Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Right Now | Dialectal Materialism

Jabber and Bael

March-April 2003

In simpler times, Southerners ate Krispy Kremes and New Englanders ate Dunkin' Donuts. Texans wore cowboy hats and New Yorkers wore black. Today, Christina Aguilera wears Stetsons, Southerners wear Prada, and Krispy Kremes are a nationwide cult. Thanks to mass media and globalization, it seems regional differences are vanishing. So—can we still determine if the sunny blonde in the convertible is a true Californian? Absolutely. Ask her what shoes she wears to the gym. If she says "sneakers," forget it—this gal's from the East. A Californian would say "tennis shoes."

It's not surprising that vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation—the elements of dialect—can reveal someone's regional background. What is remarkable is dialects' persistence despite increasing migration, education, and cultural homogenization. "Regional dialects are alive and well," says associate professor of linguistics Bert Vaux, who has created an on-line survey of English speech to determine the geographic boundaries of word usage and pronunciations.

Since respondents are self-selected, it's not a random sample. Yet his mapped results, collected from more than 16,000 people around the country, suggest that frequently speech is still characteristic of a particular region, and sometimes markedly so. ( Another on-line survey, open only to those holding a current Harvard ID, is compiling data on terms peculiar to Harvard.)

"No one speaks a standard English," Vaux (rhymes with "fox") explains. "Even among classes, there are definite regional variations." He intends to publish an atlas of North American English dialects, a book he says is long overdue in the discipline: "Existing dialect atlases focus on archaic and obscure features that are of interest only to linguists."

Vaux believes people make conscious decisions about speech based on their current situations or peer groups. "You make a choice about what works best for you," he explains. An inner-city teenager, for example, might say "ain't" to his hometown friends, but intentionally use "isn't" with fellow Harvard students. At home, this teenager "would likely be pummeled, or at least mocked, if he used an academic register rather than the sort of casual register peppered with hip-hop pronunciations and expressions favored by his [high-school] classmates," Vaux contends. Similarly, "a grad student typically strives to speak and write in a certain sort of academic register that is used by professors. And most academics would treat with scorn a scholarly paper written in Ebonics. Humans," he says "are frighteningly hierarchical and emphatically not egalitarian. It is very important for them to clearly establish that they are like certain individuals and not like others."

If deemed inappropriate to the circumstances at the time, nonstandard constructions such as "ain't" and double negatives can disappear from a person's vocabulary. Alternately, people purposely retain certain words as a means of demonstrating regional pride or status. A Mississippian might cleave to "y'all" because he wants others to know he's Southern; a Boston teenager might declare her new Sketcher sneakers "wicked" because that term places her in a desired demographic. "Speech," Vaux reports, "is one of the main ways to indicate affiliation with a certain group."

But these affiliations can be unexpected. Vaux's survey results reveal that even widespread pronunciations or words are in fact strikingly distinctive to particular regions. The word "pecan," for example, is pronounced "pee-can" primarily in the northeast. In the rest of the country, "pee-kahn" and "pick-Ahn" prevail. Northerners from Minnesota to Maine say "crayfish"; Southerners along the coast say "crawfish"; and those in the middle call it a "crawdad." With no stigma or obvious geographic affiliation attached, these words are likely to remain part of a person's vocabulary, Vaux says: "We are not consciously aware of many features of our own speech."

But even noticeable dialects such as Ebonics or a teenager's slang-filled patter shouldn't be disparaged, Vaux argues. Instead of signaling poor education or low intelligence, nonstandard speech simply reflects the speaker's desire to emulate those who speak it. Vaux fears that disparaging such speech may reflect a condemnation of a socioeconomic class rather than a condemnation of the words themselves. "Humans tend to map their biases about groups they don't like—Midwesterners, white trash, minorities—on to the speech patterns of these groups," he explains. To mitigate these biases, Vaux suggests that teachers not only cool their disdain for students' nonstandard speech, but also use maps to illustrate the nation's widespread dialect variation. Showing that "soda," "pop," and "Coke" refer to the same carbonated drink could improve students' cultural awareness and demonstrate that "we are not all the same," Vaux says. "What is considered bizarre in one part of the country might be the norm in another."

~ Catherine Dupree

 

Dialect survey website: www.hcs.harvard.edu/~golder/dialect

Bert Vaux e-mail address: [email protected]