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7.4: Sociolinguistic correlations - Place

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    If you sit back and think about how different people speak or sign the same language in different ways, the first social distinction that comes to mind just might be region or place. As dialectologists have been aware of for a long time, people from different places tend to have different regional varieties. Egyptian Arabic and Syrian Arabic are distinct; Continental French, Quebec French and Moroccan French are distinct; Spanish in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, and in Spain are all distinct. Within one nation there are also dialect differences, Acadian French (a variety spoken in the Maritimes) differs from Laurentian French (a variety spoken in Quebec, Ontario, and Western Canada); New York City English differs from Chicago English; nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree) differs from nîhithawîwin (Woods Cree). In some cases, a particular variety has been put on a pedestal as the ‘standard’ and most prestigious representation for the language. However, the standardization of one variety over another is never about the linguistic nature of the variety and is always rooted in power structures and politics. A stereotypical feature of standard British English is the deletion of non-prevocalic r (or ‘r-dropping’) as in dark [dɑːk] and car [kɑː]. This “Queen’s English” (note the explicitness of power and politics right there!) is perceived as the standard, prestigious, and most posh way of speaking for people in, for example, Brixton and Hammersmith. However, the same phonological feature, deletion of non-prevocalic r, which is also common in New York City English, is perceived as non-standard, low-status, and lacking prestige in Williamsburg and Greenwich Village. Same linguistic process, diametrically different perceptions!

    Do you say ‘soda’ or ‘pop’? ‘Cottage’ or ‘cabin’? In 2013, the most read piece published by the New York Times was “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”, an interactive ‘dialect quiz’ that asked readers a series of questions about the lexical items they used for various concepts (e.g., ‘a large, wild cat, native to North America’, ‘a small road parallel to a highway’, ‘a small gray bug that curls up into a ball when touched’). Upon completion, readers were given a map pinpointing the quiz’s best guess at their location (within the United States) based on their responses. The piece highlighted the diversity of regional varieties of American English. Of course, regional variation exists within languages other than English too. For example, the words BIRTHDAY, STRAWBERRY, and PIZZA (among many others) have several regional variants in ASL (Lucas, Bayley, and Valli, 2003). You can see four regional variants of BIRTHDAY in this YouTube video and six regional variants of HALLOWE’EN in Figure 12.3. based on an image originally shared by the Canadian Language Museum on social media.

    Six regional ASL variants for HALLOWEEN found in Canada
    Figure 10.3. Six examples of regional variation of the HALLOWE’EN sign in ASL found across Canada

    Taking this example further, it’s safe to say that r-dropping is strongly associated with London English and New York City English (regardless of its other local associations). This association comes about through indexicality, the semiotic concept that a sign (in our case, a linguistic feature) points to (think, index finger ☞) some meaning. Language makes extensive use of indexicality as discussed in Chapter 7. For example, some words, called ‘deictics’, can only have meaning within specific context: what tomorrow refers to is going to change in 24 hours! This is referential indexicality. But language also makes use of non-referential indexicality: linguistic features can index social meanings like place! Indexicality like this arises through the process of enregisterment or the linking of a particular feature of language with some cultural expectation. For example, according to the prevalent Euro-American gender ideology, there are two genders and those two genders behave differently. The result of mapping language to this “ideological schema” (Johnstone 2009) is that some linguistic features come to be gendered (i.e., they index masculinity or femininity). For instance, among Canadian English speaking adolescents, the intensifying adverb pretty as in pretty cool tends to index masculinity, whereas the intensifying adverb so as in so cool tends to index femininity (Tagliamonte 2016: 91). The same thing happens with place. The cultural expectation is that people in different places are different, and the result of mapping language to that expectation is that some linguistic features come to have regional associations.

