DIALECT BLOG.

Another blog new to me, this time courtesy of a mention in Sentence First: Ben Trawick-Smith’s Dialect Blog. Ben is an actor with a serious interest in linguistics; on his FAQ page he says “I became interested in dialects as an actor, then this interest become an obsession all its own. … I have spent over a decade studying dialects intensely. And any time there is a gap in my knowledge, I try to be forthright about this.” He writes about a wide range of subjects; the top few posts on the front page right now are Glide Deletion in the American South, “Dude:” Thoughts on an American Word, Singing in Dialect, and Is the glottal stop bad for you?. In the last, he says with appropriate sternness:

And this is where, methinks, the legacy of class rears its ugly head. Glottal stopping is associated with accents—Cockney, African American Vernacular English, the Bronx—that are stigmatized. I have no doubt that generations of diction coaches and voice professionals were taught that the sound was “ugly” for this very reason. And while few will admit as such, you can still find people, such as prescriptivist language blogger Benjamin Chew, who will openly state the thinking behind this:
If one wishes to be a speaker of elegant English, then one has to avoid glottal stops. The so-called language professionals may disagree and start waxing eloquent about linguistic diversity. I am all for healthy diversity, NOT unhealthy ones, not one that allows incorrect and poor English to run rampant.

One can almost smell the whiff of Twinings wafting from the Edwardian drawing room, can’t one?

One can indeed. I recommend bookmarking and checking regularly.

Comments

  1. Signaling status is one of the main functions of language – it’s naive to pretend otherwise. In American English saying “Cone’icu’” as the name of the Nutmeg state pretty clearly marks you as someone from a lower social rung. It may be unfair objectively, but we stigmatize certain behaviors all the time – we teach people to hold their eating utensils a certain way, not to spit on the sidewalk, and not to wear shorts and sandals to a business meeting. Stigmatizing glottal stops is just another one of those arbitrary rules humans seem to need to sort themselves.

  2. To be fair, spitting on the sidewalk was said to spread tb.

  3. If one wishes to be a speaker of elegant English, then one has to avoid glottal stops.
    Cockney, African-American Vernacular English and “the Bronx” are accents that have been associated with groups of poor people. So, some time after the stigmatization of these groups ends, the accents ought to be seen as being more elegant. Is there evidence of this happening at any time or place in the past?

  4. Sort of like the rehabilitation of vulgarity, once it became clear that everybody is the same ?

  5. Thanks for the mention!
    Really quickly, to AJP: there are situations where certain dialect features become more prestige or less so depending on the social status of said dialect. For example, non-rhoticity (i.e. dropping the “r”s at the ends of words, as in British or Boston English). A hundred years ago, this was probably a prestige feature in the United States, since the East Coast elite spoke with non-rhotic accents. Nowadays, it is entirely stigmatized here, since it is associated with poor or working-class accents. Now rhoticity is the prestige feature.

  6. Are erhotic accents prestigious ?

  7. I paid a lot of money for my non-rhotic accent, are you saying it’s worthless?

  8. No no, I’m just a bit confused about where the erhoticism comes in. Is your accent X-rated ?

  9. “Now rhoticity is the prestige feature.”
    As a New Englander, I think you’re simplifying. There is a Boston Brahmin non-rhotic accent that is still prestigious, although increasingly rare. There’s a lot more to the lower class Boston accent than lack of rhoticity. I also would not say that even the lower class Boston accent is “entirely stigmatized” – I meet with professional bankers and attorneys every day who speak with strong Southie, Dorchester or Medford accents, and their careers don’t seem to be suffering. However, my children and their schoolmates in the Metrowest suburbs do look down on non-rhotic accents, which I find a troubling sign of the effect of immigration to our Commonwealth of professionals from Michigan, Ohio and Western New York.

  10. vanya, I think you’re the one who’s simplifying (out of understandable defensiveness, I suppose). The point is not that everyone who speaks with a non-rhotic accent is automatically ostracized and driven from public life; obviously you can find examples of successful people with all kinds of nonfavored forms of speech and behavior. And within the cultural sphere of Boston, old-line Brahmin accents are no doubt respected. As a general statement, however, subject to the inevitable qualifications, I think it’s perfectly fair to say that non-rhotic accents are stigmatized.

