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Diversity within english again

Diversity Within English

In order to understand how language variation descriptors are used, we

first must understand what language variation is. We can say that the U.S. is

linguistically diverse because of the multitude of languages spoken here, but

we can also find diversity within these languages. All languages have both

dialectical variations and registral variations. These variations, or dialects,

can differ in lexicon, phonology, and/or syntax from the Standard Language that

we often think of as Œcorrect' Language, although they are not necessarily less

proper than, say, Standard English. It depends on where, by whom, and in what

situation the dialect is used as to whether or not it is appropriate.

Most people are familiar with regional dialects, such as Boston,

Brooklyn, or Southern. These types of variations usually occur because of

immigration and settlement patterns. People tend to seek out others like

themselves. Regional variations tend to become more pronounced as the speech

community is more isolated by physical geography, i.e. mountain ranges, rivers.

Linguists have done extensive studies on regional dialects, producing detailed

Linguistic Atlases. Many linguists can tell where a person is from just by

knowing whether a person carries groceries home from the supermarket in a paper

bag or from the grocery store in a paper sack (Yule 184). And the person who

comes home from the supermarket with a paper sack serves to remind us that

language variation is not a discrete, but rather a continuous variable.

Characteristics of the dialect are more pronounced in the center of the speech

community and tend to be less discernible at the outer boundaries, where they

often overlap other regional dialects.

Within, and between, these regional variations we find the social

dialects. The primary social factors that influence dialects are class,

education, occupation, ethnicity, sex, and age (Ferguson 52, Yule 191). And

social dialects can vary on any or all three descriptor levels; syntax or

grammar, lexicon or vocabulary, and phonetics or pronunciation. Social

dialects are also where the described differences are often defined as

stigmatized or nonstigmatized (Ferguson 52). Stigmatized items include use of

the double negative (grammar), substituting the d sound for the leading th and

losing sounds like the middle r and the final g in ing (pronunciation), and

stylistic choices such as puke for vomit (vocabulary).

There are three main types of reactions to these socially significant


1. Social indicators - the speaker, and often the listener, is not

aware that these items are socially significant in revealing one's social status,

so the speaker makes no attempt to avoid them when speaking in a more formal

style. This would be someone who wants to take your picture, rather than your


2. Social markers - the speaker is sensitive to these items and will

avoid them in a more formal style of speech, although the speaker may not be

fully aware of why. Examples would be avoiding contractions, and phrases like

gonna or didja. Social markers are much more prevalent in American English than

social indicators.

3. Social stereotypes - even speakers who regularly use these types of

dialects are fully aware of the stigma attached to them. Social stereotypes

would include the copula deletion in Black English, and the loosing of sounds a

la Joe Pesci that produce phrases such as doze tree guys.

Closely related to these social class factors are education and

occupation. While occupations often produce their own jargons, a person's

occupation will also determine what style of speech is used. A lawyer and a

laborer would not be likely to use the same dialect on the job. Likewise, a

person with little education is not likely to use the same style of speech as a

college professor. This does not imply that the lawyer and college professor

speak a Œbetter' variety of English, but because of more exposure to, and

familiarity with written English, which is usually Standard English, they tend

to speak that way, also. And because many people think of Standard English as

the norm, they also think of it as the more perfect English.

Ethnicity often produces language variation, particularly among recent

immigrants. But this would not explain the endurance of Black English and

Chicano English. The rather widespread survival of these dialects seems to

stem from the social isolation of the speakers (discrimination, segregation),

which tends to make the variations more obvious. Because the group itself is

stigmatized its dialect is stigmatized by association. Thus, the deletion of

the copula is considered Œbad' speech, although Arabic and Russian also have

structures that leave out the copula and they are not Œbad' (Yule 192).

The sex, or gender, of the speaker has an impact on the selection of

vocabulary. Dialect surveys have concluded that women are more apt to use

prestigious forms of speech, while males tend to use more stigmatized variants.

Females are often the first to adopt new prestige variants and introduce them

into a speech community, also (Ferguson 158).

Age factors in language variation in two ways. First, there is the

generational differences. As the younger members of a speech community adopt

new variants, the older members may not be affected, opting instead to use

their traditional dialects. To compare the differences between the old and the

new variations is to compare changes from one time period to another. The

second way that age produces change is over time, to correspond with various

stages of an individual's life. This is particularly evident in teen slang.

While this kind of slang does not generally hold over from one generation to

the next, the teens that used it generally do not carry it into middle age,

either. Far out and groovy were perfectly acceptable vocabulary for a young

adult in the 1960's, but no one wants to hear their grandparents use those


Styles of speech, as shown above, cut across all the other factors,

thereby further increasing language diversity. Style ranges from formal to

informal with gradient variation in between. Formal speech is used when we are

paying close attention to our speech. The more attention paid, the more formal

the style. Style effects speech throughout a person's lifetime, but there is

less style variation found among young people and older people. Young people,

particularly adolescents, tend to use informal speech; probably because they are

not comfortable with more formal styles. Older people tend to use the style

they have become accustomed to, be it formal or informal, with less variation

in style than their adult children (Ferguson 59).

Another variable that is similar to style is register. This is a

situational factor. Registers vary in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

The legal register is quite formal, the scholarly journal register can be quite

formal (and boring), but other registers, such as the way we talk to babies or

animals are quite informal. Registers tend to be more rigid than stylistic

variations. After all, in what other situation would a person use vocabulary

and sentences like, Coocheecoo! I got your little toe, or, You're just the

cutest little thing,. Oh, yes you are. You're just the cutest little thing I

ever did see! except when talking to a very small baby? Register variations

are qualitative, qualitative being when the linguistic forms are not found in

other variations. Differences between other dialects are often quantitative.

Certain elements of one dialect are found in other dialects, to a greater or

lesser degree or frequency. Using in' for ing, as in goin' is universal across

status groups, but it is found almost twice as often in the lower working class

than in the lower middle class, and almost four times more than in the upper

middle class (Ferguson 61).

With all these different variables that intersect and overlap with the

different dialect variations is is a wonder that any sense can be made of

American English at all. But there two other important point to remember.

Language universals such as displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural

transmission, discreteness and duality are unique to human language (Yule 22)

and provides a base or norm for measuring variations. Implicational

relationships provide a way of measuring relative distance between the different

variations and also serve as a means to predict changes in individual dialects

(Ferguson 66).

Works Consulted

Ferguson, Charles A., and Shirley Brice Heath, eds. Language in the USA.

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Piatt, Bill. Only English? Law and Language Policy in the United States.

Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

Yule, George. The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

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