LINGUIST List 23.3439

Thu Aug 16 2012

Review: Sociolinguistics: Lippi-Green (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>



Date: 16-Aug-2012
From: Ava Becker <abeckerualberta.ca>
Subject: English with an Accent
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AUTHOR: Rosina W. Lippi-GreenTITLE: English with an AccentSUBTITLE: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United StatesPUBLISHER: RoutledgeYEAR: 2011

Ava Becker, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

INTRODUCTIONRosina Lippi-Green has gone to great lengths to update and expand upon theargument 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 and2010 she added over 800 sources to the online bibliography associated with thiswork, 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 everyconclusion challenged" (p. xxii); the fruits of her labour are self-evidentwhether 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 herengagement with sources; the inclusion of casual observations, for instance,provides a progressive response to Choi and Nunan's question regarding what canbe considered "legitimate data" in research (2010, p. 1). Through incessantwaves of questions interspersed with illustrations from academia, advertising,pedagogical documents, popular culture and media, and even fragments ofconversations she has overheard or on-line forums she has read, Lippi-Greenexposes our carefully-guarded truths about language. Her intention seems to beto dismantle the standard language ideology (SLI) that no one's upbringing isfree from, and to cultivate its popular deconstruction through careful study anddaily awareness.

This book's insights on the social repercussions of SLI and accentdiscrimination makes it both intriguing and upsetting to read at times.Lippi-Green challenges everyone, from the general reader to the seasonedlanguage activist, to be objective about language in order to begindistinguishing between our "common sense" beliefs about language and linguisticfacts. The reason for this, she argues, is that the beliefs about accent andlanguage that we have accepted as truths reinforce and justify socialinequalities, 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.

SUMMARYRecognizing the pervasiveness of language myths and the power of standardlanguage ideologies, Lippi-Green takes her time (Chapters 1-6) in peeling backthe conceptual layers that underlie these myths and ideologies, appealing to ourlived experience by drawing on personal experience and incorporating examplesfrom American popular culture. In Chapter 1, she sums up "The linguistic factsof life" that are relevant to the book's argument. These include: All spokenlanguage changes over time; all spoken languages are equal in terms oflinguistic potential; grammaticality and communicative effectiveness aredistinct and independent issues; written language and spoken language arefundamentally different; variation is intrinsic to all spoken language, and ismostly symbolic (adapted from pp. 6-7). Other linguists have worked to dispellanguage myths for a non-linguist readership (see Bauer & Trudgill, 1998), butEWA goes one step further by foregrounding these myths in the broader frameworkof social inequality.

Chapter 2 (Language in motion) spills over from the final myth addressed inChapter 1 regarding regional variation. Also by way of a concise and relevantintroduction to the subsequent chapters, Lippi-Green focuses on four well-knowncases of variation in the US: the presence or absence of (r) in syllable codas;the Northern Cities Chain Shift; lexical variation and discourse markers; weakand strong verbs (p. 27). Her point in this chapter is to dispel the myth thatAmerican dialects are disappearing, and to begin introducing the interplay ofsocial and linguistic factors. After establishing that variation is inherent inspoken language, she asks why some labels (i.e., substandard) are applied todifferent varieties and what the implications might be of such labeling. Astrength of this chapter is that it assumes no background in linguistics,spelling out IPA where necessary and succinctly integrating the methods andresults of seminal studies (i.e., Labov, 1962).

After these two foundational chapters, Lippi-Green dives into "The myth ofnon-accent" (Chapter 3) in which she begins to directly address the issue ofaccent promised in the book's title. She begins by examining the function ofmyth for its power to influence the behaviour of people, and to explain why itis reasonable to call the notion of "standard language" a myth. It is importantto establish the concept of myth in this chapter because in Chapters four andfive, she moves directly into the conceptual core of the book: SLI. A highlightof this chapter is the Sound House analogy that Lippi-Green has devised toexplain how our accents are developed, abandoned, and adopted as we move throughchildhood and adolescence. The analogy traces the hypothetical protagonist'sphonological development from birth to age 20, using architectural metaphors todescribe how she attempts to "renovate" her Sound House (or native tonguephonology) in order to liken or distinguish her Sound House from those of herfamily members, friends, and other-language speakers whose Sound Houses shewould like the blueprints for. Lippi-Green maintains that it is natural for ouraccents (in all of our languages) to change over time, but it is important torecognize the power of myth and ideology in these changes.

