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Review of  American English

Reviewer: Cynthia McCollie-Lewis
Book Title: American English
Book Author: Walt Wolfram Natalie Schilling-Estes
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.3541

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Date: Wed, 7 Dec 2005 14:42:20 -0500
From: Cynthia McCollie-Lewis
Subject: American English: Dialects and Variation, 2nd edition

AUTHORS: Wolfram, Walt; Schilling-Estes, Natalie
TITLE: American English
SUBTITLE: Dialects and Variation, 2nd edition
SERIES: Language in Society
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2005

Cynthia McCollie-Lewis, Department of English, New Jersey City
University, New Jersey


This second edition of ''American English: Dialects and Variation'' by
Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes is a ''thoroughly revised and
updated version'' of the 1998 text by the same title. This volume is
written for a broad-based student audience, including those who have
not previously studied linguistics. The language is accessible and the
authors' goal is to keep linguistic terminology to a minimum. It is
appropriate for upper level undergraduate and graduate students.
The text is conceptually divided into four sections: a basic introduction
to dialect variation (ch.1-3), the history and development of dialects of
American English (ch. 4), social factors influencing dialect variation
(ch. 5-9), and applications of dialect study (ch. 10-11).


Chapter 1 (1-27): In ''Dialects, Standards, and Vernaculars,'' the
authors begin by defining the term 'dialect' as used in linguistics and
as used popularly. Then they move into a discussion of myths and
linguistic realities concerning dialect variation, notions of standard
versus vernacular varieties, and choice of labels for vernaculars.
Some of the myths considered are: ''a dialect is something that
someone else speaks; only varieties of a language spoken by socially
disfavored groups are dialects, and [dialects] are deviations from
standard speech.'' The chapter ends with a consideration of why
people study dialects.

Chapter 2 (28-63), ''Why Dialects,'' addresses questions such as, why
are there so many dialects, what factors influence dialect difference,
and why do dialects persist in a country where there is widespread
media influence? To answer these and other questions, social,
historical, and linguistic explanations are provided. However, the
authors acknowledge that varying combinations of these factors
produce unique results. Therefore, ''...when sociohistorical and
linguistic factors come together in combinations and proportions that
are sometimes difficult to specify exactly...the resultant product- the
dialect- turns out to be a unique variety whose distinctive flavor would
be lost if it were mechanistically constructed...(63)

Chapter 3 (64-102): ''Levels of Dialect,'' discusses the ways in which
dialects may differ. Each ''level'' -- lexicon, phonology, grammar,
semantic, and pragmatic--provides one type of distinctiveness.
Moreover, the chapter explores how these levels of dialect variation
are distributed across social groups and considers American reactions
to such differences.

Chapter 4 (102-133): ''Dialects in the United States: Past, Present,
and Future,'' examines the development of dialects in the United
States from the earliest arrival of settlers through the current period.
The basis for understanding dialect patterning is found in the
interaction among groups, and in settlement and migration patterns.
Classic analyses (by Kurath) and more recent analyses (by Labov;
Schneider) of dialect distribution are discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 5 (134-166): ''Regional Dialects'' discusses various methods
used in the study of regional dialects. This chapter takes a more in-
depth look at some of the methodologies introduced in the previous
chapter. It includes such topics as elicitation methods, distribution
patterns of characteristic (and non-characteristic) forms, mechanisms
of dialect diffusion, and people's perceptions of dialect variation
(perceptual dialectology).

Chapter 6 (167-210): ''Social and Ethnic Dialects'' delves into an
examination of varieties that are correlated with specific social and
ethnic groups. From the outset the authors indicate that there
important social implications connected to these varieties, ''...speakers
may be judged on capabilities ranging from innate intelligence to
employability and on personal attributes ranging from sense of humor
to morality'' (167). Generally less well-known varieties are included in
this chapter, such as Latino English, Cajun English, and Lumbee

Chapter 7 (211-233): ''African American English'' is one of the
revisions made to this second edition. That is, the 1998 edition
included the discussion of this variety as part of the previous chapter.
In addition to discussing the origin and early development of African
American English, its distinctiveness vis-à-vis European American
English and its contemporary development are explored.

Chapter 8 (234-265): ''Gender and Language Variation'' has been
significantly revised and updated. The first four subsections discuss
some of the same gender-based issues as in the 1998 edition, but
additionally bring to bear new research, including the authors' work on
Ocracoke English. The chapter investigates gender-based language
variation from two research perspectives: that of regional and social
dialects and that of gender-based individual and conversational
patterns. From these perspectives, the reader gets a more
global, ''large-scale'' view of the subject, as well as one that is more
local, ''close-up.''

Chapter 9 (266-293): ''Dialects and Style'' focuses on variation in the
speech styles of individuals. The discussion highlights the influence
that situational changes, attention to speech, audience, and individual
initiative exert on speech style shifts. The chapter ends with a focus
on speaker design approaches to variation, indicating that these
approaches ''increase our understanding of intra-speaker language
variation (290).''

