LINGUIST List 14.1653

Thu Jun 12 2003

Review: Socioling/Dialectology: Bonfiglio (2002)

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  1. Don Walicek, Race and the Rise of Standard American

Message 1: Race and the Rise of Standard American

Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 16:01:09 +0000
From: Don Walicek <>
Subject: Race and the Rise of Standard American

Bonfiglio, Thomas Paul (2002) Race and the Rise of Standard American,
Mouton de Gruyter, Language, Power and Social Process 7.

Announced at

Don E. Walicek, Department of English, 
the University of Puerto Rico at R�o Piedras.

PURPOSE / CONTENT: This book investigates the process of language
standardization in the United States, focusing specifically but not
solely on the assent of the 'midwestern accent' as a standard of
pronunciation during the first half of the twentieth century. The
views of prominent statesmen, writers, actors, broadcasters,
historians, linguists, and other influential figures serve as points
of discussion throughout the text. They characterize what Bonfiglio
sees as a linguistic ideology unique to the United States, one based
on notions of purity, prescriptivism, and racial superiority. The
book consists of an introduction, three chapters, a conclusion, and an

OVERVIEW: Bonfiglio positions the book as a response to his
observation that American Standard's rise to prominence has not been
described in a satisfactory way. In offering his explanation,
Bonfiglio argues that the process of language standardization in the
United States was quite distinct from that of other countries. He
holds that xenophobia and anti-Semitism led to the unconscious
adoption of western and midwestern speech patterns as the norm for a
'general American accent.' Moreover, he challenges Labov's suggestion
that the shift in the pronunciation of postvocalic /r/ relates to the
role of the United States in WWII; he does so by linking the factors
responsible for this and other changes to an altogether different and
earlier set of social phenomena.

The first chapter, The Legitimation of Accent, has three purposes.
Most significantly, it develops a social theoretical framework for
analyzing the legitimation of accent. It also reviews relevant work
in language standardization. Finally, it develops what the Bonfiglio
describes as a working concept of standard American English. The
chapter begins with a discussion of Karl Marx's formulations of the
relationship between economic power and structures of thought.
Bonfiglio points out that some social historians investigating
language as social capital have been influenced by Marx's work. One
such scholar is Pierre Bourdieu. Bonfiglio explains that work such as
Bourdieu's Language and Symbolic Power (1991) is useful for linguists
precisely because it places language outside the realm of the economic
market while still recognizing critical links between economic and
linguistic capital. Accordingly, he considers Bourdieu's concept of
linguistic capital, defined as ''the capacity to tailor specific
locutions to the demands of specific markets,'' (12) to be of crucial
importance for this study. The theory Bourdieu puts forth allows us
to see some linguistic exchanges between individuals as episodes of
symbolic violence and social coercion. These are often founded on
class-conscious notions of acceptability and unacceptability.
Notions of appropriate speech are not limited to conversation-level
interactions between individuals in which the balance of power between
speakers is skewed; instead, dialect regions and cultural areas can be
understood as possessing or lacking linguistic capital. However,
linguistic capital is in no way to be linked to what some may consider
superior language features. Bonfiglio turns to the work of John
E. Joseph (1987) and James Milroy (1999) to strengthen his explanation
of why this is so. These scholars, like Bonfiglio, show that it is
not the elements of particular languages that determine their value or
worth. They link such assessments instead to a dominant group's
ability to marginalize or suppress another language. Bonfiglio
states: ''There is nothing in the particular language itself that
determines its worth: it is the connection of the language in question
to the phenomena of power that determines the value of that language
and that contributes to the standardization process.'' (23) As made
clear in the following chapters, the forces of social coercion are
evident in widely shared language attitudes and supralinguistic
beliefs, ones that exist across classes and regions.

