How Linguists Approach the Study of Language and Dialect

27 Oct
-John R. Rickford

(ms. January 2002, for students in Ling 73, AAVE, Stanford)

Since we will be drawing primarily on linguistic research to tell the story of African American Vernacular English [AAVE], we need to explain some of the premises under which linguists operate, the kinds of principles which are usually covered in the first chapter of introductory textbooks on linguistics.

The first such premise is that linguistics is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive discipline. By this we mean that our objective is to describe the systematic nature of language as used by the members of particular speech communities rather than to pass (prescriptive) judgments about how well they speak or how they should or should not be using their language. The study of people’s attitudes towards one variety or another is an interesting sub field of linguistics, one which can help us to understand the social distribution of dialects or the direction of language change, and one which can be helpful in formulating policy about which varieties to use in the schools and how. But even here, the linguist is primarily describing the attitudes rather than prescribing what they should be. [Will this stop us from suggesting that attitudes towards AAVE shouldn’t be negative?]

A second, related premise is that every naturally used language variety is systematic, with regular rules and restrictions at the lexical, phonological and grammatical level. Although non-linguists sometimes assume that some dialects–unusually non-standard ones –don’t have any rules, or that they are simply the result of their speakers’ laziness, carelessness, or cussedness, linguists usually feel quite differently, both on empirical grounds (dialects always turn out to have regular rules), and on theoretical grounds. The theoretical reason is that the successful acquisition and use of a language variety in a community of speakers would be impossible if language were not systematic and rule-governed. If every speaker could make up his or her own words and rules for pronunciation and grammar, communication between different speakers would be virtually impossible.

Note, too, that linguists use the term dialect as a neutral term to refer to the systematic usage of a group of speakers–those in a particular region or social class, for instance–and that the term has within linguistics none of the negative connotations which it sometimes has in everyday usage (for instance, meaning “nonstandard” or “substandard” speech, or the speech of people from other regions besides one’s own). Everyone speaks a dialect–at least one.

The third premise of linguistics which we think it is important to emhasize is that in trying to understand and describe the system of a language, we give primary attention to speech rather than writing. One obvious reason for this is that the written language omits valuable information about the pronunciation or sound system of a language. But there are other reasons, including the fact that people all over the world learn to speak before they learn to read or write, and the fact that competence in the spoken variety of at least one language is universal to all normal human beings, but literacy is a more restricted skill (in fact. some languages do not even have writing systems). Of course the written language is, to varying extents, related to the spoken language. Comparing and contrasting the two is a fascinating enterprise, and some of the evidence about AAVE which we will consider in this book will be drawn from literature, as some of the excerpts considered above already demonstrate. But because non-linguists often attach greater authority to the written rather than the spoken word (“if it’s in print, then it must be right”) it’s important to emphasize that linguists tend to make precisely the opposite assumption.

The fourth and final premise of linguistics is that although languages are always systematic, variation among their speakers is absolutely normal. Although we sometimes think or act as if there were one entity called American or British English–and grammatical handbooks help to reinforce this fiction–we know from actual experience that the “language” varies from one region to another, from one social group to another, and even (when region and social group are held constant), from one occasion or topic to another.

The most significant variations or differences within languages occur at the level of the lexicon (vocabulary), phonology (pronunciation), grammar (morphology and syntax). and usage. Moreover, they are not just qualitative, in the sense that dialect A uses one feature and dialect B another, but they may also be quantitative, in the sense that dialect A uses one feature more often than dialect B does. (This is particularly true of phonological and grammatical features which have social or stylistic significance.) Finally, variation may be regional, social or stylistic in its origins, and the methods that linguists have used to study each type differ slightly. We will now elaborate on these important concepts and provide examples.

Lexical variation

Differences in vocabulary are one aspect of dialect diversity which people notice readily and comment on quite frequently. They are certainly common enough as markers of the differences between geographical areas or regions–for instance the fact that “a carbonated soft drink” might be called pop in the inland North and the West of the United States, soda in the Northeast, tonic in Eastern New England, and cold drink, drink or dope in various parts of the South (Carver 1987:268). Or the fact that a person who was “tired” or exhausted” might describe themselves as being all in if they were from the North or West, but wore out or give out if they were from the South (ibid.:273). Accordingly, lexical differences play a significant role in regional dialectology (the study of regional dialects), and in popular treatments of American dialects like the documentary film American Tongues, lexical differences are given prime coverage.

Lexical differences are not as salient in distinguishing the speech of different social or socioeconomic classes, and they have accordingly played a much smaller role in social dialectology (the study of social dialects), which has concentrated instead on differences in phonology and grammar. Nevertheless they are certainly an aspect of ethnic differences–for instance, knowledge of the term ashy to describe the “whitish or grayish appearance of skin due to exposure to wind and cold” (Smitherman 1994:49) is widespread among African Americans but less so among European Americans (Labov et al 1968:???)–and several dictionaries of African American English have appeared over the past several years. Lexical differences are also a factor in stylistic variation (for instance, whether one describe oneself as being exhausted or pooped), and in what are sometimes called the “genderlects” of men versus women (for instance, it has been claimed that women are more likely to describe an item as lovely or divine).

