Dialects

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

Although linguists have traditionally studied dialects in terms of “objective” identity characteristics (where you’re from, your ethnicity), they know that this is an oversimplification. What matters is who you interact with over and over again, and how you see those relationships. If you have a strong and close social network with others of “your group,” you will display more dialect markers of that group, especially when speaking “in-network.” If you have only weak ties with members of a dialect community, it doesn’t matter whether you share the same heritage or grew up together. So, for instance, some African-Americans may use African-American English (AAE) all the time (because they wish to express pride in their heritage, no matter what the situation), some may use more dialect features with other African-Americans than with anyone else (so they create more solidarity with whoever they’re speaking to), some may continue to use AAE sound patterns while adopting more standard vocabulary and grammar, and some African-Americans may speak in a “standard” dialect all the time (either because they didn’t grow up in an African-American dialect community to begin with, or because they have sought to avoid the stigma that the rest of the American society has traditionally attached to ethnic dialects). Your biology has nothing to do with it, and your history has only a little to do with it: this is a social phenomenon. Members of the same family may end up sounding quite different, depending on their social choices and goals.

A bewildering variety of dialects and sub-dialects

The United States is a large country with a very diverse population. Sometimes when we talk about dialects, we’re talking about very broad divisions (East Coast vs. Southern, e.g.), while other times we’re making very fine distinctions (like recognizing differences within the Boston area). Chicano-American is not the same as Puerto Rican-American, which is not the same as Cuban-American, etc. – but if you’re not a native speaker of these varieties, they might all sound the same to you (just as all “Southern” sounds alike to Northern ears, although a Texan and a Georgian would not see themselves as part of the same dialect group). Even the experts who study dialects for a living can’t always immediately recognize which dialect group(s) a given speaker belongs to. What most of us can do is make an “us” vs. “them” distinction (this person sounds like “us” or not).

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'

Okay, we know we said we weren’t going to talk about specific dialects, but….

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 BE

Invariant (unconjugated) BE is a grammatical marker of habitual action. “He be workin” does not mean that he’s at work now, just that he works regularly, he has a job.

Invariant (stressed) BIN

Invariant (unconjugated), stressed BIN sounds like “standard” been, but functions as a grammatical marker that something began in the remote past and is still relevant now (connecting the remote past to the present). So “I bin married” means I got married a long time ago and am still married now. Of course, judgments of “remoteness” are somewhat subjective and depend on the proposition. If I tell my husband “I BIN cut my hair,” the haircut may only have happened two days ago, but I’m showing him my annoyance that he didn’t remark upon it sooner.

Conjugated BE (is and are)

Is and are can be omitted in AAE anywhere that they can be contracted in standard English – it’s essentially the same rule, which makes it especially weird when standard speakers look down on AAE speakers for it!

Multiple negation

The use of multiple negation markers is just as common in the world’s languages as a single-marker system. AAE uses an “addition” model (that is, more negative markers make a proposition more negative), which is perfectly logical.

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


Solidarity

You don’t have to take our word for it that dialects are used to create a perception of solidarity. Linguists have conducted scores of studies comparing “standard” guises with “dialect” pronunciations (where the same bi-dialectal speakers produce samples from both varieties, controlling for individual vocal qualities, allowing us to see purely the effects of regional and ethnic accents on listeners’ perceptions of the speaker). The results are remarkably consistent: when speakers use regional or ethnic accents, they are judged higher in solidarity-related variables such as friendliness, trustworthiness, likeability, and so forth. (Oddly, this has been shown even in some studies in which the judges were not members of the same dialect community as the speakers!) One recent study (Heaton & Nygaard 2011) even showed that varying the content of the speech only affected people’s judgment of the speaker in the absence of a regional accent – that is, the dialect had a stronger effect on people’s judgments of the speaker than what was said! “Down-home,” “authentic,” “real people” are the ones we’d like to hang out and have a beer with. We know no one speaks “standard” English as a native dialect, so we don’t really trust people who use it!

