Monday, January 3, 2011

Dialects in a changing language

How the US English language has developed over the years.
By Thomas Leverett
(the following was published in Global Studies Magazine and is being backed up here)

Many years ago American dialects were much more distinct; a person from one area had trouble understanding people from another. People in places like Minnesota, New England, New York City and the Appalachian mountains all sounded quite different from each other, and a person with a careful ear could often tell where someone was from by the way they talked. Dialects had different words as well as sounds; for example, in New York City, you might hear people refer to a group of their friends as "youse," in Pittsburgh or the mountain regions this might be "y'ou'ns", in the South, it might be "y'all" or "all-of-y'all," and in the Midwest, it might be "you guys," regardless of whether females as well as males were in the group. These were spoken variations; formal written English was much more stable, and common to each region.

As another example of spoken variation, country people of Missouri would refer to their own state as "Missou-REE" in some areas, but "Missou-RUH" in others. If settlers in their area had come there from the northern states, they were more likely to say "Missou-REE", but if they had come to the state from one of the midland regions, which went back through Kentucky, Cincinnati (Cincinnat-UH) and Maryland, they were more likely to use "Missou-RUH". The rural areas were relatively isolated, so the people who used one dialect didn't often encounter the people who used the other, even though they lived in the same state, and shared major cities like St. Louis and Kansas City.

Dialects needed that isolation to maintain the kinds of differences that really made each of them unique. In isolated places, dialects can make major changes that turn them into distinct languages, or, like people of certain parts of the Appalachians, fail to make changes to their language even when almost every other speaker of that language changes. But that kind of isolation is almost unheard of today. Today, almost every English speaker in the world has been exposed to several variations of English. In the state of Missouri, almost everyone has heard both versions of the state's name, and for whatever reasons, people have for the most part come to associate "Missour-UH" with the rural, country parts of the state, while "Missour-EE" has become the dominant version, used on television, in formal situations, in most of the cities, and with people from out of state.

Television and the new media is most likely what changed it. As the media changed, people had more contact with each other, and pretty soon, they recognized their own dialect as local. Almost everyone today has seen a number of Hollywood movies, most of which don't bother to emulate local dialects of the places where they're set; they're done with a standard kind of western, Hollywood English. Almost every American now, whether in Minnesota, New Orleans, West Virginia or Chicago, is aware this standard Hollywood accent, and uses it when traveling or when speaking to outsiders, travelers, or people they don't know. They may choose at some point during their day to use their local dialect, or use it all day, depending on the environment they're in. Or they may only use it when speaking to a friend, or trying to sound like they're from an area that they live in. Similarly, the Missouri politician, if he were campaigning out in the country, might still say "Missour-UH" in order to sound more rural, sound like an old-timer, and get all the retired farmers to vote for him. But people in all areas tend to use the television English more and more, since it's convenient, and is bound to be understood by everyone.

In this way, dialects are coming to have more of a second-class role in our lives, in spite of the fact that many people still love hearing them, learning them, or maybe even trying to figure out where others are from based on the way they talk. A kind of standardization has set in, with everyone using the more standard dialect, able to understand each other, most of the time, regardless of where in the US they are. Travelers to the US would be best advised to learn this standard kind of English, that they could use just about everywhere in the US, then later try to learn local dialect that they want to use or find interesting.

But what if you love the old dialects, and hate to see them disappearing? Take heart; the world and the changes in English may surprise you yet. It may be true that worldwide, as the world shares more English-speaking media, and people in each country become familiar with it, we can expect different variations of English, including the American dialects, Australian, Canadian, and dialects of British English, to take on a kind of dialect status. And, as dialects, they will probably give way to a more standardized world English that everyone can use more easily and efficiently with each other. But at the same time, new communities are forming, this time on the computer, with written chat environments, where people worldwide use English to talk in chat, extensively, sometimes changing the language to suit their needs or to make communication easier in that environment. Such places as video games could provide the isolated environment required for groups of people to innovate, change the language, and develop what we will recognize as new dialects. The fact that these dialects and innovations may be written as opposed to spoken, and that writing innovation may precede or be independent of innovation in the way we talk, may be a new development, perhaps not really recognized for its true importance yet. Nevertheless, a person who wants to see English used in its entire range of diverse contexts, might be better advised, rather than to set out across the world visiting many countries and states, to instead set off on a trip through the internet, where language changes quickly, and where some places are just isolated enough to develop and perpetuate those changes, to the point that, when you are talking to someone, you may wonder if you are still speaking the same language.

Thomas Leverett is a Lecturer at CESL (Center of English as a Second Language) at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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