One area where social group differences are reflected strongly in the lexicon is in variation according to age group, particularly in the slang of teenagers and young adults. Accurate definitions of slang are elusive, in part because some words fall more decisively into this category than others, but the term is commonly understood to include the informal in-group vocabulary of young people or non-mainstream groups, and to include items which are relatively short-lived (Wolfram 1991:46-50). Slang is often particularly rich in evaluative terms; for instance Smitherman’s (1994:91-92) entry for def, a reduction of definitely which means “great; superb; excellent” lists these older synonyms: boss, mean, cool, hip, terrible, outa sight, monsta, dynamite, and these newer ones: fresh, hype, jammin, slammin, kickin, bumpin, humpin, phat, pumpin, stoopid stupid, vicious, down, dope, on and raw. Although most of these terms have originated and are best known within the African American community, the popularity of African American music and culture has also made many of them familiar to teenagers from other ethnic groups, so much so that these and other slang terms might, in some areas, be considered symbols of youth culture rather than Black culture. However, African American teenagers often coin new in-group slang terms as fast as their former terms spread to other ethnic groups, and there remain significant differences between the slang of Whites and Blacks (T. Labov 1992). At the same time, some items which originate as slang become part of the informal vocabulary of older age groups and eventually of the country as a whole, for instance buck “dollar”.

Phonological variation

Phonological variation refers to differences in pronunciation within and across dialects, for instance the fact that people from New York and New England might pronounce “greasy” with an s, while people from Virginia and points further South might pronounce it with a z. Or the fact that working class people across the United States are more likely than are upper middle class speakers to pronounce the initial th of they and similar words with a d.

Phonological variants are fairly salient as markers of regional dialect. For instance, the stereotypical Bostonian pronunciation of “Park your car in Harvard yard” as Pahk yo’ car in Hahvahd yahd includes not only the r-lessness of Pahk, yo’, Hahvahd and yahd (the r in car is retained because the following word begins with a vowel)–a feature shared with many other American dialects, particularly in the South–but also the more distinctive use in these words of a long maximally low or open front vowel [a] where other dialects use a slightly fronter and less open vowel [Å] (Wells 1982:522). In order to represent the pronunciations with some precision, linguists often use a phonetic alphabet in which each distinguishably different sound is uniquely represented by a different symbol, rather than the relatively unphonetic spelling system of English, in which one sound is often represented by different spellings (e.g. the sound “sh” represented by sh in sheet but by ti in nation) and different sounds by one spelling (e.g. s represents an “s” sound in bets but a “z” sound in beds). Sounds and words represented in phonetic spelling are enclosed in square brackets; a key to the phonetic spellings used in this work is included at the beginning of this volume.

One relevant aspect of phonological variation worth noting is that it is often conditioned by the phonological environment–that is, by WHERE in a utterance (word-initially, word-finally, before r, and so on) the sound occurs. We’ve already seen one example of this in the fact that post vocalic [r] is not lost in Boston when the next word begins with a vowel (this is sometimes referred to as “linking r”). Another example which is relevant to this volume is the fact that the distinction between [È] and [I] which is evident in pig versus peg and other words is lost (or neutralized) in Southern speech before a following nasal consonant, as in pin and pen, both pronounced [pÈn]. As a result of this merger, speakers sometimes have to clarify which word is meant by asking for a “sticking [pÈn]” (pin) rather than a “writing [pÈn]” (pen). This feature is also characteristic of AAVE across the United States.

The pin/pen example is just one example of a fairly common situation in which phonological mergers in one dialect make homonyms (two or more words with different meanings, pronounced alike) of words which are kept apart in other dialects. Perhaps the best known example of this is the pronunciation of Mary, merry and marry as homonyms in the Midland (Southern Pennsylvania, Ohio, and so on) and many parts of the West (Reed 1977:31). Consonant loss–a relatively common process in AAVE–is also a major source of mergers and homonyms (e.g. told, with loss of final d, becoming homophonous with toll).

Phonological variation–particularly insofar as it involves consonants–is central to social variation and stylistic variation too, and we will provide relevant examples below.

Grammatical variation

What we have been referring to as grammatical variation really involves two sub-types: morphology and syntax. Morphology refers to the structure or forms of words, including the morphemes or minimal units of meaning which comprise words, for instance the morphemes {un}”not” and {happy} “happy” in unhappy , or the morphemes {cat}”cat” and {s} “plural” in cats. Syntax refers to the structure of larger units like phrases and sentences, including rules for combining and relating words in sentences, for instance the rule that in English yes/no questions, auxiliaries must occur at the beginning of sentences, before the subject noun phrase (e.g. Can John go? versus the statement John can go).

