what lies ahead?
tv personality with crowd in nyc

Dialect  & Identity
Pittsburgh residents hold onto local dialects to express who they are 

Talk the Talk?
TV has no influence on the way we speak

The Truth About Change
It starts subtly in the middle class, and women often lead the way

Additional Resources
Media Power Index

Media Power

Are Dialects Fading?

Nope.  Dialect Differences Will
Never Disappear (...  no matter
how much TV we watch)

Americans have moved from “a chicken in every pot” to a television in every living room.  Linguists are often asked whether this will eventually cause us all to sound the same.  Carmen Fought addresses language diversity in the 21st century.

Some of my students despise forms or applications that ask them to check a box specifying their ethnicity. A recent trend is to check “Other” and write in “human being.” I respect their choice and applaud their small protest against the way forms oversimplify the question of ethnicity in a diverse world. Still, it’s clear that most “human beings” do not see themselves as members of a great undifferentiated mass. We tend to be very attached to the distinctions among us.

For example, most teenagers think they would dieof embarrassment if somebody thought that they dressed, acted or (most relevant here) talked like their parents. They go to great lengths to avoid this possibility, inventing new slang terms and discarding them like so many used tissues to stay one step ahead of the game.

In another case, in our heterosexually oriented society, men don’t usually like to be mistaken for women — and vice versa. Even drag queens enact an identity that relies on the audience knowing that they are, in fact, biologically male. Also, their performance of “femininity” is not exactly like that of any biologically female members of their community, especially with respect to language.

Will we all end up talking alike?

People often ask linguists, Now that we have so much television in America, will dialects die out? Will we all end up talking alike? My answer is: No, definitely not. To understand why, consider why we have different dialects in the first place. The original English settlers brought their specific regional dialects with them. After people settled here, they were often separated by geographic features (such as mountains) or simply by great distances, which helped to maintain the distinctions between dialects. It seems clear how that idea could lead someone, logically, to think that now that we have airplanes to get from place to place, and television to bring speakers of other dialects into our homes, all those differences could just die out.

But geography is only one piece — and not the most important one — of the dialect puzzle. Think about it: Big cities such as London or New York contain people who speak in a large number of really different ways. These people are not separated by mountains or big distances. Au contraire, they are often packed together like sardines. So why do they speak differently?

Our language
expresses who we are

The answer is that our language expresses who we are: our complex and simultaneous identities as individuals and members of society.  As I mentioned at the beginning, we want to sound like the people we want to be like, not like other people from other groups. To borrow an expression, we want to talk the talk. Texan Latinas want to sound like other Texan Latinas. Professors at Yale want to sound like other professors at Yale. African-American lawyers from Boston want to sound like other African-American lawyers from Boston. And so on.

This is why dialect differences will never disappear no matter how much TV we watch. We want to sound like the people around us, and not like Ted Koppel. (Unless we happen to be ambitious white male newscasters; then we might want to and probably will sound exactly like Ted Koppel.)

Reflections of, Like, a Valley Girl

All of us speak a dialect (which, in the linguistic sense, means ‘a variety shared by a group of speakers’). This dialect tells the world something about us. Meantime, it’s natural to shift styles when we’re speaking. None of us is likely to speak the same way when we’re hanging out at a bar with friends as when we’re at a job interview. (Try it some time with your friends, if you don’t believe me: “Well, Andy, I feel that I have serious potential in the area of ordering more onion rings.”)

diners at a lunch counter

So a student hanging out with her friends talks in a particular way to emphasize that she is a member of a group of friends who all know and trust one another, or maybe that she is a woman (an incredibly complicated and variable concept). On the other hand, if she comes to talk to me — her professor — about her grade, she may emphasize her identity as a student, generally speaking a little more formally. For one thing, she might feel it is okay to use a four-letter word with her friends to emphasize solidarity, but she might not feel comfortable swearing when speaking to her professor.

Do you think because I’m a professor, I don’t speak a dialect? I do. I speak 
Valley Girl! My native dialect is “Valley Girl” English, a variety of California English that shares many features with other Californian ways of speaking. Having grown up in Southern California, I have a strong interest in the dialects of the nation’s Western part, which haven’t been studied nearly as much as East Coast or Southern varieties. One of the distinguishing phonetic features (features of how it sounds) of Valley Girl English is the fronting of /u/s and /o/s. This means that a word like two comes out sounding more like “tih-oo” (think of dude as an example of a word that often has a fronted vowel), and a word like no sounds a little like “neh-ow.”

Valley Girl English also uses particular intonation patterns. Among other things, we pioneered ‘uptalk,’ the use of rising intonations for sentences that are not questions. My Californian students, for instance, leave messages that use this intonation exclusively: “Professor Fought? This is Heather? From your Linguistics 10 class? I have a question about the homework?” I don’t know, Heather. Do you have a question about the homework or not? You tell me.

