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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 385-386

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Widening the Lens of Observation

Language at the Edges

Richard W. Bailey, University of Michigan


Enthusiasm for the idea of a "standard" language was never entirely discarded in the last century, so descriptions of English were often hampered by the difficulty in identifying just whose language counted as standard English and how that variety differed from the "dialects." Even observers who should have known better allowed the powerful to appropriate for themselves the idea that even the conventions of written English were their special property. The young and the rude "dropped" letters kept by the old and the cultivated, and they used "slang" or "jargon" far more often than their betters.

In the new millennium, we are getting beyond such nonsense. It now seems obvious that there is far more diversity in the languages of North America than was ever acknowledged in the days when "General American" was everything left over after New England and the Old Confederacy had been subtracted. Two of the great figures in the history of the American Dialect Society--Hans Kurath and Raven I. McDavid, Jr.--made precisely this point in pointing out that "oddities and inconsistencies" are everywhere apparent in language: "This is a simple matter of observation and should surprise no one who is unwilling to forget that all natural languages are historical products developed in the give-and-take between individuals and social groups of a speech community and between speech communities" (1961, 3).

Individuals change their languages throughout their lifetimes; adjusting to differing audiences makes our language different nearly every day from childhood to old age.

Human genius expresses itself in adaptation to new circumstances, and the mostly immigrant population of North America has been (and continues to be) linguistically agile. In the last century, we looked at traffic flows along the early migration routes: the Lincoln Highway, for instance, or the Oregon Trail. The migrants moved mostly from east to west, and we expected the linguistic boundaries to flow parallel to them. But the twentieth century made much more complicated patterns of traffic (and communication) as the upwardly mobile flitted from one suburb to the distant next, and the barriers of race and ethnicity compacted communities that might otherwise have been far less easily discerned.

A population in relentless motion produces patterns of likes and differences that challenge cartography. We can no longer draw lines that make sense on the map of the continent. Most North Americans do not stay [End Page 385] put for long, and they often seek people like themselves at a distance. The vowel of boil is heard the same in parts of Queens and in Miami; for Mexican Americans, Albion, Michigan, is a dialect neighbor of Brownsville, Texas.

The language scene is a constant process of becoming, and, fortunately, we have the bandwidth to express it. But first we have to discern it. A good place to begin looking will be the edge cities, the new sites for work and the place where security-guarded buildings become hothouses for innovation and language community. Schools, too, are rich domains for nuanced linguistic adjustment, particularly with the huge numbers of immigrants adding to the mosaic of languages on the land. Malls are the souks of North America, as polyglot as Samarkand in the days of the caravans. Linguistic inquiry should begin in such places.

Desktops also open possibilities for investigating language variety. Speech-recognition software will soon trace the details of diphthongs that flow through cyberspace and telephone circuits. Huge collections of old documents can be ransacked at one's leisure. Images of manuscripts enhanced from spectra of invisible light make what was mysterious plain. A century ago George Hempl looked at the distribution of familiar linguistic variables--the sibilant consonant in greasy and the vowel in creek, for instance (see Bailey 1992). Nearly everything about his methodology was wrong, but his results were confirmed by more "scientific" methods later on.

Perhaps we should not be too optimistic--however refined our techniques--about finding something never before imagined. But we should begin by looking...


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pp. 385-386
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Archived 2005
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