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what speech do we like best?
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Contact, conflict and incredible cultural complexity shape way we speak

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What Speech?  Index

What Speech Do We Like Best?

Watch Your Language

What Does Your Speech Reveal?
We use language to express our identity. Our way of speaking varies and changes to reflect who we are and who we want to be. Carmen Fought asks the provocative questions: What does your speech say about you? And why is language “prejudice” harmful?

Every time you speak, you give listeners information about who you are and where you come from. Many of us have traveled around the United States and had people ask us, Oh, are you from New York/Chicago/Texas? Or at least, Where are you from? (with the unstated subtext: …because you sure ain’t from around here!) Their guesses might be based on our phonology (the sounds we use, also called accent) or on our choice of particular LEXICAL ITEMS (in other words, WORDS: don’t get people started on soda vs. pop).

 If we speak a very ‘standard’ variety of English (even linguists have trouble defining exactly what ‘standard’ means), it might be harder for people to tell what region of the country we’re from. Of course, the mere fact that we’ve learned a standard dialect can tell someone listening to us many things. Perhaps we’ve had a lot of education, or our parents were from the upper middle-class, or we hold a job (such as receptionist or teacher) in which speaking itself is a focus.

In addition to regional origin, our speech can also reveal other things: our age to some extent, our social class and our sex (indeed, people whose sex is often misidentified due to unusually high or low voices often are embarrassed by that).

Everyone speaks a dialect

Interestingly, many of us consider our way of speaking to be neutral. It’s hard for us to hear features of our own speech that might be obvious to people who speak other dialects. When I say dialect, I am using this term in the technical linguistic sense of ‘a variety shared by a group of speakers.’ By this definition, everyone speaks a dialect, not just Andy Griffith and Scarlett O’Hara. Bus drivers, teachers, your neighbors, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and you (whether you know it or not) speak a dialect, too.

Recently, I was talking to a salesperson at a car dealership near my home, in California. At first I assumed that he was from California, because he didn’t have any particular phonological features that would mark him as being from some other part of the country. But while talking with me, he used the expression you might could… (meaning ‘It’s possible that you could…’), a feature we don’t use in California. I asked where he was from. He said that his father had worked for the government, and that growing up he had moved around a lot (which accounted for his lack of a clear regional accent). But he had also spent a large chunk of his childhood in Alabama, a place that does have might could. In fact, when I asked where he was from, he said, “Alabama,” before giving me the rest of the explanation about moving around. And he’d carried might could with him in his linguistic suitcase, all the way to California. Clearly, even small features of our speech can indicate things about our backgrounds.

But how exactly does this happen? Sociolinguists study how our way of speaking varies and changes to reflect who we are and who we want to be. Different communities have different needs, histories and linguistic resources. All this comes out in speakers’ day-to-day lives, reflected in their linguistic choices. Many communities have both relatively standard and non-standard dialects.  Individual speakers may be on one end or the other of the continuum or may slide between the two ends.

Our dialect may reflect our ethnic background.

In some cases, our dialect may reflect our ethnic background. Within a particular area, working-class African-Americans can sound different from working-class European-Americans. In the middle class, this distinction is much less reliable. With middle or upper-class speakers, it may be impossible to tell anything about their ethnicity just from their dialect.

 On the other hand, just as there is a vernacular dialect known as African-American English, spoken by many African-Americans across the country, there is also a standard variety of African-American English. This variety combines a standard English grammar with phonological features, intonation patterns and lexical items associated with African-American communities. Standard African-American English is used by many middle-class African-American speakers and indicates their social class or educational background without obscuring ethnic identity in their speech (so that they still “sound black”). The relationship between language and identity can be quite complicated!

Aquí Se Habla English

televised email

In Hispanic-American communities, the picture may be clouded in different ways. Here, speakers might on some occasions have to make a choice between languages (English and Spanish) in addition to choosing among different varieties of English. Of course, only bilingual speakers will have this choice. Usually, Latinos and Latinas who are third generation or later grow up monolingual in English. Even some second-generation speakers (or first generation, if they came here very young) might acquire Spanish initially and then lose it as they pass through the English-based school system. Or they may retain only comprehension in Spanish but lose most of their speaking ability, which leads to a situation outsiders may find humorous: conversations in which one party is speaking Spanish (for instance, an elderly grandmother) and the other is speaking English (her adoring — but mostly monolingual — granddaughter).

For those who are bilingual, the decision about which language to use can be tied to complex elements of the social situation, such as age of the addressee, intimacy of the relationship, topic of conversation, etc. An individual assesses these factors (usually without being aware that he or she is doing so) in deciding whether to use English or Spanish.

Code Switching is the alternating use of both languages, often within a single sentence or phrase

In most bilingual communities (regardless of the languages involved) there is also a third choice: code-switching, the alternating use of both languages, often within a single sentence or phrase, as in I’m going with her a la esquina (“to the corner”). Rather than being, as many people believe, a “broken” way of speaking, used by people who don’t know either language well, a number of studies have shown that code-switching is more likely to be done by people who are highly fluent in both languages. Code-switching occurs in bilingual communities all over the world, and seems to be a way of exploiting linguistic resources that comes naturally to the human brain. A fluent bilingual flowing back and forth between his or her two languages can sound almost musical. And even if people who aren’t used to code-switching find it amusing, it remains a symbol of bicultural identity and an important linguistic resource for the community.