    Settler Colonialism and Canadian English. General Canadian English is perhaps the geographically most widespread homogeneous regional variety of any language. It is spoken by people from the Ontario-Quebec border in the east to Vancouver Island in the west (roughly 3800 kilometers!). The geographic size and shape of regional varieties depends on a wide-range of factors like physical geography, infrastructure, and political borders. In the case of Canada, we can point to historical migrations and colonialism.

    Canadian English is typically traced back to early European settlers of southern Ontario who arrived from the United States as refugees of the American Revolutionary War. Over the decades, these “Loyalists” and their descendants migrated westward and took with them the same variety of English.

    But that’s not the whole story. Typically when two languages come into contact, borrowings happen and the languages change in convergent ways. But the fact that Toronto English and Vancouver English are extremely homogeneous only came about because this contact-induced change didn’t happen despite the huge diversity of Indigenous languages spoken across this same area. For example, there’s no trace of contact with Nishnaabemwin in Toronto English and no trace of contact with hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim in Vancouver English (though a pidgin trade language called Chinook Jargon, which incorporated elements of Chinookan, Wakashan, Salishan, and, eventually, Indo-European languages, did exist on the west coast until the late 19th century).

    Why? Settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a type of colonialism. Its goal is the acquisition of land for the purpose of permanent repopulation of settlers from the parent state to the colony. In Canada (as well as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere), settler colonial expansion required not just the displacement of Indigenous peoples but also their erasure. Through physical and cultural genocide, the settler colonial state of Canada has actively worked to erase Indigeneous peoples cultures, and languages from this land. The homogeneity of Canadian English is an insidious testament to settler colonialism (see Denis and D’Arcy 2018).

    Within the Canadian context, probably the most well known enregistered feature of Canadian English is the pragmatic marker eh. Today, the Canadian indexicality of eh is ubiquitous. You can buy t-shirts, mugs, and magnets with eh on them, often accompanied with other national symbols like a red maple leaf. In fact, eh is so closely linked with Canada that when the Government of Canada created a Twitter account (@Canada), its very first tweet was “.@Canada’s now on Twitter, eh!” But just because a linguistic feature is enregistered as a feature of a regional variety, that doesn’t mean that that linguistic feature is actually used all that much! Eh has several different uses in Canadian English but in one of its most common uses, it is a variant of a linguistic variable, together with other pragmatic markers like right, you know, and you see. When analyzed through the Principle of Accountability, eh’s frequency of use is eclipsed by these other variants. That said, this varies in different regions. In an analysis of oral history recordings of Canadian English speakers born between the 1860s and 1930s in Southern Ontario and Southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Denis (2020) finds that eh represents less than one percent of tokens of this variable on Vancouver Island but 12% in Southern Ontario.

    Want to know more?

    The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles is a freely available dictionary of Canadianisms (words unique to Canadian English or used uniquely in Canadian English). You can learn more about the history of the dictionary in Stefan Dollinger’s book Creating Canadian English published by Cambridge University Press.


    Denis, D. (2020). How Canadian was eh? A baseline investigation of usage and ideology. Canadian Journal of Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique, 65(4), 583-592.

    Denis, D., & D’Arcy, A. (2018). Settler colonial Englishes are distinct from postcolonial Englishes. American Speech, 93(1), 3-31.

    Dollinger, S. (2019). Creating Canadian English: The professor, the mountaineer, and a national variety of English. Cambridge University Press.

    Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175.

    Lucas, C., Bayley, R., & Valli, C. (2003). What’s your sign for pizza?: An introduction to variation in American Sign Language. Gallaudet University Press.

    Tagliamonte, S. (2016). Teen talk: The language of adolescents. Cambridge University Press.

    Various Accents of English, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

    Adapted from

    © 2006. Indiana University and Michael Gasser.

    Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.


