Communicative Choices & Linguistic Style
Curricular Unit Menu
We may think of the way people dress, their hairstyle, or even the vehicle they drive as contributing to their personal style. Also crucial to an individual’s style and social self are ways of speaking. In fact, the way people talk can sometimes be a stronger indicator of who they are—or who they want to be—than other habits and traits. Just by talking, no matter what the subject matter, people convey a good deal of social information about themselves—where they are from, their level of education, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—and about how they view the situation in which they are speaking. Since language behavior is largely unconscious, people may be unaware of features in their own speech that identify them as belonging to certain groups or as holding certain values. On the other hand, they might be quite conscious of some verbal features that are characteristic of another group, and they might adopt them to display affiliation with that group. Speaking involves choices about a complex combination of linguistic features that include pronunciation, vocabulary, pitch, intonation, pace, loudness, and rhythm. This unit investigates some factors that may influence speech style.
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
Total time of video segments: (31:30)
Prounciation in Maine (DYSA/1)
begins with an interview with a lobsterman, John Coffin, who describes how lobsters—and the people who make a living fishing them—are declining in number. As this traditional way of life dies out, Coffin fears his way of speaking will go too.
Dialect Area/ “cah”
finds Robert MacNeil driving south from Maine. Outside Boston, he meets Massachusetts native Pam Head, who recounts a humorous story about when she lived in Oklahoma and needed to buy a car. People didn’t understand her when she said, “cah.” She has since moved back to the Boston area where her way of speaking is the norm.
Priscilla Beach Theater
offers a different solution to the problem of speech that some people find hard to understand. In this case, the speaker in question is the host, Robert MacNeil. MacNeil visits the Priscilla Beach Theater, where he spent a summer acting when he was 21. Originally from Canada, MacNeil had a way of speaking (in particular, the way he pronounced certain vowels) that he was told to change if he wanted to be an actor. Confronted by this choice, MacNeil intentionally tried to modify his speech so that it would conform to what was expected for the stage.
Pittsburgh (DYSA/1) 1.6b
investigates the connection between place and identity in Pittsburgh. MacNeil and Barbara Johnstone visit a local novelty shop and discuss some of the words and pronunciations that Pittsburghers feel separate Yinzers (locals) from outsiders. Not all of the words and pronunciations identified as Pittsburghese are unique to that dialect. In fact, many of the words Pittsburghers claim as their own are found in varieties of English throughout the United States. Regardless, these words and pronunciation features offer good examples of how individuals reinforce their connection to a place through speech.
Linguistic Profiling/John Baugh
(DYSA/1) 1.9a [01:38:42]
investigates potential negative consequences for speakers who use a non-mainstream style of speaking that identifies their ethnicity. John Baugh demonstrates research he has been conducting. He calls housing-rental agencies using different ethnic ways of speaking. His research shows that people may be subjected to linguistic profiling as well as more straightforward racial profiling.
Dialect in schooling, the 1979 Ann
Arbor decision (DYSA/1)
1.10 [01:44:20] (5:56)
concerns the implications of ethnic speaking styles for education. It introduces members of a class action lawsuit in 1977-1979, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, (Transcript). Three African American mothers argued that their children were being treated unfairly in their suburban White school because of the way they spoke. Interviews with three of the former students; a mother; the case social worker, Ruth Zweifler; and one of the prosecuting lawyers, Kenneth Lewis, revisit the case and its continuing implications for schools 25 years later. Mr. Lewis responds to McNeil’s question about Puff Daddy working in the law office by pointing out that different occupations require different sets of language skills and styles, and that the profession of attorney relied on a particular style different from that of entertainer.
Interview with" Willie"
(DYSA/2) 2.6c [01:30:04] (1:19)
features two linguists, Guy Bailey and Patricia Cukor-Avila, and the research they have been conducting over 17 years in the rural community of Springville, Texas. The segment includes a brief interview with Willie (a pseudonym), an elderly African American man from the community whose language is very different from the African American English that is spoken today.
Guy Bailey on Divergence
(DYSA/2) 2.6e [01:32:56] (2:55)
shows Bailey and Cukor-Avila playing playing Library of Congress recordings of former slaves made in the 1930s. They discuss how the speech found in the Library of Congress recordings and among elderly African Americans in Texas is more similar to the speech of elderly Whites than the speech of younger African Americans is to younger Whites. The speech of Blacks and Whites is diverging (becoming less similar) rather than converging (becoming more similar).
