Dialect death? 

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

Axe: An Old Word with a New Meaning

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.


Each week on Michigan Radio’s “That’s What They Say,” linguist and University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses the hows and whys of language change. Last week’s episode (11/25/2012) about the shifting meanings of idioms got me thinking about yolo. I learned about yolo last spring from students in my intro to linguistics course. We were discussing morphology and word formation processes and they gave yolo as an example of an acronym for the idiom you only live once. The students reported that they say yolo (usually as an exclamation: “Yolo!”) when they trip and fall down the stairs, when they burp in class, or when they otherwise do something in public that’s embarrassing or dumb. They explained that by saying yolo they acknowledge their clumsiness, social gaff, stupidity, or other embarrassment, and at the same time they laugh it off and thereby laugh at themselves. But, this meaning is different than my understanding of you only live once. When I say “you only live once,” I mean ‘seize the day’ or ‘do x,y, or z right now because it might be the last chance ever to do it.’

It’s clear from these different uses and meanings that you only live once is changing. However, it seems that the meaning shift is attached to the morphological shift–that ‘I did something dumb, and I know it and I can laugh about it and myself’ is tied to the word yolo more than to the phrase you only live once. It’s also clear that this (at least right now) is an age-graded language change. I also wonder if the use is gendered since most of the students who gave examples of its use were female.

Are there other idioms you’re aware of that are undergoing change?

I wonder if yolo will be a candidate at ADS’s 2012 Words of the Year vote? Maybe you have a WOTY contender that you’d like to nominate?

Glottal Stopping Trending?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Way They Talk II,” by Ben Yagoda, discusses glottal stopping. Yagoda describes the feature and explains what he perceives to be a new trend among students in New Jersey. I don’t doubt that it might be new to his ears, but it’s not a new feature, especially to speakers from parts of the Midwest, the dialect region that Carver (1987) labels as “Lower North.” I am one of those speakers, hailing from central Ohio. For example, I pronounce mitten as [mɪʔən] (mih-en) and didn’t as [dɪən] (dih-ent). So, I wonder if this is in fact a “new feature,” and instead is a trending feature. I am guessing here (someone does need to follow this up with research!) but, it seems that the trend is a result of dialect contact between the East Coast varieties that Yagoda is hearing and Midwestern (Lower North) varieties, which are often perceived as more “standard” than East Coast varieties. As a result of this perceived prestige and standardness, coupled with the prestige of media personalities who have helped to spread the feature, glottalization is spreading. My anecdotal data and that reflected in the comments to Yagoda’s article support the idea that glottalization is spreading from the Midwest and Manha-en to New Jersey.

Carver, Craig M.. 1987. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press.