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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 398-401



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Widening the Lens of Observation

Some Plain Facts about Americans and Their Language

Dennis R. Preston, Michigan State University

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The belief that some varieties of a language are not as good as others runs so deep that one might say it is the major preoccupation of Americans with their language. It is a belief nearly universally attached to minorities, rural people, and the less well-educated, and it extends even to well-educated speakers of some regional varieties. Evidence for this belief comes from what real people, not professional linguists, believe about language variety. Consider what one Michigan speaker has to say about the South:

[mimics Southern speech] As y'all know, I came up from Texas when I was about twenty-one. And I talked like this. Probably not so bad, but I talked like this; you know I said thiyus ['this'] and thayut ['that'] and all those things. And I had to learn reeeal [elongated vowel] fast how to talk like a Northerner. 'Cause if I talked like this people'd think I'm the dumbest shit around.

Next, consider New York City, which fares no better, even in self-evaluation, as shown in one example collected by William Labov in the mid-1960s:

Bill's college alumni group--we have a party once a month in Philadelphia. Well, now I know them about two years and every time we're there--at a wedding, at a party, a shower--they say, if someone new is in the group: "Listen to Jo Ann talk!" I sit there and I babble on, and they say "Doesn't she have a ridiculous accent!" and "It's so New Yorkerish and all!"

I have bolstered these informal assessments with quantitative studies. In one, nearly 150 people from southeastern Michigan (of European American ethnicity, of both sexes, and of all ages and social classes) rated (on a scale of 1 to 10) the degree of "correctness" of English spoken in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Figure 1 shows the average scores of this task.

These responses immediately confirm what every American knows--the least correct English is spoken in the South and New York City (and nearby New Jersey). Michiganders give their home state a ranking in the 8 range, the only area so rewarded. They believe that they do not speak a dialect at all. Another task asks the same Michiganders to draw on a blank map of the United States where they think the various dialect areas of the United States are and label them. [End Page 398]

From such hand-drawn maps is derived the generalized map in Figure 2 . This map shows not only where Michigan respondents draw lines for the dialect areas of the United States but also how many respondents drew a boundary around each one. Note the percentage of Michigan respondents who drew a South--94% (138/147). Even the home area is registered as a separate speech region by only 61% (90/147). The third most frequently drawn area is, not surprisingly, the area which contains New York City (54%, 80/147).

These Michiganders seem, therefore, to hear dialect differences on the basis of their evaluation of the correctness of areas. The linguistic South, the area perceived most consistently as incorrect, quite simply EXISTS as a linguistic area for these respondents more than any other area.

Michiganders are not unique; in other areas where this work has been done, a South is always drawn by the highest percentage of respondents--South Carolina 94%, New York City 92%, western New York 100%, southern Indiana 86%, Oregon 92%, and Hawaii 94%. Also important to these respondents is the other place where they believe bad English is spoken. A Northeast (a small area with a focus in New York City) or New York City itself figures very high in the percentages--South Carolina 46%, New York [End Page 399] City itself 64%, western New York 45%, southern Indiana 51%, Oregon 75%, and Hawaii 57...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2133
Print ISSN
0003-1283
Pages
pp. 398-401
Launched on MUSE
2000-12-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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