Language diversity

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Yesterday, Walt Wolfram gave a talk here under the title "On the Sociolinguistic Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: Implications for Linguistic Equality". I was especially interested to learn what they're doing to educate students, faculty, and staff about Language Diversity at NC State:

This reminded me in turn of one of Suzette Haden Elgin's comments on a a LLOG post from 2007, "Standardizing non-standard language vs. careless misquotation":

Suzette Haden Elgin writes:

I'm writing as someone whose native dialect of English is non-standard [and who has always done her best to present her "scholarly papers" at conferences in militant Ozark English].

And what I want to say — finally getting to the point, you know how us Ozarkers go on and on and on and never get to the point — is that the sequence "cleaning up non-standard language" _presupposes_ that non-standard language is dirty. Filthy, even.

And she's absolutely right — in the original version of this post, I took the "cleaning up" phrase from the WaPo reporter's quote, and used it without even any scare quotes. So I've gone back and changed the wording to use "standardize" and other such expressions instead.

There are lots of these nasty metaphors, according to which non-standard speech and language are not only dirty, but also lawless and diseased. It's hard to avoid using them, because they get to be so bleached out after a while that we forget what they really mean.

And one of the other things I learned about in Walt's talk was Stephany Brett Dunstan's dissertation, "The influence of speaking a dialect of Appalachian English on the college experience", PhD Dissertation NCSU, 2013:

Dialects of Appalachian English are often stigmatized in mainstream American culture, and certain elements of dialects of Southern Appalachia are particularly stigmatized, even by other Southerners. This qualitative study explored the influence of speaking a dialect of Appalachian English on the college experiences of students from rural, Southern Appalachia. Qualitative interviews were conducted with 26 participants attending a large research university in an urban area of a Southern state, and sociolinguistic analysis of participants’ speech was performed to provide rich description of their speech in order to better understand the role it played in their college experiences.

I especially recommend the "participant profiles", pp. 100-214.



  1. Doctor Science said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 12:05 am

    The video reminds me of something I only noticed within the last 10 years — which means it's probably been going on for 20 — that I don't recall hearing you-all talk about.

    To wit: when I was at Penn & living in Philly in the early to mid 80s, I felt pretty confident that I could recognize an African-American person by voice alone (e.g. on the phone), because there was a whole set of dialects I never heard black people use, and a whole other set I rarely heard white people use (except in the South). In addition, African-American voices, especially women's voices, seemed to have a distinctive timbre to me: a lower, richer quality.

    In the last 10+ years, I've noticed more and more young African-American people — such as the two young women at 3:35+ in this video — whose voices do not have any "black" markers to my unprofessional ear, either in dialect nor in timbre.

    I now wonder to what extent the AAVE of my youth was a remnant of the Great Migration, and if — as with other migrant communities — the third and fourth generations have finally lost the immigrant accent. Or is something going on?

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    I take it from the abstract that it confirms what I would have guessed: namely that Dr. King at least in his public-orator capacity typically avoided any distinctly AAVE syntactic patterns or lexical choices but only signaled racial/regional distinctiveness (perhaps to varying degrees in varying contexts) via phonology (and perhaps prosody). I expect he also avoided "hot-button" highly stigmatized (however unfairly) AAVE pronunciation variants (like "ax" for "ask"). So you would think his actual legacy is more on the learn-to-codeswitch-for-social-mobility side than the convince-the-elite-to-become-more-tolerant-of-low-prestige-dialects side.

  3. D.O. said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

    If they "[got] to be so bleached out" then they do not "really mean" it anymore.

  4. Sally Thomason said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    Walt gave a related talk here in Ann Arbor two weeks ago for the University of Michigan's Linguistics Department's annual Martin Luther King, Jr., lecture: "The Moral Obligation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy".
    A terrific talk, one of the best in our long-running series of annual MLK lectures.

  5. Isaac said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 6:23 am

    @ Doctor: To my unprofessional ear, the girl on the left has many black markers in her speech, but the girl on the right doesn't.

  6. Gavin said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    Dr. Jeff Reaser, who works on the NCLLP project with Walt Wolfram came to the University of Hawai‘i last week to give several talks on this. Here is the info on his talk. Hopefully this generates more discussion here in Hawai‘i among educators about linguistic diversity, especially with stigmatized languages like Pidgin (Hawai‘i Creole). It'd be great to have a similar project here at UH.

  7. Jeffrey Reeder said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    That's gonna change up my whole morning now that I see that it is a playlist that is [~comprised of~] 43 videos, each of which (so far) seems just as interesting as the last.
    Thanks for sharing, and agree that this would be a project worth repeating in Hawai‘i, Texas, here in California, and, uh, just about everywhere.

  8. Jtgw said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    Black woman on the right sounds like a Valley Girl to me; I was quite surprised.

  9. Jeffrey Reeder said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:48 pm

    Jtgw said,
    Black woman on the right sounds like a Valley Girl to me; I was quite surprised.

    At a public university in California here – and she's the only one that sounds 'normal' (regardless of race/ethnicity).

  10. Jtgw said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

    @Jeffrey: But she's in North Carolina. Is Valley Girl speech a thing there, too?

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