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
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, 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.