One can find examples of regional variation of both types. For instance, the form (or morphology) of the past tense of catch, climb and draw was sometimes catched, clum and drawed respectively in parts of the East but only caught, climbed and drew respectively in the Western US, at least according to a report more than forty years ago (Atwood 1953:???). In the midwest of the US (including Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa) and other regions (parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia), one can use anymore with the meaning of “nowadays” in positive sentences like “He smokes a lot anymore,” but in the rest of the country, anymore can only be used with the meaning of “no longer” and only in negative sentences, as in “He doesn’t smoke a lot anymore” (Labov 1973). Perhaps even more dramatic is the use of “So don’t I” in Boston and other parts of New England where other dialects would use “So do I”:

(13) A: Mary likes liver.

B: So don’t I (Boston usage for “So do I.”).

Both of the latter examples might be classified as syntactic variation, because they involve relations between words within or across sentences. The Boston example is in a sense morphosyntactic, since it involves the form of the auxiliary (don’t vs. do) following an adverb (so) which expresses agreement with the proposition of a preceding sentence. Variation in the form of the past participle after have or had–“He had gone” versus “He had went”–is also morphosyntactic, involving variation in the form of the main verb (morphology) in combination with particular auxiliaries (syntax).

Grammatical variation is much more common as a marker of social dialects and formal/informal styles than it is of regional dialects, with non-standard or vernacular variants sometimes being strongly stigmatized for their associations with limited education or use by the lower working class, but simultaneously being strongly admired and adopted for their connotations of informality, masculinity or non-pretentiousness. Whether positive or negative, grammatical variables tend to have strong social marking. One example at the level of morphology is the absence of third person present tense -s, as in “She like Ø liver.” (In this and other examples we will use the symbol Ø to mark the point at which an omitted feature might have occurred.) This feature is common in working class AAVE in Detroit and elsewhere in the US, but it is also common in other working class English varieties, for instance among English speakers in Norwich, as shown in figure 1 below. A syntactic example is the use of multiple negation in AAVE and other vernacular English dialects, with negation marked both on the auxiliary verb and on the indefinite noun or adverb, as in “I didn’t see nobody” versus Standard English, which permits negative marking on only one constituent, as in “I didn’t see anybody” (negative verbal auxiliary) or “I saw nobody” (negative indefinite noun).

[NOTE: ALL MAPS AND FIGURES ARE AT END OF PAPER]

INSERT FIGURE 1: Absence of third person present tense singular s (she walk Ø) by social class, among African American Speakers in Detroit and White speakers in Detroit (from Holmes 1992, p. 159, drawing on Wolfram 1969 and Trudgill 1974).

Most of the descriptive research which linguists have done on AAVE over the past thirty years has been focused on its grammar, particularly on its distinctive pre-verbal tense-aspect markers, like invariant habitual be (He be workin “He is usually working”) and stressed BIN (She BIN had one “She’s had one for a long time”). These may appear to be simple lexical items, but they fall under “grammar” rather than “lexicon” because they have grammatical rather than lexical meaning, serving to signal grammatical relationships (and participating in a system of tense-aspect oppositions) rather than possessing semantic content in and of themselves. (Contrast bucket, walk, which refer to entities or events in the real world, outside of language, rather than expressing grammatical relationships).

Language use/Speech events and expressive language use

We have mentioned so far that dialects and styles can differ at the level of their words, sounds, and grammatical patterns. These are the three components of language that have been investigated in dialectology and linguistics for more than a century and the ones that are usually covered in introductory books on these subjects. A fourth level, one which has only begun to receive serious attention over the past thirty years, involves what we might characterize, with deliberate vagueness, as language use. By this we mean, in the first instance, a community’s rules for constructing, participating in and (where relevant) evaluating verbal activities larger than the sentence, including narratives and telephone conversations and verbal routines like lecturing or telling jokes which are often described as “speech events.” But we also include under this category the variegated aspects of language use which fall under the “ethnography of speaking,” including conventions for speaking loudly, softly, much, a little, or not at all, whether addressees are to remain silent or vocally interactive during a speaker’s turn, whether one is expected to broach or avoid certain topics and make extensive use of simile, metaphor and rhyme, and so on (Hymes 1973). We also include rules for turn-taking and other aspects of what is normally included under Conversation Analysis (Sacks, Schegloff et al), as well as the rules for conversational implicature, presupposition, and speech acts (events like commands, requests, promises and threats which are usually accomplished through the use of words) which fall within narrower definitions of “pragmatics” (Levinson 1983).

Although different regions do have different conventions for language use, this is not something that has been systematically investigated by dialect geographers. Most of what is known about variation in language use has come from studies of different social groups, including men versus women (for instance, in mixed sex conversation men interrupt women more often than women interrupt men, see Zimmerman and West 1975:115-116), and particularly, different national or ethnic groups. For instance, based on Plato’s descriptions, Athenian talkers appear to have been verbose, Spartans laconic and Cretans pithy (Hymes 1973:44). The conversational patterns of visiting Scandinavian neighbors have been described as involving long (apparently comfortable) silences, in contrast with the conversational patterns of Antiguans, in which people speak continuously and “contrapuntally,” with numerous interruptions and overlaps (Reisman 1974). A pattern similar to that of the Antiguans has been reported, within the US, as being characteristic of informal Jewish interaction among close family or friends (Tannen 19??). Distinctive African American speech events and patterns of language use have been investigated fairly extensively over the past quarter century and in this course we will consider the nature and significance of a variety of verbal activities common in the African American speech community, including preaching, call and response, sounding, signifying, marking, woofing, loud talking, toasts, the dozens, rapping, and so on.

