Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Dialects 1 - Accents

I just sent an email to a prof asking if I could interview them on this blog. Therefore, I must (MUST) get something else up here besides my humor in the misheard lyrics post. No, this blog is very serious and would never include misconstruable silliness.

Ahem, serious.

For some reason, I keep choosing to do linguistics posts on topics I don't study. Here is another example. Dialects. Specifically dialects v. languages v. accents.

I don't know if there is an agreed upon definition of any of these terms, though I am sure there are plenty of suggestions floating out there. What exactly makes something a dialect versus a separate language? It's hard to say, really. It seems to have to do more with how people think of themselves than any descriptions of the languages / dialects people speak. For instance, Chinese is often described as having many dialects, including things like Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese (Min), and many more. However, many of these varieties are so different from one another that people of a different "dialect" can't understand one another. In the case of Chinese, they do share a writing system, but then at times Japanese and Korean were written using Chinese characters and yet no one ever thought that they were a dialect of Chinese. It appears to have as much to do with the notion that Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers both conceive of themselves as speaking Chinese and being Chinese, such that we call it one language despite the fact that they cannot understand each other, as much as anything else. (Note that many speakers of one Chinese dialect also know another one, usually Mandarin, but they have simply learned two languagese/dialects.)

So in China we have different dialects that are mutually unintelligible. But on the other hand, you can also find groups of separate "languages" where the people can understand each other pretty darn well, despite clear differences. This happens most often in places where there are many groups of people who each see themselves as distinct, but yet who are close together geographically. Some Native American languages are like this, Amazonian, Australian Aboriginal ones, certain clusters of Pacific languages, Papuan, etc. Despite the fact that you can talk with people who kinda speak a different language, they classify themselves and their languages as separate.

In short, the difference between languages and dialects often has a lot to do with things like identity and status as much as grammar and vocabulary. People express who they are through their language. Studying how people shape society through language, and how society shapes language, is a subfield called sociolinguistics. We make guesses and judgments about people by the way they speak. We infer things like: where they are from, their education level (and often their intelligence), their economic status, their masculinity or femininity, their politeness, their age, the social groups they belong to, their ethnicity, and more.

Part of doing this is through creating the idea of accents. An accent is basically a dialect, but to me it sounds a bit different. An accent is something laid on top of something else. Like a little accent in French here: é, or in German here: ë. You have the base item, and then you stick something funny on top. Accents of English are often thought of this way. There is some standard language and then everything that is different is an accent. People speak with southern accents, Japanese accents, Spanish accents, or just a foreign accent. You have the right way to speak and then all the others. But of course who gets to decide what the starting point is?

It most often has to do, again, with issues of status and power. Americans have never spoken English in a single way ever. Same for the Brits. And yet both nations have selected one of the various ways they do speak and decided that is the right way. In the U.S., it is called Standard (or Mainstream) American English. And in the UK, it's RP, Received Pronunciation. How did this happen? Who died and made them standard?

In essense, the right people said so. They acted just like everybody else and assumed that whatever they did was the right way to do it. And so when they set up schools, they taught their accent as the proper way to speak. When they published books, they published books that sounded the best to them. They formed companies and got along better with people who sounded like them and promoted them. Other people wanted to hang out with people who ran companies and founded schools and ran governments and set up printing presses, and so they started speaking more like the people who did. And so people who had high status sounded one way, and people of a lower status sounded a different way. Naturally, people who wanted to be high status figured out that they had a better shot if they sounded like the high folks did. In fact, it became clearer and clearer to others that, if you didn't speak the standard, you weren't educated properly, were not from the right part of society. You probably were also not very intelligent.

A standard way to pretend to be dumb for a joke is to fake an accent.

And so despite the fact that there is nothing at all inherently superior about the standard, a person was often considered inferior if they did not use it.

To be continued later -- hey, where's my accent?!

1 comment:

Robin S. said...

Good post, paca. Now - I think the answer to this is embedded in your post-

"...Who died and made them standard?

In essense, the right people said so. They acted just like everybody else and assumed that whatever they did was the right way to do it..."

It's interesting and helpful that American Southern accents tend to dumb-down the assumed IQ of the speakers of said accent, to the non-Southern listener of it.


My cousin graduated with an engineering degree from Purdue, magna cum laude. So did her husband. He is now a director at a Fortune 500 company. As he was climbing his "ladder" up, they did 3 years overseas as part of the "punch the ticket" stuff you gotta do. Their time was spent in Paris. My cousin laughed and told me that at American social events there, when someone asked her where she was from (the accent seemed to cause the question) and she said Kentucky, they'd begin to slow down their speech when talking with her, and use, as she laughingly said, "these here real small words to help me understand them". Tunred out to be useful, as her husband has the same accent, is sharp as a whip, and leapfrogged over most of the people they met socially at the time.