Accents and dialects (part III): Black English


This last post on accents and dialects summarizes an editorial by linguist, academic, and popular writer John McWhorter. McWhorter’s linguistics research focuses on sociohistorical language change and creoles, but he has published multiple articles and books about race relations as well. Here, he tackles a combination of those subjects with Black English (taking a particular and somewhat controversial stance towards a recent event involving the dialect).

Article: “There’s Nothing Wrong with Black English” (The Atlantic)

A short poem published not long ago in The Nation sparked outrage due to the fact that its homeless narrator speaks Black English, while the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, is white. In response, The Nation editors added a warning to the poem calling it “disparaging,” and the poet apologized profusely.

“The primary source of offense, in a poem only 14 lines long, is passages such as this, in a work designed to highlight and sympathize with the plight of homeless people: ‘It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.’ The protagonist is referring to the condescending attitudes of white passersby who give her change.”

America certainly has a long history of parodying black language (minstrel shows being a prominent example), and our past inevitably influences the unease people feel when artists use Black English today. But the dialect that Carlson-Wee employs is not caricatured; it’s “true and ordinary black speech”.

One reason for the anger provoked by the poem could lie in the too-common perception that Black English is a degraded form of the language – so if a white person uses it to portray a black person, it’s obviously condescending and offensive. But Black English is simply a dialectal variety (just like “standard” English is another dialectal variety).

“If a sentence like People be lookin’ at him funny seems unsophisticated because the be isn’t conjugated, try wrapping your head around the fact that the be also expresses, overtly, a nuance that the standard sentence would not—that this looking in question happens on a habitual basis. You wouldn’t say People be lookin’ at him funny if it were happening at the moment. Black English jangles with things that we are trained to hear as ‘slang,’ but which foreign learners would struggle to master, in the same way as they would with pluperfects and subjunctives.”

Around the world, people use one language variety in their private lives, and a different one in public – and don’t consider their private variety to be “broken.” This is the case with Arabic speakers – national/more local dialects like Moroccan and Algerian Arabic are quite different from the Modern Standard Arabic on the news (and from each other), but speakers understand it’s just context-dependent.

Another problem is that white people may operate under the prejudicial misconception that black people can only speak Black English, and that Standard English is beyond them. Educated whites today, though, often seem aware of the bidialectalism of black Americans – that individuals can speak one way or the other depending on context. Attesting to this, Carlson-Wee’s narrator dips into and out of Black English in the poem.

Ultimately, we should evaluate each work on a case-by-case basis, and shouldn’t necessarily shun all nonblack artists from depicting the valid bidialectalism of black speakers, when those artists do it accurately and gracefully.


[Note: The article touches on several other aspects which I left out of the summary, such as cultural appropriation – if interested in more, definitely give it a read.]

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I’ll wrap up with a few points that I hope these “accents and dialects” posts (and the full articles, if you’ve read them) have conveyed:

  • Just like everyone has a language, everyone has an accent; everyone has a dialect.
  • The diversity of dialects is a fascinating aspect of our humanity – something to be celebrated!
  • Judgements we have around accents and dialects are socially-motivated, and not linguistically-based (see also a somewhat related Linguamonium piece, “Literally cray: A linguist’s attitude towards speech errors and slang”).
  • Every dialect, including Black English (also called African American (Vernacular) English – AA(V)E) has regular linguistic patterns, i.e. a systematic grammar. A dialect being non-standard doesn’t mean that it’s “slang” or that it’s not as rule-governed as the more standard dialects. You’re probably just not familiar with the rules.

Accents and dialects (part II): Only the faceless speak accent-free


In this second of three posts on accents and dialects, I summarize a relatively short article about the universality of accents.

Article: “Everyone Has an Accent” (The New York Times)

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually possible to speak a language without an accent. What’s more, our approval of certain accents and scorn of others means that individuals with the “wrong” accents face discrimination across a variety of scenarios – job interviews, medical care, at the bank or in a restaurant or in a classroom.

“An accent is simply a way of speaking shaped by a combination of geography, social class, education, ethnicity and first language. I have one; you have one; everybody has one. There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English — or Spanish, for that matter, or any other language. To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.”

What we usually mean by “they have an accent” is that the person has either a non-native or a “nonstandard” accent. The “standard” is often a high-status accent, but it could also just be the dominant one – thought of as neutral, used in politics and the media. Like non-native accents, nonstandard native accents are frequently typecast and ridiculed as well. It’s important to keep in mind that these judgements are social, the distinctions linguistically arbitrary. In the context of learning or teaching a foreign language, the goal of understandable communication is still key, but we should lose the notion of “a single true and authentic way to speak.”

“English is a global language with many native and non-native varieties. Worldwide, non-native speakers of English outnumber natives by a ratio of three to one. Even in the United States, which has the largest population of native English speakers, there are, according to one estimate, nearly 50 million speakers of English as a second language.”

Accent itself is far from the best way to gauge a speaker’s language proficiency. A “strong” non-native accent doesn’t necessarily indicate the speaker’s vocabulary size or grasp of the grammar. Instead of focusing solely on accent, it would be better to consider a fuller account of how they communicate – do they participate comfortably in everyday interactions? Can they go into detail when telling a story? Looking at the broader communicative picture, as well as examining our own linguistic biases, will help mitigate the many negative stereotypes attributed to those with non-native accents.

