Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Dialect, and Social Signalling

A commenter at Steve Sailer's asked what they hell I meant by social signalling, in discussing language usage.  We have used the term often enough here that I have fallen into the assumption that I am being clear.  Let me make sure.

The dominant dialect in any language is often rather accidental.  The ruling class usually declares its dialect to be standard, officially or not.  Most frequently, this is the dialect from around the capital city.  If you come from the provinces, your charming accent and phrasing, which sounds like the Only True Frubish to you, will brand you as a stupid person.

That's the simplest form.  In actual countries there may be competing dialects, or a particular brand may be considered especially well-suited for a certain type of person, such as a preacher to the masses, or an international trader.  It can get complicated - no need to go into that here.

In America, standard English tracks central Ohio pretty well, at least as I was taught in the 1970's.  What we consider accentless has spread far enough by mass media that many regional accents are barely noticeable.  Both Portlands speak a similar dialect*. Those regions or groups which retain identifiable accents sometimes suffer under stigma.  In America, we can get assertive rather than apologetic about this and make the stigma swing the other way for our own purposes.  Obama was being held at arms length by much of the black community until he verged into mild black dialect - most famously on Oprah; newscasters with NYC accents are not going to get jobs in some places, and certainly not in Chattanooga.

The most prestigious dialect in America varies by listener.  The more one is a reader of older material, the more one likes a speaking style that tracks written standards.  This style uses slight archaisms, pronounces consonants (because the written form is present in the mind), keeps track of implied punctuation, and uses slang for effect rather than naturally.  None of us has a speaking style that is all that close to written English, actually.  But some dialects are much closer than others.

Less formal, folksier dialects are preferred by a great many Americans, including some extremely well-educated ones.  In Australia as well, there is a tradeoff of sounding too educated - not because education is not prized, but in the subtle twists of social communication, veering too far into formal, written dialect raises the question whether you might not be truly egalitarian, truly Australian.

A young African-American man from mid Long-Island was admitted today, and his accent mixed New York and black styles.  He said cooffee, he said breave (for breathe).  His vocabulary seemed large enough and expression clear enough that he is likely above average intelligence. But outside of his region or race he will certainly sound strange, and probably less intelligent. If he wished to live elsewhere or enter many professions, he would have to learn an American dialect closer to Ohio white, using his familyspeak selectively or for effect.  This partly true for all of us - I am quite aware that my dialect has changed slightly over the years - but more for some than others.

He is a native English speaker, and a linguist would regard his dialect as being "as good" - whatever that means - as North Georgian, Rural Vermont, or Upper Peninsular.  But using dialect signals who we are, or want to appear to be.  Why do African Americans give their children more unique or eccentric names, in contrast to earlier onomastics of naming after famous people?  Likely, to show solidarity with the black community and independence from the implied one-down-ness of imitation.  Why do New Yorkers keep that accent they know everyone else hates?  Because they consider much of the hatred to be envy, and want to identify with The City.

Not splitting an infinitive marks one as trained in a certain era with certain aspirational values and attention to detail.  No one does it naturally, it can only be learned by attention and practice.  I no longer worry about it (much), which signals something about me.

*Yes, they might have because of founder effect anyway, but really - not really.


Sam L. said...

Those who have been in the services, or have lived in various places around the country, are partly homogenized, but have picked up phrases, certain locutions, slang from those places. Many will use these for fun. I do. I am careful, though, not to let some of my humorous sayings out until the new person knows me well enough (I hope) not to run off screaming thru the underbrush.

Gringo said...

When I taught school in TX, one student came up to me after class one day and informed me that there were classes I could take to deal with my speech defect. I informed him that what he considered a speech defect was simply a New England accent- or what remained of mine.

As the student was saying this in a respectful tone, I had to suppress my inclination to laugh.

Last year a plumber did some work at my place. I asked him if he were from Louisiana, as he spoke with what appeared to me to be a Cajun accent. No, he said, he was from Quebec. His father was a French-Canadian from Manchester NH who had been sent to Quebec on some US military assignment, and decided to stay in Quebec.

A next door neighbor who is from Monterrey Mexico also thought the plumber was from Louisiana.

I told this to a neighbor, a native Texas, who had also used the services of the plumber. "That plumber speaks with a Yankee accent, just like you." Where anything not Texan is labeled as Yankee.

Here is an ABBA sighting from a report on the recall election in Wisconsin: 9:40: It’s time to break out the Abba, because Wisconsin is Waterloo for Big Labor.

karrde said...


I've been told that the "Cajun" culture does contain a lot of influence that came from "Acadia", that was French-speaking portion of Canada in the mid-1700s.

I can't really explain how a modern Quebecois accent could sound Cajun, though.

@Sam L, I once heard a Coast-Guard guy describe an event that he'd helped with as "the evolution". Took me a few moments to figure out that he meant the older meaning of "evolution", which predated its application to biology.

I'm not sure that the Coasties count as military, but it's a mannerism I would expect from a military man.

Similarly, one of my siblings has had his speech patterns altered by joining a police force. At least, when he describes something that he saw or experienced, his narration has shifted from Response (whether humorous, sarcastic, or intrigued) into a Sequence-Of-Events pattern, followed by a short interpretation.