    Edition 3.0; 2006-12-31

    In this section, we look at various English accents and how they differ from one another. Remember that an accent is the set of pronunciation conventions of some speech community. Where we draw the boundaries between accents is pretty arbitrary; if we call General American a single accent, for example, we’ll have to deal with the range of variation that exists among speakers within that large community. And any boundaries we draw will be wrong in another sense because the group of people who have one pronunciation convention may not coincide neatly with the group of people who have the other set of conventions that belong to the accent we’re considering. For example, the group of speakers who pronounce the words pin and pen the same includes speakers of Southern US accent but also some speakers of General American, which is a very different accent from Southern US English in many other ways. The point is that conventions of pronunciation tend to cluster together; this is what allows us to talk about “accents” at all.

    Another point to keep in mind is that in most countries there is a standard, prestige accent alongside a number of accents associated with particular regions, social classes, or ethnic groups. Each of these non-standard accents can be described in its “broad” form, the form that is most different from the standard in the country where it is spoken, but what many people are speaking much of the time is something in between a particular non-standard accent and the relevant standard. In this section, we concentrate mostly on broad variants of non-standard accents because they illustrate the range of possible differences best.

    When comparing two dialects or accents, one possibility is to see one of them as deviating from the other. A biased view of non-standard dialects often starts this way: the speakers of these dialects are seen as just making mistakes with the standard when what they say is non-standard. But of course, this is not what is actually happening. Speakers of non-standard dialects learned the conventions of these dialects by hearing other speakers speak them, just as the speakers of standard dialects learned the conventions of their dialects. They are no more speaking the standard wrong than the speakers of the standard dialect are speaking their dialect wrong.

    Overview of English Accents

    Before looking at examples of differences between accents, it might help to have a sense of what the major accents are and where they’re spoken.

    The British Isles

    There is no “British” accent. England, Scotland, Ireland, and possibly Wales all have their own unofficial standard accents, and the standards of Scotland and Ireland, in particular, are as different from that of England as American accents are. The standard, or prestige, accent of England is usually referred to as Received Pronunciation (RP). This is what the royal family, all recent Prime Ministers, and most BBC announcers speak. It is probably what most Americans think of as an “English” accent, though it is spoken as a native accent by no more than about 10% of the English population. It differs most noticeably from General American in the pronunciation of a few vowels and in the way [ɹ] is treated following vowels. For example, in RP there would be no [ɹ] sounds at all in the phrase the northern fourth of the park.

    Within England, there are many identifiable regional accents, probably more than in the United States in fact. Among these, London accent (sometimes called “Cockney”) stands out because it is familiar to many Americans through film and drama characters such as Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady and because it has a number of very characteristic features. Many of the vowels in this accent differ considerably from RP and General American. Other very striking features are the loss of initial [h] (“‘e ‘as an ‘ard ‘eart” = “he has a hard heart“) and the frequent glottal stops in place of other stops in other accents (“iʔ’ll taʔe a loʔ o’ time to seʔle” = “it’ll take a lot of time to settle”). Perhaps the other major accent boundary in England separates the accents of the north from those of the south. Americans may be familiar with the English of Northern England through the speech of the Beatles or the characters in films such The Full Monty. These accents can be identified fairly easily because they make no distinction between the vowels [ʌ] and [ʊ]; both are pronounced like [ʊ], so that the words look and luck are homophones.

    Scottish and Irish English share one feature with northern England English; the tense vowels [i], [u], [e] and [o] are not pronounced as diphthongs, as they are in RP and General American. In addition, these accents are like General American, and unlike most accents of England, in how they treat [ɹ] after vowels.

    The Western Hemisphere

    The unofficial standard accent of the United States is usually called General American (GA) or Mainstream US English (MUSE). This is the accent of much of the Midwest and the West and the most frequent accent for US newscasters, though, interestingly, many of the more recent US Presidents have spoken regional varieties rather than GA. As the prestige accent, it has been encroaching on some regional accents, for example, in the northeast, but at the same time, changes within GA are creating what amount to new accents. One striking example of this is Northern Cities accent, spoken in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Rochester, and distinct from GA in the pronunciation of lax vowels. So for example, the word socks in the name of the Chicago White Sox is pronounced [saks] in the Northern Cities accent, as compared to [sɑks] in Canadian English.