2. Regional Variation

We have already defined regional dialects as varieties of a language which are spoken in different geographical areas. Here we will describe some of the methods which are used to collect and display regional dialect data, identify the major dialect regions in the United States, and summarize some of the reasons why regional dialect differences arise.

Methods. Ever since its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, regional dialectology has depended on the dialect questionnaire as one of its main data sources. In 1876, George Wenker mailed a dialect questionnaire to thousands of schoolmasters in the North of Germany, depending on them to complete and return it on their own. Although this method is still followed, most subsequent dialectologists preferred the method of Jules Gilliéron, who in 1896 sent a trained fieldworker (Edmond Edmont) into different parts of France to conduct dialect questionnaires in person. Trained fieldworkers can get a more reliable record of pronunciation, and they can also pursue alternatives and report relevant observations about informants’ responses which can be highly instructive.

The regional dialect surveys which together make up the Linguistic Atlas of the Unites States and Canada–beginning with the Linguistic Atlas of New England (LANE, see Kurath et al 1939-43)–have all depended on fairly long questionnaires, administered in the field by trained fieldworkers. Similarly, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), under the editorship of Frederic G. Cassidy, drew on the usage of 2,777 informants from 1,002 communities across the United States. These informants were interviewed between 1965 and 1970 by 72 fieldworkers, using a questionnaire with as many as 1,847 items, such as the following:

A1 What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight?

A6 What time is this? (Show picture of clock face at 10:45)

H60 The lumpy white cheese that is made from sour milk.

Y18 To leave in a hurry: “Before they find this out, we’d better ________!”

Like many dialect questionnaires, these questions attempt to get at local word usage indirectly, without using the word in question or its equivalent in another dialect, to avoid influencing the informants’ response. DARE fieldworkers also tape-recorded an average of half an hour’s speech from their informants (1843 recordings in all), and these were sampled to provide information on pronunciation differences across the US. Fieldwork for the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS), conducted between 1968 and 1983, was even more ambitious in this regard, yielding 5,300 hours of tape-recorded speech (Pederson 1993:31). Both sets of recordings should constitute valuable archives for future dialect research, particularly as measures of how much change in “real” time has occurred in the interim.

Many dialect surveys in the US and Europe have depended for their informants on older people who were born and raised in the community and hadn’t moved around much. This is a good strategy for helping to capture distinctive local traditions, but regional dialectology has also been criticized for its tendency to over-represent male respondents, under-represent modern usage, and avoid stratified random samples (see Pickford 1956, Chambers and Trudgill 1980:24-36).

Isoglosses and dialect areas. One way of displaying the results of a regional dialect survey is to include the different variants in a table or list, with annotations about where each is most prevalent. But a more graphic way of doing this is to chart the distribution of the variants on a dialect atlas or map, as Reed 1977:99 (drawing on data in Kurath 1949, figure 125) did for the North Eastern variants of “cottage cheese” in the US (see map 1). The lines separating the areas in which each variant is used (Dutch cheese, pot cheese, and smearcase) are called isoglosses.

INSERT MAP 1 HERE, from Reed 1977:99, based on Kurath 1949, fig. 125

A related way of displaying regional dialect data is to use a symbol for every location on a map in which a certain variant is attested, as in map 2 (from Cassidy 1985:883), which shows where in the US the noun curd, “freq. pl., also curd-cheese,” was offered in response to question H60, reprinted above. Note that the DARE maps of the United States differ from conventional maps because the amount of space which they allocate to each state is based on the size of its population rather than its land area (Carver 1985:xxiii).

INSERT MAP 2 HERE: from DARE 1985, p. 883

When the isoglosses for different words, pronunciations or grammatical features bundle together, they are usually taken to define a dialect area. In map 3, for instance (from Kurath 1949, figure 42) the isoglosses separate the Northern dialect area, in which pail, faucet, skunk and merry Christmas! are used, from the Midland and South dialect areas in which bucket, spicket, pole-cat and Christmas gift! are used respectively.

INSERT MAP 3 HERE:Kurath 1949, fig 42

Dialect areas of the US. Map 4, from Carver (1987:248), provides a comprehensive depiction of dialect areas in the continental US. Its regions are based on overlapping geographical layers in which particular sets of words (lexical isoglosses) occur. The fundamental regional divide which Carver finds is between the North and the South. The North is further divided into the Upper North, the Lower North, and the West, and the South is further divided into the Upper South and the Lower South, with other regional subdivisions as indicated.