Kitten said...

"once heard a Coast-Guard guy describe an event that he'd helped with as "the evolution". Took me a few moments to figure out that he meant the older meaning of "evolution", which predated its application to biology."

Oh dear. I used to be considered pretty well read for my generation, which isn't saying a lot I realize, but have to ask. There's an older meaning of "evolution"?

Texan99 said...

I'm used to hearing "evolution" used to denote an exercise, but mostly from fiction, I guess.

Copspeak cracks me up: all that "subject exited the vehicle" stuff.

To this day I can't bear to split an infinitive, certainly not in writing and practically never even in speech. I don't dangle participles, either, or mix up my nominative and subjective cases ("between him and I").

People often say "You don't sound like you're from the South," I suppose because I grew up in the suburbs of a large city full of oil-business newcomers, and was raised on TV English. On the other hand, I can easily imitate a strong Texan accent, while I'd be hard pressed to do a convincing Brooklyn. One of the funniest things about Hollywood is its pathetic attempt to do Texan or Southern accents. As much as I loved "Lone Star," for instance, the female lead's South Texas chicana effort was a howler, sort of Puerto-RIco-meets-East-Coast. I don't reckon she'd ever been near Texas, bless her heart.

Gringo said...

've been told that the "Cajun" culture does contain a lot of influence that came from "Acadia", that was French-speaking portion of Canada in the mid-1700s.I can't really explain how a modern Quebecois accent could sound Cajun, though.

My hypothesis is that similar linguistic origins will result in similar English accents for ESL speakers. The Cajun accent came about from the encounter of native French speakers of Canadian origin with the English language. Similarly, the plumber's English accent is the reaction of a native Canadian French speaker to the English language.

It is interesting that even though nearly all Cajuns today are native English speakers, they still speak English with the inflections of their French ancestors. TV English is gradually changing that.

[For historical accuracy, I should add that by the early 19th century, many Louisiana French had come from areas of French settlement in the Caribbean, as shown in the book One Drop. Including free blacks who became slaveowners in Louisiana.]

Granted, in one case we are dealing with late 20th century Canadian French contrasted with 18th century Canadian French, but there are enough similarities in the speech patterns to result in a similar English language accent.

Granted that there are now substantial differences between Quebec French, Cajun French, and France as spoken in France.

Another example of common linguistic origins resulting in similar English accents can be shown in the English accent of Trinidadians and West Africans. At least is that my reaction to hearing Trinidadians and West Africans speak English. In the case of Trinidadians, they are native English speakers- but Trinidadian English was formed by Trinidadians of West African origin. Black Trinidaidans can trace their origins back to West Africa.

A further example of common linguistic origins and English accents would be German and English. Of all the non-native English speakers I have heard, the sound of Germans speaking English grates less on my ears compared to any other non-native English speaking group. Similarly, it would be my opinion that of all the languages an American could learn, German would be the easiest accent [NOT the grammar] to pick up. At least that is my admittedly limited experience with Germans and the German language.

karrde said...

I'm guessing that the original meaning of "evolution" was related to a phrase for 'unrolling'.

It came to be used among military organizations was to describe the progression of maneuvers/operations from a beginning to the current state, or to an endpoint. An 'unrolling' of events.

The term was used in this form for a century or two before biologists began using it.

However, that was the first time I had ever heard the word spoken in that way. I'd seen it used in writing many times (military-oriented novels, mostly), but never heard it.

now that I see the reasoning, I agree. I hadn't wanted to jump to a conclusion, though.

Sam L. said...

I have never heard "evolution" used in that sense. I've been out of the AF for 25 years, though. And Coasties; well, I usta think of them as not a real service. I know better now:




I heard a waitress in Champagne, IL, who sounded like a southerner. She was a local, been there all her life.

james said...

Southern Illinois is an isolated bastion of the southern accents. I don't know why, but I used to live there and can testify.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

James - Joel Garreau's excellent Nine Nations of North America groups southern Illinois in Dixie, and even identifies a border. Though the book was written in 1984, it remains an excellent resource for understanding regional differences, and I have come back to it many times. Google the title just for the map on the cover.

The Arcadians - from which "Cajun" comes - were in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick until the English pushed them out in the 18th C. I think the main accent similarity is is in the inflection of sentences and accenting of syllables - the music of the speech.

karrde said...

Anyway, on to social signalling...

There are turns of phrase and uses of words (as well as inflection) which indicate Arts & Humanities culture.

I think my first brush with that was trying to figure out why a certain Lit professor called one of these things a "Vahz", rather than a "Vays".

I think I picked up on some other inflections at the time, though I can't remember them. The impression I got was Ivy-League/New England, Arts-and-Humanities tribe.

At the time, this person was teaching humanities at a Technological University in the Midwest.

In another field, there are buzzwords that run around the world of business and marketing. The higher a person moves in that world, the more comfortably they use the buzzwords. ("Synergy" and "Collaboration" are real things, but overuse of the words threatens to drain them of meaning.)

james said...

If you go south from Southern Illinois, the local accent is less pronounced--at least until you get much farther south. Or it used to be.