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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 264-284

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Sounding Cajun:
The Rhetorical Use Of Dialect In Speech and Writing

Sylvie Dubois and Barbara M. Horvath
Louisiana State University University of Sydney

SPEAKING IS AN ACT of identity, often unintentional; people within hearing distance can tell where someone comes from, socially as well as geographically, whether a speaker wants them to know or not. However, conscious use of dialect can be an intentional act of identity. Speakers and writers can consciously manipulate linguistic variation in order to invoke associated social meanings. Such rhetorical use of dialect is a common device in narratives, whether spoken or written, to situate a character with respect to geographic origins, social class, ethnicity, and gender. Even the shortest piece of dialogue—a greeting—can place a character in a social context, as the following example shows.

1. Hey, Grand-père.

The old man turned from the stove and arched an eyebrow.
"Ey, T-Bub." He shook his silver head. "Ey, T-Bub." [Gautreaux 1998, 41]

Hey suggests someone from the American South, and use of the terms of address Grand-père and T-Bub suggests someone from a Cajun background. Moreover, the difference between Hey by the grandson and Ey by the grandfather suggests generational differences in dialect.

People can often use their conscious or unconscious knowledge of dialectal variation to achieve some rhetorical effect: friendliness, humor, earthiness, honesty, nostalgia, and a host of other possibilities. But in writing, standardization imposes a special problem for using linguistic variation rhetorically. Written languages homogenize much of the linguistic variation that identifies a speaker's background, and if writers want readers to know a narrator's or a character's social and geographic background, they either have to state it explicitly or break the rules—primarily, but certainly not exclusively, the spelling rules. The focus in written standard languages is ordinarily on the message rather than the code. Only a small number of spelling variants (e.g., in English the difference between labour and labor) and some lexical choices will identify the geographic origins of the writer, and, for English, even these features are more likely to identify national origins than regional ones. The problem for writers who [End Page 264] break the rules in order to capture the sound of a character, however, is that misspellings are also the sign of an uneducated person, so they risk the reader's judging the narrator or character to be uneducated and probably rustic (Preston 1985, 328). Preston, who refers to the Li'l Abner characteristics of dialect writing, is concerned that respelling misleads the reader about the status of the speaker (1982, 309); it has the effect of demoting the speaker's social status even though the respellings may be "honest attempts to imitate in writing something of the impression created by rapid, casual speech" (1985, 334). Similar problems arise in the writing of creoles; it is difficult to indicate their distinctive status as languages because writing them reveals the lexifier language and the text resembles dialect writing, potentially incurring the same negative judgments. For instance, Hawaiian writers are hampered in their attempts to produce serious literature because the written version of Hawaiian creole "is represented as if it were a deviant or non-standard variety of English" (Romaine 1994, 527).

Sociolinguists have two major interests in studying dialect writing or, as we will discuss below, dialect as performance: as a social phenomenon and as a potential source of additional data. As a social phenomenon, dialect writing is not only interesting in itself but also has important implications for language planning. Brown's (1993, 69) discussion of the writing of Louisiana French shows that spelling is both a practical and a sociopolitical concern. Dialect primers written in AAVE were once proposed as a good way to introduce reading to AAVE speakers because the written form was closer than standard English to the spoken form; however, advocates failed to understand the strength of the negative associations with "misspelling," and their...


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pp. 264-287
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Archived 2005
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