INSERT MAP 4 HERE: The Major Dialect Regions Summarized (from Carver 1987:248)

Four additional comments remain to be made in relation to Map 4. The first is that Carver’s Lower North and Upper South are more or less equivalent to Kurath’s Midland area, which does not, on Carver’s (1987:161) evidence, constitute a unified dialect area. The second is that lexical subdivisions of the West are less clear-cut than those of the East in part because its settlement and development is more recent, and in part because dialect research in this part of the county has been less extensive than it has been in the East. The third point to note is that the words associated with each of the regions in map 4 don’t occur with equal frequency throughout the region. As shown by map 5 for the North layer, some areas (darker shadings) are denser than others, with DARE informants showing familiarity with a greater number of words than the DARE informants in other (lighter shaded) areas. Finally, it is interesting to note that when Americans are asked to indicate on a map their subjective sense of major dialect areas of the US, their results correspond to the objective divisions of map 4 to a considerable extent, as shown by map 6 from Preston (1996:305, figure 5), a composite of the responses for 147 Michigan respondents. Note that the areas on which these Michigan respondents show the greatest agreement are the South (delimited by 94% of respondents), and the North (delimited by 61% of respondents), corresponding more or less to the major North/South divide of map 4.

INSERT MAP 5 HERE: Relative densities of the North layer (from Carver 1987:57)

INSERT MAP 6 HERE: Michigan respondents’ computer-generated mental map of US speech regions (from Preston 1996:305, figure 5)

Why dialect differences arise and persist. Before we leave the subject of regional dialect differences, we might consider briefly how such differences arise and why they persist. One factor is the influence of geographical barriers. A river, a mountain range, or an expanse of barren land, can serve to keep two populations apart, creating or maintaining differences in usage between dialects on either side. The Ohio river, for instance, helps to define the division between the dialect areas of the North and the South shown in map 4. Other factors beside geography which help to create and maintain regional dialects include political boundaries, settlement patterns, migration and immigration routes, territorial conquest, and language contact. In Texas, for instance, contact with Louisiana French in the East has led to loans like jambalaya “rice stew” and bayou “inlet,” while contact with Mexican Spanish along the South Western border has yielded loans like mesa “dry plateau,” and lariat “rope with a noose” (Reed 1977:52). One question for us in this volume will be whether the existence and persistence of a distinctive variety like AAVE can be attributed in part to factors similar to those which produce regional dialects, in particular to social barriers between African Americans and other ethnic groups (particularly Whites) and/or to settlement patterns as African Americans migrated North and West from the South.

Contrary to what many people seem to think, television has not had much influence in spreading dialect patterns or obliterating dialect differences, particularly in phonology and grammar, the domains of language which are less easily noticed or controlled than the lexicon is (see Trudgill 1983:61). One reason for this is that television is a non-interactive medium; viewers don’t talk back to it and, and if they do, the television characters certainly do not respond to them in return. It is the responses of the people we speak to in our everyday lives–indicating varying degrees of comprehension, non-comprehension, approval and non-approval of the way we speak–that cause us to modify our dialects, depending of course, on our attitudes towards those people and whether we care about their opinions (see Giles 19??, Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985).

Social and Stylistic Variation

Social dialects are varieties distinguished according to the social groups who use them, for instance, upper middle class versus working class speakers (social class), men versus women (sex or gender), young people versus old (age), African Americans versus European Americans (ethnicity or race), people who are part of a particular network at school or in the neighborhood versus those who are not (network). In theory, since individuals typically belong to several different groups simultaneously, their speech patterns might be taken to reflect the simultaneous intersection of their social categories and experiences, e.g. the speech of young upper middle class White female “jocks” from Chicago (see Eckert 1989). In practice, however, social dialectologists or sociolinguists tend to consider the linguistic correlates of social categories one category at a time–for instance, the effects of social class membership on the use of third person singular present tense -s absence–and data on the simultaneous effects of social categories (e.g. class and sex) are presented less often (but see figure 3 below) Interactions between social class and style are commonly noted, however, and stylistic variation will also be considered in this section.

The issue of social variation is critical to discussions of AAVE because the most vernacular features (e.g. “He Ø tall,” “We be jumping,” “Ain’ nobody done nothin”) are used most frequently by speakers of the working and lower class. Geographical region does not appear to make a significant difference, except insofar as the lexicon, especially slang, is concerned, but social class is definitely relevant, and the relevance of age, sex and social network has also been raised in several studies.

Methods. Although the systematic study of social dialects (about thirty years old) is a lot more recent than the systematic study of regional dialects (about one hundred and twenty years old), the methods of regional dialectology could not simply be extended to social dialectology. For one thing, social dialect differences tend to be reflected more often in phonology and grammar than in the lexicon, and they are more often socially marked as prestigious or stigmatized than regional differences are. If we were to attempt to get at social differences in language just by asking people which pronunciation or grammatical pattern they used (the equivalent of the regional dialectologist’s lexical questionnaire), we might find, in the first place, that people’s actual usage might lie below the level of conscious awareness. Moreover, people might tend to under-report their actual use of socially stigmatized variants in everyday life, and over-report their use of socially prestigious variants, as a number of studies (Labov, Trudgill) have shown. The direct elicitation of speakers’ intuitions can still be useful, and we will draw on data derived from this approach at several points in this volume, but what social dialectologists have usually relied on as their principal data source is samples of people speaking informally, analyzed to see which variants speakers use and how often. The major means of achieving this goal has been to tape-record speakers in relatively informal interaction, either in conversation with their peers (close friends and family members) or in spontaneous interviews lasting an hour or more in which certain topics are included to produce more excited interaction and make the interviewee less conscious of his or her speech. Two favorite topics or this type are descriptions of situations in which the speaker was in danger of being killed, and descriptions of games he/she played as a child, but any topic in which the speaker seems to get involved or excited may be pursued.

