Dialects differences are here to stay no matter how much TV we watch
The language of TV news
“Dad, you got punk’d!” says seven-year-old Luc, after his father told everyone at the dinner table how the price of gas dropped two minutes after he filled the tank.
The table explodes with laughter. Everyone beams at Luc. “Listen to the big shot,” says his older brother. His mother says, laughing, “Now where in the world did you pick up a word like that?”
But they know where Luc picked it up. The word became popular because of the MTV series Punk’d, which duped celebrities into doing something embarrassing or demeaning while they were filmed by hidden cameras. The celebrities are shown as the butt of elaborate practical jokes, as punks. In short, they’re punked.
Punk has entered the lexicon as a transitive verb derived from the old slang noun. Luc never gets to watch the TV show because it’s on too late. But his sister and brother watch it, sometimes with their parents. Luc and his playmates also know something from hearsay. By these means, he has learned the word and how to use it.
Television and the other mass media such as movies and radio have long been good at disseminating words and phrases that infiltrate the pop lexicon. Here’s a decade-by-decade sampler:
Lexicographers eavesdropping at Luc’s house would instantly add punk (v.tr.) to their up-to-the-minute dictionaries — NOT! That would be imprudent, and lexicographers are notoriously prudent. There are two good reasons why: First, punk’d and the other words belong to the most ephemeral fringes of society, sharing more in common with fads and fashions than with language. For every buzzword dredged from memory a year or two after it peaks, a dozen are gone forever. To call something fab now dates you like a Nehru jacket.
Second, the lasting power of words that spread via the mass media has nothing to do with the various media themselves. Punk’d lasted just two seasons (2002-03). While it lasted, its name was raised into common parlance. What are the chances a word will persist for another five to 10 years? Not good. In buzzwords as in outré attire, there is a direct relationship between the height of the craze and the decline into oblivion. Fads mark their users as members of an in-group. The faster fads spread, the more pressure there is to find a new marker. Only your mother, if she was a beatnik, thinks rimless specs are groovy. Only your grandmother, if she was a gate, thinks black horn-rims are crazy.
The lasting power of punked will be probably determined by its usefulness before it was raised to buzzword status. MTV producers did not invent the word. They merely used it, and in doing so changed its former minority status among the words that mean pretty much the same thing. But it was not particularly useful before its fad, and that is not likely to change.
Our implicit assumptions about media and language overrule common sense when the facts show that the media only spread words and phrases, but do not invent them. Another common assumption that the media influences not only vocabulary but also the deeper reaches of language — sound patterns and sentence structures. In fact, it does not touch them. A final common assumption is that the media leads language changes. In fact, it belatedly reflects the changes.
Linguists have searched in vain for evidence supporting the above mentioned assumptions — which are widespread, as the following cases clearly show:
That last case, involving trends in baby names, is like that of the buzzwords discussed above because it partly involves fashion, with some of the same social forces at work — such as the rapidity of popularity spikes and decline with over-use. The association of those spikes with mass media has been soundly refuted. Sociologist Stanley Lieberson, in an exhaustive study of given names (A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Cultures Change, 2000) searched for correlations between media names and real-life children’s names and found exactly the opposite to what is generally assumed: Media names tend to reflect real-world naming practices, not vice-versa.
Lieberson’s conclusion supports my larger conclusion about the media and language in general. He writes, “Without precise information, …it is easy for the casual observer to err by reversing the cause from the effect.”
Does the mass media drive all kinds of language changes?
The fact remains: There is zero evidence for television or the other popular media disseminating or influencing sound changes or grammatical innovations. How do we know? We look at situations where, if the mass media were an active agent in language change, we would expect to find strong positive effects — and we find no such effects at all, positive or negative.
Let’s look at three sociolinguistic situations in which mass media influence, should it exist, would be obvious: First, social settings with intense exposure/overexposure to mass media; second, linguistic situations in which changes are disseminated globally; third, domestic settings in which television became the primary input for the acquisition of language by infants.
Regional dialects continue to diverge
Uptalk occurs in the speech of people under 40
Number 2: One of the best-studied global changes is an intonation pattern called uptalk, in which people make declarative statements with yes/no question intonation. This feature occurs mainly (but not exclusively) in the speech of people under 40. In the few decades of its existence, uptalk has spread to virtually all of the world’s English-speaking communities; it has been studied in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the United States. Its uses: It is heard when the speaker is establishing common ground with the listener as the basis for the conversation (Hello. I’m a student in your phonetics tutorial?) and when the speaker is seeking silent affirmation of some factor that might require explanation before the conversation can continue (Our high school class is doing an experiment on photosynthesis?). Its uses have generalized to include situations in which its pragmatic value is not quite as clear (Hello, my name is Robin?).
We know how it is used, but we do not know why it came into being or how it spread so far. Many people automatically assume that a change like this could never be so far-reaching unless the equally far-reaching media abetted it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To date, uptalk is not a feature of any newsreader’s or weather analyst’s speech on any national network anywhere in the world. More important, it is also not a regular, natural feature of any character’s speech in sitcoms, soap operas, serials and interview shows anywhere in the world. Undoubtedly it may soon be, but that will only happen when TV catches up with language change — not the other way around.
Only face-to-face contact stimulates language acquisition
The fact that certain language changes are spreading at the same time in history that mass media are going global should not be confused with cause and effect. It may be that the media fosters tolerance of other accents and dialects. The fact that standard speech reaches dialect enclaves from the mouths of anchorpersons, sitcom protagonists, color commentators and other admired people presumably adds a patina of acceptability to the way those people speak — and thus, presumably, adds the same patina to any regional changes that are standardizing. But there is no question: Changes themselves must be conveyed in face-to-face interactions among peers.
Mobility has greater social significance than the media explosion
William and Flora Hewlett
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