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If you want to actually listen to some accent diversity, check out the speech accent archive. It contains around 2,800 recordings of native and non-native English speakers all reading the same paragraph. Also included are biographical data for each speaker, and a phonetic transcription of each recording (for linguists / anyone familiar with IPA). The number of language backgrounds represented there is impressive!

Accents and dialects (part I): Yinzers and jawn

yinzers sign

What’s the difference between an accent, a dialect, and a language? These concepts are prone to a multitude of misconceptions, often with adverse consequences for millions of people whose speech doesn’t fall within the realm of what’s considered “standard” for their particular region. In this series of posts, I summarize three articles about accents and dialects, and I hope to pique your interest such that you check out the full pieces themselves!

To answer the initial question: an accent is one’s pronunciation and prosody (intonation, tone, stress, etc.) particularized by individual, geographic, temporal, cultural, and socioeconomic factors. A dialect is an accent PLUS all the other linguistic features of a language (syntax, lexicon, idioms, slang) also influenced by those factors. A language is basically a convenient abstraction over a grouping of mutually-intelligible dialects. It helps us conceptualize things, but it’s sometimes hard to draw fool-proof, scientifically valid lines between what’s a language versus a dialect, and aspects like culture and nationality further muddle these line-drawing attempts.

Consider the following two cases, mentioned frequently in linguistic realms: Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are relatively mutually intelligible – in reality, they’re probably closer to dialects of a single Scandinavian language – but because they’re spoken in separate countries, they’re considered separate languages. The opposite situation holds for “Chinese.” There is actually no single “Chinese” language. There’s Mandarin and Cantonese, which are NOT mutually intelligible, as well as hundreds of other “dialects” across China which are also not necessarily understandable between their groups of speakers. However, because all of the speakers reside within a single nation (and share a writing system, among other things), Mandarin and Cantonese (and others) are usually considered “dialects” of a single, monolithic “Chinese” language.

To use an oft-quoted expression: “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” This conveys the idea that the distinction between a language and a dialect is arbitrary, becoming possible only through a social lens; a language almost always has more official recognition, more cultural clout, more political power, etc. than a dialect.

Okay, time for some articles. The piece linked and summarized below is an enjoyable read about Pennsylvania dialects. My Part II follow-up will discuss accents, and Part III will consider Black English (also called AAVE – African-American Vernacular English).

greetings from PA

Pennsylvania dialects

Article: “Where Yinz At” (Slate)

“Pennsylvania, in case yinz didn’t know, is a regional dialect hotbed nonpareil.”

While states have on average two to three dialects, Pennsylvania has five – the ones associated with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh being the most widely known.

“The Philadelphia dialect features a focused avoidance of the ‘th’ sound, the swallowing of the L in lots of words, and wooder instead of water, among a zillion other things. In Pittsburgh, it’s dahntahn for downtown, and words like nebby and jagoff and yinz.”

(To sample the actual dialects, watch the funny clip embedded in the article – a skit of a Philly-Pittsburgh phone conversation between two pawnbrokers.)

Geography and migration likely shaped the unique speech patterns found in the Keystone State. North of the Interstate 80 (which roughly bisects the state), ways of speaking were influenced by immigrants from southern England. Below that boundary line, people came from Northern England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Allegheny Mountains also created a barrier between Pittsburgh and other parts of the state. After a couple hundred years, Philadelphians and Pittsburghers have come to sound pretty distinct from each other.

“[…] people from Pittsburgh are talking about ‘gettin’ off the caach and gone dahntawn on the trawly to see the fahrworks for the Fourth a July hawliday n’at,’ while Philadelphia folks provide linguistic gems like the one Monahan offered up as the most Philly sentence possible: ‘Yo Antny, when you’re done your glass of wooder, wanna get a hoagie on Thirdyfish Street awn da way over to Moik’s for de Iggles game?’”

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor William Labov says the Philadelphia dialect is generally a source of pride for residents, most of whom are positive about the city. Pittsburghese is similarly well-regarded by its speakers. The unique dialect has received a good deal of attention since linguists began visiting the area in the 1930s.

However, the fact that increasing numbers of young people are going farther away for college has resulted in Philly and Pittsburgh accents and dialects being dropped (since of course college kids want to fit in and be understood). Huge surges in online/text communication do not speed that decline though (as is often thought), and in fact, additional exposure to multiple dialects means people don’t judge others’ speech as much as they used to. Both Labov and Carnegie Mellon University English/linguistics professor Barbara Johnstone rightfully point out that the Philly and Pittsburgh dialects are (like all language) constantly evolving.

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I’ll leave you with a few extra Pennsylvania dialect delights:


  • “The Enduring Mystery of ‘Jawn,’ Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun”
    • “The word ‘jawn’ is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to ‘remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.’”

Lastly and more generally, if you really want to know just how complicated the dialect situation is in North America, take a gander at this incredibly detailed map/site.


*Photo attributions: Yinzers In The Burgh Sign; Greetings from Pennsylvania; Buses speak #Pittsburghese now, too. “Need vaccinated.”

Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns.

Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.