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American Speech 77.2 (2002) 221-224

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A Good Textbook

Donald M. Lance,
University of Missouri

Gregory J. Pulliam,
Illinois Instutute of Technology

American English: Dialects and Variation. By Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. Pp. xvii + 398.

If either of us were to teach a dialects course again, we would use this book as the main text because it covers the topics we think should be included in such courses. Though American English gives the most thorough coverage of most of these topics, we would still want to assign supplemental readings and exercises, as we and others usually do in many of our linguistics courses.

The first two chapters of this book, "The Reality of Dialects" and "Why Do Languages Have Dialects?" provide general background and raise interesting questions for the reader to ponder. The third chapter, "Levels of Dialect," gives an overview with examples of differences in lexicon, phonology, and syntax in American English and discusses the notion of pragmatics—that is, "how language is used in its social setting to carry out particular functions" (82). Concepts introduced in these three chapters resurface in chapters 4-9 as the authors summarize the findings of research conducted to date on "Dialects in the United States: Past, Present, and Future," "Regional Dialects," "Social and Ethnic Dialects," " Gender and Language Variation," "Dialects and Style," and "The Patterning of Dialect." Chapter 10, "On the Application of Dialect Study," answers a question often asked by educators—"What good is all this information on dialects anyhow?"—by demonstrating how a better understanding of dialects and dialectology is helpful in addressing important issues in testing and in the teaching of standard English. The final chapter, "Dialect Awareness in the School and Community," discusses issues related to reading and [End Page 221] writing and demonstrates how the research team led by Wolfram has "given something back" to the community in Ocracoke, North Carolina, by enabling teachers, pupils, and community leaders to use—in interesting and beneficial ways—what the researchers and residents learned during the process of collecting and analyzing data.

The reviewers sent a short e-mail questionnaire to selected members of the American Dialect Society and received responses from seven professors who have used American English as a textbook—including Pulliam, who has used it twice. (Lance used Wolfram's earlier book—Dialects and American English, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991—the last three times he taught the dialects course before retiring.) Two respondents rated the book as "excellent" as a textbook, and three rated it as "good." Other dialectologists responded that their departments do not offer a course in language variation but that they would probably use this volume as the primary text if they taught such a course, and some responded that they do not use the book because it is not appropriate for what they want to cover in their courses. Rather than tabulating the results of the survey, we will integrate the respondents' comments into our own discussion. The most frequent comment by the respondents—with which the reviewers agree—was that the coverage of the field of language variation in American English is more comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date than in competing textbooks. Particularly welcome is the authors' treatment of style and gender-related variation.

The technical details in the book make it suitable primarily for upper division and graduate levels rather than for a lower-division general education course. Though more appropriate for students who have already had an introductory course in linguistics, the book can be used as an introductory linguistics text at the upper level with a modicum of supplementary materials. At any level, the book would be enhanced by an appendix providing a phonetics primer that describes the transcription system used in the text.

Both Lance and Pulliam taught the chapters in the books in the order in which they are printed, because they found the sequence useful in that the text goes from concrete to abstract and back to concrete information. In American English, the first three chapters...


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pp. 221-224
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Archived 2005
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