Chapter 10 (294-328): ''On the Applications of Dialect Study'' moves
the reader to consider practical applications of the information
presented in the 9 chapters leading up to this one. Invoking the
words of Labov (1982) concerning the ''principle of error correction''
and the ''principle of debt incurred,'' the authors recount linguists'
social activism in situations occurring from the 1960s through 2003.
The chapter continues by showing the connections that information on
dialect variation has on general standardized testing, on language
testing, and on teaching standard English.

Chapter 11 (329-360): ''Dialect Awareness: Extending Application''
continues the discussion about the applications of dialect study. The
focus in this chapter is applicability to reading and writing. For
reading, the writers' concern is the correlation between dialect-
speaking populations and reading failure. Linguistic considerations
are placed along side cultural and social ones in addressing this
area. In examining dialect features that appear in writing, the chapter
discusses both inadvertent and deliberate uses. Information on
themes for curriculums about dialects and on roles that dialectologists
can play in increasing dialect awareness, especially within the
communities in which they have carried out their research, end the

Appendix (361-384): ''An Inventory of Distinguishing Dialect Features''
includes phonological and grammatical features that were mentioned
(and some not mentioned) within the chapters. The emphasis is on
features that are ''socially significant in terms of the standard-
vernacular continuum''.


This second edition of ''American English'' is written in an
approachable style that should be inviting to a broad audience,
including those who have not studied linguistics. Often, chapters
begin with anecdotes that are familiar scenarios, drawing the reader
into the material. The authors state in the preface, ''we have tried to
keep technical linguistic terminology to a minimum,'' yet, there seems
to be significant number in the text. One issue is, of course, how to
determine what constitutes a ''minimum.'' Another issue is the broad
audience for which the text is intended. That is, to the non-linguist
undergraduate, the technical terms may seem numerous, but to their
other potential audience--graduate students in linguistics--the
terminology may be welcomed, feeling just right. However, to the
authors' credit, they have integrated the terminology into the narrative
in an unobtrusive manner such that the beginner can grasp meanings
without focusing on them, while the incipient specialist can take note
of them for further study. The text maintains a good balance between
presenting informative material and providing theoretical frameworks
for understanding important issues. Such a balance is quite difficult to
carry out.

Unlike some revised editions, this one has been ''thoroughly revised''
as indicated in the preface. For example, five of the eleven chapters
(5, 6, 8, 9, and 11) have been expanded or have new material added.
Moreover, the chapter on African American English has been
expanded to the point of becoming its own separate chapter, rather
than being a subsection of ''Social and Ethnic Dialects, as in the first
edition. Even the comprehensive Appendix of dialect features has
been updated with new entries covering vowel mergers in words like
Don and Dawn, the progressive with stative verbs, and a new
structure in the verb phrase section -- the quotative 'be like' and 'go'.
There are also newly added reference sources for those who want
more extensive descriptions of dialects.

Another strong feature is the inclusion of many exercises in each
chapter. These too have been updated or changed. For instance,
exercise 4 in the first chapter discussed the term 'ebonics' in the 1998
edition. At that time, the 1996 Ebonics Resolution by the Oakland,
California School Board was a current topic of much research. In the
current revised edition, exercise 4 uses the Hispanic or Latino
population as its focus. Moreover, labels such as Anglo American
English have been updated to ones in current use, European
American English.

While ''American English, 2nd edition'' contains numerous components
that make it an exceptional text, one that is particularly strong is the
infusion of cultural, political, and educational implications throughout.
These are the emphases that Allen (1993) has indicated as relevant
for ''today's'' student (15). These foci continue to be important. In
addition, since the authors indicate that the text is intended for ''a full
range of students interested in a course on dialects...,'' highlighting
such elements is crucial for helping readers understand real world
connections to the linguistic material and for encouraging the
development of more positive attitudes about linguistic differences.

Two additions might make this text even more inviting. First, while
each chapter ends with an annotated bibliography of additional
sources, only two contain web-based resources. The internet is such
a ubiquitous site of information for most students that it is almost an
unspoken expectation that more of these sources will be identified.
Next, this text fills such an important need -- to provide well
researched information to counter the many myths and misinformation
about dialects and dialects speakers -- that strengthening its appeal to
a wider teacher audience would certainly increase its positive impact.
That is, it is already written to appeal to the student who is not
specializing in linguistics. That very feature makes it also accessible
to the teacher who has an interest in offering a course on dialects, but
who is not a linguist. For such persons, an accompanying teacher's
manual that provides models (or potential responses) for the
exercises and that gives additional detailed insights about
using/teaching the text would make ''American English'' more
approachable from an instructional perspective. In this way, this
incredible text could be of the most good to the most people.


Ferguson, Charles A. and Heath, Shirley Brice, eds. Language in the
USA. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Allen, Harold B. ''American English Enters Academe''. Glowka, A.
Wayne and Donald M. Lance, eds. Language Variation in North
American English. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993: 3-

Labov, William. ''Objectivity and Commitment in Linguistic Science''.
Language in Society 11, 1982: 165-201.

Cynthia McCollie-Lewis teaches Composition and Linguistics at New
Jersey City University. Her research interests are in sociolinguistics
and creole linguistics. Her recent research focuses on teaching
grammar in the composition classroom and on the 17th and 18th
century development of African American Vernacular English in
colonial Virginia.

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