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40 2 Dealers and Discourse Sociolinguistic Variation in The Wire Joe Trotta As a way of introducing this chapter, consider the following excerpt from the television series The Wire, in which a young, African American resident of Baltimore, Maryland (portrayed in the show as a low-level drug dealer on a street corner) recalls an encounter he had with a white family who were sightseeing in the city: Example 1: Young man: Yeah, so we out on Carrollton, this ol’ white motherfucker and his wife roll up, he’s like, “young man, you know where the Poe House is?” I’m like, “Unc, you kiddin’? Look around, take yo’ pick.” So, the old man, he’s like, “the Poe House. The Edward [sic] Allen Poe House.” . . . I’m like, “I don’t know no Edward Allen Poe.” The man look at me all sad and shit like I let him down . . . (“All Due Respect”1 ) How do we interpret this reported discourse and how do we make sense of the response to the question about the location of the Poe house? Those who are familiar with the dialect of American English known as African American Vernacular English (or simply AAVE) will surely appreciate the skill of the scriptwriters in producing the dialogue in this 1. Written by Richard Price and David Simon.   Dealers and Discourse | 41 example. In AAVE, the word poor would be pronounced in a way almost identical to Poe,2 giving a satirical twist to the exchange; that is, the young man’s answer to the question posed by the tourist can be seen as meaning something like ‘You must be kidding me. Just take a look around, everybody in this neighborhood is poor, just choose any house’. This example also shows that when the creative staff involved in producing a TV series works on scripted speech, the ways in which languages and dialects are used are often not only very striking and innovative, but also illustrative. In example 1 above, the variation in pronunciation that would lead an AAVE speaker to saying Poe rather than poor does not derive directly from a simple correlation with a regional variant of the language, as we discover in chapter 3; the dialect in question is related to at least one social variable. In this case it is most likely linked to ethnicity. This assumption is supported by the presence of other linguistic features of AAVE in example 1, namely so-called copular deletion (the dropping of a copular verb BE) that results in we out on Carrollton rather than we were out on Carrollton, the double negative I don’t know no Edward Allen Poe, and the irregular subject-verb agreement in the man look at me rather than the man looks at me. In this chapter, we examine the linguistic subdiscipline of sociolinguistics with the aid of the television program The Wire. The series, written and produced for the premium cable network HBO, which intentionally defines itself in opposition to ordinary network TV as summed up in its famous it’s-not-TV-it’s-HBO catchphrase, and broadcast between 2002 and 2008, pivots around typically interrelated criminal cases worked by the Major Crimes Unit in the predominately African American city of Baltimore.3 The Wire is known for its narrative complexity, its broad and varied characters from all layers of society, its shifting thematic arcs, and, not least, its gritty realism and attention to detail. Be it the minutiae of criminal investigations, the spirit-crushing dysfunction of various 2. Compare these pronunciations with that of auditor in chapter 3. 3. According to the 2009 US Census Bureau statistics, the black population of Baltimore , Maryland, is 63.2 percent ( 42 | Joe Trotta institutional machines, the rules of ‘the game’ (incarnated as street life, political maneuvering, the legal system, police loyalty, the school-system, the media, and so forth) or the subtleties of various linguistic milieux, The Wire uncompromisingly immerses the viewer in the world of its protagonists. The main author and creative force behind the series is David Simon, who is not only a Baltimorean himself, he also worked for twelve years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, primarily on the police beat, giving him an insider perspective to almost all the institutions explored in the show. Simon’s goal was to create an engaging, true-to-life portrayal of the city and the streets of Baltimore; it...

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