AUTHOR: Rosina W. Lippi-Green TITLE: English with an Accent SUBTITLE: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2011
Ava Becker, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
INTRODUCTION Rosina Lippi-Green has gone to great lengths to update and expand upon the argument she first presented in the 1997 edition of English with an Accent (EWA). In the preface to the current edition, she remarks that between 1999 and 2010 she added over 800 sources to the online bibliography associated with this work, ranging from academic monographs to legal reports and government documents (p. xxii). Consequently, “pretty much every sentence in EWA had to be rewritten, every source checked, reevaluated, replaced or brought up to date, and every conclusion challenged” (p. xxii); the fruits of her labour are self-evident whether you are about to read this book for the first time, or enjoy it again, as I did.
Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is the depth and breadth of her engagement with sources; the inclusion of casual observations, for instance, provides a progressive response to Choi and Nunan’s question regarding what can be considered “legitimate data” in research (2010, p. 1). Through incessant waves of questions interspersed with illustrations from academia, advertising, pedagogical documents, popular culture and media, and even fragments of conversations she has overheard or on-line forums she has read, Lippi-Green exposes our carefully-guarded truths about language. Her intention seems to be to dismantle the standard language ideology (SLI) that no one’s upbringing is free from, and to cultivate its popular deconstruction through careful study and daily awareness.
This book’s insights on the social repercussions of SLI and accent discrimination makes it both intriguing and upsetting to read at times. Lippi-Green challenges everyone, from the general reader to the seasoned language activist, to be objective about language in order to begin distinguishing between our “common sense” beliefs about language and linguistic facts. The reason for this, she argues, is that the beliefs about accent and language that we have accepted as truths reinforce and justify social inequalities, and that to determine privilege not “on the basis of what [people] have to say, but how they say it” (p. xx), is simply wrong.
SUMMARY Recognizing the pervasiveness of language myths and the power of standard language ideologies, Lippi-Green takes her time (Chapters 1-6) in peeling back the conceptual layers that underlie these myths and ideologies, appealing to our lived experience by drawing on personal experience and incorporating examples from American popular culture. In Chapter 1, she sums up “The linguistic facts of life” that are relevant to the book’s argument. These include: All spoken language changes over time; all spoken languages are equal in terms of linguistic potential; grammaticality and communicative effectiveness are distinct and independent issues; written language and spoken language are fundamentally different; variation is intrinsic to all spoken language, and is mostly symbolic (adapted from pp. 6-7). Other linguists have worked to dispel language myths for a non-linguist readership (see Bauer & Trudgill, 1998), but EWA goes one step further by foregrounding these myths in the broader framework of social inequality.
Chapter 2 (Language in motion) spills over from the final myth addressed in Chapter 1 regarding regional variation. Also by way of a concise and relevant introduction to the subsequent chapters, Lippi-Green focuses on four well-known cases of variation in the US: the presence or absence of (r) in syllable codas; the Northern Cities Chain Shift; lexical variation and discourse markers; weak and strong verbs (p. 27). Her point in this chapter is to dispel the myth that American dialects are disappearing, and to begin introducing the interplay of social and linguistic factors. After establishing that variation is inherent in spoken language, she asks why some labels (i.e., substandard) are applied to different varieties and what the implications might be of such labeling. A strength of this chapter is that it assumes no background in linguistics, spelling out IPA where necessary and succinctly integrating the methods and results of seminal studies (i.e., Labov, 1962).
After these two foundational chapters, Lippi-Green dives into “The myth of non-accent” (Chapter 3) in which she begins to directly address the issue of accent promised in the book’s title. She begins by examining the function of myth for its power to influence the behaviour of people, and to explain why it is reasonable to call the notion of “standard language” a myth. It is important to establish the concept of myth in this chapter because in Chapters four and five, she moves directly into the conceptual core of the book: SLI. A highlight of this chapter is the Sound House analogy that Lippi-Green has devised to explain how our accents are developed, abandoned, and adopted as we move through childhood and adolescence. The analogy traces the hypothetical protagonist’s phonological development from birth to age 20, using architectural metaphors to describe how she attempts to “renovate” her Sound House (or native tongue phonology) in order to liken or distinguish her Sound House from those of her family members, friends, and other-language speakers whose Sound Houses she would like the blueprints for. Lippi-Green maintains that it is natural for our accents (in all of our languages) to change over time, but it is important to recognize the power of myth and ideology in these changes.