Uptalk is about establishing common ground

Just kidding. Uptalk doesn’t cause any real confusion. And even though people may perceive it as indicating uncertainty, it doesn’t. The student in the example knows that her name is Heather, that she’s in my class and that she has a question about the homework. Otherwise she wouldn’t have called! Rather, Cynthia McLemore has argued convincingly that uptalk is about establishing common ground. It’s more about the hearer than the speaker.  Heather, for instance, wants to know if I know who she is. She’s quite sure of it herself.

Returning to the matter of style shifting, I should point out that I don’t often sound like a Valley Girl. I’m a professor. I have a Ph.D., and massive amounts of education tend to roll over regional dialects and flatten them under one big mushy ‘standard’ (whatever that means). Nonetheless, when I’m talking with friends from college or high school, I can easily slip back into my true Californian self. Sometimes, I do it on purpose. For example, when my students and I discuss dialects of the West, I often need to give them examples of particular sound patterns. “Listen, it works like this,” I tell them.  “Oh my Goh-od! It was, like, seh-ow ba-a-a-a-d!” I say, allowing my voice to become creaky at the end (another California feature). The students laugh, but secretly they may be afraid I will get stuck that way.

The thing is, elements of Valley Girl English seem to be, like, spreading. Although it’s hard to document, I firmly believe that “like” is originally ours. By now, young (and not so young) people all over the country and even in other parts of the English-speaking world use “like.”  I recently saw a ‘true crime’ TV documentary in which a middle-aged detective, commenting on what it felt like to pursue a serial killer said (as best I can remember): “When you look into the abyss, the abyss, like, looks into you.”

Uptalk has also spread to other areas? And fronting of /u/ and /o/ may be spreading as well. Which leads me to wonder if Valley Girl English will some day take over as the ‘standard’ for large parts of the nation. If this happens, my students won’t find it funny anymore when I switch to Valley Girl in class. They’d be perfectly accustomed to hearing their doctor say: “This looks, like, infected? I’m totally going to have to, like, operate?”

Chicano English is Still English

Many people who speak Chicano English are monolingual in English and don’t speak any Spanish

Valley Girl English isn’t the only dialect in California. I’ve studied “Chicano English,” which is spoken in other places but is a very important dialect, numerically and symbolically, here. Chicano English is an interesting example of a contact dialect, meaning that it developed where two languages were in contact, English and Spanish. As a result, it has features that make people think of “a Spanish accent.” That might be one way of describing how it started, historically. (Read more about this.) But in fact, many people who speak Chicano English today are monolingual in English. They don’t speak any Spanish at all.

People who don’t know much about this dialect often are confused about this point. A co-worker recently asked me, ‘Why do so many Mexican-American students seem to have such a hard time learning English, even if they were born in the U.S.?’ She offered the example of a Mexican-American student who worked in her office. I happened to know that the student she was talking about was a native speaker of English, specifically of Chicano English. My co-worker’s confusion illustrates a common myth about Chicano English: that it is a broken version of English spoken by people whose first language is Spanish.

teenagers  in los angeles neighborhood

On the contrary, Chicano English speakers have in reality learned English perfectly, like children of all ethnic backgrounds who grow up in the United States. However, the variety of English they’ve learned is non-standard and happens to reflect the historical contact with Spanish. If it’s spoken by people who only know — and only ever knew — English, how could it possible be viewed as a poorly learned second language for native Spanish speakers?

This myth has unfortunate repercussions in the educational system. At the high school where I did most of my fieldwork, I helped in the office. Occasionally, I had to administer the Bilingual Syntax Measure, a test designed to help the school classify certain students as ‘LEP’ (Limited English Proficient). The test focuses on a number of English grammatical forms, such as –ed for past tense, irregular verbs, plural –s, and so on. The test was administered to any student whose parents had reported, in a survey sent home by the school, that Spanish was spoken at home —even if only the parents spoke it. Often, students who were completely fluent in English and fairly poor in Spanish were classified as LEP because of the non-standard forms they used in responding to the questions.

Mexican-American students who didn’t speak Spanish at home, some of whom would have had equally low test scores due to being Chicano English speakers, were never tested. I can imagine that someone looking at these scores (and here I picture a faceless administrator in the state government) would probably conclude — mistakenly — that bilingual Mexican-American children are likely to be hindered in learning English properly because of their Spanish. But in fact, that is not true at all. All the evidence we linguists have suggests that being bilingual is a Good Thing. It’s being ignorant about dialects that’s hazardous to your intellectual growth.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Domenico Maceri Gorman, James.  “Like, Uptalk?” in G. Goshgarian, ed. Exploring Language, 8th edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishers, 1998. (Cynthia McLemore is cited in this article.)
  • Fought, Carmen.  Chicano English in Context.  Palgrave/MacMillan Publishers, 2003.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an accent. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
  • HispanicVista: Does Bilingualism Make You Smarter? Research shows it might.
Carmen Fought is an associate professor of linguistics, Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Chicano English in Context (Palgrave/Macmillan) and the editor of Sociolinguistic Variation (Oxford University Press). Her research focuses on the dialects of California, from those associated with Latinos and Latinas to the infamous "Valley Girl" way of speaking. Dr. Fought is also studying the representation of language in the media, including films, television and commercials.

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