A dialect is a variety of language shared by a group of people (usually defined in terms of region and/or ethnicity) that has some grammatical patterns and words that differ from the “standard,” as well as nonstandard pronunciations. You may believe that dialects are “wrong” – as linguist Ralph Fasold so aptly puts it, dialects such as African-American English are “bad English, in the same sense that French is bad English” – but they are certainly powerful markers of social solidarity, and that means more to most people than being “correct.” If you are a speaker of a dialect that is considered “standard” or “good” (which is a social distinction, not a linguistic one), you may never have faced social prejudice due to the way you speak, so you may think this discussion doesn’t concern you. It does, though! Just like gender (masculine and feminine communication styles), people can turn their dialect up or down to send social messages.
Dialects are social, not biological
A bewildering variety of dialects and sub-dialects
So we’re not going to attempt to do a survey of all the different regional or ethnic dialects, or discuss the particular linguistic features of each. This is, of course, a fascinating thing to study, and we have recommended readings below, as well as sources where you can find audio clip of various dialects, to hear some of the differences for yourself. For social communication purposes, all that really matters is that you can distinguish “standard” from “non-standard,” and (when it’s non-standard) “us” from “not-us.”
African-American English as quintessential 'Other'
African-American English (AAE) is the “elephant in the room.” It is the most stigmatized dialect in the U.S., but at the same time it has a privileged place in our society, not just in rap and hip-hop music, but in wildly successful films and television shows, and most major league athletics. (While previous generations of successful African-American celebrities felt the need to develop very standard speech styles for public speaking, the current crop quite proudly uses more dialect features.) As a result, AAE is the dialect everyone thinks they know (but really don’t).
AAE has become a symbol of rejecting authority, and therefore also of being tough. Chicano English has borrowed several features from AAE, and Asian American youth (of various national origins) have been found to do the same. Of course, many suburban white kids (mostly boys) may also attempt to use AAE to sound “gangsta,” but are typically seen as posers, just going through a rebellious phase (and indeed, they are seen to abandon this style as they transition to more mature adulthood). The ethnic minorities who grow up in the same urban areas as the African-American youth are more likely to successfully incorporate not just superficial AAE vocabulary, but deeper grammatical patterns into more enduring statements of minority identity and “otherness.”
Some features of AAE you may not be familiar with:
Invariant (stressed) BIN
Conjugated BE (is and are)
Many other features of AAE are shared with Southern dialects (for obvious historical reasons), although African-Americans tend to be more stigmatized than white Southerners for the exact same linguistic phenomena. For more information about AAE, please see the sources section below.
Social judgments of dialects
Power & Social Class
Working-class people tend to have tight social networks that remain fairly stable over the course of their lives: they go to school with the kids from the neighborhood, they end up working together, socializing together, intermarrying, their kids become friends, etc. There is no expectation that they will move away, go to college, or interact regularly with people outside of their primary social network – so there’s no real pressure on them to use more “standard” varieties of English. Using their dialect makes much more sense, since it obviously effects their solidarity with the people who are most important: their friends, family, co-workers, etc. This is why stigmatized dialects continue to thrive, despite considerable pressure from the rest of society.
On the other hand, the upper-middle and upper class tend to be more mobile (they go away to college, then move on to graduate and professional schools, then perhaps move elsewhere again to establish a career). They get more education (which reinforces a “standard” variety of English) and are also required to speak more across group boundary lines, so it is not surprising that we see fewer dialect-specific features in their speech.
Dialect-specific stereotypes and prejudices
Dialects and formality shifts
You should never be ashamed of who you are, so you should never feel that you need to turn off your dialect, even if you find it strategic to sometimes turn it down. Shifting towards more formal (and hence more standard speech) shows that you understand the situation, that you take it seriously, and hence that you respect the others involved.
For a great example of turning the use of dialect up and down, watch a few minutes of Oprah interviewing Michael Jordan. Her introduction is quite standard, but she shifts dramatically at 2:07, using AAE to ask “So whatcha been doin’ witcho’self?” This creates solidarity and invites him to be as informal as he likes. When he answers using much more standard and formal language (they are, after all, being watched by millions of people and he is formally dressed), she responds in kind, with the formal and standard question (at 2:30) “How do you get back to a normal life….?”
Responding to the use of dialects in conversation
Someone who uses their dialect with you in a friendly way is trusting you not to judge them harshly, not to believe all the pernicious stereotypes. If you are a member of the same group, you should respond to them in kind, showing acceptance of the friendliness, underlining your common group membership. If you meet their use of dialect with a very standard variety, they will feel rejected and you will seem like a snob. If you are not a member of the same dialect group, you should not attempt to “borrow” the other person’s dialect features as this may be seen as mocking them (particularly if you do it badly). You should, however, respond with equal informality.
Someone who speaks to you with an annoyed or angry tone, using dialect features that you don’t share, is warning you to back off. In this case, the use of the dialect clearly signals a lack of solidarity, a sign that you don’t belong. The speaker signals their contempt for you by showing that they don’t care what you think of them!
