Maybe you’ve had the curious experience of taking a dialect quiz and your results place your dialect in a region other than where you grew up. I can relate. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but when I’ve taken these quizzes I’ve been told I’m from places as far flung as Seattle, Washington and St. Louis, Missouri. These results reflect, in part, the limited features of the quizzes, which often focus on vocabulary and a few key pronunciation and grammatical features.
Isogloss of ik/ek and ich/ech (‘I’) in Germany.*
The maps can also reinforce the idea that regional variation is primarily based on lexcial features, or vocabulary. It’s important to keep in mind when looking at these maps or taking the quizzes, that in addition to the distinct lexical features that make a dialect a ‘dialect’, variation occurs on every level of language. The smallest units are phonemes, or sounds, in spoken languages and parameters in signed languages. The map above representing the isogloss of ik/ich in Germany is one example of phonological variation. Another example is the “de-voicing” of /z/ to /s/ that marks some varieties of Wisconsin English, particularly those spoken in the Milwaukee area. You can hear the devoicing of /z/ to /s/ in the plural form of bears: pronounced [beɪrs] (bayrs) rather than the more common [beɪrz] (bayrz). This feature comes from German and emerged in Wisconsin Englishes as English and German came into contact when large numbers of German-speaking settlers immigrated to that area.
Although dialect maps might reinforce the idea that everyone in a particular region speaks the same, these maps can also be excellent tools for demonstrating the the diversity of of a language, at least when it comes to vocabulary. This contradiction became clear after reading comments on Ben Zimmer’s recent Language Log post, “Dialect Maps Get Surreal ” and from comments on the Reader’s Digest article by Josh Katz, “Say These 9 Words, and We’ll Tell You Where You Grew Up. As Ben explains in his post, dialect heat maps went viral in 2013 after Josh Katz created a map to represent regional variation. Ben’s post focuses on Josh Cagan‘s Twitter spoof, where isoglosses, or dialect boundaries, representing variants for pie, include fruitcrusts, jiminy snackmouth, and puhhhhh. (See the heat map above.) Ben describes that these maps resurfaced recently the Reader’s Digest article, which based on Katz’s (2016) book, Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.
Although the heat maps tend to focus on lexical features, the phonological features, particularly vowels, are usually what grab our attention when we notice ways of speaking that are different from our own. My students from Michigan tell me that they when travel outside the state, people often ask them if they are from Chicago or Michigan. This question, no doubt, is prompted by their vowels since many people in lower Michigan and Chicago have some similar vowel sounds, which are characteristic of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Pronunciation variation is also affected by prosodic features such as syllable stress, pause length, and intonation. For example, the rising intonation at the end of sentences and phrases that is called “up talk” and that characterizes some varieties of California English, is one example of a prosodic features. You can hear up talk, and other phonological and prosodic features that characterize some varieties of California English in the SNL parody, “The Californians.”
Morphology, or word structure, also affects the variations that distinguish one dialect from another. Morphological features can be prefixes and suffixes as well as forms of verbs. For instance, in parts of the South, speakers might use an a- prefix with verbs that use the suffix –ing, what linguists call “a-prefixing“: She was a-reading and a-writing. Morphology often is tightly connected to syntax, or word order, and is often identified as ‘grammar’. For example, in different parts of the Midwest people sometimes use verb forms with the verbs need and want that differ from other regions: their car needs washing, their car needs washed, or that their car needs to be washed. In parts of Appalachia speakers indicate the probability of something happening by using what linguists call “double modals” or doubled helping verbs, as in I might ought to go to the store. This use shows the probability of the event happening, rather than what might appear to people who are not familiar with this usage as wishy-washy. The use of double modals can also signal politeness and can be used as a way to soften requests or commands. The meaning behind this use of double modals falls into the level of language called pragmatics: how we use language in different contexts and interactions, which includes ways of organizing conversations to ways of being polite.
Keep in mind that there’s more to dialect maps than meets the eye, which can explain the outcome of a dialect quiz that identifies you as from a place other than where you grew up.
*Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ik-ich-Isogloss – Uerdinger Lien.svg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ik-ich-Isogloss_-_Uerdinger_Lien.svg&oldid=106647653 (accessed
July 24, 2017).
My guest post on the University of Wisconsin Press blog:
The remote and isolated location of the Upper Peninsula, along with language contact between English and other languages have shaped Yooper talk over the past 150 years and have helped it to remain fairly distinct from other varieties of American English. In addition, several social and cultural processes have affected the development and longevity of regional dialects. Processes that have specifically shaped Yooper talk include tourism and, more broadly, economics, the sociolinguistic history of the Upper Peninsula, research on regional varieties, awareness about language variation, and how speakers claim identity with language.