  11. @ Vanya,
    Just to be clear, I’m from New England as well and I’m actually very sad to see non-rhoticity wane. The accent of my hometown was non-rhotic only a few decades ago, and its pretty non-existent in anybody under 40 these days. My use of “prestige” in no way means I agree with the notion that certain accent features denote a lower-class status.

  12. Ben, I’m just not sure it is true that people who are from North-eastern New England automatically associate non-rhotic accents with “poor or working class”, even if they speak with rhotic accents themselves (as I sadly do). There are simply far too many middle class and even affluent professionals who still speak that dialect. I think the stigma with non-rhotic speech is that it marks you as “provincial” (or in some cases, and unfairly, maybe even “Irish-American”), which is not a fashionable thing to be. But that is far from the same thing as poor or working class, especially in more clannish areas of greater Boston. The fact that many poor and working class people in New England now tend to be recent immigrants who speak with rhotic (but non standard) accents further complicates the whole picture.

  13. dearieme says:

    This may be a very naive question, but do linguists ever do science? I mean, my instinct on questions of dialect and/or accent would be to try to measure how widely understood each was. If one proved to be very hard for non-speakers to follow, then I have learned something quantitative about its limitations as a tool of communication. That seems to me to be potentially far more useful than claims that all are equally “legitimate” or “valid”, whatever the hell those may mean. Of course, comprehensibility may not be the only metric worth studying – but it must be one worth studying.

  14. Mathematics started out as an activity of measuring the earth and counting the stars, but most mathematicians nowadays can’t be bothered to measure anything. Perhaps that is also the case with linguistics and some other sciences.
    The process of civilization involves making life more comfortable. That would explain the rise of armchair science – no more slogging about in the mud with a yardstick in all weathers.

  15. It also explains all those Koran schools, filled to bursting with men, that one sees in television reports on Islamic countries. They are learning about God while the women are out chopping wood. I get the impression that the pursuit of knowledge is eminently agreeable to the work-shy.

  16. Rodger C says:

    @dearieme: I’m not following you. Tool of communication with whom? All dialects are perfectly comprehensible to other speakers of the same dialect. As for communication across regions (which you take as your criterion for no stated reason), I certainly don’t find non-rhotic accents inherently hard to understand except for occasional moments of puzzlement (and I’m old enough to remember a lot of JFK jokes). And now we have a reality series, Coal, in which my highly rhotic childhood dialect is provided with subtitles that I, for one, don’t need at all.

  17. Dearieme: Yes, of course, sociolinguists do do things like that, although in order to avoid an exponential explosion it is first necessary to bunch idiolects into dialects, and that introduces uncertainty. If I set out to say there are five dialect regions of Scottish English (or seven, whatever), and then I find that people in one part of one of the five is hard for Texans to understand, whereas speakers in the rest of the region come through all right, then what do I do? And what Texans may follow, Georgians may have a hard time with, drawing the line in a different place. And which Texans (North, South, East, West?) and which Georgians (urban, rural?) It’s a hard problem.

  18. “If one wishes to be a speaker of elegant English, then one has to avoid glottal stops.”
    I am not a phoneticist, but don’t most dialects of English feature glottal stops after word-final stops? And don’t almost all dialects of Englsih feature glottal stops before word-initial vowels? How is a speaker of elegant English then to speak accurate English?

  19. rootlesscosmo says:

    What got me about the quote from Chew was
    The so-called language professionals may disagree and I am all for healthy diversity, NOT unhealthy ones. The smug certainty–that professionals don’t deserve the name, that Chew is to decide what’s “healthy” and what isn’t–is almost a parody of the Edwardian drawing room: isn’t this Lady Bracknell’s voice?

  20. To undergo one sound-change may be regarded as a misfortune; to undergo two looks like carelessness.

  21. dearieme says:

    “communication across regions (which you take as your criterion for no stated reason..”: perish the thought that comprehensibility might be a useful property to measure.
    “It’s a hard problem”: especially if you assume the answer before you measure it.

  22. “It’s a hard problem”: especially if you assume the answer before you measure it.
    Why the belligerence? It is a hard problem, and nobody’s assuming the answer before measuring it.

  23. Chemists don’t have to go out of its way to say that any two elements are equally “legitimate” or “valid”.
    Science can and does tackle questions of relative usefulness, or toxicity, of materials. And if parents or teachers want to tell children that lead is poisonous, or that gold doesn’t rust, of course this doesn’t offend the professional chemists. Even if people call lead a base metal, it probably doesn’t offend them much.
    Why is it different with linguistics? Several good reasons, I think, but I’ll stop here and see what others say.