Social Class. For social dialectology, one’s sample needs to include representatives of each of the social groups being investigated, and while it is relatively easy to differentiate men versus women, or teenagers versus middle-aged adults, distinguishing between different socioeconomic or social classes is a bit more difficult. The most common way of doing this in sociolinguistics is to ask people about their occupations, their educational backgrounds, their incomes, their residence types (number of rooms and location) and/or their lifestyles, and then use one of the sociological status scales (for instance Warner 1960, Hollingshead 1958, Højrup 1983, Milroy and Milroy 1992) to assign them to one of four or five socioeconomic groups (e.g. Lower Working Class, Upper Working Class) depending on their answers. Sometimes occupational prestige (as assessed by independent surveys) is given the greatest weight in such rankings, and income somewhat less, partly because income can be unreliably reported for various reasons, and because it doesn’t always correlate directly with social standing or status. There is some debate in sociolinguistics about whether speakers’ evaluations of their own and other’s social class standing should be given greater weight than it is in most studies, and about whether conflict models of social class (for instance Marx, Dahrendorf) should be used more often (see Rickford 1986, Williams 1992), but to discuss this here would take us too far afield.

The differences between social dialects are usually, as we have noted before, quantitative rather than qualitative. Accordingly, social stratification in language is usually represented by means of displays like figure 1, above, which shows the relative frequency with which one of the variants of a variable is used by the different social classes, as a proportion of all the cases in which it could have been used, following Labov’s (1966:49) principle of accountability. In this figure, the variant displayed is absence of third person singular present tense -s (i.e., the percentage of the time speakers said forms like “He walkØ” rather than “He walks”), and the figure is an example of sharp stratification, with significant differences between the usage of the working class and middle class groups, both in Norwich and Detroit.

INSERT FIGURE 1: Absence of third person present tense s, Norwich & Detroit (Holmes 1992:159)

Figure 2, by contrast, is an example of gradient or fine stratification, since the frequencies for the different social classes are much closer to each other, appearing as a continuum of fine shadings rather than a series of discrete and sharply separated breaks. This figure is from the work of William Labov, the leading pioneer in the methodological and theoretical aspects of social dialect variation, particularly as it relates to ongoing changes in the language (see Labov 1972, 1994). The variable it depicts is the pronunciation of postvocalic r in words like car or beard, and it’s a good one for illustrating a number of sociolinguistic generalizations and distinctions . In the first place, note that social stratification and stylistic differentiation are shown simultaneously, and that both pattern quite regularly–each socioeconomic group increasing it’s relative frequency of r-pronunciation as the stylistic context becomes more formal, while, within each style, higher socioeconomic groups show more r-pronunciation than lower ones. The one exception is the “crossover” pattern of the Lower Middle Class in word-list and minimal pair styles, where consciousness of the variable under investigation is greatest; in these contexts, the linguistically insecure Lower Middle Class speakers use even more of the prestige variant than speakers from the highest socioeconomic group, the Upper Middle Class. This “crossover” pattern by an intermediate social group is often symptomatic of ongoing change, and, as comparisons with older records as well as contemporary age groups verify, the pronunciation of r-in New York City does in fact represent a change in progress, with the youngest members of the upper middle class showing the greatest use of the new r pronouncing norm.

INSERT FIGURE 2: Variation in r-pronunciation in NYC (from Labov 1994:87)

By contrast, a number of other variables, such as the pronunciation of the suffix in walking and other gerunds as -in [In] instead of -ing [Ingˆ] are stable sociolinguistic variables, showing no significant differences across age groups, and no evidence of ongoing linguistic change (Labov 1972:238-240). Both (-r) and (-ing) are sociolinguistic markers, meaning that they vary simultaneously by social group membership and style, in contrast with indicators, which are correlated with geographical region or social group membership only, and show little or no stylistic variation. An example of an indicator is the variable (a:) in Norwich, England, involving the pronunciation of the vowel in cart, path and similar words. In general, speakers of a language are more aware of markers than indicators; increasing or decreasing its use in different styles is in part a reflection of this awareness. It is sometimes possible for markers to reach an even greater level of social awareness and commentary, and become a linguistic stereotype, popularly associated with a particular region (e.g. the Brooklynese pronunciation of “thirty third” as toity toid) or social group (e.g. the characterization of working class speakers as “always” saying dese, dem and dose, with initial d instead of th [∂]). Linguistic stereotypes are often no more accurate than social stereotypes, representing behavior as categorical when it is in fact variable (as with dese, dem and dose), or as current when actual usage has changed (as with the toity toid stereotype–see Chambers and Trudgill 1980:88).