Regions and ethnicities don’t just have different dialects, they may have other cultures differences that influence how members of these groups communicate.
- Some researchers have suggested that African-Americans typically make as much eye contact as Anglo-Americans (whose culturally dominant patterns are discussed in showing interest and turn-taking), but that they tend to reverse the direction, with speakers rather than listeners maintaining a focused gaze. This means that when an AAE speaker and an Anglo-American have a conversation, they may both hold eye contact when the African-American is speaking (which may make each feel the other is being aggressive and challenging) or neither maintain a steady gaze when the Anglo-American is speaking (which may make each feel the other isn’t interested). If this is true (and I don’t think there’s really enough research on it at this point to be sure about it), it would lead to unfortunate miscommunications!
- Among many ethnic groups, including Hispanics, Native American Indians, and Asian Americans, direct eye contact is often seen as disrespectful, and so someone younger or significantly less powerful will look down or away to show respect for an older and/or powerful speaker. (This is well-documented for many groups.) The tendency of Anglo-Americans to focus their gaze on a speaker may make speakers of these minorities feel disrespected; and the tendency to look away may be interpreted by Anglo-American speakers as a lack of interest. Again, unfortunate miscommunications!
- Adger, Carolyn Temple, Walt Wolfram & Donna Christian. (2007). Dialects in Schools and Communities. 2nd Ed. Routledge.
- Bucholtz, Mary. (2001). The whiteness of nerds: Superstandard English and racial markedness. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11(1): 84-100.
- Bucholtz, Mary. (2004). Styles and Stereotypes: The Linguistic Negotiation of Identity Among Laotian American Youth. Pragmatics 14 (2/3): 127-47.
- Bucholtz, Mary. (2011). White Kids: Language, Race, and Styles of Youth Identity. Cambridge University Press.
- Cassidy, Frederic G., Joan Houston Hall, & Luanne von Schneidemesser (Eds.)(1985-2013). The Dictionary of American Regional English, Vols. 1-6. Harvard University Press.
- Chun, Elaine. (2001). The construction of White, Black, and Korean American identities through African American Vernacular English. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11: 52-64.
- Cutler, Cecilia A. (1999).Yorkville crossing:White teens, hip hop and African American English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3(4): 428-442.
- Heaton, Hayley & Lynne C. Nygaard. (2011) Charm or Harm: Effects of Passage Content on Listener Attitudes Towards American English Accents. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 30(2): 202-11.
- Fuertes, Jairo N., William H. Gottdiener, Helena Martin, Tracey C. Gilbert, & Howard Giles. (2012). A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology 42(1): 120–33.
- Labov, William. (2006). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.
- Lo, Adrienne. (1999). Codeswitching, speech community membership, and the construction of ethnic identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3: 461-79.
- Martin, Judith N. & Mitchell R. Hammer. 1989. Behavioral categories of intercultural communication competence: Everyday communicators’ perceptions. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 13 (3 ): 303-332.
- Niedzielski, Nancy A. & Dennis R. Preston. (2003). Folk Linguistics. DeGruyter Mouton.
- Reyes, Angela. (2005). Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics 9 (4): 509-32.
Audio Clips of Dialects
- Dictionary of American Regional English. http://dare.wisc.edu/.
- The Language Samples Project. (2001). Dialects of the Northeast US. University of Arizona. http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~lsp/Northeast/NewYorkEnglish/nyphon.html.
- IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) http://www.dialectsarchive.com/united-states-of-america
- George Mason University’s http://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php function=find&language=english
- PBS’ “Do You Speak American?” http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/
Other Recommended (& More Accessible) Reading
- Alim, H. Samy & Geneva Smitherman. (2012). Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race in the U.S. Oxford University Press.
- Bauer, Laurie & Peter Trudgill (Eds.) (1998). Language Myths. Penguin. Especially Myth #17 “They speak really bad English down south and in New York City” by Dennis R. Preston (also available at http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/prejudice/attitudes/ ), Myth #20 “Everyone has an accent except me” by John H. Esling, and Myth #13 “Black children are verbally deprived” by Walt Wolfram.
- Baugh, John. (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford University Press.
- Bender, Margaret (Ed.) (2004). Linguistic Diversity in the South: Changing Codes, Practices, and Ideology. University of Georgia Press.
- Fasold, Ralph W. (1999) Ebonic Need Not Be English. Center for Applied Linguistics. http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/ebonic-issue.html
- Fought, Carmen. (2002). Chicano English in Context. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Green, Lisa J. (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
- Lippi-Green, Rosina. (2011). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. 2nd Ed. Routledge.
- Murray, Thomas Edward & Beth Lee Simon. (2006). Language Variation and Change in the American Midland: A New Look at “Heartland” English. John Benjamins.
- Smitherman, Geneva. (2000). Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Houghton Mifflin.
- Wolfram, Walt & Natalie Schilling-Estes. (2006). American English: Dialects and Variation. 2nd Ed. Blackwell.