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Are Dialects Fading?
Dialects differences are here to stay no matter how much TV we watch

The Vanishing Verb
The language of TV news

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Media Power Index

Media Power

Talk the Talk?

Why don’t we all sound like the talking heads? Jack Chambers explains how TV and the mass media do — and do not — affect our language.  Read Summary

“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:

  • 1950s:Sufferin’ succotash became a fashionable exclamation, usually pronounced with a lisp — Thufferin’ thuccotash!  That’s how cartoon cat Sylvester said it in his fruitless pursuit of Tweetie bird.
  • 1960s: People telling tales around the water cooler looked doubting listeners in the eye and said, “I kid you not,” assuming the manner and the Elizabethan syntax of late-night talk-show host Jack Paar.
  • 1970s: Schoolyards rang with the mock battle cry Ya-ba-da-ba-doo! of the Paleolithic suburbanites known as the Flintstones.
  • 1980s: Todd and Lisa Lupner, the clique-obsessed students on Saturday Night Live (played by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner), unleashed dripping sarcasm in the form of emphatically retracted compliments…Those are nice mauve socks you’re wearing — NOT!
  • 1990s: Any unexpectedly insightful comment could meet with the retort, “Check out the brains on Brett,” a verbatim quotation from the 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
  • 2004: Kids are likely to bizounce (leave, exit) a party in search of something more shiznit (really awesome), in the rap argot of Snoop Dogg.

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.

Which Came First: Linguistic Chickens or Eggs?

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:

  • From a journalist (Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair magazine, March 1997) “National broadcasting networks have contributed largely to the erosion of Piedmontese in Italy, Provençal in France, and Ruthenian in the Ukraine and the Czech lands.” On the contrary, the demise of these and other regional vernaculars was well underway by the time the networks came into being. The use of standard language in the media is tolerated in those enclaves only because of this kind of vernacular decline.
  • From a novelist (Harold Horwood, in Tomorrow Will Be Sunday, 1966) “The people of Caplin Bight [a Newfoundland port], when addressing a stranger from the mainland, could use almost accentless English, learned from listening to the radio, but in conversation among themselves there lingered the broad twang of ancient British dialects that the fishermen of Devon and Cornwall and the Isle of Guernsey had brought to the coast three or four centuries before.” The idea that the they could master the mainland accent (supposedly “accentless English”) from listening to the radio is linguistic science-fiction.
  • From a press release (Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, Ontario, 1988) “The Bible is still the most popular source for boys’ names in Ontario.…Girls’ names continue to be dominated by those made popular on television, particularly afternoon soap operas, the ministry said.”  Notwithstanding the fact that the list of popular names for both boys and girls had about equal distribution between Biblical sources (Michael, Matthew, Jessica, Sarah, etc.) and non-Biblical (Kyle, Justin, Amanda, Jennifer, etc.), the demeaning assumption that parental tastes are dictated by the most trivial television fare should be examined critically by the politicians who authorize press releases such as this one.

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 same fallacy seems to underlie the casual assumption that the mass media drives all kinds of language changes.  People notice buzzwords when others use them, and know their source. They then adapt them as prototypes for other changes in language. If the mass media can popularize words and expressions, then “presumably” it can also spread other kinds of linguistic changes. We generalize from one limited effect to a host of others.

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.

Putting the Media Cart Before the Language Horse

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

Number 1: Regional dialects continue to diverge from standard dialects despite the exposure of dialect speakers to television, radio, movies and other mass media. The best-studied dialect divergence is occurring in American inner-cities, where the dialects of the most segregated African-Americans sound less like their white counterparts with respect to certain features than they did two or three generations ago. Yet these groups are avid consumers of mass media. William Labov observes that in inner-city Philadelphia the “dialect is drifting further away” from other dialects despite up to eight hours of daily exposure to Standard American English on television and in schools.

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

Number 3: Mass media does not work as a stimulus for language acquisition. Hearing children of deaf parents do not acquire language from exposure to radio or television. Case studies now go back more than 25 years, starting when psycholinguist Susan Ervin–Tripp studied children who failed to begin speaking until they were spoken to by other people, in ordinary situations. More recently, Todd and Aitchison charted the progress of a boy named Vincent, born of deaf parents who communicated with him by signing, at which he was fully competent from infancy. His parents encouraged him to watch television regularly, expecting it to provide a model for the speech skills they did not have. But Vincent remained speechless. By the time he was exposed to normal speech at age three, his speaking ability was undeveloped and his capacity for acquiring speech was seriously impaired.

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

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

Finally, we should note that high mobility has even greater social significance than the media explosion. Today, more people meet face to face across greater distances than ever before. The talking heads on our mass media may sometimes catch our attention, but it’s a one-way street: They never engage us in dialogue. Travelers, sales reps, neighbors and colleagues from distant places speak to us — and we hear not only what they say but how they say it. We may unconsciously borrow some features of their speech; they may borrow some of ours. That’s all quite normal. But it takes real people to make an impression … for us no less than little Vincent.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Lippi-Green, Rosina.  English with an accent. New York: Routledge,1997.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
J. K. Chambers is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. He is the co-editor, with Peter Trudgill and Natalie Schilling-Estes, of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Blackwell 2002) and co-author, with Peter Trudgill, of Dialectology (second edition, 1998). He has written extensively about Canadian English, beginning with Canadian Raising in 1973 and including Canadian English: Origins and Structures (Toronto: Methuen, 1975), the first book on the topic. He works extensively as a forensic consultant and maintains a parallel vocation in jazz criticism, including the prize-winning biography Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis (1998). More at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~chambers .

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