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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 Full Essay

Most people assume that television and other media change the way we speak, but linguists have searched in vain for supporting evidence. What they find instead when they look at communities where the media loom large and its reach is the most obvious, is speech that is actually untouched.

Groups such as inner-city African-Americans, with an average daily media exposure of eight hours, use dialects and accents that are becoming less like the standard accents heard on TV. Language changes spreading rapidly around the globe are in fact way ahead of the mass media, to be heard only later when sitcoms and movies catch up.

Deaf parents with hearing children maximize their children’s exposure to television in hope of giving them verbal stimulation — only to discover that children do not gain any language skills from talking heads. To acquire language, children need face-to-face stimulation with real people. If they are deprived of that stimulation beyond their first few years, their speech will be profoundly impaired.

The idea that TV and other mass media shape language probably comes from the easy observation that the media are very good at spreading buzzwords. Someone says, “You got punked if you sent your credit card number to that e-mail address,” and suddenly almost everyone in earshot thinks of punk’d, the now-cancelled TV series in which celebrities were suckered into embarrassing situations as hidden cameras recorded their embarrassment.

Buzzwords have long spread via the media; people are acutely aware of them — at least while they are current. If words can spread, the reasoning seems to go, then so can speech sounds and grammatical constructions and everything else. But that reasoning doesn’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. Buzzwords populate the most superficial fringe of language, like other fads and fashions. Most language is far more deeply embedded in the human psyche.

Even though they help spread buzzwords, the media get more credit than it deserves. It’s not as if television invented the word punked. It was there all along, as a verb form based on the old slang noun punk. What television did was make the verb more prominent than it had been in the constellation of similar words, such as fooled, duped, hoodwinked, gulled, hoaxed, tricked, misled, bamboozled, conned and hornswoggled. The lasting power of punked will undoubtedly depend upon its usefulness via the nuance of meaning it imparts — but it won’t be able to rely on the TV show to stay current.

What influences the way people speak is mobility, another great modern social and cultural force. We find ourselves in conversation with people from all over the world. Some of what we hear from those people might influence the way we speak. So might we be influenced by the sounds and the structure of the way they say them. And vice-versa. Face-to-face interaction is what makes the difference, not only for children beginning to acquire language but the rest of us, too.

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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