We might also note, on the basis of figures 1 and 2, that the relative status of a linguistic feature as prestigious or stigmatized is usually a direct reflection of the social status of the groups who use it most often. Third person singular -s absence in Norwich and Detroit, clearly associated with working and lower class usage, is a stigmatized feature. But r-pronunciation in New York, associated with middle class usage, is a prestige feature. Note that the situation in relation to the prestigious “received pronunciation” (R.P.) of England is quite the opposite, with r-lessness being the prestige norm. This example is good for illustrating the fact that the relative prestige of a feature (usefully defined by Weinreich 1953:??? as “function in social advance”) is not simply a function of whether it corresponds to the standard spelling or whether it involves “deletions”; in England, deleted “r” is prestigious, but in New York it is stigmatized, based on the usage of the highest social classes in each community. Of course the situation is often more complex. Some AAVE variables are simultaneously stigmatized–so far as usage in the formal mainstream contexts of work and the classroom are concerned–and prestigious, so far as usage in informal contexts of solidarity and ethnicity or youth identity affirmation are concerned. An alternative approach to this ambiguity is to see them as representing different kinds of “prestige,” the overt institutional norms of higher-status groups recognized by society at large and maintained by teachers, the media and others “agents of standardization” versus the covert, often counter-culture norms embraced by intermediate and lower status social groups with little or no institutional support (Wolfram 1991:98).

We have concentrated so far on social variation by social class, one of the most salient correlates of social variability in studies of AAVE and in sociolinguistics more generally. Four other aspects which we will briefly consider in this introduction are variation according to ethnicity, age, sex or gender, and social network. We’ll also consider another approach to stylistic variation besides the one exemplified in figure 2.

Ethnicity. A speaker’s ethnic or racial group may also have a significant effect on the language they use, but we will discuss this issue quite briefly here, since it is, in a sense the focus of this entire volume. This is particularly so since the bulk of sociolinguistic research on language and ethnicity has in fact focused on the linguistic relationship between the English of African Americans and European Americans, as a glance at any of the introductory textbooks in sociolinguistics (e.g. Holmes 1992, Wardhaugh 1992, ) will reveal. In these texts, discussions of language and ethnicity turn out to be primarily discussions of AAVE.

It is relevant to consider other kinds of ethnic influence, however, for one common source of distinctiveness in ethnic dialects is the influence of foreign languages spoken as a first language by an individual or by his or her parents and grandparents. For instance, Maori speakers in New Zealand may use greetings like kia ora and other Maori words in their English, especially with other Maori speakers, and Jewish Americans may make greater use of ethnically marked terms like oy vay and shlemiel (which come from Yiddish) than other ethnic groups (Holmes 1992:191-93). Or, to give a phonological example, Mexican American speakers of English sometimes use a voiceless [s] rather than a voiced [z] (saying “soo” for “zoo”), and this may be attributed to the influence of Spanish, which does not have voiced [z] in word-initial or word-final position (Valdés 1988:130). The question then arises of whether the Vernacular English of African Americans might be attributed to the influence of African languages spoken by their forebears who came from Africa hundreds of years ago, or to the influence of creole languages which they and their early descendants might have acquired in the New World. The answer is that some of the distinctiveness of AAVE might be attributed to passive inheritance from an ancestral language, but not all of it can. The maintenance if not the creation of some of the linguistic differences between the speech of African Americans and other ethnic groups must be attributed to other factors, including segregation, migration within the US, and a desire to express a distinctive ethnic identity (Le Page and Tabouret Keller, 1985).

Age. Age-related variation in language may reflect either age-grading or change in progress. Age-grading involves features associated with specific age groups as a developmental or social stage, as in the two-word utterances of children around eighteen months of age (“Mommy sock,” “Drink soup”–Moskowitz 1985:55), or the in-group slang of teenagers (rad “cool”, gnarly “gross/cool”–T. Labov 1992:350). Normally, speakers give up the features associated with a particular stage as they grow older. In the case of change in progress, however, age differences reflect an actual change in community norms, as with the pronunciation of r in New York City, exemplified in figure 2 above. The study of age differences is important for the study of language change (“change in apparent time”–Bailey et al 1991) but it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether one is dealing with stable age-grading or with change in progress (see Labov 1981, Rickford et al 1991:127-8), so one might seek out evidence of change in real time (across samples from two or more points in time). For instance, speakers of American English who are 19 years and younger tend to omit the verb (goes or be concerned) in as far as constructions (for instance, in “As far as the white servants Ø, it isn’t clear”) far more often than speakers aged 60 years or older do; this evidence of change in apparent-time is backed up by real time evidence that in the late nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, the verb was almost never deleted in this construction (Rickford et al 1995).

