LINGUIST List 9.1085

Fri Jul 31 1998

Review: Wolfram and Schilling-Estes: American English

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. WATTERS Paul Andrew, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes: American English

Message 1: Wolfram and Schilling-Estes: American English

Date: Wed, 29 Jul 1998 11:06:30 +1000 (EST)
From: WATTERS Paul Andrew <>
Subject: Wolfram and Schilling-Estes: American English

Wolfram, Walt and Schilling-Estes, Natalie. (1998). American English. 
	Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-20846-5 (Hardcover). 
	RRP: US$59.95 (Hardcover) 16.99/US$29.95

The rich phonology of American "accents" is appreciated and instantly 
identifiable by non-American speakers of English worldwide, through 
television, radio and now (perhaps) through the Internet. However, 
the perceived homogeneity of the American way of speaking as something 
uniquely "American" by these speakers of English, lies in stark contrast 
to the diversity of American English which is the domestic reality. In 
this exciting revision of Wolfram's classic "Dialects and American English", 
Wolfram and Schilling-Estes not only attempt to provide a detailed account 
of the geographical and sociocultural distribution of certain kinds of 
American English, through distinct dialects, grammar, and usage, but also 
attempt to dispel a number of urban (and not-so-urban) myths common among 
native American English speakers. The book begins by contrasting the 
popular definition of "dialects" and their relative social desirability 
(or otherwise), as perceived by native speakers who often feel they do 
NOT speak a dialect, with technical definitions from linguistics in the 
context of the so-called "desirability-deficit" debate. The work of 
Schilling-Estes in documenting the Ocracoke English of North Carolina, 
in particular, places her in a unique position to comment on language 
variation and the social issues involved in linguistic minorities 
(especially in attempting to dispel myths regarding social desirability 
and dialects).

The second chapter contrasts linguistic and sociohistorical explanations 
of the processes by which different dialects arise in languages, and more 
generally, why languages change over time. Whilst the latter explanation 
sees languages and dialects as arising from the interaction of social and 
historical conditions, such as migration, settlement, and language contact, 
the former view sees languages as dynamical systems which have an inherent 
capacity and impetus to change, which arises from their structure. Although 
some linguists are not directly concerned with sociohistorical factors in 
language change, the authors successfully integrate both viewpoints by 
examining general processes such as grammaticalization in the context of 
specific examples (such as the New York City vernacular). However, those 
interested solely in a comprehensive review of distinctive American grammar, 
independent of social factors, should look elsewhere - this book is not a 
taxonomic (and nor should it be). However, the third chapter which 
discusses levels of dialect should be useful for understanding the 
strata of dialects in contemporary American speech.

The fourth chapter provides a historical overview of the development of 
American dialects, from Elizabethan influences and pre-revolutionary 
dialects, to the rise of the west coast and twentieth century accents. 
 This chapter successfully uses geographical diagrams and maps not only 
to demonstrate localised changes in distinctive dialect features (such as 
r-lessness and r-fulness) that have occurred throughout the history of the 
United States, but also to demonstrate the flow and influence of dialects 
during settlement of the interior, and how these changes are related to 
issues such as language contact and language borrowing from Native 
Americans. Chapter 5 continues this process by developing examples 
of regional dialects and variations from many areas of the United States.

Chapters 6 and 7 develop the idea of dialects beyond regional and 
geographical differences to encompass dialect change and differences 
based on social class, ethnicity and gender. These chapters consider 
key issues such as the patterning of social difference in language in 
the context of specific examples, such as African American Vernacular
English (AAVE). It is interesting to note in this example that even 
though at least eight distinctive grammatical features distinguish AAVE 
from the Anglo American dialect, there is variation within each group 
sufficient to make comparisons difficult for linguists. A more general 
case is examined with respect to interactions of three or more languages, 
as is the case in Robeson County NC, where Native Americans constitute 40% 
of the county population, where their accent is clearly dominant. 

Chapters 8 and 9 moves away from group analysis of dialects and language 
to questions of individual language use and style, and the social 
distribution of these usages. Theories of style shifting, such as 
the attention to speech model, speech accommodation theory and the 
audience design model are reviewed, and research methods for understanding 
individual speech acts within paradigms that focus on group-based methods 
are discussed (including corpus methods). Group-exclusive dialect features 
and dialect patterning are discussed in the context of research methods such 
as implicational arrays to relate specific grammatical features of different 

The book concludes with discussions of the relevance of an understanding of 
accents and dialects to applied linguistics, an issue which is clearly 
important historically with the "desirability-deficit" debate and in
contemporary education of English as a second language. In particular, 
the use of standardized tests which are based around the recognition of 
standard English usage and grammar are criticized for being unrealistic 
(as well as violating assumptions of content validity). One solution 
might be to use a dialect consistency or achievement measure, and/or 
developing culturally and linguistically-appropriate testing situations 
which do not make assumptions about a language learner's accent and/or 
social demographics. As the authors recognise, these kinds of aims are 
very difficult to implement, but certainly recognising the systematic 
biases in language testing, and encouraging dialect awareness in schools, 
is a first step.

Wolfram and Schilling-Estes explicitly accommodate pedagogical usage of 
this book, by introducing key concepts in capitals, and including an 
exercise for students with each new section in the text. At the conclusion 
of each chapter, there is a very useful "further reading" section which will 
also be useful to students, as will the glossary of common linguistic terms 
at the end of the book. A skeletal phonetics chart is accompanied by an 
appendix of socially-diagnostic structures, which will be useful for those 
working in clinical linguistics. The only criticism which could be levelled 
at the teaching material in the book is that no solutions are provided for 
the exercises, so perhaps the development of a separate teacher's guide 
(especially for foreign or TESOL instructors) might be an appropriate 
future inclusion to this otherwise impressive account of American English. 

Reviewed by: Paul A. Watters, Department of Computing, School of Mathematics, 
Physics, Computing and Electronics, Macquarie University NSW 2109, AUSTRALIA. 
Tel.: +61-2-9850-9541; Fax: +61-2-9850-9551; E-mail: 
Paul A. Watters is a research officer at Macquarie University in Australia, 
and is currently working on computational representations of semantics in 
models of language and speech production, and is working on regional issues 
of language usage (especially "on-line" language use). He is an Associate 
Editor of the South Pacific Journal of Psychology.
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