Prejudices Against United States Regional Dialects

United States citizens possess prejudices against regional dialects, because of American insecurities, populism, and peer influences. According to Albert C. Baugh’s and Thomas Cable’s, A History of the English Language, there are three major regional categories of American dialects: the New England dialect, the Southern dialect, and the General American dialect. While all regions of the U.S. strive to use Standard English, language dialects can vary between geographic areas and economic levels. Young children begin learning dialects from a variety of groups: parents, playmates, and teachers. As adults, those children may either instantaneously or knowingly tailor their personal dialects as they gain new influences and experiences throughout their lives. Due to this tailoring of dialects, United States citizens have certainly formed many opinions about which regional areas speak “correct” or “incorrect” English.

United States citizens possess prejudices against regional dialects because of American insecurities. Dialects of English have been studied since the 18th century. The first American dialectologist was John Pickering (1777-1846). Pickering and later dialectologists found that compared to British English, “American English differs in aspects of its phonology, its orthography, its syntax, and its vocabulary (Wilson). English society believed that American English was inferior. Therefore, many American English speakers began to believe their dialects were indeed inferior to England’s.

In 1800, this belief was reinforced as an anonymous English writer experiencing the differences in American versus British English submitted an article, On the Scheme of an American Language, to the The Monthly Magazine and American Review. The anonymous writer stated that he personally observed how “the best educated class, whole dialect is purified by intimate intercourse with English books”.

These negative attitudes in the 1800s continually affected American society, because any impure English word was labeled as an “Americanism”. American linguist Dennis Preston confirms that Americans today still harbor insecurity towards English because speakers in England have been using the language for much longer. In a 2005 PBS film, Do you speak American?, Preston states that despite insecurities, “Americans [still] desire not to be stuffy or to be too correct”.

American English is still criticized by England’s citizens because of the geographic divide between England and America, perpetuating differences in English dialects. Americans then formed opinions about certain dialects among American societies. These insecurities have — and continue — to exacerbate prejudices against regional dialects.

United States citizens possess prejudices against regional dialects, because of populism. Kenneth G, Wilson, author of The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, deduced why prejudices were being formed. Wilson discovered that dialects reflect a social group’s hierarchy, education, occupations, and economic levels. A dialect encompasses a society’s way of life, because so many aspects of life shape a dialect. A Teacher’s Grammar Book, authored by J.D. Williams, expands on the relationship between dialects and social groups. According to Williams, “Dialects are the result of geographical and socioeconomic factors, although many people mistakenly associate dialects with race.” Therefore, one area of the United States may perceive the American South dialect as being used by uneducated, poor people, because society’s general view is that the General American dialect is the dialect everyone in the nation should preferably possess.

Do You Speak American?, discovers television and movies occupy an immense amount of time in children’s – and adults’ – lives. The documentary suggests that Hollywood usually portrays those with “strong regional accents [dialects]” as either villains or comedic characters. These portrayals help develop and/or further prejudices Americans have, because Americans tend toward stereotyping groups of people who use similar dialects as popular television characters. Another PBS documentary, American Tongues (1988), suggests that while television and movies portray their own standards on incorrect regional dialects; they also perpetuate what is considered as correct speech in America. Since the General American, also know as the Midland dialect is considered correct, many main characters in television and movies possess this standard dialect. These examples clearly show prejudice, because this linguistic profiling is a type of racial discrimination. Populism creates and perpetuates prejudices against regional dialects.

Citizens of the United States possess prejudices against regional dialects because of peer influences. Columbia University published a guide that explored the topic of a child as he or she first learns his or hers dialect from family. Wilson’s The Columbia Guide to Standard American English states, “We further modify our personal dialects as we later encounter new influences.” The family influence on a child in regard to regional dialects is prevalent, because a child may be influenced every day by their family. Do You Speak American?, explains the several ways an older child may be influenced by the people around him or her. According to the film, children come in contact regularly with teachers throughout the school day, television (children watch on average 30 hours of television each week), and peers are also influential on a child’s dialect. A child’s prejudices about regional dialects may be confirmed or dis-confirmed as a child gains various experiences while growing up. Furthermore, Do You Speak American?, interviewed three former African American students whose dialect was not welcomed while attending the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Michigan. (There was a lawsuit brought about in 1977-79.) Former student, Asheen Brenen, explains in the documentary: “They [teachers] sort of felt like we were unteachable in a senseâÂ?¦ It made them go toward other [Caucasian] students more, and gave them a little bit more help than they gave us [African American Students”. As the African American and Caucasian students received different types of scholarly attention, each racial group of student may have developed negative feelings about the other group’s dialect (and possibly their own.) These peer influences are prominent in developing prejudices against regional dialects, and certainly will assist in shaping an individual’s way of thinking about different dialects.

While United States regions do their best to uphold a goal of using correct, proper Standard English, Americans’ prejudices against dialects may make reaching that goal seem impossible. All regions have their own general opinions on which dialect is correct or which dialects are seemingly incorrect. Long-held purist ideas of Britain being the only authority on English vocabulary have caused many American English speakers frustration and insecurity over centuries. United States citizens possess prejudices against regional dialects, because of American insecurities, populism, and peer influences. The next time you pass judgment on someone, due to the way they speak, you may realize that — more than likely — they are also passing judgment on you based on your own dialect.

References

A.C. Baugh & T. Cable (2002). A history of the English language. 5th ed. (pp. 376, 393-94). Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Alvarez, L. & Kolker, A. (Producers & Directors). (1988). American tongues [Motion picture]. U.S.A: PBS.

Cran, W. (Director). (2005). Do you speak American? [Motion picture]. U.S.A.: PBS.

William, J.D. (1999). The teacher’s grammar book. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.,Mahevah, N.J.

Wilson, K.G. (1993). The Columbia guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press.
New York, N.Y.

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