  24. Rodger C says:

    @dearieme: I thought John Cowan just did a good job of showing that “comprehensibility” tout court is a vacuous concept, and therefore there’s nothing to measure.

  25. Why is it different with linguistics?
    It’s not, and the idea that linguists refuse to acknowledge any difference of social acceptability between different forms of language is a pernicious myth. We’ve been over this before.

  26. Hat, I don’t think I am disagreeing with you. Just trying to find an angle to look at what’s bothering dearieme.
    Certainly linguists acknowledge differences of social acceptability between different forms of language.
    Likewise, they do not tell us that it doesn’t matter what form of language we use.
    (They might occasionally be heard to tell us that it’s pointless to correct our children’s usage–because it won’t have as much effect as we think, and anyway everybody learns to navigate multiple registers.)
    But, if I may briefly return to my strained analogy: unlike physical science, which is at least partly driven by the desire to improve our ways of using the physical world, linguistics is not about learning how to use language “better” in any sense.

  27. unlike physical science, which is at least partly driven by the desire to improve our ways of using the physical world, linguistics is not about learning how to use language “better” in any sense.
    I’m going to disagree again. In the first place, I don’t think physical science is driven more than marginally by “the desire to improve our ways of using the physical world”; I think scientists overwhelmingly want to know how the physical world works, and while of course they’re not against using that knowledge to improve life, that’s mainly the province of other people. And in the second place, linguistics is at least to the same degree about learning how to use language “better” in the sense that if people can be freed from their absurd straitjackets of medieval ideas about language, they will be able to use it better (more freely and inventively) and stop putting down other people for using it “wrongly.” This is a noble goal, and I wish it would get more recognition.

  28. Oh, dear. I seem to keep putting my foot in it, or at least not making myself clear. Hat, I agree with all of what you just wrote, noble goal and all.
    I was not putting linguistics down as being not useful, or less useful than some other discipline. All I meant about that is that a linguist looking at dialects or features of language is unlikely to ask “which one is better?” or “which one should I recommend that people use?”
    I was pursuing the analogy with science because of what dearieme wrote. I didn’t mean that immediate practical usefulness is the main reason why people do research in physics or chemistry or mathematics, although it can be a reason, and historically it has been a big one at times.
    Dearieme seemed to be saying “rather than say that all dialects are equally good, why don’t you be scientific about it and measure which ones are better”. I don’t usually think of science as being concerned with which things are “better”, because (like you) I think of science as primarily about “wanting to know how the world works”. But when I stop and think about it I realize that some kinds of science are concerned with ways in which things can be more useful than other things.

  29. All I meant about that is that a linguist looking at dialects or features of language is unlikely to ask “which one is better?” or “which one should I recommend that people use?”
    Right, but neither do scientists tend to look at rocks, stars, or beetles and ask “which one is better?” or “which one should I recommend that people use?”

  30. Don’t worry, you’re not putting your foot in it, I’m just pushing back against a distinction between linguistics and other (“real”?) sciences that I find misconceived.

  31. I’m not sure that “to comprehend” is a more useful notion than “to understand”. It is impossible to tell at a given instant what the cash value is of “understanding what someone is saying”. You may think that you understand it, and later decide that it was gibberish, and vice versa. What is involved here is expectation over time – communication, follow-up communication, acceptance and rejection.
    I don’t see how comprehensibility of dialects can be measured without assuming cognitive comprehensibility – but there is no warrant for such an unconditioned assumption. People in this comment thread seem to be talking at cross purposes, even though they are all using the same dialect of English. To quantify what is happening here would be to meter moonbeams. Moonbeams are for riding, not for measuring.

  32. I’ll just mention, because no one else has, that linguistics (like economics or anthropology or geography or some history) is a social science; that is, it’s a 19C discipline concerned with human social interaction rather than with nature (as physics & chemistry and the other natural sciences are). At one end linguistics overlaps with neurology and thence with medical science & technology and at the other end it merges with the humanities, the study of classical and modern languages, for example. I bet some linguists consider themselves to be scientists and others not so much, but it seems to me to be a slight stretch of the common understanding of what a scientist is to include social sciences: Einstein and Darwin were scientists, but was Keynes? How about Eric Hobsbawm? I’m not sure if or why such a classification is important, but I suspect it is, if only because of issues of academic funding and the kinds of links academics are likely to make in other fields. Incidentally, where does mathematics fit into all of this? Art or science? Sport?

