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Review of  American English


Reviewer: Polycarp Naanma Dajang
Book Title: American English
Book Author: Walt Wolfram Natalie Schilling-Estes
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.4150

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote

SUMMARY

The book “American English: Dialects and Varieties” (third edition) by Walt Wolfram & Natalie Schilling is a 436-page, twelve-chapter effort which deals in detail with the most recent sociolinguistic and theoretical topics and issues relating to American English. Different dialects in the United States (as well as varieties based on particular sociolinguistic indices) are covered in the book. The book sets out to be a simple read and an interactive, reader-friendly material especially for learners interested in American dialects and in general variation studies. In fact, the publication of the book was done with a thought spared even for readers without any prior knowledge of linguistics. The book contains exercises by Caroline Myrick and Joel Schneier (which have online answers) designed to augment understanding of the issues raised in it, as well as websites with text, audio and video files to further aid comprehension of the issues discussed. Additionally, each chapter closes with a “Further Reading” section and a “References” section. After the last chapter is a useful section on the glossary of (technical) terms used in the book as well as an index section listing topics and items referred to in the book.

Chapter 1 is titled “Dialects, Standards, and Vernaculars”. It establishes a widely-accepted operational definition of the term “dialect”, as distinct from its popular, non-technical sense, as follows: “… a variety of a language typical of a given group of speakers” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2015, p. 2). Four different popular views of the term are provided by the authors (p. 2), all of which are given simple yet ample analyses for elucidation. In doing so, the authors reveal several commonly-held fallacies concerning dialects and the objective position of language experts in relation to dialects. Also, the chapter discusses the inevitable issue of “standard” versus “nonstandard” varieties of American English, distinguishing specifically between “formal standard English” and “informal standard English” (p. 11). Wolfram & Schilling carefully guide the reader through a discussion of the sociolinguistic variables associated with the notions of standard, nonstandard and “vernacular” dialects (of American English) and the age-long distinction between linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism. The book acknowledges that it is not altogether possible to jettison the point of people making judgments on “standardness” and “vernacularity” (p. 16) in terms of language use. It submits that in terms of standardness and vernacularity dialects are in a cline relationship with each other.

Chapter 2, simply titled “Why Dialects?”, explains the raison d’être for dialects, and dispels the thinking that American dialects are endangered. Instead, in the words of the authors (p. 27), “… types of dialect differences are actually intensifying rather than receding…” The chapter explains the sociohistorical and linguistic factors responsible for dialect, especially in a setting brought and held together by advancement in sociotechnology, when the expectation is that differences among language varieties will wither away as a result of increased social cohesion. Language change is inevitable, as is social change. The chapter basically discusses reasons for the creation of dialects.

Chapter 3 is titled “Levels of Dialect” and continues in the tradition of the first two chapters in the preliminary discussion of dialects. Specifically, the levels of dialect are discussed, namely the lexical, phonological and grammatical levels. In other words, examples of vocabulary differences, of differences in phonology, and of differences at the level of morphology and syntax, are provided in the chapter. Also, differences in language use—in terms of context and sociocultural orientations—account for dialect differences in language. This is sufficiently treated in the chapter. Ultimately, it is worthy of note that concepts and ideas established in the first three chapters form the bedrock of the discussions in the rest of the book, as the reader is constantly referred back to them in the post-Chapter Three parts of the book.

Chapter 4, “Dialects in the United States: Past, Present and Future”, deals with dialects spoken in the United States across a time continuum. The evolution, in a nutshell, of dialects in America is associated with the origin of the dialects (from precolonization times) and the present state of the dialects as well as the future state of American English. This is expounded considerably in the chapter. The chapter chronicles American English from the pre-American English era. Language and dialect contact, along with a purely American invention, account for the creation of American English. Recent trends occasioned by changes in sociocultural phenomena have shaped the current state of dialects in the United States. Increased fluidity in movement, ease and advancement in communication have brought about change in the linguistic situation in America. Indeed, according to Wolfram & Schilling (p. 121), “… new dialects must be included along with the old when we consider the contemporary state of dialects in the United States.” The future is likely to witness continued dialect change and dialect formation.

In Chapter 5, titled “Regional Varieties of English”, the book covers regional varieties of English in the United States. Wolfram & Schilling espouse the integrated approach to the study of regional dialects, which brings together methods from geography and those from linguistics in a harmonizing attempt at explaining regional variation. The authors provide an array of mappings (and possibilities for mappings) for American dialects based on geographical considerations, discuss the intricacies associated with the methods, and discuss the spread of dialect forms in the United States. Lastly, the chapter concludes by showing the place of social identity in people’s conception of “region” rather than it being merely the idea geographical, or “physical space” (p. 154).

