What follows is a reflection on a class I’m taking during the first semester of my Master’s at North Carolina State University. I hope you will find it interesting!
Much of what I’ve taken away from my Variety in English class with Walt Wolfram so far relates to overcoming my biases as a researcher with interests in folk linguistics and (perceptual) dialectology. I believe that becoming more aware of different perspectives and knowledge coming from both the work of other linguists as well as “the folk” will help me to become a better researcher.
Very broadly, it has been very useful for me to learn about the details of regional and ethnic varieties of English in terms of phonological, grammatical, and lexical differences. I am more aware of morphosyntactic distinctions that characterize various varieties of English including African American, Southern, Appalachian, and Cajun Englishes. It has been useful for me to appreciate that each dialect is better described via relative frequencies of usage (e.g., “ing” fronting) rather than binary poles. Because I’m interested in stigmatized varieties of English, it is necessary for me to be able to recognize features that may be discriminatory cues for outsiders.
Related to the above points, I am especially grateful to have gained a better appreciation for the degree of regional differences in African American English across the United States. It is true that a lot of literature I have encountered treats African American English as a relatively invariable monolith. In fact, in my research I believe I have been guilty of participating in this mentality. As I continue to study stigmatized varieties of English, I plan to do a better job of recognizing this diversity that exists. For example, in my current project examining attitudes toward African American English, I will take into consideration the Southern, urban hometowns of the speakers used for the stimuli. It is ironic that sociolinguists would ignore such evident diachronic and synchronic variation within a geographically widespread ethnic variety of English considering the monolithic hypothesis appears at best implausible in retrospect.
In the same vein, this common misconception among sociolinguists points to the biases that exist even for people educated about language and linguistic diversity. Being interested in folk beliefs about language variation and change sometimes pulls my attention away from taking the time to reflect on these aspects of language myself. This idea that linguists carry their own biases and ideologies about language has made an impact on me in a way that I hope will influence my research and interactions with “the folk” in a positive way. Indeed it is almost hypocritical to study folk linguistics while holding these biases. For me the most significant obstacle to overcoming this bias is addressing the artificial or arbitrarily defined “standard variety” to which certain dialects are compared, hence the term used for them: “nonstandard.” For me, it is difficult to reconcile the reality that dialects and language labels are relative, political, and motivated by convenience with the fact that many of the folk do indeed think in terms of “standard American” and “nonstandard.” This is something I will continue to ponder as I develop as a researcher concerned with stigmatized varieties.
Finally, volunteering for two shifts at the North Carolina Language and Life Project state fair booth reminded me that it is important as an academic to regularly engage the public in discussion about language. I will not survive as a researcher of language attitudes, folk beliefs about language, or perceptual dialectology if I remain cloistered in academia. It is essential that I expose myself to ideas about language that exist for non-linguists, whether positive or negative. Talking with people at the booth made me realize the stories and life histories that are behind attitudes toward language varieties which I had not until now appreciated.
I can now better consider how to take these issues into account when tackling questions and research regarding stigmatized varieties of English, folk perspectives, and language attitudes.
Megan L. Risdal