    The Southern US accent is spoken by people mainly in the southeastern part of the country. Like the London accent, this accent has strikingly different vowels from other English accents. African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect associated with an ethnic group rather than a region, though of course, you don’t have to be African-American to have learned it. The accent associated with this dialect is similar in many ways to Southern US accent, while the phonology, morphology and syntax of this variety have their own characteristic properties.

    People from the northeastern US are often easy to identify by their accents; the accent of New York City stands out within this region, again mostly for its vowels. Some other US cities, especially Pittsburgh, are known for particular pronunciation conventions. In Pittsburgh, for example, [a] may be used where GA has [aʊ], so downtown may be [dantan].

    Standard Canadian English (except in the province of Newfoundland) is very similar to General American, and it doesn’t vary much from place to place. One characteristic of Canadian English is the pronunciation of [aɪ] and [aʊ] in certain contexts, which we’ll learn about in Section 4.6.

    English is the native language of much of the Caribbean, with some features common to the region and others specific to particular islands. As with other accents, there are characteristic vowels in these accents, and in addition, a tendency in the Caribbean, as there is in some US accents, to make no distinction between [t] and [θ] or between [d] and [ð]. Jamaican English in particular also has quite striking intonation patterns.

    The Southern Hemisphere

    English is the native language of most Australians and New Zealanders and a sizable minority of South Africans. While the standard English accents of these countries tend to approach RP, the broad accents of most English speakers in all three countries have tense vowels similar to those in the London accent. The lax front vowels of Australian and New Zealand English differ from those in other accents.

    Non-native accents

    English is spoken as a second language by millions of people, especially in regions that were once colonized by Britain in South Asia and Africa. In some of these regions, there are particular English pronunciation conventions that derive from the phonology of the local languages. For example, in the English of South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians), the alveolar consonants [t], [d], [n], and [l] tend to be replaced by retroflex consonants, which are common in the languages of this region. These non-native conventions are one of the ways that English is becoming even more of an international language.

    Geographic Dialects, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Catherine's explanation of a geographic dialect, I think, needs a little more fleshing out. Certainly, this is the case when we talk about English as a global language. I'm going to expand a little bit more than what she has in her section on geographic dialects, and instead focus a little bit more on our next few topics.

    When we talk about geographic dialects, we’re talking about the dialects that arise because of geographic isolation. Take a look at this map of global English.

    English Dialects.png

    Notice that you have two full continents where English was brought and dominated the entirety of the continent. When we talk about North America, and when we talk about Australia (including New Zealand), English has dominated those continents. We have to add Africa because, in certain parts, like over in eastern Africa where Kenya is, for the most part we have English is an official language. In the area around Nigeria, of course, English is an official language, and then, of course, South Africa, especially the cities on the coast, English is pretty much a mainstay.

    Those are just the colonies, to say nothing of the United Kingdom and Ireland, where, of course, we have had English for close to 2,000 years. Notice that just this one little island—and realistically, you can talk about southeast England where London is—for the most part, it is from there, and the policies that come out of that city, that you get English spreading, not just through the British Isles, but throughout the world, as part of the original British Empire.

    Now, lest you think that that is the only thing to say about that, just think about North America alone, the United States and Canada. Think about how many different dialects that we have, not to mention Mainstream American English (MAE) and Mainstream Canadian English (MCE). Just looking at that section of North America is pretty stunning. It tells us that we have a lot of different geographic dialects within North America. We're going to take a look at some of that in a little bit more detail.

    As you have no doubt guessed, this is not just an English-centric course; it's important to think about, for example, a language like Spanish, with the same kind of colonization of history. As a result of very wide spread of different geographic dialects from that one country of Spain, we can count two main areas, the provinces of Extremadura and Andalucía, as where the majority of Spaniards left to colonize the western hemisphere. Everything from Mexico down to the very tip of South America, all of these areas colonized mostly by people from the southern half and the eastern half of Spain. We have the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean as well. Notice the different dialects that we have.

