7/17/13 - why does language change?

In today's selection -- mass communication in America was expected to result in greater similarity among regional dialects. Since Americans from across the country were watching and hearing the same newscasters, television shows and commercials, regional differences from Boston to Houston to Minneapolis were expected to become less pronounced. Therefore one of the great surprises has been that the differences in regional dialects are instead becoming more pronounced. (See 6/7/13). But that begs the question of why -- why are dialect differences becoming sharper -- in some cases among people who are in close contact with one another? And for that matter, why does language change to begin with -- why don't we still talk the way Shakespeare did -- why do young people so often speak differently than their parents? One part of the answer is this: the genesis of some speech change comes from the human need to be different -- to have a distinct identity. The two examples of this included in the selection below come from New England and the Midwest respectively. In New England, the speech characteristic examined is "centralization" -- pronouncing the vowels of words such as "right" and "out" with the mouth half-closed. In the Midwest, the speech characteristic examined is the Northern Cities Vowel Shift in which words like "bus" and "talks" are pronounced like "boss" and "tox" and help make accents from such places as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin so distinct:

"I traced the degree and frequency of 'centralization' by recording people in many parts of the island. One of the first people I talked to was Donald Poole, an eighth-generation descendant of Yankee whalers and fishermen. He was one of the key figures of the little fishing town of Menemsha; in fact, I was told that long-term summer people counted themselves as having arrived if Donald Poole said hello to them on the dock.

Poole: 'You see you people who come down here to Martha's Vineyard don't understand the background of the old families on the island. Our interests run that way, our thoughts still run that way, I'm speaking now of the descendants of the old families. Now what we're interested in, the rest of America, this part over here across the water that belongs to you and we don't have anything to do with, has forgotten all about the maritime tradition and the fact that if it hadn't been for the interest that the early settlers of this country took in the ocean, as whalemen, fisherman, and as seamen and merchant sailors, this country couldn't have existed, the Plymouth Colony would've been a failure.'

"To understand where this sound change was coming from and where it was going, I created an index of centralization based on impressionistic phonetics but confirmed by a sample of acoustic measures. ... I found a connection between the sound change and the major concerns that troubled people in everyday life. The local people were under great pressure from the wealthy summer people from the mainland, who were buying up as much of the shoreline property as they could. Some younger people left the island to earn a living on the mainland, but others stayed and resisted this outside pressure. Centralization was strongest among those who stayed. Donald Poole was archetypical for his generation. His son, Everett Poole, was even more so. He had returned from college to set up a business selling fish on the Menemsha docks, and his centralization values were the most extreme. ...

"Thus centralization emerged as a symbol of local identity, driven by an unconscious mechanism of incrementation, as the struggle to maintain local rights and privileges intensified across generations. This finding has been generally accepted, frequently cited, and taken as paradigmatic for the social motivation of sound change. Studies of other small communities under outside pressure have found a similar resurgence of linguistic markers of social identity. ...

"The Northern Cities Shift was discovered by a number of exploratory studies in the 1970s. None of them dealt with the social context that might be driving this chain shift. However, in the early 1980s Penelope Eckert carried out a long-term ethnographic study of 'Belten High School' in a Detroit suburb, focusing on the NCS as a main linguistic variable in the speech of these students. In the course of her study, Eckert discovered the latest link in the chain: the backing of lunch to sound like launch, bus to sound like boss, bunk to sound like bonk. Eckert's study showed that elements of the NCS are sensitive to the give and take of local social relations and can serve as symbols of local identity. In 1989 she published Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identities in the High School, widely used in schools of education today for its general analysis of the social structure of the high school. The book identified two polar groups of students in Belten High. Jocks seek success and social recognition by conforming to the institutional norms established by adults, in school government, varsity athletics, and performing arts. Burnouts pursue rewards and recognition in their own social networks by following the reverse pattern, escaping from and avoiding those institutional norms as far as they can. The majority of students are In-Betweens, who define themselves by the degree that they share values and behaviors with one of the two polar groups. Jocks and Burnouts show radically different patterns in regard to clothing, smoking, territories occupied, and patterns of cruising the local areas. ...

"For the most recent elements [of the change], the backing of short-e and short-u, Burnouts are well ahead of Jocks, and this proved to be significant in Eckert's analyses. But for the older, earlier elements of the sound change, the difference is a matter of gender: girls are well ahead of boys, with no significant difference between the two social classes, Jocks and Burnouts.

"These quantitative patterns are linked to observed variation in everyday behavior. Eckert shows that girls who are most extreme in their Burnout behavior--the 'Burned out Burnouts' -- are also most extreme in the backing of short-u. The concept advanced by Eckert is that the advanced forms of sound change carry social meaning, symbolic claims of the speakers' status as members, exemplary members or archetypical members of a particular group, parallel with their conformity to the group norms for clothing, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, dating and cruising. Thus the driving force behind the sound changes is seen to lie in the dynamics of local social networks. More specifically, sound changes are seen to originate specifically as features of local identification of the nonconformist group, and then spread to other portions of the social network who take the Burnouts as a reference group, particularly the In-Betweens who are least distant from the Burnouts."



William Labov


Dialect Diversity in America


University of Virginia Press


Copyright 2012 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia


101-102, 109-111
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