To continue reading, click here: Oh yah, that’s Yooper Talk
Two little words, sisu and sauna, are perhaps the most meaning linguistic features signaling ‘Finnish American’. These words are what are called shibboleths—words that signal insider and outsider by way of pronunciation. For example, most people in the US who live outside of the UP and who are not Finnish American, pronounce saunaas [sanə] (san-nuh) rather than [saʊnə] (sow-nuh). Some folks don’t know what a sauna is or that sauna is an important cultural practice among family and friends and that there are rules and rituals when taking sauna. In addition, most people don’t know what sisu is, ‘persistence in the face of adversity,’ and how this little word is a significant marker of Finnish American identity. It can be seen as linguistic practices of this identity on bumper stickers, t-shirts, ball caps, baby bibs, and other objects in the linguistic landscape. So, as shibboleths, sisu and saunarepresent place—the UP, ethnic identity—Finnish American, and ways of knowing—specifically, how to “correctly pronounce sauna.” The significance of sisu and sauna in defining identity is reflected in the shared understanding of sisu and the pronunciation, as well as the cultural practice, of taking a sauna. Through these words emerges the idea that Finnish American identity is located in the language of a specific place—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In her book, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (2012), Rosina Lippi-Green demonstrates how linguistic subordination is at the root of social prejudice, how a direct and purposeful link exists between linguistic prejudice and social prejudice, how this link reinforces racism and values tied to what makes “proper” English, and how this link manifests as institutionalized and internalized forms of racism.
In other words, if you want to find out what groups are stigmatized in a society, look at what dialects are stigmatized and believed to be “improper,” “corrupt,” “slang,” or unintelligible, particularly African American English. Note how most Whites do not understand this perception as racist and how the perception of certain dialects as “bad English” is reinforced by institutions, including, but not limited to the legal system, medicine, advertising, schooling, and the media. For example, when African Americans are in news broadcasts, often there are subtitles. This is not usually the case for Whites.
We also see linguistic subordination at work in this meme’s use of the variant pronunciation aks. This is what sociolinguists call a marked variant–it’s noticeable, commented on, and carries social meaning. Here, the pronunciation indexes, or represents, both class and race. It’s most often used by speakers of African American English (AAE), English Language Learners (ELLs), and working class Whites in the South. This index, or social meaning, is juxtaposed with “Walmart” and the image of the White man in a 1950s style suite and tie. The semiotics of the meme not only reinforces racist and classist language attitudes, but the dated image also reinforces the idea that racism is a thing of the past. Yet, this meme is current and popular—that’s what makes it a meme.
The effect of the meme is linguistic subordination: it positions working class and AAE as unintelligible and “other,” and thus delegitimizes not only AAE, but those who speak it.
The use of “axe” is also an example of linguistic appropriation, where features of a dialect are used for humorous effect by those who don’t speak it. Here, the appropriation of “axe” functions as what Jane Hill (2008) calls “covert racist discourse…ways of speaking that Whites typically do not understand as racist, but which work to reproduce negative stereotypes of people of color” (p. 118), and thus how language plays a central role in the processes of linguistic subordination and racialization.
These processes are part the social practices that many of us unknowingly take part in everyday through our interactions, whether we are telling a joke, sharing a meme, or correcting someone’s language use. Examples like this point to how modern-day racism is internalized—something seemingly natural, normal, a part of our culture, and a way of thinking that many of us don’t question or are even aware of. This doesn’t mean that the sender of this meme is necessarily racist, or that if the pronunciation “aks” bothers you, then you are racist. Instead, it demonstrates how you, me, we internalize racism, how it’s a part of our culture and world view, how racism is institutionalized and internalized—invisible—except for those who are stigmatized. Racism is not limited to the bigots of the 1950s; it is current and often subtle.
What’s interesting, however, is that the ideology behind the condemnation of the variant “aks” is that there should be one right, White, way of speaking—that language should not vary and change, ever. And yet, ironically, “aks” is the older pronunciation of the word ask, a clipping from Old English ascian. The word was spelled a-x-e, which represented the standard pronunciation until the 1600s, and even used by Chaucer, considered by some to be the greatest English writer.
The switching of the two sounds, or metathesis, of /ks/ reflects sociohistocial factors that shaped African American English, including when AAE emerged from contact among west African languages and English in the late 1500s, early 1600s through the slave trade and subsequent isolation and social segregation of African Americans, all which led to the maintenance of the older pronunciation.
By becoming aware of the modern, subtle, indirect, and covert forms of racism, such as that represented in the linguistic subordination of “axe” and perpetuated through the recirculation of memes, such as the one above, each of us can foster positive personal and community-wide changes.
Hill, Jane. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. 2012. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.