One little studied aspect of age-related variation in language is the question of whether adolescence, which is such a significant physical and sociopsychological period in the transition from childhood to adulthood, is accompanied by equally significant linguistic developments. One of the few studies with relevant data on this issue is Wolfram’s (1969) study of sociolinguistic variation in the AAVE of Detroit, which shows usage by children (ages 10-12), adolescents (ages 14-17) and adults for several variables. Although the adolescents in Wolfram’s study appear to be intermediate between the oldest and youngest groups, we know from other data that adolescents sometimes use AAVE as a symbolic group marker, more so than other age groups, and that this leads them to use their AAVE features more than any other age group. The nature and sociolinguistic significance of the adolescent stage are currently being investigated by Penelope Eckert at Stanford..

Gender. The study of language and gender (“gender” often preferred to “sex” because it emphasizes the sociocultural rather than biological differences between men and women) has mushroomed over the past two decades, and it would be impossible to summarize here the main approaches to this subject or the most interesting findings. However, one aspect of this research which is particularly relevant to this volume is the finding that women tend to use non-standard or vernacular variants less often than men. For instance, as figure 3 shows, women in Norwich, England use non-standard [Èn] as the suffix in walking and similar gerunds less often than men from the same social class do (the effect is most marked in classes 2 and 3, the lower middle and upper working class); this has also been found to be true in the US (Detroit, New York and Philadelphia), and in Canada and Australia as well (Labov 1990:211). Studies of other variables–for instance, multiple negation, the absence of third-singular present tense -s, or the simplification of word-final consonant clusters (tol’, fas’) show similar results. Various reasons have been suggested for this common finding–perhaps women are more status-conscious than men, or perhaps they have a more significant role to play as upholders of society’s notions of “correctness,” or perhaps the men use the vernacular forms more often to express machismo, or perhaps there was an interviewer effect, with the prevalence of male interviewers leading to more comfortable interviews and more informal usage with men (Holmes 1992:171-181). Whichever one or combination of these explanations turns out to be most significant, it is clear that gender is a significant aspect of dialect variation to which we must attend in considering AAVE. This is all the more so since Wolfram’s (1969) study of Detroit has already shown greater use of AAVE features by males than by females. Moreover, most of the literature on AAVE is based on studies of males, interviewed by other males (Edwards 1992, and Rickford and McNair Knox 1994 are recent exceptions), and there is a widespread assumption that AAVE is really the province of streetwise inner-city males. We believe that this is a misconception, or at least that there are women whose vernacular usage equals and even surpasses that of men. Certainly this appears to be the case with certain vernacular variables–like invariant habitual be–which represent change in progress. This may be an instantiation of the other major generalization about language variation and gender–that women lead in linguistic change, regardless of whether the incoming variants are prestigious or not, and whether they are below the level of conscious awareness or not (Labov 1990:213-219).

INSERT FIGURE 3: -in by sex & class in Norwich (Holmes 1992:169, fr. Trudgill 1983)

Network. Another aspect of social differentiation which can affect language use even when class, ethnicity, age and gender are held constant is social network, a measure of association patterns within a community. For instance, Labov and Robins reported as early as 1969 that there was a sharp distinction between the linguistic behavior and reading scores of preadolescent and teenage African American boys in Harlem depending on whether they were members of neighborhood peer groups like the Jets and the Cobras or whether they were not. Peer group members not only used higher frequencies of copula absence and other vernacular features than non-peer group members, but more of them were below grade level in reading, and they tended to be further behind–three or more years below grade level compared with one to two years for non-members (one third of whom were on or above grade level in reading).

More generally, Milroy (1980) has shown, with data from Belfast English, that networks which are dense (close-knit, with each member of the network knowing each other) and multiplex (with members knowing and interacting with each other in multiple capacities, e.g. as friends, coworkers, and family members) are powerful forces in the maintenance of local vernacular norms. Edwards (1992) has shown the relevance of network analysis to the use of AAVE in Detroit.

Style. Most of the subtypes of variation which we have considered so far involve variation according to USER–influenced by the region or social group(s) from which the speaker comes. Stylistic variation, by contrast, involves variation according to USE (Halliday 1964), and it may be evident in the speech of a single individual or relatively homogeneous group, no matter how narrowly defined.

There are two principal approaches to the study of style in sociolinguistics. The first, associated with Labov (1966) and exemplified by figure 2, assumes that styles can be ranked on a continuum of attention paid to speech, from casual speech on one end, to word lists and minimal pairs on the other. The primary means of eliciting samples of different styles in this approach is to vary the topics discussed (e.g. career plans versus childhood games) and the tasks which the interviewee is assigned (e.g. talking about childhood experiences versus reading a short passage). An alternative approach, adopted by Labov et al (1968) but best represented in Bell (1984), assumes that styles essentially represent speakers’ responses to their audience. The primary means of eliciting samples of different styles in this approach is to vary the interlocutor, for instance, by recording the same speaker with a different interviewer or in interaction with in-group members rather than outsiders. Evidence of style shifting in AAVE has come mainly from this second approach (e.g. Labov et al 1968, Rickford and McNair Knox 1994)–including dramatic changes in AAVE use according to audience.

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