Date: Wed, 01 Feb 2006 15:34:17 -0600 From: John M Levis Subject: American Voices: How dialects differ from coast to coast
EDITORS: Wolfram, Walt; Ward, Ben TITLE: American Voices SUBTITLE: How dialects differ from coast to coast PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing YEAR: 2006
John M. Levis, Department of English (TESL/Applied Linguistics), Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
Someone traveling to almost any area of the United States will find small books in welcome centers, gas stations, and tourist catering bookstores which claim to describe how locals really talk (for example, ''Talk like a Texan''). These books abound in stereotypes. What they do not provide, by and large, is reliable information about the dialect or dialects of the area. Or, as one of the selections in this book describes the booklet called Ferhoodled English, ''Much of what this booklet insists is typical of this English variety has not been confirmed by fieldwork'' but is full of ''commercial stereotyping with a vengeance'' (p. 263).
American Voices is a collection of 40 brief papers (about 5-7 pages each) on various American regional and sociocultural dialects. All originally appeared in Language Magazine and are reordered in the book according to geographic and social criteria. Each of the papers is written by one or more scholars who have studied the dialect written about in the article. Some of the authors are relatively unknown but many are acknowledged authorities. Each of the papers was originally written for an audience that is deeply interested in language but which does not necessarily have specialized linguistic training. The net effect of acknowledged authorities and attempts to be accessible is that the book is accessible for a general audience while also being useful for those who are more linguistically sophisticated.
The most valuable aspects of the book, besides the quality of the articles, is the breadth of the dialects treated, the emphasis on settlement information in many of the articles in explaining why dialects have developed as they have, and the inclusion of some non- US varieties (from Canada, the Bahamas and the Caribbean, and the island of Tristan da Cunha). Many of the articles describe dialects for which I had never before read a description, even though I had a passing knowledge that they must be of interest (for example, Upper Peninsula, Utah, and Tristan da Cunha).
The book's 40 papers are divided into seven overall sections. The introductory section contains only one article (Language Evolution or Dying Traditions: The State of American Dialects), followed by sections on the dialects of the South, the North, the Midwest, the West, Islands, and Sociocultural dialects.
The South includes seven articles, an overview article (Sounds of the South) and six on specific regions and cities (Appalachia, the Smoky Mountains, Charleston, Texas, New Orleans, and Tennessee).
The North includes seven (New England, Boston, Maine, Pittsburgh, New York City, Philadelphia, and Canada).
Six articles describe areas of the Midwestern US (two general articles, and one each on Chicago, Ohio, St. Louis, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).
Four describe the West (California, Utah, Oregon, and Arizona).
The Islands, for me the most interesting section, includes eight papers (Hawai'i, the West Indies, Sea Islands, the Bahamas, the Outer Banks, Smith Island, Newfoundland, and Tristan da Cunha).
Finally, the last section of the book, Sociocultural dialects, includes seven articles (two on African American English, and one each on Chicano English, Cajun English, Lumbee English, Jewish English, and the English of the Pennsylvania Dutch).
Individual authors represented in the book are: Bridget Anderson, Guy Bailey, Maciej Baranowski, John Baugh, Cynthia Bernstein, Renée Blake, Charles Boberg, David Bowie, Richard Cameron, J. K. Chambers, Becky Childs, Sandra Clarke, Jeff Conn, Connie Eble, Penelope Eckert, Jim Fitzpatrick, Beverly Olson Flanigan, Ellen Fluharty, Carmen Fought, Timothy Frazier, Valerie Fridland, Matthew Gordon, Lauren Hall-Lew, Kirk Hazen, Marion Lois Huffines, Neal Hutcheson, Barbara Johnstone, Scott Kiesling, Christin Mallinson, Megan Melançon, Norma Mendoza-Denton, Miriam Meyerhoff, Wendy Morkel, Thomas Murray, Naomi Nagy, Michael Newman, Jeffrey Reaser, Julie Roberts, Claudio Salvucci, Natalie Schilling-Estes, Daniel Schreier, Ruth Simon, Jane Smith, Jan Tillery, Benjamin Torbert, Tracey Weldon, and Walt Wolfram.