Power & Social Class

The flip side of the coin to solidarity is power. Dialect speakers are consistently rated lower than standard speakers on all power-related variables: status, wealth, education, intelligence, ambition, etc.) (And yes, this is true even when the judges belong to the same dialect community as the speakers.) There is actually some sociological logic behind these judgments. We don’t like to talk about social class in the United States, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – and it has been found to correlate strongly with use of dialects.

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.

Gender

Just to make life more complicated, there are also gender dimensions to dialects. Because going against the “standard” can be seen as a sign of strength and rebellion (a way of saying “F— you” to the world), women are sometimes more heavily stigmatized than men for using the same dialect features. As discussed in the gender section, women are expected to speak more “properly” than men, so a women who uses “too much” dialect may be seen as “unfeminine.” Some of the matched guise studies have in fact shown that women did not make as many gains in solidarity variables when they used the dialect as men did. (So they received “power rewards” for speaking in a more standard way, but did not receive as much of a “solidarity bonus” as men would for using the dialect. No wonder women speak more properly!)

Dialect-specific stereotypes and prejudices

There are particularly harsh stereotypes associated with some specific dialects: people who sound like they’re from New York or New Jersey (and to a lesser degree, Boston) are “pushy and obnoxious,” Anglo-American Southern speakers are “slow” and “racist” (but perhaps also warm and polite), speakers of African-American English are “uneducated,” other ethnic dialect users are “not fully American.” It pains us to even repeat such ignorant stereotypes – but we can’t ignore them, either, as they’re very common and have serious social consequences. Speakers of particularly stigmatized dialects often develop linguistic insecurities: having heard the stereotypes so often, having felt the social consequences, they believe their speech to be inferior, and so many of them are motivated to become bi-dialectal, or even just to exclusively adopt the most standard variety they can achieve, forgoing the solidarity benefits of their native dialect. This often comes at a heavy price, as they are seen as rejecting their community and their heritage.

Dialects and formality shifts

In the words and sounds sections, we discussed how people are expected to shift their speech style in terms of levels of formality from situation to situation. People who speak stigmatized dialects have the resources to shift even more, turning up or down the use of dialect features (words, pronunciations, and grammatical structures), or even switching varieties entirely, if they have had enough access to the “standard” to become bi-dialectal. Many formal situations are professional and/or public, in which it may be more important to appeal to power than to solidarity, and so dialect speakers may use more standard varieties in these situations. Some speakers of stigmatized dialects try to “stamp out” their native dialects, but this limits their stylistic range!

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 chooses to use a regional or ethnic dialect when speaking with you is either being informal to signal friendliness or is angry or emotional enough not to care how you judge them. How you respond will differ, according to what you perceive as the motivation for the use of the dialect, and whether or not you are a member of the same dialect community. (To distinguish friendly (happy) displays from displays of anger, see expressing emotions.)

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!

Intercultural Communication

Regions and ethnicities don’t just have different dialects, they may have other cultures differences that influence how members of these groups communicate.

politeness

New Yorkers really are “less polite” – because popular notions of politeness only take ritualized and solidarity-based forms into account. New Yorkers emphasize power-based politeness (avoiding imposition above all) while Midwesterners and Southerners are more likely to express solidarity with complete strangers, seemingly much less concerned about imposing. In general, regardless of region, people from large cities are more negatively polite (avoiding imposition) and people from less densely populated areas are more positively polite (establishing connection). Of course, regardless of region or ethnicity, people in general tend to use more positive politeness when speaking within their own group, and more negative politeness when speaking across group lines.

eye contact

While it is important for all cultures to express interest when someone is speaking, this can be accomplished in a variety of ways – it does not necessarily involve eye contact. Different cultures have different rules for (and different social meanings attached to) eye contact. Some ethnic differences have been noticed within the U.S.:

  • 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!

Scholarly Sources

  • 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.

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