“You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto. Let’s cancel everything. – “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin
Many years ago, while I was in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, a recruit asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Maine, he wanted to know why I didn’t look like that.
Suppressing the urge to start my response with “ayuh”, I told him that I grew up watching the news with Walter Cronkite like the rest of the country, so why should I speak any differently?
I realize now that my spontaneous explanation of why my dialect is the way it is was a great oversimplification of the facts. I speak the way I do because that’s how we spoke at home, and it had become my “vernacular,” or the common speech of a language as you live it.
So where does the dialect fit into the overall scheme of what is considered “standard English” anyway? Well, first there is accent, which is the way people from a region pronounce words when speaking.
Accents are only part of the larger concept of dialect, which is an overall way of speaking, not just pronunciation, and can include the use of distinct vocabulary choices, grammar, and sentence structure.
Usually when we think of dialects, we think of what are called “regional dialects”, which are distinct forms of a language spoken in particular geographical areas. Dialectologists also call these dialects “topolects” or “regiolects”.
For example, in Philadelphia, a term for a man is “bul” or “boul” (even though they can’t agree on the spelling), and “youse” means “you” or “all of you.” In Mississippi, the respective terms used would probably be “bubba” and “y’all” (which a classmate once explained is “second person plural plural”.)
In addition to regional dialects, there are “social dialects”, which are spoken by a particular group based on cultural and social characteristics other than geography. Interestingly, even former President Barack Obama realized that his old social dialect stayed with him long after he achieved political success. “And there’s no question,” he said, “that when I’m with a black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect.”
President Obama’s use of a slightly different dialect is an example of what the Washington Post calls “code-switching,” or the pattern of “speaking one way to his immediate peers and another way… to a larger group. Of course, many of us, not just politicians, code-switch when we talk to the boss, big groups, and other factions that aren’t friends and of the family.
Accents and dialects are part of the English language, which is a set of dialects, whether written, spoken or expressed by gestures, which are understandable to each other. But that brings us to the next question: if they are all part of standard English, what is “standard English” anyway?
Many experts claim that what now passes for standard English is roughly what we would hear if we listened to the way Northern or Midwestern news anchors speak, which is also known as “English”. network” and is considered “dialect-free”. “On the other hand, other experts argue that standard English is also a dialect, and that it is no more “correct” than any other dialect.
So what does all this mean? Well, if you’re a writer, that means it’s best to follow the advice on dialects found in “The Elements of Style”, which warns: “Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are only a dedicated student of the language you hope to reproduce. Further on, the book advises the best dialect writers “to use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing the reader while convincing him”.
Lewiston’s Jim Witherell is a writer and lover of words whose works include ‘LL Bean: The Man and His Company’ and ‘Ed Muskie: Made in Maine’. He can be reached at [email protected]