Chapter 6 is titled “Social Varieties of American English”. It discusses social varieties of American English, an aspect of language variation usually twinned with regional (geographical) varieties during dialectological discussions. Wolfram & Schilling reveal that social status-based and ethnicity-based variables have been employed over a long period of time in studying American English variation. Social class distinctions—as vague as they are—are the often used in variation studies. The authors are of the view, however, that despite the positive value derived from such a venture, it is based mostly on certain assumptions that are not necessarily consistent universally, hence a good number of current sociolinguists have jettisoned the traditional social class models. Still, according to Wolfram & Schilling (p. 174), “… it is not surprising that social values assigned to certain groups in society will be associated with the linguistic forms used by speakers from these groups.” This shows that linguistic features continue to be linked with social class considerations. Examples demonstrating the patterning of linguistic features based on social groups are given in the chapter. The chapter culminates with an intelligent discussion of the role of social class in language change, consequently submitting: (a) that contrary to popular assumption, it is the lower social class groups (not those at the extreme edges of the social continuum) that are “much more responsible for language change than they have been given credit for” (p. 177), and (b) that the upper social classes oppose linguistic change initiated by the lower social classes, leading to “social differentiation of language in American society” (p. 179).

In Chapter 7, titled “Ethnicity and American English”, Wolfram & Schilling open with a concession that ethnicity, as a concept, is rather difficult to define precisely because it is closely intertwined with other social indices (race, religion, social status, ages, gender, etc.) and behavioral traits. They go on to discuss the problems associated with ethnicity-based definitions of language varieties, including the fact that focusing on a basic set of beliefs as a strict determinant of a people’s ethnicity is rather complicated and unsteady even among a monolithic group of people or among individual members of such monolithic society, and the fact that such a view of varieties of language is likely to lead to erroneous conceptions concerning the nature of varieties spoken by, say, Anglo whites and “African Americans, Latinos, and others” (p. 185). The chapter identifies language transfer as a possible index of the pattern of ethnolinguistic variation. It also presents an alternative view, which is the fact that variation based on ethnic correlations may merely indicate various levels of affinity to neighboring groups and their language(s). Specifically, five ethnically-based varieties of English (Latino English, Cajun English, Lumbee English, Jewish American English, and Asian American English) found in the United States are discussed, with their distinct, identifiable ethnolinguistic features pointed out in each case. The discussions on Jewish American English and Asian American English are new, with perspectives of “religiosity” (for Jewish American English) and “mock language” (for Asian American English) explained in the chapter.

Chapter 8, “African American English”, is separately dedicated to the treatment of African American varieties of English in the United States. The reason for this is perhaps captured in the following statements by Wolfram & Schilling (p. 217): “AFRICAN AMERICAN ENGLISH (AAE) is the pragmatic case of ethnicity-based language diversity”, and “more than five times as many publications devoted to AAE than any other American English dialect” exist. The chapter acknowledges the difficulty in attempting a precise definition of issues relating to language and ethnicity because of the availability of multiple labels (Negro Dialect; Nonstandard Negro English; Black English; Vernacular Black English; Afro-American English; Ebonics; African American (Vernacular) English; African American Language, AAL) attached to AAE. It also highlights the complication surrounding the status of AAE or AAL as a “dialect” or a “language” due to the existing debate about the divide between the two terms. The authors maintain the view that the matter of the divide between the two terms is more a sociopolitical than a simple linguistic one. Specific distinguishing phonological and grammatical features of vernacular varieties of AAE (albeit mere approximations) are provided (p. 221) which set vernacular AAE apart from similar European American vernacular varieties. The chapter discusses, in considerable, systematic fashion, the evolution of AAE (with its various associated hypotheses) as well as the contemporary state of development of the variety. Lastly, the chapter concludes that AAL plays a unifying role among African Americans by according them “a sense of solidarity and identity” in spite of its resistance by mainstream, official institutions like schools and professional organizations, and that AAL transcends a consideration of the formal features of the variety to an incorporation of the pragmatic features of the variety.

Chapter 9 is titled “Gender and Language Variation”, and explores issues of gender as a factor of language variation, pointing out the fact that most people approach issues of the link between gender and language with a prior assumption that there is necessarily a difference between male and female speech universally, whereas research has indicated the complexity of engaging in such an approach. The chapter examines gender differences as they relate to “patterns of language use” (pp. 246-247), and discusses gender in terms of the current perspective in which it is studied, namely the fact of the term being regarded as a social construct and, especially, that it is regarded as practice, or performance. Basically, the authors adopt the qualitative approach, which looks at how male and female speech types are patterned, and how members of each group are talked about.