Steve Harvey (DYSA/3) 3.3a [01:09:13] (2:10)
includes an interview with Steve Harvey, a radio DJ, actor, and stand-up comedian whose African American identity is an important aspect of his professional persona. He describes the need for a range of speech styles to meet the communicative demands of various situations.
Matched Guide Test/Ethnicity,
Expectations & Speech
investigates how people react when speech style unexpectedly does not match appearance. Cliff Nass demonstrates an experiment in which voices and faces can be mixed and matched by a computer. When the computer pairs the voice of an African American with the picture of a European American, people respond differently than when the same voice is paired with an African American face, and vice versa.
Country music/Cody James (DYSA/2) 2.3b
includes a performance by and interview with country singers Cody James and Kenny Hayes. Though neither performer is actually from the South, both have adopted Southern pronunciations in their singing and talking. This demonstrates how people may shift their linguistic style to match an identity that they wish to embrace.
What is Style?
Style can be thought of as a collection of features that suggest to others who we are, who others perceive us to be, or who we wish to be—from what type of house we live in, to what we eat and drink, to what we read, to how we speak. Speech can reveal a great deal. Through the words we use, the way we pronounce them, and (to a certain extent) how we arrange our words in sentences, we reveal what groups we belong to—for instance, where we are from, our ethnicity, our gender, our age. But each individual selects uniquely from among the linguistic resources associated with the various groups to which she or he belongs.
Style is Learned
Speaking in a certain way—or ways—is a learned ability. A particularly salient aspect of speech style is tied to geography —where speakers grew up. People are interested in what those from other places (Texas, New York, Ohio, etc.) sound like. However, geography does not determine speech style. Someone may, for instance, forego a regional way of speaking, perhaps for professional reasons, and adopt other ways. Similarly, being biologically male or female does not completely determine speech characteristics. Even vocal pitch is partly learned: Long before their voices change, little boys learn that lower-pitched voices are associated with masculinity, and they can manipulate their vocal folds so that their voices sound lower than little girls’. Nor do race and ethnicity cause a person to speak a certain way. For instance, babies born in Asia and raised in the U.S. by middle-class English-speaking parents in a mainstream community will speak mainstream English (and will encounter the same stylistic choices as other mainstream speakers). Finally, people in different jobs—newscasters, radio DJs, plumbers, physicists, doctors—learn specialized ways of talking. Speaking like a newscaster or a doctor, for instance is, in fact, part of being one.
Individual style, then, is in large part a personal version of the behavior typical of a group. Children acquire style as they acquire language and culture.
Speakers Shift Their Styles
No one speaks the same way all the time. Speakers adjust constantly to the audience, situation, and topic. Over the course of a lifetime, as they take on new personal and professional roles, speakers modify their speech. Everyone is, of course, a member of multiple groups—age groups (children or teenagers or middle-aged people), professional groups (lawyers or electricians or bus drivers), and gender groups (men or women)—and speech styles can emphasize one aspect of identity over another. People who speak more than one language choose the one that seems more appropriate at any particular moment (linguists call this code-switching). People who speak more than one dialect of a language shift between them—for instance, using African American English on some occasions and Standard English on others, and shifting within an occasion to signal meaning subtly. Using the dialect of a group indicates affiliation with the group. So, for example, suburban White teenagers who identify with African American culture or music may incorporate features of African American English into their speech—what linguists call dialect crossing. Some people control only one dialect of their language, but they, too, shift among different styles of speaking, often depending on whether the situation is more formal or less formal (for more information on this, click here).
Stylistic Choices Have Consequences
Communicative style may provide some insight into personality — how caring or how domineering an individual may be (for example) — but it is dangerous to assume a direct link between speech style and psychology. People learn in childhood, in their families and peer groups, the sounds, grammar, and vocabulary associated with their language variety. At the same time, they learn how to use language: how fast to talk, how loud, whether and when to talk at the same time as others, what rhythm to use, how often to tell personal stories and how to structure them. When speakers share expectations about these sorts of things, their conversations proceed smoothly; even if they disagree, they are likely to understand each other. When conversationalists have different styles, however, misunderstanding may ensue. If one person usually chimes in to signal enthusiasm as others talk (because that’s what her family and friends and the people she grew up with do), it may be interpreted as a rude interruption by someone from another background who is used to people talking one at a time . Or a teacher working in the North who retains her native Southern pronunciation and grammatical patterns might be seen as less intellectual by Northerners who do not know her. Using a style with others who share it can promote conversational harmony, while using it with people who do not know it can have unfortunate repercussions.
