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Study Guide
By Walt Wolfram, University of North Carolina At Raleigh


Little introduction is needed in presenting the video. For the most part, it is self-explanatory. Viewers should also be told that dialects are an important part of all of American society, and that the film reflects how dialects function throughout the country. Audiences can be asked to observe how English varies, the kinds of attitudes Americans have about dialects, and the controversies that surround their use. If the video is shown in the context of a particular subject area (e.g., English studies, history, sociology, linguistics, psychology, etc.), viewers might be alerted to observe some of the particular emphases of the discipline, but no elaborate pre-viewing explanation is called for.

The terms accent and dialect are used interchangeably in the video to refer to language variation associated with regional and social differences among speakers of a language. These differences can occur not only in pronunciation, but also in grammar, vocabulary, and conversational style.

Post-Viewing Discussion

There are three major areas in the presentation that are ideal for discussion: 1) the nature of dialect differences, 2)basic attitudes about dialects in American society, and 3)the uses of standard and vernacular dialects. There is ample illustration of each of these issues to serve as the basis for a detailed and lively post-viewing discussion.

The discussion questions in this booklet refer to sequences in the 56-minute Standard Version of "American Tongues." If the 40-minute High School Version is being shown, certain questions will not be relevant. These questions are marked with a dagger (ƒ) and can be omitted in discussion.

I. The Nature of Dialect Differences

Dialects are a natural, inevitable part of cultural and regional differences in American society. Furthermore, all communities have dialect differences of one type or another. Viewers should reinforce these facts by citing different scenarios from the video and by citing dialect differences around them.


What kinds of dialect differences do you notice in this area?

When you travel someplace outside of the region is there anything in particular people notice about your speech?

A man from Ohio says that in his area they speak "just plain American, no dialect, no accent...straight out of the dictionary." Does this man speak a dialect? Do you speak a dialect?

B. Reasons for Dialect Differences

Dialect differences come from a number of different sources, including historical settlement patterns, migratory routes, contact with other language groups, and physical and social separation.

[1] Settlement Patterns

(ƒ) One of the Boston men discussing the relative literary merits of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen says that "we came over here with the first load of bricks," and that "I have been here for 350 years." This refers to the historical affinity that New England has with early groups of settlers in America. In a similar way, the Tangier Island speech can be traced back to its settlement hundreds of years ago, demonstrating the influence of settlement patterns in the development of a dialect.


(ƒ) What does the Boston Brahmin gentleman mean when he says "I've been here 350 years...We came over with the first load of bricks"? How might this be reflected in the language of some parts of New England?

Do you know where the original settlers from your area came from? Are there any features of the local dialects you think can be traced to these early settlers?

[2] Migration

The map of the United States shows how the English-speaking population migrated westward from its original settlement areas along the East Coast. Notice how dialect patterns tend to follow broadly-based migratory routes.


As the United States was settled, what were some of the major trends in the movement of people? Do you see a relation between the major routes of movement and some of the dialects of English?

What major routes of migration affected this area? Can you see these major routes in the local dialect?

[3] Contact with Other Languages

Notice how word like pau hana ('work is finished') from Hawaiian), snickelfritz ('rowdy child' from German), and jambalaya ('spicy rice dish' from French) are used in areas where there is fairly close contact with other languages.


Can you think of other words from other languages that are used in certain regions? Why are certain foreign words used in some regions and not in others?

[4] Physical and Social Isolation

Islands and mountains are natural environments for the development and perpetuation of dialect differences. In a similar way, ethnic and class separation may lead to the development and maintenance of dialect differences. (ƒ)At one extreme, the speech of the fishermen of Tangier Island (off the coast of Virginia) is so distinct as to be almost unintelligible to some speakers from other parts of the country.


What physical conditions about Appalachia or (ƒ) Tangier Island might cause these dialects to become quite distinct? What social conditions might have gone along with the physical separation?

How might you account for the differences in a dialect like Black English?

II. Attitudes About Dialects

There are a variety of attitudes toward dialects that are illustrated in "American Tongues". Many of the participants reveal traditional mainstream attitudes which view the local dialect negatively. However, there are also some attitudes about vernacular dialects that are positive, and reinforce the local usage. In certain contexts, and for particular social values, these attitudes about the community dialect may be surprisingly positive.

(ƒ) Prestigious speakers are illustrated by the two Boston men discussing Charles Dickens and Jane Austen using the "Brahmin" dialect. Stigmatized dialects are represented by some of the working-class Blacks, the Boston North End teenager, the two New Orleans women discussing how people think they are beautiful until they open their mouths, and so forth.

B. Dialect Prejudice

(ƒ) There are certain stereotypes about dialects that have been perpetuated in the media, including TV and the movies. To a large extent, dialect also contributes to the establishment of a caricature. The Southern journalist comments on the portrayal of Southern characters in early movies, for instance, saying that the character with the Southern accent usually appeared to be less intelligent and was the butt of others' jokes.


(ƒ) How have dialects been used to create stereotypes in the movies and the media?

Dialect prejudice can be very strong. In the video, two young office workers think that a receptionist with a "yat" accent is not an appropriate representative of their company.


What are some other scenes in "American Tongues" that show prejudice against the speech of a particular region, class, or social group?
How do people feel about themselves when they are constantly told that their dialect is inferior?

C. Dialect Identity

Not all attitudes about local dialects are negative. In fact, these dialects may serve some very important positive functions within a community. Their use can promote a feeling of group solidarity, trustworthiness, and friendliness, all positive attributes.


What are some of the positive reasons for using a local dialect?

How do the two Black girls who tease their friend for being a "school girl" and a "mama's girl" feel about their own language? Are there other cases where people express a love for their community dialect?


Speaking a standard dialect certainly has advantages in certain settings, but it can also present a dilemma for a person in terms of local community norms. Not everyone needs to speak a standard dialect for all social occasions. Furthermore, there are consequences that go along with the use of both a standard and local dialect.


What are some advantages to speaking a standard dialect?
Learning a standard dialect can often cause a dilemma for a person because of a conflict between the "outside" world and the local community. Are there any disadvantages to speaking standard English in certain contexts?

Most people adjust their language based on the situation, including their familiarity with people they're talking to and the formality of the situation, as the young woman with the New Orleans "yat" accent demonstrates.


What advantages may come from being able to shift dialects?

Do you shift dialects depending on where you are and the people you're talking to? What are some settings where you might shift your dialect?

There are both negative and positive consequences associated with the use of any dialect, whether it is "standard" English or a local non-standard English variety. Each person must weigh the consequences of different dialects and make choices about appropriate dialect usage on that basis. Dialects are an important aspect of the American heritage representing its different regional, social, and ethnic groups; they also present a dilemma for speakers because of the different values associated with their usage.


There are many printed works on dialects that might be consulted for the viewer interested in further reading; however, many of these are fairly technical reading for the non-specialist. The series of booklets entitled Dialects and Educational Equity, published by the Center for Applied Linguistics and distributed by Prentice-Hall Inc., provides a basic introduction to the issues of dialects in a readable question-answer format. Specific booklets in the series are Dialogue on Dialects, Exploring Dialects, Dialects and Reading, Dialects and Language Arts, and Dialects and Speech Pathology.