In Chapter 4 (The standard language myth), Lippi-Green puts The Dictionary underthe 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 astandard variety of a language, and by pointing out who exploits and benefitsfrom it. She concedes that it may be necessary to have a "standard" -- even onedetermined by an elite group -- but warns, "there is nothing objective aboutthis practice" (p. 58). I found her decision to bring the dictionary to theanalytical forefront here appealing, because the dictionary is probably the mostcommonly and widely consulted authority in quotidian debates about language, andas such inductively brings our attention to the propagation of SLI in our dailylives.

By Chapter 5 (Language subordination) we are sufficiently prepared to beginexploring the conceptual heart of Lippi-Green's work here, which concerns the"language subordination process" (p. 69), or how people are oppressed andexcluded via standard language ideologies. One of the most intriguing questionsshe raises in this chapter is not whether people subscribe to standard languageideologies, because it has already been established that we all do to a certainextent. Rather, she poses the more difficult question of how languagesubordination works, and offers "The language subordination model" (p. 70) as ananalytical tool to probe how SLIs are disseminated and why people accept theinferior or stigmatized social positions that consenting to a SLI grants them.The model includes the following processes: language is mystified; authority isclaimed; misinformation is generated; targeted languages are trivialized;conformers are held up as positive examples; non-conformers are vilified ormarginalized; explicit promises are made; threats are made (p. 70); examples ofeach of these are presented in varying detail throughout the remainder of thebook. This chapter builds on the previous ones by discussing what the socialimplications are of asking people to speak a certain language, or with a certainaccent.

While Lippi-Green concedes that we still do not know exactly how languagesubordination works or why, in Chapter 6, "The educational system: fixing themessage in stone", she offers that school is the place where SLI is firstintroduced and enforced, even by the most well-intentioned teachers. Shedemonstrates the disconnect between policy and practice by arguing that eventhough policies to recognize linguistic diversity have been in place since the1970s, very little has been done to implement these.

In Chapters 7-17, Lippi-Green gives several examples of how languagesubordination has affected and continues to negatively affect speakers ofdifferent languages and varieties of English in the United States. Most, if notall of the chapters subsequent to Chapter 6, feature English speakers fromdiverse 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 caseshas direct implications for authenticity, real and imagined belonging, andaccess to opportunity in the American context. Chapter 11, for instance, isabout linguistic perceptions of and by speakers in "the Southern Trough". Inthis chapter, she explores issues of accent reduction, identity, resistance, andthe trivialization of southern varieties of English and their speakers. Here,Lippi-Green argues that assimilation via accent reduction is commonly perceivedto 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 USEnglish are historically rooted in questions of defining who gets to be anauthentic American. This chapter includes a short overview of AAVE grammar, someof the main controversies surrounding it, and opposing viewpoints from the Angloand African American communities towards it. Later, in Chapter 16, she zooms inon a case study of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy in Oakland, California in the1990s, providing a more intimate look at some of the tangible repercussions ofSLI in the African American community. Chapters 14 and 15 are new to the secondedition and focus on the varieties of English spoken by two major ethnicminorities in the US: Latinos and Asian Americans, respectively.

For the second edition of EWA, Lippi-Green has added 14 more films to heranalysis of how SLI is manipulated in Disney films (Chapter 7). This chaptershows how there is nothing innocuous about cartoons -- indeed, via accents andracial stereotyping, cultures are trivialized and characters that speak with"standard" varieties of English (or, "conformers" to the SLI) are praised bybeing consistently represented as "the good guy". Thus, by watching Disneyfilms, children are socialized into certain prejudices. The Disney example isuseful because it provides a very clear illustration of how linguistic andnon-linguistic features such as race are often inseparable; Chapter 17'sdiscussion of linguistic profiling is another such example, although issues ofrace arise regularly throughout the book.