The second chapter, Pronunciations of Race, takes a predominately
diachronic look at the relationship between pronunciation and
ideology. It discusses this juncture in eighteenth, nineteenth, and
early twentieth-century contexts. The chapter pays special attention
to figures that shaped opinions about language by conflating notions
of ethnicity, morality, and race. Examples Bonfiglio discusses in
detail include Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Henry James.
The bulk of the chapter is devoted to an overview of influential texts
that deal directly with language. It examines pronunciation manuals
from the antebellum period and the last decades of the nineteenth
century. Bonfiglio finds that the former group characterizes
'correct' pronunciation in terms of social class and morality. Among
these manuals are some that were published in Britain. Such texts,
though written primarily with British readers in mind, served as key
points of reference for subsequent manuals written in the United
States. Examining continuities between these and similar North
American texts from the late nineteenth century, Bonfiglio
demonstrates that toward the end of the twentieth century racial
discourse becomes central to the ideology of pronunciation. He does
so by commenting on passages from a number of unsettling yet
interesting texts. These include: Theodore Mead's Our Mother Tongue
(1890) and Eugene Babbitt's The English Pronunciation of the Lower
Classes in New York and the Vicinity (1896).
Race-centered ideas about language also figure prominently in the
publications of individuals that Bonfiglio highlights in this chapter.
Due to limitations of space, only two will be mentioned here. First
is the work of James F. Bender, an NBC employee who trained announcers
and had a profound influence on the development of Standard American
and its use in the media. A number of Bender's writings invoke
dialectics of morality and ethnicity in their call for standard
pronunciation: The Personality Structure of Stuttering (1939), NBC
Handbook of Pronunciation (1943), Salesman's Errors of Grammar (1946),
and How to Talk Well (1949). Second is the linguist Louis Mencken,
author of the multi-volume The American Language and founder of the
journal American Speech. Bonfiglio characterizes Mencken as ''the
Paul Revere of language, the alarmist with one monotonous reveille
whose anti-British message was to set the tone for subsequent accounts
of the etiology of standard American pronunciation.'' Here the author
asks why Mencken, given the predominance of xenophobia in his
thinking, has been designated ''the patriarch of the American
language.'' (142)
While a precise answer to this question is held in abeyance, Bonfiglio
does review the writings of social theorists who center language
purity in their analyses of race and society. Among these are:
Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1918), Stephen Graham's
With Poor Immigrants to America (1914), Alexander Melville Bell's
Elocutionary Manual (1878) and his The Sounds of R (1896) and Margaret
Dewitt's Our Oral Word As Social and Economic Factor (1928). This
survey situates Mencken^'s work in sociohistorical context and
provides an oblique outline as to how Bonfiglio's question can be

Chapter three considers immigration to the northeastern United States
and migration to the western regions in light of the phonemic shift
away from the eastern seaboard toward western and midwestern varieties
of speech.
The chapter discusses a variety of icons of American popular culture.
The author begins with comments on the 1997 movie ''Good Will
Hunting.'' Here Bonfiglio notes that the production's depiction of
Harvard students' speech is marked by the continuant postvocalic /r/
while working class characters drop /r/ postvocalically. This and
other examples are included to show that prestigious forms of
pronunciation are inextricably associated with upward mobility, higher
education, and proximity to network standard. Such tendencies are
also characteristic of the second half of the twentieth century. In
contrast, as mentioned above, the evidence Bonfiglio presents
demonstrates that linguistic prescriptivism is more overtly tied to
racial fears in early periods, most notably the late nineteenth
century and the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Another significant theme of this chapter is its analysis of racism
and discrimination against immigrants and other disenfranchised
groups. An episode of xenophobia Bonfiglio emphasizes is the rampant
anti-Semitism existing in the Ivy-league schools of the northeast in
the early part of the twentieth century. The author notes that in
1922 Harvard formed a faculty committee to address the 'problem' of
increasing Jewish enrollment. Bonfiglio explains that in reacting to
an increase in Jewish enrollment, the school many consider the
nation's premiere university looked away from itself and Boston to
construct the ideal student, a prototype with specific racial,
cultural, and ethnic characteristics. Other institutions, he
suggests, followed suit. Bonfiglio describes their model student as
''the Nordic Christian (mid)western country boy'' (186) and argues
that this ideal profoundly influenced linguistic norms and goals in
the nations most prestigious universities.
According to Bonfiglio, this midwestern identity served as a model in
standardizing American English and later influenced recommendations
for the archetypal broadcast voice. The author sums up this process
nicely in the section Occident, Orient, and Alien; he writes: ''
ideology of ; 'accentlessness' or standard speech was based upon
generalization and extrapolation from a geographical area that was
then instantiated as the network standard.'' (206) He shows that this
ideology was shaped by a paranoid reaction to eastern immigration and
a celebration of the American frontier that in terms of linguistic
capital ultimately devalued the local varieties of English spoken in
places like New York and Boston. He suggests that in more recent
times these and related phenomena distinguish both the voices of actor
heroes (such as Will Rogers and John Wayne) and trusted newscasters
(such as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather) as both quintessentially
American and correct.