The book is excellent for a general audience and meets the goal of the editors, that linguists would ''be able to write trade articles without resorting to the jargon that so frequently typified their technical descriptions'' (p. xii) and would avoid ''transforming inherently interesting subject matter into jargon-laced presentations that are comprehensible only to the few thousand professional linguists in the world'' (p. xi). It is an excellent book for introductory linguistics students and for experts who have a passing (or even more than passing) interest in dialect research. Despite the book's value, it lacks several features that would make it much more useful for a linguistically sophisticated audience.
First, the articles all use a pseudo-phonetic representation (for example, the central lax unrounded vowel is usually transcribed as uh) to give readers a way to understand how words are pronounced. This representation seems inconsistent between articles. For example, the low back vowel [ɑ] [Latin small letter alpha, Unicode 0251 hex] was usually written ''ah'' but also was represented by ''a'', ''o'', ''aa''. The mid-central unstressed vowel [ə] [Latin small letter schwa, Unicode 0259 hex] was represented by ''uh'', ''a'', and ''ah''. While the representations of sounds would usually be clear to a general audience who has attended US public schools, it was not always so. I found myself often desiring phonetic translations, especially when the sounds in question did not nicely correspond to standard vowel phonemes. For example, the ''hoi toid'' (high tide) pronunciation of the Outer Banks dialect is not really the vowel in 'boy' but the /aj/ diphthong with a central rather than a low nucleus. This led to the same sound being represented elsewhere as ''uh-ee''. While I understand that phonetic precision is difficult with the blunt edge of pseudo-phonetic transcription, it would have been helpful if the editors had provided a phonetic translation and had brought the original articles into line with consistent representations. Readers from other areas of the world who may not be facile with American pseudo- phonetic symbols (for example, British English pseudo-phonetics for schwa is ''er'' rather than ''uh'') would greatly benefit from such a phonetic translation.
The book would also benefit from a summary of dialect features cross- referenced to the articles in the book. For example, the ''cot-caught'' vowel merger is discussed in a large number of the articles, all of which could be listed in a glossary. Also, the vocabulary items could be listed alphabetically so that later, when a reader wants to find something again (''Where was that word ''mommuck'' used? I know I read about it in at least two different places.''), there would be no need to search through many articles. While such an index would not be completely straightforward, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (2001), and Wolfram, Adger, and Christian (1999) both provide a model for such a summary.
Another small problem is that the book is inconsistent in its internal cross-referencing. Some, but by no means all, of the articles have editorial insertions referring to other articles in the collection. I often wanted to be reminded of which articles reference the same general trends or specific features I was reading about, but found that most articles did not provide this. Such internal cross-references would have highlighted important connections between papers in the collection.
In addition, the book almost cries out for some summary articles written especially for this volume. The introductory articles that are included were originally written as stand alone articles not for this volume. As a result, they are often like ill-fitting clothes, not quite covering the other related articles that follow them.
As is to be expected, not all of the articles are of the same level of interest or quality. If I were reading the articles once a month over several years, I would probably not have noticed that some of the dialects were barely worthy of description (several dialects of the West section come to mind, each of which over-emphasized the importance of the presence of the ever-present ''cot-caught'' merger). The dialect descriptions presented in these articles seemed to be more a hope that a unique dialect existed than a description of clear evidence that it really did. I sometimes came to suspect that the fact that ''there are practically no descriptions'' (as one of the authors in the collection put it) of certain western dialects was because they didn't exist. Some articles that promised much, such as the one on Arizona English, ultimately disappointed because they described only the speech of mainstream speakers rather than the English spoken by the many native American peoples in that state (which the author spoke about in the article's introduction).
Despite these minor weaknesses, the book more than achieves its goals. It is both a helpful survey of regional and social dialect variation in the United States and highly accessible. In fact, most of the articles were a lot of fun to read, which says that the authors truly succeeded in meeting the editors' challenge ''to tell their story in a way that might be comprehensible to their friends, family, and non-linguist colleagues and students'' (p. xii).
Wolfram, W., Adger, C., and Christian, D. 1999. Dialects in Schools and Communities. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wolfram, W. and Schilling-Estes, N. 2005. American English: Dialects and variation., 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
John M. Levis is associate professor of TESL/Applied Linguistics at Iowa State University (USA), where he teaches courses in ESL/EFL teaching methodology (both general and for oral communication), phonology, general linguistics, sociolinguistics, and dialects. His research interests include pronunciation and the intelligibility of spoken language.