In Chapter 10, “Dialects and Style”, the focus is on variation in speech based on the individual rather than on group dynamics. The effect of context—as reflected in speakers, topic of conversation, domains, etc.—on the style of individuals’ speech, and on style shifting. Audience design and speaker design approaches to stylistic variation are discussed, and the authors show how both sets of design influence style choice and style shifting. A section on “further considerations” concludes the chapter, with a key observation that stylistic variation would be best studied by combining quantitative and qualitative approaches (p. 307).

Chapter 11, titled “The Application of Dialect Study”, is one which tackles the question of the basis for engaging in dialect studies. Wolfram & Schilling refer to three interesting principles—“error correction” and “debt incurred”, by Labov (1982, pp. 172-173) and “linguistic gratuity”, by Wolfram (1993, p. 227)—as valid motivations for engaging in dialect studies as a social commitment of (socio)linguists. The chapter identifies and discusses, in the words of the authors, “different types of applications for research on dialect testing” (p. 313).

The last chapter, 12, entitled “Dialect Awareness: Extending Application”, is an extension of the previous chapter’s discussion on the application of dialect study. It highlights the applicability of dialect study to reading and writing, drawing the reader’s attention to how speakers’ spoken dialects affect their reading achievement as well as their written language. What is known as a “literary dialect” is explained, with Wolfram & Schilling citing examples of dialects represented in literary works. Avenues for dialectologists to engage in practical dialect awareness programs for the benefit of host communities of linguistic researches are advanced and encouraged by the authors.

EVALUATION

One basic goal of the authors is to further simplify, though “without oversimplifying” (p. xiv), the discussions of the salient sociolinguistic and dialectological issues surrounding dialects and language variation in the United States, specifically, and beyond, generally, with the aim of facilitating understanding of the issues even by persons with no background at all in linguistics. In this regard, it is thus an upgrade on the previous edition. This edition is more than just a latest edition of the two earlier ones, as it is an improved and, in the authors’ words, a “thoroughly revised and updated version” (p. xiii) made more comprehensive by featuring new, separate sections on Jewish English and Asian American English, as well as a whole separate chapter on language and ethnicity. Additionally, discussions carried out in the previous editions have been expanded in this version without additional complications even to the nonlinguist reader. Indeed, the book’s rather simple language and style of presentation means it is an invaluable text for readers from a wide range of backgrounds, since the flow of discussion is relatively easier for the reader to follow. Where technical terms are employed in the text, they are explained immediately, or else the glossary of terms provided in the book offer help to the reader in that regard. The interactive features (websites with text, audio files and video vignettes which can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone by the Quick Response (QR) code facility) especially make the book a reader-friendly resource for anyone interested in learning about variation studies, dialects and dialect issues, especially of dialects in the United States. Another positive for the book is that it is not difficult to locate information in it because the table of contents is detailed enough to lead the reader to the right page(s), section(s) and even subsection(s), and the index makes for an even more precise search for information.

Additionally, the book is quite suitable for scholars who have to teach undergraduate (lower-, upper- and even graduate-level) students introductory and semi-advanced courses in dialectology and sociolinguistics. (The book would be of most benefit to the reader if augmented by other simple sociolinguistics books such as Wardhaugh’s (2006) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics.) Furthermore, the exercises that follow each discussion are skillfully designed to aid readers in their attempt to understand the discussion before they move on to other issues. That is why the discussions are included at appropriate sections in an unobtrusive way within the discussions and not at the end of the chapters.

However, the book may benefit from the inclusion of a more teacher-friendly interface, both in the presentation style and in the web-based interactive features provided. This is likely to benefit teachers who would like to use the book in teaching courses in dialectology and sociolinguistics. So far, the book appeals more to the learner-reader, even the independent student of dialects and language variation.

Lastly, although of utmost importance, is the need to correct a mistake (the omission of the pronoun “we”) on page 306 of the book. In line eight (under 10.5 “Further Considerations”), what reads as “Or do want to push things a bit further …” ought to read, “Or do we want to push things a bit further …”. Overall, though, the book is a very useful book for sociolinguists, dialectologists, experts, students and even the lay public interested in learning about dialects (and dialect issues) as well as language variation, whether in terms of American English or any others, but especially American English.


REFERENCES

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 5th edn. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Wolfram, Walt & Schilling, Natalie. 2015. American English: Dialects and variation, 3rd edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
I am an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Jos, Nigeria. My research interests include investigating semantic, pragmatic and sociolinguistic issues in the mostly uninvestigated indigenous languages of Plateau state, which is the host community to my affiliate institution. I also delve comfortably into formal and theoretical linguistic issues centering on the syntax of the languages of Plateau state.

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