In Chapter 4 (The standard language myth), Lippi-Green puts The Dictionary under the microscope as she explores the question of who decides what is “standard”. This chapter expands upon the notion of myth by deconstructing the myth of a standard variety of a language, and by pointing out who exploits and benefits from it. She concedes that it may be necessary to have a “standard” -- even one determined by an elite group -- but warns, “there is nothing objective about this practice” (p. 58). I found her decision to bring the dictionary to the analytical forefront here appealing, because the dictionary is probably the most commonly and widely consulted authority in quotidian debates about language, and as such inductively brings our attention to the propagation of SLI in our daily lives.
By Chapter 5 (Language subordination) we are sufficiently prepared to begin exploring the conceptual heart of Lippi-Green’s work here, which concerns the “language subordination process” (p. 69), or how people are oppressed and excluded via standard language ideologies. One of the most intriguing questions she raises in this chapter is not whether people subscribe to standard language ideologies, because it has already been established that we all do to a certain extent. Rather, she poses the more difficult question of how language subordination works, and offers “The language subordination model” (p. 70) as an analytical tool to probe how SLIs are disseminated and why people accept the inferior or stigmatized social positions that consenting to a SLI grants them. The model includes the following processes: language is mystified; authority is claimed; misinformation is generated; targeted languages are trivialized; conformers are held up as positive examples; non-conformers are vilified or marginalized; explicit promises are made; threats are made (p. 70); examples of each of these are presented in varying detail throughout the remainder of the book. This chapter builds on the previous ones by discussing what the social implications are of asking people to speak a certain language, or with a certain accent.
While Lippi-Green concedes that we still do not know exactly how language subordination works or why, in Chapter 6, “The educational system: fixing the message in stone”, she offers that school is the place where SLI is first introduced and enforced, even by the most well-intentioned teachers. She demonstrates the disconnect between policy and practice by arguing that even though policies to recognize linguistic diversity have been in place since the 1970s, very little has been done to implement these.
In Chapters 7-17, Lippi-Green gives several examples of how language subordination has affected and continues to negatively affect speakers of different languages and varieties of English in the United States. Most, if not all of the chapters subsequent to Chapter 6, feature English speakers from diverse regions of the US (i.e.: Chapters 7, 8, 11, 12) and language backgrounds (i.e.: Chapters 7, 9, 14, 15, 17) and discuss how the SLI in each of their cases has direct implications for authenticity, real and imagined belonging, and access to opportunity in the American context. Chapter 11, for instance, is about linguistic perceptions of and by speakers in “the Southern Trough”. In this chapter, she explores issues of accent reduction, identity, resistance, and the trivialization of southern varieties of English and their speakers. Here, Lippi-Green argues that assimilation via accent reduction is commonly perceived to be the price of success in America (see also Chapters 9 and 12 for example). Similarly, Chapter 10’s focus on AAVE (African American Vernacular English), or “Black language” (p.182) argues that the issues surrounding this variety of US English are historically rooted in questions of defining who gets to be an authentic American. This chapter includes a short overview of AAVE grammar, some of the main controversies surrounding it, and opposing viewpoints from the Anglo and African American communities towards it. Later, in Chapter 16, she zooms in on a case study of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy in Oakland, California in the 1990s, providing a more intimate look at some of the tangible repercussions of SLI in the African American community. Chapters 14 and 15 are new to the second edition and focus on the varieties of English spoken by two major ethnic minorities in the US: Latinos and Asian Americans, respectively.