Adopting a style can have benefits, such as closer rapport with a group and presentation of self in a desired light. But there can also be negative consequences to not sounding as expected. If a male is thought to sound feminine, he may be subjected to ridicule. Someone of African American ethnicity who does not use African American English (AAE) could face disapproval from those who do, while other people may find it strange to hear an African American person speaking in a way they associate with European Americans. A White teenager’s use of AAE features may evoke negative responses from peers or teachers. And people may think twice before accepting the professional services of someone with a strong regional accent different from their own.
Background on African American English, linguistic profiling, and the Ann Arbor decision can be found here.
What Impact does TV have on Our Style?
While television influences the language by introducing catch phrases and words, the truth is that it is not causing stylistic uniformity. Because TV is not interactive, people are not likely to change their ways of speaking to a significant degree based on watching or even talking back to the TV. This is the most crucial difference between language on television and language used in society: When speakers interact, everyone involved responds to the language being used in terms of both what is said and how it is said. These dynamics may lead people to modify the way they speak, both in the moment and over time. Thus interaction helps mold personal style. Jack Chambers’ essay, “Talk the Talk,” offers a brief history of the fears people have expressed about television’s influence on language and some words that have been introduced (briefly) into English from television, as well as an explanation of why television is not a threat to language diversity in the United States. Carmen Fought offers a similar view of diversity in her essay, “Are Dialects Fading?”
Pronunciation in New England (DYSA/1)
1. Lobsterman/Pronunciation in Maine: MacNeil says, “Mainers fear that their dialect … is coming to the end of the road.” How is a decline in a way of life related to a decline in a way of speaking? Does one cause the other or do they just coincide? Can there be one without the other? Why might people fear the death of their dialect? Do you think that all speakers of the dialect would feel this way?
2. Buying a Car: Pam Head, the Massachusetts native, found herself having to change her pronunciation in order to make herself understood when she was living in Oklahoma (saying “car” instead of “cah,” and probably changing other words as well). Speculate about various strategies Head might have used if she had stayed in Oklahoma. Are there people from different parts of the country on your campus? Do you notice any of them changing their pronunciation of certain words? Do you notice yourself changing your pronunciation?
3. Priscilla Beach Theater: MacNeil says, “Americans consider themselves egalitarian and unsnobbish about accents, but they are full of notions about how not to speak.” Do you agree? Are Americans generally egalitarian and unsnobbish? Do you have notions about how not to speak or about what sounds “acceptable”? What notions have you observed that others have about how not to speak? Which people do you think have the strongest opinions about how not to speak? Is it possible to be egalitarian and also hold these opinions?
African American English in Detroit (DYSA/1)
4. Linguistic Profiling: What are the implications of the linguistic profiling research for individuals of various linguistic backgrounds? If a speaker of African American English or Chicano English speaks only that dialect, is it the speaker’s responsibility to learn mainstream English?
Dialect in Schooling (DYSA/1)
5. Ann Arbor, MI: The Ann Arbor decision directed that teachers receive training about AAE and about how to accommodate non-mainstream-speaking students into their classrooms. After participating in training, what might teachers do to enlarge their students’ range of linguistic choices—that is, to add Standard English to the students’ repertoires without denigrating their home language?
6. Ann Arbor, MI: The lawyer who tried the case, Kenneth Lewis, says that a person applying for a job in his law firm would require particular language skills—and that if he himself wanted to work as a DJ for an R&B station, he would need a different set of language skills. How might an aspiring lawyer or DJ who lacks the requisite skills go about learning them?
African American English in California (DYSA/3)
7. Steve Harvey: Steve Harvey says getting by in America requires the ability to switch between different language styles. Does everyone need to be able to switch, or just those people whose language is stigmatized? In what situations do you notice yourself shifting the style of your speech? Do you think you ever shift without noticing it? What style or styles do you feel are most useful or important to have?