  33. J.W. Brewer says:

    But zoologists looking at two different species of antelope and observing that species A has been much more successful than species B (in terms of headcount and extent of range over more square miles of the veldt) will be interested in figuring out why that is, and may even, if incautious, lapse into pop-Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest rhetoric that suggests that the A’s success is deserved in some sense, because A’s can eat a wider range of plants or are better at avoiding getting eaten by hyenas. Linguists who note the greater success (in the same terms) of English versus Dyirbal (heck, English versus anything) may tend by contrast to say that this is all the result of merely political factors that have nothing to do with the virtues of the language as such and, to boot, grumble that It’s Just Not Fair, because Dyirbal’s grammar is so intrinsically cool. One of the striking things about Ostler’s Empires of the Word was that it was actually interested in an empirical understanding of linguistic success or failure.

  34. I bet some linguists consider themselves to be scientists and others not so much, but it seems to me to be a slight stretch of the common understanding of what a scientist is to include social sciences
    The first part is definitely true (I myself was shocked as a college senior to discover I could get an NSF grant for grad school), but I’m not sure “the common understanding of what a scientist is” should carry much weight (except, of course, in a descriptivist account of popular usage). A science is (crudely speaking) any discipline that relies on adherence to objectively observed facts (*waits resignedly for thrashing by Grumbly*) rather than revelation or ex cathedra pronouncements; someone who says “This word is wrong because I say so” or “…because Fowler said so” is not a scientist, someone who says “According to the following studies, this word is used in the following ways by the following populations” is. I’m not so much impressed by closeness to neurology, but if that helps people see linguistics as a science, great. The point is that whatever word you want to use to describe their discipline, linguists know far more about how language works and is used than others, and their statements about it should carry a lot more weight than the pronouncements of bloviating columnists and book-scribblers.
    Linguists who note the greater success (in the same terms) of English versus Dyirbal … may tend by contrast to say that this is all the result of merely political factors that have nothing to do with the virtues of the language as such…. One of the striking things about Ostler’s Empires of the Word was that it was actually interested in an empirical understanding of linguistic success or failure.
    Linguists are human like anyone else, and it is natural for them to push back against the popular assumption that a language like English must be superior to “failures” like Dyirbal. I agree that Ostler’s approach is refreshing and useful.

  35. A science is (crudely speaking) any discipline that relies on adherence to objectively observed facts (*waits resignedly for thrashing by Grumbly*) rather than revelation or ex cathedra pronouncements …
    Why, Mr. Hat, I agree with you, except for that little word “facts”, which is a heavy overdraft on future science. “Objective observations” – ones which can be repeated by others – is quite sufficient. That leaves plenty of room for disagreement as to their interpretation, i.e. more observations / descriptions.

  36. I’m not sure “the common understanding of what a scientist is” should carry much weight (except, of course, in a descriptivist account of popular usage)
    Shouldn’t perhaps, but does. Isn’t that what a descriptivist would say?
    And I’m with stew. I’ve no idea whether linguists don’t get no respect (though I don’t see why they wouldn’t), but nowadays (now we’re used to being lied to by just about anyone), I don’t think the words “I’m a scientist” impress people, or make them think “Ah, here come the facts”, though they probably did through (roughly) the nineteen-sixties. The scientific facts that are of most value to society today are those used to make predictions – how safe is nuclear energy? what’s the story with global warming, or with gm foods? – and so facts depend on interpretation, there are very few virgin facts that can make a convincing case without interpretation.

  37. Rodger C.: Not vacuous, I’d say, just complicated.
    J.W. Brewer: “Success” to a biologist tends to mean how many descendant species you have rather than how widespread your individual members are. Hominoids are not a successful lineage (only about 20 species), no more are equids (only about 7 species), despite the fact that individual humans and horses are found all over the planet.

  38. If they wanted to be clearer linguists and economists could say “I’m a social scientist”. Or they might try “I’m a socialist” – like Christian Scientists who say “I’m a Christian”. But then natural scientists would have to retort “Whereas I’m a naturalist” which would suit Darwin but not the others.

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