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Review of  American Voices

Reviewer: John M. Levis
Book Title: American Voices
Book Author: Walt Wolfram Ben Ward
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.395

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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.


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

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

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.

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.

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