Sounding Country (DYSA/2)
8. Country Music: Cody James says country music doesn’t necessarily have to be sung with a Southern accent but that it seems right and comfortable to do it that way. Suggest the language variety that you think would fit each of the following musical styles: jazz, pop, Latin fusion, heavy metal, hip-hop?What would your reaction be to hearing a certain style of music performed in a style that didn’t match, for instance, if Cody James used a “country/western” voice to sing Latin pop? Or opera? Notice the language variety James used when speaking to MacNeil. What do you think about it?
Springville: African American English in Texas (DYSA/2)
9. Guy Bailey: Listen carefully to the way Dr. Guy Bailey sounds when he speaks with MacNeil and when he speaks with Willie. What differences do you notice in the way he talks to the two men? Why do you think he changes his speech? Do you think he himself is aware of it?
Language & Politics (DYSA/2)
10. Oath of Offices/Swearing in of Presidents: MacNeil says that President Clinton “saw no need to lose his Arkansas accent—partly because he could change it at will.” Considering that he was a U.S. President, why do you think he would retain his Arkansas way of speaking? Assuming that President Clinton can speak two dialects—one more evocative of Arkansas and one more like the Midland dialect—think about how he might integrate the speech of his native region with a less regionally marked variety to forge a personal style.
11. Oath of Offices/Swearing in of Presidents: MacNeil says, “Today, ironically, President Bush, a scion of the East Coast establishment, wants to sound like a Texan.” If, as Foxworthy says, Northerners believe that Southerners are stupid because of the way they talk, why would President Bush, who is not a native Texan (born in Connecticut, attended private school in Massachusetts, went to Yale and Harvard) want to sound like a Texan? List some reasons to explain why perceptions of Southern speech may have changed between the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and George W.Bush.
1. Journal, portfolio, or writing assignment: Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a journal prompt, a portfolio writing, or other general writing assignment.
2. Understanding linguistic patterns exercise: Pittsburghese. Examine the 40 examples of words and phrases that people sometimes think of as Pittsburghese. Label each item as a unique vocabulary item (V), a pronunciation difference (P), or eye-dialect (for a common English word) (E). Examples of vocabulary differences would include lunch-head for idiot or mushball for softball. Examples of pronunciation differences would include mahntain for mountain or crik for creek. Examples of eye-dialect would include dogz for dogs or wisht for wished.
Examine the list of vocabulary items. For what sorts of things do Pittsburghers have unique terms?
Next, examine the pronunciation differences. Do you see any patterns for how certain sounds (think sounds, not spellings) are pronounced differently in Pittsburgh? How would you describe these patterns? Based on these patterns, predict how a Pittsburgher might say the following words: field, sound, wire?
In the video, Barbara Johnstone states that when people speak with a Pittsburgh accent, “They’re talking about who they are and where they live and what it means to live [in Pittsburgh].” Have students examine the list of eye-dialect words. Why are Pittsburghers likely to claim these words as being a part of their way of speaking even though they are not actually distinctive compared to speech in other parts of the country?
Pittsburgh words – definition
1. ___ Ahr – Hour
2. ___ Aht – The opposite of in
3. ___ Babushka – A headscarf used for a bad hair day
4. ___ Bew-D-ful – Beautiful
5. ___ Blitzburgh – A drinking town with a football problem
6. ___ Chipped ham – Thinly sliced ham sold only in The Burgh
7. ___ Chitchat – Idle conversation
8. ___ Dahntahn – Opposite of uptahn
9. ___ Dekkacards – Deck of cards
10. ___ Did ya – Did you
11. ___ Fahr – Fire
12. ___ Feesh – Fish
13. ___ Flip flops – Sandals
14. ___ Gumband – Rubber band
15. ___ Haf – Half
16. ___ Hans – Body part used to hold a cold Iron
17. ___ Haus – House
18. ___ Hoagie – A big sandwich
19. ___ Iron – The beer of champions
20. ___ Jaggers - Thorns
21. ___ Jaggin’ around – fooling around
22. ___ Jeetjet? No jew? – “Did you eat yet?” “No, did you?”