America’s bilingual Latino communities are what linguists call “language contact areas.”  Like the world’s other bilingual or multilingual areas, they offer us the chance to study phenomena not found in monolingual communities. For example, when two languages coexist together in one community for a long time, they come to influence each other. Some people might respond by saying, “See! I knew it!  Code-switching IS bad, after all — it destroys BOTH languages!” In reality, this mutual influence is not specifically a result of code-switching.  Furthermore, change and deterioration are not the same thing. Other essays on this Web site address this issue in more detail. I will simply note that it is the nature of all living languages to change. This process is natural and inherently interesting, rather than lamentable.

Out of the Mouths of Babes:  From Pidgin to Dialect

teens talking in park in los angeles, ca

In Los Angeles’ Mexican-American communities, the Spanish spoken is distinct from the Spanish spoken in Mexico. For example, speakers say Te llamo para trás, a literal translation of the English phrase I’ll call you back — a phrase not used by speakers in monolingual Spanish-speaking communities (in Mexico or elsewhere). The English of L.A.’s Mexican-American communities is also different. It includes a variety called Chicano English that reveals just how thoroughly social context can affect language structure. When recent groups of Mexican immigrants arrived in Los Angeles, they learned English as a second language. Most of us know someone who immigrated to this country as an adult and speaks English with a noticeable “foreign accent.” Like other adult second-language learners, the early Mexican immigrants spoke an “accented” variety of English that included phonological and other patterns from their first language, Spanish. The children of these immigrants, however, generally grew up using both Spanish and English.  They used the “learner English” of the community as a basis for developing a new, native dialect of English. Of course, the kids didn’t sit down and say to themselves “We need a better dialect of English than our parents have!” So what did happen, exactly? The way that Chicano English developed tells us something about language, cognition and the human brain.

The emergence of Chicano English is similar in some ways to the development of a special set of languages called pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a simplified language that develops when groups of adult speakers without a common language come into prolonged contact. It has no native speakers, but is spoken as a second language, varies a lot from individual to individual, and is more simplified in certain ways than other languages. When children grow up in a community where a pidgin is the predominant language, they quickly —within a generation — make it more elaborate (by putting in more complex grammatical structures), and more stable, with less individual variation. This newer variety eventually becomes a creole, which despite its unusual origins, is linguistically indistinguishable from languages that develop in other settings.

Linguists take great interest in how children elaborate and ‘strengthen’ a pidgin’s language structure in this way. How do children know what to add? How do they agree on the elements of the system? Linguists hope to be able to address these complex questions someday.

The history of Chicano English is similar. The non-native English of the early adult Mexican immigrants provided a basis for their children to develop a more stable and consistent dialect, Chicano English. Now Chicano English has rules of its own that set it apart both from Spanish and other English dialects.

You can’t tell from hearing a person speak Chicano English whether he or she also speaks Spanish

By the way, you can’t tell from hearing a person speak Chicano English whether he or she also speaks Spanish. You may think you are hearing a “Spanish accent” because of the influence of Spanish on the development of Chicano English. But whatever you might think you hear, many people who speak Chicano English are monolingual, especially if they are third generation or later. You can’t tell if they are bilingual just from listening to their English. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.

So, earlier I said that how we speak reveals things about who we are to the people around us, and that’s true. But sometimes the opposite happens; sometimes people guess wrongly about us from our speech. The misperception of Chicano-English speakers (such as guessing that they have a Spanish accent when in fact they don’t know any Spanish) is a good example. In fact, some monolingual English-speaking kids have had to take special tests for “limited English” speakers (tests that were supposed to be for bilinguals!) because they spoke Chicano English.

These types of linguistic misperceptions are among the reasons why sociolinguistics is important to our society. Often, children who speak non-standard dialects may be inaccurately classified as “not knowing much English” or even “having a speech defect,” with terrible consequences for them. We hope that we can get more information into the educational system about how dialects work. In addition, we hope that by describing language patterns in more detail, we can dispel myths that lead to language prejudice — for example, that someone who code switches doesn’t speak either language well. Finally, studying languages in contact areas helps us to learn more about social organization, as well as about the remarkable resources of the human brain.

TERMS

  • phonology: the sounds of a particular language or dialect
  • accent: like phonology, has to do with sounds; when a dialect has a different phonology from our own we tend to perceive that as an ‘accent’

LEXICAL ITEMS: words

  • dialect: a variety of a language shared by a group of speakers
  • vernacular: a variety of a language that tends to be used by speakers in more intimate or informal situations
  • African-American English: a dialect of English spoken by many (but not all) African-Americans in the U.S., that shares a set of grammatical and phonological rules
  • intonation pattern: the rises and falls in the pitch of the voice, for example, when your voice rises in pitch for a yes/no question.
  • code-switching: the alternating use of two (or more) languages, often within a single sentence or phrase
  • Chicano English: a dialect of English spoken by many (but not all) Mexican-Americans in the U.S., that shares a set of grammatical and phonological rules
  • pidgin: a simplified language that develops in some contact situations, which is only spoken as a second language and varies a lot from individual to individual
  • creole:  a variety that develops from a pidgin, but is more elaborate and stable and is used by some speakers as a first language.
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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Valdes, Guadalupe. 1988. The Language Situation of Mexican Americans. In S. McKay and S. Wong, eds., Language Diversity: Problem or Resource?: A Social And Educational Perspective on Language Minorities in the United States. Cambridge and New York: Newbury House.
  • Zentella, Ana Celia. 1997. Growing up bilingual. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an accent. New York: Routledge.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. 1999. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
  • Fought, Carmen. 2003. Chicano English in Context. Palgrave/MacMillan Publishers.
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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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York