Dialect and Identity in American English
Deeply embedded in the U.S. national consciousnesses is a complexity of
cultural references which distinguish 'status' and 'power' relationships
among the speakers of American English. This mixture of different
culture(s), language(s), and cultural references is continuously changing.
New communications technologies (the internet, expanded cable and
satellite tv services, wireless multimedia, etc.) are accelerating the
pace of change.
They are also disseminating to audiences who are not natives of the host
culture a greatly larger volume of highly-culture-specific linguistic and
visual content. This content may often be difficult for non-natives to
comprehend (translate, subtitle, etc.) without a perspective on the
various associations, connotations or other 'insider knowledge' that
had been 'assumed' within the native culture for specific 'terms of
distinction', including 'register options' which may have a relatively
lower or higher status.
What Are the Different Dialects of American English?
A dialect is a variety of language spoken by a group of people who
identify themselves with that particular way of speaking. Most dialects
are regional, ethnic, or social subsets of a particular 'national'
language, even if some 'national languages' might technically be
considered to be dialects, and some 'dialects' have assumed the status of
A Dialect is distinct from a Language largely in the
numerical, political or other influence of its speakers, as suggested by
the pithy definition of a language as "a dialect with an army." This
influence may either be "real" or "absolute," or simply "perceived" as
being such, whether or not it really is (cf. the 'Thomas Theorem').
Regional and Local Dialects
Everyone speaks in dialect. In fact, as we all belong to many
different social groupings, we normally speak in several layers of
dialect, "code-switching" among these as appropriate for the environment
in which we are speaking. Most visible in American English are
regional dialects (such as Southern or New England, or Appalachian,
Ozark, Minnesotan or Texan), which identify the area from which the
speaker comes (or from which he originally came). Local dialect is
a subset of regional dialect. This may be specific to a particular city,
such as New York, Pittsburgh, or Boston, or even to particular
neighborhoods of a city, such as between Brooklyn and the Bronx in New
York City, or Beacon Hill and the South Side or Back Bay in Boston.
Mobility and education may diminish the distinctiveness of a regional
dialect, but can seldom completely eradicate it.
Social Dialects and Sociolects
We also speak a social dialect, which reveals our educational or
class status. The influence of social dialect is often thought to be more
prominent in class-oriented societies like Britain, but it is also
influential in American English, as the American
Tongues videotape demonstrated. In the United States, social
dialect is more often associated with the stereotypes of different
national or local regions, ethnic groups, or educational level than with
'class'. A social dialect, or sociolect is often revealed through
language which indicates the cultural attitudes and status preferences of
the communities in which we live, or groups with which we identify.
Examples of these could include an individual's use of
"politically-correct" language, or the attitudes and perspectives
revealed by the humor or special jargons one may use.
Speaking the 'wrong' social dialect in a certain environment may result
in awkwardness or difficulty for the speaker. For example, speaking a
highly-educated dialect while working in a blue-collar environment would
identify one as an "outsider" who might become the subject of resentment
or open hostility. If a black person speaks 'standard English' in a
Black-Vernacular-English community, he could be regarded as a 'traitor' to
his heritage. If a travelling sales professional speaks a local or
regional dialect which is perceived by others as having lower or humorous
status, he may not be regarded as authoritative or believable, and sales
would not be made.
Gender and Ethnic Dialects
We also speak with gender dialect. The speech of males and
females differs in more respects than just the pitch. Differences can also
be found in vocabulary, grammar and other phonology, as well as style,
register and often even choice of topic and length and frequency of
speech. To some extent, emerging 'gay speech' may be regarded as a subset
of gender dialect.
If we belong to an ethnic community, we may express our membership in
that community by speaking the ethnic dialect of that group. The
African-American Variety of English (AAVE, a.k.a. 'Black Vernacular
English' [BVE] or 'Ebonics') is an example of an ethnic dialect with a
strong cultural identity. Currently acquiring significant status in the
U.S. is 'Spanglish'. Another example of interest
for Finnish students would be Finglish.
All of these different dialect influences affect the way we speak,
whether or not we are conscious of it. In turn, the way we speak
influences how we are perceived by others. People are usually proud and
strongly defensive of the dialect(s) with which they identify. Within a
large, diverse, multicultural nation such as the United States, these
identities with, and the continuing competition among, the varying
registers of local, regional, ethnic, social, gender and other dialects
are the basis of much interplay of linguistic power, pride and politics.
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Last Updated 23 October 2010