23. ___ Jumbo – Bologna
24. ___ Nebby – Nosey to a fault
25. ___ Picksburgh – City in Pennsylvania
26. ___ Peel – Pill
27. ___ Pop – Carbonated beverage, a soda
28. ___ Sent – Cent
29. ___ Still – Steel
30. ___ Stillers — The Steelers (professional football team)
31. ___ Stoopid – Stupid
32. ___ Stover – A jammed finger
33. ___ Tar – Tire
34. ___ Telepole – Telephone pole
35. ___ The Burgh – Pittsburgh
36. ___ The Point – The meeting place of Pittsburgh’s three rivers
37. ___ Will – Wheel
38. ___ Woof – Wolf
39. ___ Yinz – You all, you guys, you’uns, y’all, etc.
40. ___ Yinzer – A Pittsburgh native
3. Video exercise: As you re-watch parts of the video, notice whether MacNeil and others shift their speech depending on who they are talking to. What language features differentiate one style from another? Why do you think the people style shift when they do?
4. Literature-based exercise: Look for style shifting in the speech of literary characters and analyze when and why it occurs. Style-shifting can be found in Shakespeare plays such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, as well as in later work, such as Local Color American Literature of the late 19th century.
6. Style-shifting log: People change their style of speaking, either consciously or subconsciously, depending on who they are speaking to and what the circumstances are. Keep a log for one day in which you list who you talk with, what the context is, and, if possible, how your language style changes to match each situation. Note that this level of self-reflection can be extremely challenging; any kinds of observations are reasonable, as long as you notice how your language changes throughout the day. Reports can be general reflections such as, “When I talked to my friends, I cursed. I didn’t curse when I talked to my professor” or “I talked baby-talk with my little sister.” In which situations do you consider your speech to be the most neutral? How would you characterize that style? How would you characterize your other styles?
7. Journal exercise on social identities and language: Social identities are complex combinations of different roles—based on gender, sexual orientation, parent/child relationships, profession, urban vs. rural location, hobbies, etc. Keep a free-style journal in which you evaluate all of the different social roles in which you participate. Then choose 3-4 of those roles and describe the language style you use to implement these identities.
8. Collecting recorded samples of language styles: It can be difficult to analyze shifts in speaking style (our own or other people’s) on the fly as they occur. Speech goes by quickly and then it is gone—unless it is tape-recorded. In this exercise you will collect tape-recorded samples of speech and inspect them for similarity or difference in style. You will record yourself interacting with other people in a variety of situations. After the data is collected, you will make your recordings available to others in the class and discuss them.
First, tape-record yourself over the course of several weeks in a wide range of situations—for example, talking to different family members, talking in a work or study group, making purchases at a store, ordering carry-out, making appointments, etc. (Since you will be recording other people as well as yourself, you must get their permission.) You will probably record more than you can analyze, so the next step is to select some of your recordings to play for other class members. (In a large class, form a group of four or five students to listen to one another’s tapes.)
Next, listen to one another’s recordings of yourselves in different situations, and talk about them as a group. Do you detect style shifting? Do you find it easier to notice it in others’ speech than in your own, or vice versa? Do members of your research group shift among different regional or social dialects? Can you generalize about what sorts of situations call forth what sorts of styles? Try to pinpoint just what features are associated with different speech styles: different vowel sounds? sentence structure? intonation? pace? volume?
DVD Episode & Chapters: For DVD users, DYSA has been broken down into episodes and chapters. (The term chapter is industry standard for section or "breaks" programmed into the DVD video. A number indicating the DYSA episode will always be followed by a number indicating the DVD chapter within an episode. (i.e. 1.2 is Episode 1, Chapter 2. The numbers 1.2 appear on-screen for DVD users.) DVD users may watch a DYSA episode straight through or alternatively, jump to specific sections of the program by referring to a main menu available on the DVD.
Chapter (or section) descriptions are available on-screen for DVD users only, and include a text description along side the episode number and the chapter number within the episode. (i.e. 1.2 Pronunciation in Maine) Videotape users will need to refer to printed versions of the curricular units to benefit from the chapter descriptions.
Running Time The running time indicates the length of the section of video.
Videotape (VT) Time Code Videotape users should fast forward or rewind to the corresponding number displayed in the videotape counter window in the front of the videotape playback device. (i.e. Videotape users should insert the videotape in the player and shuttle to [01:27:19] in the counter window to see the beginning of the Springville,Texas section.)
The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.