A Reflection on Things Learned so Far

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


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So about that blog of mine

I have not even thought about blogging for quite a while now, but I’m considering starting up again once I go back to school. I don’t really want to write about my current research project, so I’ll wait for classes & classmates to inspire some different ideas in me.

Speaking of school, I don’t think I’ve formally announced on my blog: I will be attending North Carolina State University starting in August for my Master’s in Sociolinguistics! I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to work with & learn from the best for two years. I had the chance to visit last March & I know it’s going to be a great experience.

This summer I have been working with my collaborator on preparing a manuscript (two actually) for publication. If you remember the survey I posted several months ago, we’re working on getting our results out! My collaborator will be going to the Sociolinguistics Symposium in Germany at the end of August to report some of our findings. Unfortunately (not really), I’ll be starting classes, so I won’t be tagging along.

I’m also getting ahead of myself by putting together a research proposal for a potential thesis project!

Anyway, that’s all I had to say.

Megan L. Risdal

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Where do You Look for Language Change?

I sometimes think that if all English speakers were like me, this poor language would be radically changed within a few years’ time. The only person who can keep up with my whimsical neologisms & syntactic back-flips is probably my significant other. He has his favorites, I think: patlop instead of laptop, for example, though that one’s not too creative. People who staunchly insist on sticking to the rules are norlames in my vernacular where normal is lame. Everyone, of course, has these, but I cherish mine.

One of my favorite places to look for like-minded people with similarly free linguistic spirits is actually 4chan. I think I first checked out this underbelly of the Internet a few years ago & was almost immediately turned off by its raw vulgarity which I don’t find particularly funny. But over the past few months I have been coming back just to surf; it helps that I figured out which boards are relatively PG-13. And I’m now wondering why more linguists aren’t fascinated with the creative output of the Anonymous culture! It’s a factory for the stuff, no joke.

Most people probably just think of 4chan as the ultimate source of Internet memes, but really I don’t think many memes escape 4chan until they crop up on other sites like Reddit. Threads in 4chan are lost forever as they become less frequented, so they’re more like real-life conversations that aren’t normally preserved except in our memory. But I can’t believe the linguistic creativity that I see on these boards! It’s a real community (or communities) defined hugely by their quirky use of language.

One of the more interesting 4chan-isms is the non-pejorative use of fag to mean fan of something. I’m pretty sure this one has been around for ages, but it’s still not something I’ve ever heard outside of 4chan. So I would call myself a lingfag. Or a beerfag quite happily.

I just wanted to say that 4chan doesn’t have to be all that scary & is actually a great place to make observations about creative use of language. I have a few drafts of blog posts that I’ve wanted to publish, but I’ve been sort of embarrassed about visiting such a deplorable site. But, you know what? It’s a goldmine & I’m sticking with that.

To close, here’s a great picture I found on the international board on 4chan:

It’s a great example of folk linguistics in my opinion, & this map wasn’t even solicited by a sociolinguist which is even better, right?

Megan L. Risdal

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Happy Monday!

I know it’s been a stretch of time since I last posted something actually language-related, but I’m going to throw another non-linguistics mini-post your way. Sorry! But I guess I just want to say that I look forward to posting more in the following weeks. I had a six month contract working for an insurance company that ended last Friday and it’s going to be another month before they are able to hire me back for a permanent position (if all goes as planned). In the meantime I’ll be able to focus on my research project, writing, personal development, and spending quality time with my significant other and friends. So in the end, I think it’s a good thing to take a month off.

Hopefully I will also be hearing more definitive news from graduate programs I’ve applied to. Can’t wait to find out where I’ll end up and start planning my life! Once I know where I’ll be living I intend to register for a 10k. It was my goal to do one within a year of my surgery (I’m almost 9mo post-op now), but I’m too paranoid about falling to run when there’s snow and ice everywhere.

Anyway, I’ve already got some ideas for blog posts, so it shouldn’t be long before I make time to write those up. Thanks for waiting. 🙂


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Official Business: Language Attitudes Survey

Dear friends,

Thank you to those who participated in our survey! We got a great response. Thanks for everyone’s comments; I am removing them and saving them for my own records. It’s not an act of censorship — it’s simply not appropriate from a researcher’s perspective to make commentary about a survey that is still active publicly available. Please email me with any questions. Your feedback is valuable and is carefully considered.

Megan L. Risdal

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