Mirror, mirror on the wall which is the English-est English of them all?

In preparation for a workshop this fall, the Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR) has been doing a lot of research on American accents and dialects. Since English Language Learners (ELLs) are usually only really exposed to a standard version of American English, we thought it might be a good idea to introduce some of the nonstandard, colloquial versions of English spoken throughout the United States. One of our goals is to give them a sort of “Spotter’s Guide to the Accents of American English,” to show them how to recognize a certain type of accent when they find it.  But the most important goal for us is to tear down the popular notion that English (or any language for that matter) is a monolithic entity with one right way of being spoken.

Technically speaking, no version of any language is any better as a means of communication than any other. Even the most stigmatized modes of speech are perfectly useful channels to discuss everything from the weather to quantum physics. However, not all dialects are equally valued by all members of society, and so the question of which version is the right one can get rather…contentious, to say the least.  There is a constant push and pull between what is correct and what should be correct.

 Compared to other languages, English (especially American English) is relatively homogenous. An English speaking child can generally understand English written and spoken thousands of miles away without extensive instruction, which for languages such as German and Chinese is most certainly not the case.  So, if the particular way in which newscasters speak and the rest are expected to was not handed down from on high, where did it come from? Literally speaking, nowhere in particular.  The current variety of English known as “General American” is considered desirable simply because it communicates virtually no information about where the speaker is from to listeners, and thus contains less “baggage” than another accent might have. Hence, the idea of promoting it as a superior form of language is ludicrous at best.

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  • The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class.

    A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect; a regional dialect may be termed a regiolect or topolect. The other usage refers to a language socially subordinate to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not a variety of it or in any other sense derived from it.

    This more precise usage enables distinguishing between varieties of a language, such as the French spoken in Nice, France, and local languages distinct from the superordinate language, e.g. Nissart, the traditional native Romance language of Nice, known in French as Niçard.

    A dialect is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology, including prosody). Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation, the term accent is appropriate, not dialect. Other speech varieties include: standard languages, which are standardized for public performance (for example, a written standard); jargons, which are characterized by differences in lexicon (vocabulary); slang; patois; pidgins or argots.




  • David S. says:

    This is an interesting topic, especially for those of us in communications, or just for us midwesterners. Traditionally, the midwestern American accent was considered the best for broadcasters, because the speech pattern was relatively slow, and the speech relatively unaccented. The legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was a Nebraskan, and this was considered a factor in his success as a vocal communicator.