For the second edition of EWA, Lippi-Green has added 14 more films to her analysis of how SLI is manipulated in Disney films (Chapter 7). This chapter shows how there is nothing innocuous about cartoons -- indeed, via accents and racial stereotyping, cultures are trivialized and characters that speak with “standard” varieties of English (or, “conformers” to the SLI) are praised by being consistently represented as “the good guy”. Thus, by watching Disney films, children are socialized into certain prejudices. The Disney example is useful because it provides a very clear illustration of how linguistic and non-linguistic features such as race are often inseparable; Chapter 17’s discussion of linguistic profiling is another such example, although issues of race arise regularly throughout the book.
In Chapter 8, Lippi-Green examines how political figures are presented by the media, and how commentary about the way politicians speak (rather than what they are saying) has a powerful effect on public perception of them. Chapter 9 also demonstrates how language subordination works, but this time at the intersection of the workplace and the legal system. This chapter features dozens of real-world examples to illustrate how difficult it is to prosecute employers when there has been language discrimination in the workplace, even where policies are in place to protect people from it (also see Chapter 17 for a similar argument in the context of housing).
Lippi-Green concludes (Chapter 18) by bringing us back to her original position: “language subordination is not about relative standards and preferences [i.e. aesthetics] in the way a language is used” (p. 335), it is about the fact that adherence to an exclusive SLI effectively silences those who do not speak a standard variety because we judge them based on the quality rather than the content of their speech.
EVALUATION This second edition boasts a diversity of discussion questions, further reading and classroom exercises that are relevant to a range of life experiences and scholarly disciplines. A companion site symbol appears at intervals throughout the text directing readers to the new companion website that has an interactive bibliography, sound clips, images and video to complement the reading.
EWA can be used in many ways. Because it is written in a clear and rather narrative style, people from a wide range of backgrounds will find the material accessible. Although it was written for a general audience, Lippi-Green does not sacrifice complexity for accessibility. The range of issues covered in each chapter provides fuel for debate in graduate and undergraduate classes alike, in disciplines spanning the social sciences, education, and even law -- regardless of students’ interest in language specifically.
The first few chapters especially make excellent complementary reading for beginners in linguistics, because they present well-known studies and key concepts in a practical and engaging way, as well as providing a bit of an orientation to different branches of linguistics (p. 40).
Lippi-Green’s argument is firmly rooted in the American context, which I see as a strength and not a shortcoming. The questions she raises, however, can and should be raised in any country or manner of social organization. Also, in EWA the school is presented as the child’s first exposure to SLI (p.73), but I felt that this ignores the ideological socializing function of the child’s caregivers. The home domain -- where the child builds their first Sound House -- is not ideologically neutral territory and deserves a closer look. Another point concerns the processes identified in the language subordination model; these are multifarious and raise many more questions than a single monograph is able to address. But I wondered, for example, whether comments like “that accent is so cute” are inherently trivializing, or at what point they become so.
As Lippi-Green points out at the very outset (p. ix), the notions of language subordination and SLI are quite controversial. Indeed, as much as I agree with the central premise of EWA, my own SLI indoctrination prohibits me from fully grasping or possibly concurring with some of its finer points at the present time. Lippi-Green is ultimately calling for a paradigm shift in the way we think about language, and more importantly, in the way we think about and behave towards each other, which is at best a profoundly uncomfortable proposition for many; as EWA makes clear, SLI is so deeply ingrained that even human rights activists and advocates of language equality inadvertently promote it. As with the first edition, EWA is difficult to put down, and the issues it raises are even more difficult to stop talking about.
REFERENCES Bauer, L., & Trudgill, P. (1998). Language myths. London: Penguin Books.
Labov, W. (1962). The Social History of a Sound Change on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. New York: Columbia.
Nunan, D., & Choi, J. (2010). Language, Culture, and Identity: Framing the Issues. In D. Nunan and J. Choi (Eds.), Language and culture: Reflective narratives and the emergence of identity. New York: Routledge. Pp. 1-13.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ava Becker holds an honors degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies and
is currently finishing her Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at the
University of Alberta, Canada. Her current research interests include
Spanish heritage language development (HLD) in Canada, HLD in refugee
communities, HLD and multilingualism, and discourse analysis. She hopes to
explore some of the findings from her Master’s research in a PhD program.