    When we talk about a global language, English is not the only one to keep in mind. Spanish is definitely in there and, certainly, you can count Mandarin. It is part of that equation when you factor in the number of places throughout Asia and beyond where Mandarin is a major player linguistically. When we think about the isolation that happens as a result of colonization, frequently it's not just because you have left the homeland, the old country. Rather, it’s because you're moving to a place that may be cut off geographically or, certainly for several generations, you might be cut off from the others in the region. Eventually there's more spreading of the dialect.

    It is also important to understand that when we talk about a global language, there are still considered mainstream tendencies, and Spanish is a really good example of this.

    Spanish Dialects.jpg

    There are differences within each one of these dialects, each one of these colors that you see. Latin American Spanish has certain characteristics that Spain (Castilian) Spanish, including the Canary Islands, do not share. The reverse is true, too. We aren't just talking about different sounds; we're talking about parts of the verb conjugation, and the structuring of syllables is entirely different depending on what dialect you speak.

    One important note, if you didn't know this about the history of Spanish is that for about the last 150 years, the prestige Latin American dialect is not Mexican; it's Colombian. By Latin Americans themselves, they frequently state that Colombian Spanish—particularly up in the Andean region near Bogotá, Medellín, and that area—has the clearest Spanish that anyone has spoken. Linguistically, we don't hold that prestige; we can mark it, we can observe it, but we don't hold it. I find it interesting that even most Spanish speakers in the United States don't realize that Mexican Spanish is not carry quite the amount of prestige just certain others. However, I will say in the last 25 to 30 years it has changed, due to the power of the Mexican government and the Mexican economy, that they have held a little bit more prestige in the last 25ish years. Where we'll go, who knows.

    Let's focus on the United States because I find this to be also an interesting tale. This is a geographic map of the dialects of North American English with specific reference to the lower 48 states of the United States of America.

    American English Dialects.gif

    I phrase it that way because of a few things. If you think about Alaska, which is way well probably off screen, and if you think about Hawaii, which is way probably off screen as well, those are two very isolated places, so we don't count them when we talk about Mainstream American English. We're not usually going to count Alaskan or Hawaiian English; we're going to talk about the lower 48. If you remember your American history, and if you think about the original 13 colonies, you see that is where the most fractured area with respect to linguistic data we have. It makes some sense; the established colonies had some isolation and then, as we expanded west, we grew more general and more general.

    Appalachian English is something that we will focus on in this class to bring just some understanding of it. It is a full, completely rich and historic dialect of American English; in fact, it really connects us to our English ancestors.

    I will also tell you that here in the Bay Area, we have our own dialect. It's actually a subdialect. As somebody who's not only born and raised in San Mateo California—notice I said [sæm:ətejə]. I didn't say [sæn məteʲoʷ] I said [sæm:ətejə]. I live, not in [sæn hoʷzeʲ] I live in [sænəoʷzeʲ]. My dad, he was not born in Sacramento [sækɹəmɛntoʷ] he was born in [sækəmɛnə]. This is San Francisco Bay Area English; there's just so much that I can say about this. I'll leave it for another time; perhaps I should have said there's hella things that I can say about this dialect. It obviously has a bit of a piece of my heart. It is true that those of us were born and raised here, and especially if our parents were also born and raised here—in my case, it was my mother—we're going to have a distinct dialect of our own.

    Every place where there is some kind of isolation, there will be a dialect that springs up. Whether it stays or whether it disappears, that's always the question. For now, let's leave it at this: we're going to start looking at different dialects about what they do. We look at these dialects, but we do not pass judgment; we do not say they are inferior. In fact, they are on a level playing field; everybody deserves the same amount of respect so first up is Appalachian English.

    This page titled 7.4: Sociolinguistic correlations - Place is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.