Revealing American Speech


Sojourner Truth’s first language was Dutch.

If you want to become an expert on the English language in North America, and maybe teach it too, a good place to start is with the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech. The latest issue is Volume 90, Number 2, dated May 2015.

From its beginnings nearly a century ago (H.L. Mencken was one of the founders), American Speech has been accessible to readers with no special training in linguistics — at least in many of its articles. That’s the case with the lead article, by Jeroen Dewulf of the University of California at Berkeley: ”‘A Strong Barbaric Accent’: America’s Dutch-Speaking Black Community From Seventeenth-Century New Netherland to Nineteenth-Century New York and New Jersey.”

Among the African-Americans whose first language was Dutch was Sojourner Truth, whose narrative of her life as a slave was published in 1850. The article includes a sample of her English speech with a Dutch accent, not recognized by many as Dutch:

“But what’s all dis here talkin’ ’bout? Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. … ”

The next article, by Ashley Hesson and Madeline Shellgren of Michigan State, is about that little word like in one of its many uses: as a “discourse marker” at the start of a sentence, as in “We had to basically do everything but gut it. Like we didn’t knock the walls down.” The authors expected that use of this like would lower a listener’s impression of the speaker’s intelligence but raise the impression of the speaker’s friendliness. Not quite; their research found the impression of friendliness lowered as well as that of intelligence. However, in the long run friendliness was raised again. Apparently, though, you’re not going to impress people with your intelligence or friendliness by starting sentences with like.

The third article, by Umashanthi Pavalanathan and Jacob Eisenstein of Georgia Tech, studies Twitter and finds that as audiences increase, the language of tweets is more standard. The article incidentally includes a list of some 60 nonstandard words they consider “twitspeak,” ranging from wassup to tryna to lol.

And that’s barely the half of it. There’s the column “Among the New Words” by Benjamin Zimmer, Jane Solomon, and Charles Carson, that appears in almost every issue. And there’s the annual supplement on how to teach about American speech, with four articles covering a wide variety of topics.

You won’t find it on your neighborhood newsstand, but it is available at major university libraries and by membership in the American Dialect Society — for information about that, see the publisher, Duke University Press.

(Disclosure: Allan Metcalf is executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.)




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