we sound like polar opposites, but hear me out. What we have in common may be enough to bring us together. For instance, we both love xenophobia. We both love sexual orientation bashing. And we both love us some racism. The underlying connections are there. We just need to come to some kind of agreement on our union.

Allow me to suggest we compromise in a few areas. For example, you give up your Muslim-hating and I’ll let you keep that cross on your flag. Furthermore, I propose that I give up my hate of straight people, while you can continue saying that gay sex doesn’t turn you on. And finally, on the race issue, let’s agree to meet in the middle and proclaim brown-skinned people as the master race (you are familiar vit zat term, yes?)

If you find this situation agreeable to you, please let me know. My lawyers, the ravenous dogs that they are, can’t wait for their day in court. They wanted to sue you right away. But I’m a rational man. I believe that if two men can talk, bigot-to-bigot, then they’re bound to reach an amicable agreement. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Until then, hold your heads up high. The white man shall overcome!

Regards,

Joe McVeigh

[UPDATE]: Here’s the response I got from Jussi Halla-aho, who has lots of time on his hands to respond to email as he’s serving a suspension from his party for losing the interwebs. Hey, Jussi, it’s OK. Everyone has the stupid from time to time. I’ve never advocated using tanks against protesters, but that’s just me.

Dear Joseph,

It is sad there is so much hatred in you. Our party is clearly not the best option for a person who hates so much.

Yours,

Jussi Halla-aho

Nice try! You’re getting better at this “acceptable forms of social interaction” thing. But I think what you meant to say was that “it is sad there is so much hatred in you not directed at Muslims, Greeks, other people to the north, south, east, and west of the Finnish border, etc.” Or how about, “Don’t hate the player, hate the [insert ethnic minority here]”. Now that’s a campaign slogan!

How Do You Use The Twitter?

Just a quick update on the people following @congressmembers, the Twitter account I started so politicians would have a safe place to send pictures of their naughty bits and avoid their own personal Weinergate.. Yes, my childish mind really started a Twitter account for that (see the post on it here). But more importantly, get a load of these dopes:

1. Michele Bachmann – It looks like Minnesota’s least favorite politician is in it for the long run – in support of a safe haven for politicians to tweet pictures of their dongs and dongettes, that is. While it is probable that Ms. Bachmann does not handle her Twitter account, it appears that someone working for her either sucks at their job or has a twisted sense of humor. I’m hoping for the latter.

Still one of my favorite emails.

2. Ted Cruz – Here’s someone from Texas who’s trying to get in the Senate. Yo Ted, are you as awful at governing as you are at twittering? Or does Michele Bachmann’s best/worst employee also monitor your Twitter account?

3. LawyersforPerry – We want the Twitter! You can’t handle the Twitter!

4. ElephantAttire* – Did you ever wish your clothes could love Jesus and America and America Jesus as much as you do? Now they can! I actually think this is a great idea and wish I had thought of it. It’s like hemp clothing for everyone between Pittsburgh and Denver. You know, Real ‘Mercans™.

5. CJTaganos – Hands down the sanest one of my followers. CJTaganos uses Twitter for its true intention – professing one’s love for Vanessa Hudgens.

It’s possible that the conservatives on this list are following me because they get the joke, but does anyone really believe that?

*@AmericanJesusClothesRUs (aka ElephantAttire) is no longer following me. Even though our Twitlationship™ was short, I’ll never forget the wonderful moments we shared. They tried to hawk some GodLovesAmerica clothes on me, I told them they’re dipshits. Alas, it was not meant to be.