In Chapter 8, Lippi-Green examines how political figures are presented by themedia, and how commentary about the way politicians speak (rather than what theyare saying) has a powerful effect on public perception of them. Chapter 9 alsodemonstrates how language subordination works, but this time at the intersectionof the workplace and the legal system. This chapter features dozens ofreal-world examples to illustrate how difficult it is to prosecute employerswhen there has been language discrimination in the workplace, even wherepolicies are in place to protect people from it (also see Chapter 17 for asimilar 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 thatadherence to an exclusive SLI effectively silences those who do not speak astandard variety because we judge them based on the quality rather than thecontent of their speech.

EVALUATIONThis second edition boasts a diversity of discussion questions, further readingand classroom exercises that are relevant to a range of life experiences andscholarly disciplines. A companion site symbol appears at intervals throughoutthe text directing readers to the new companion website that has an interactivebibliography, sound clips, images and video to complement the reading.

EWA can be used in many ways. Because it is written in a clear and rathernarrative style, people from a wide range of backgrounds will find the materialaccessible. Although it was written for a general audience, Lippi-Green does notsacrifice complexity for accessibility. The range of issues covered in eachchapter provides fuel for debate in graduate and undergraduate classes alike, indisciplines spanning the social sciences, education, and even law -- regardlessof students' interest in language specifically.

The first few chapters especially make excellent complementary reading forbeginners in linguistics, because they present well-known studies and keyconcepts in a practical and engaging way, as well as providing a bit of anorientation to different branches of linguistics (p. 40).

Lippi-Green's argument is firmly rooted in the American context, which I see asa strength and not a shortcoming. The questions she raises, however, can andshould be raised in any country or manner of social organization. Also, in EWAthe school is presented as the child's first exposure to SLI (p.73), but I feltthat this ignores the ideological socializing function of the child'scaregivers. The home domain -- where the child builds their first Sound House --is not ideologically neutral territory and deserves a closer look. Another pointconcerns the processes identified in the language subordination model; these aremultifarious and raise many more questions than a single monograph is able toaddress. But I wondered, for example, whether comments like "that accent is socute" are inherently trivializing, or at what point they become so.

As Lippi-Green points out at the very outset (p. ix), the notions of languagesubordination and SLI are quite controversial. Indeed, as much as I agree withthe central premise of EWA, my own SLI indoctrination prohibits me from fullygrasping or possibly concurring with some of its finer points at the presenttime. Lippi-Green is ultimately calling for a paradigm shift in the way we thinkabout language, and more importantly, in the way we think about and behavetowards each other, which is at best a profoundly uncomfortable proposition formany; as EWA makes clear, SLI is so deeply ingrained that even human rightsactivists and advocates of language equality inadvertently promote it. As withthe first edition, EWA is difficult to put down, and the issues it raises areeven more difficult to stop talking about.

REFERENCESBauer, L., & Trudgill, P. (1998). Language myths. London: Penguin Books.

Labov, W. (1962). The Social History of a Sound Change on the Island of Martha'sVineyard, Massachusetts. New York: Columbia.

Nunan, D., & Choi, J. (2010). Language, Culture, and Identity: Framing theIssues. In D. Nunan and J. Choi (Eds.), Language and culture: Reflectivenarratives and the emergence of identity. New York: Routledge. Pp. 1-13.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAva Becker holds an honors degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies andis currently finishing her Master's degree in Applied Linguistics at theUniversity of Alberta, Canada. Her current research interests includeSpanish heritage language development (HLD) in Canada, HLD in refugeecommunities, HLD and multilingualism, and discourse analysis. She hopes toexplore some of the findings from her Master's research in a PhD program.

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