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Language & Society
Contact, conflict and incredible cultural complexity shape way we speak

Are Dialects Fading?
TV has no influence on the way we speak

The Decline of Grammar
Geoffrey Nunberg asks for civility when assessing language

Like, Quote Me
Like as a quotative – a way of indicating speech — has spread like a global brushfire

Additional Resources
Language Change  Index

Language Change

The Truth About Change

What, Like, Makes Language Change?
Language sows its own seeds of change, and social context offers fertile ground for its growth and spread. Walt Wolfram explains that language changes differently than we may think. It’s not the media; it’s the middle class. Read Full Article.

Twenty-five years ago, speakers who used like as in she’s like, “Don’t leave the house!” were largely confined to Southern California, linked to the stereotypical Valley Girl way of speaking. Today, the specialized use of like to introduce a quote (what linguists call the “quotative like”) has spread throughout the English-speaking world. The rapid, expansive spread of “quotative like” among speakers under the age of 40 is truly exceptional. It also raises important questions about the nature of language change.

The common myth is that the English language is now following a single path of change under the irrepressible, homogenizing influence of mass media. However, the truth is that language is far too resourceful and social structure far too complicated to follow any single path.

The pressure to change exists within language itself. For example, irregular noun patterns such as oxen [ox, oxen] and sheep [sheep, sheep], or irregular past verbs such as knew [I know, I knew — not I knowed] and saw [I see, I saw — not I seed], are much more susceptible to change than their regular counterparts. The overriding principle that directs change is the preference for regular forms over irregular ones.

Though the seeds of change come from the language itself, social circumstances provide the fertile ground for their growth and spread.

The truth about language change may be different from the popular conception. People often assume that change begins with the upper class, modeling language for other social groups to follow. In fact, most language change starts subtly and unconsciously among middle-class speakers and spreads to other classes — and women often lead the way.

An example of this pattern of diffusion is the change now occurring in vowel pronunciation in northern U.S. cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Rochester. In these areas, pop sounds more like pap and bat sounds more like bet. This change, known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, also illustrates a dominant pattern of language spread, in which change starts in heavily populated urban areas that serve as cultural centers. From there, changes radiate outward in a cascading or hierarchical fashion. The change spreads first to moderately sized cities that fall under the influence of these urban areas, and then to yet smaller cities, affecting the intervening and rural areas last.

Social meaning and local circumstances shape other paths of change. In Oklahoma, for example, the structure fixin’ to as in “they’re fixin’ to move” has spread from its rural roots to larger urban areas in a contrahierarhical pattern. It serves as a symbolic, counteractive assertion of Southern identity as an increasing population of non-Southerners moves into the area.

Finally, what role does TV play in language change? Although the media may help spread the word about particular expressions, including quotative like, media influence has been greatly exaggerated. Most of us still value the model of our friends and acquaintances in ordinary, everyday conversation much more than we do the network characters who bombard the airwaves, unaware of who we are and how we sound.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.

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