EVALUATION: This book is appropriate for beginning students as well
those who have already developed specific interests in the field of
sociolinguistics. The fact that it is written in a clear style and
contains no jargon makes it accessible for all. For readers new to
linguistics, the author's discussion of popular movies, actors, and
other famous figures gives it an appeal and relevance that other
studies lack. The book will be of special value to more advanced
readers who have interests in the following areas: perceptual
dialectology, language standardization, historical sociolinguistics,
and the history of linguistics.
One of the strong points of the book is that it is easy to locate
information in it. Moreover, it includes a useful and detailed index
and a complete bibliography, thus making it a valuable resource for
those who may wish to do research related to one of the many
fascinating texts Bonfiglio mentions. There are some minor
discrepancies between publication dates cited in the text and those
included in the bibliography (see entries for Alexander James Bell and
James Bender).
My strongest recommendation is that if another edition of this book is
published then the second chapter, the longest of the three, should be
reorganized and perhaps divided into two chapters. One section could
be organized chronologically and the other made to deal with specific
topics. Each of the existing sections is interesting and filled with
insights; however, the second chapter covers a wide variety of themes
and at times the connections among these are unclear. Additionally,
the inclusion of immigration statistics to the United States would
strengthen the author's already engaging arguments concerning the rise
of xenophobia and stigmas associated with varieties of English native
to the northeast. This information could be included in either the
first or second chapter.
While reading I sometimes found myself confused about what to remember
and how the many examples that the author includes related to one
another and to the book's main arguments. The author's general
arguments are clarified somewhat in the many instances in which he
states the purpose of the study. However, this statement changes
significantly throughout the text. If some of these were reworded to
indicate the purpose of including specific theoretical concepts,
individual sections, and chapters then the connection among these and
the text as a whole would be more apparent.
The minor frustration I occasionally felt was compounded by the fact
that there is so much discussion in which language and linguistic
discrimination figures only briefly. While I was always aware that
there was a connection between topics such as xenophobia and language
attitudes, it seemed that the link was being dealt with only
superficially. Moreover, I felt that the excellent collection of data
that the author brings together itself called for the more
sophisticated and in-depth treatment of the intersections of race,
language, and ideology. A related issue is that little attention is
paid to linguistic processes at the micro level and how these differ
from macro-level processes, even when Bonfiglio's focus is on
individuals and specific historical events.
One possible remedy for this problem is a greater emphasis on the work
of Pierre Bourdieu. In the current text the author offers a
captivating discussion of Bourdieu in the first chapter, but never
explains nor uses a concept central to Bourdieu's writings -- his
theory of habitus. What seems absent in the text is the
acknowledgement that speakers create a series of different linguistic
registers according to social values and norms of prestige. Narrowing
this gap, thereby offering a more nuanced, language-centered theory of
power, could tighten the book's already strong arguments.
Few scholars have accepted the challenge of bringing together the
topics of race, language, and history together in one text. The
author does so effectively and systematically, making this volume a
must for linguists, historians, anthropologists, and others with
interests in understanding how speakers articulate and make sense of
decisions related to language and identity.


Babbitt, Eugene. 1896. The English Pronunciation of the Lower
Classes in New York and the Vicinity. Norwood: American Dialect

Bell, Alexander Melville. 1887 (?). Elocutionary Manual.
Washington: John C. Parker.

- ---. 1896. The Sounds of R. Washington: Volta Bureau.

Bender, James. 1939. The Personality Structure of Stuttering. New
York: Pitman.

- ---. 1943. NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. New York: Thomas Crowell.

- ---. 1949. How to Talk Well. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.

Dewitt, Margaret. 1928. Our Oral Word As Social and Economic Factor.
London and Toronto: J.M. Dent.

Graham, Stephen. 1914. With Poor Immigrants to America. New York:

Grant, Madision. 1918. The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial
Basis of European History. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.

Joseph, John E. 1987. Eloquence and Power. London: Frances Pinter.

Mead, Theodore. 1890. Our Mother Tongue. New York: Dodd, Mead, and

Milroy, James. 1999. The Consequences of Standardisation in
Descriptive Linguistics. In Bex, Tony and Richard J. Watts (eds.),
Standard English: the Widening Debate. London and New York:
Routledge, 16-39.


Don Walicek is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the
University of Puerto Rico, R�o Piedras where specializes in the study
of Caribbean Creole languages. His general area of concentration
within linguistics is sociolinguistics. He has related interests in
the study of race, critical theory, and postcolonial studies. He
completed his B.A. in Social Anthropology and his M.A. in Social
Anthropology and History, both at the University of Texas at Austin.
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