Luke’s Languages; Part 2


2: Dialect, accent, and discrimation; or, just plain talkin’ funny

What’s a dialect? “Talking with an accent.” What’s an accent? “When people talk funny.” What’s talking funny? “When they don’t sound, you know, normal!” So what’s normal? Actually, not so easy to answer.

Until recently, one way of speaking a language was universally called “standard”. (Now this standardizing is just really common.) Whatever didn’t line up with that was called a “dialect”—or, if the differences were too big for speakers to understand each other, it was even considered a different language. For example, up to a point, a lot of Slavic (Eastern European) languages would be more properly called dialects, because they’re mutually intelligible. Same with many Indian languages… speaking of which, what are they? Well, look up Hindi and you find that what we call Hindi is actually Manak (“standard”) Hindi, a kind of Hindustani spoken by a group of people in Delhi. In other words, it’s just a dialect. It’s a variant of the broader language understood by most people in India and Pakistan. (Yep, Pakistan—because while we’re at it, Urdu is pretty much Hindi with an Arabic writing system and some Islamic terms. But we call them two different languages. Why? It’s political.)

To bring these examples back to the point, doesn’t it seem a little odd to you to single out one as standard, especially if historically its speakers are not the many but the economic and political elite? Go YouTube “prince charles interview” and watch the first video. Now imagine being told that what they’re speaking is normal and how you speak is a (deplorably widespread) bastardization. Okay, the general attitude isn’t as bad as that anymore, but there’s still a lot of unfounded pride in our own dialect, and worse, negative associations with others.

Discrimination based on your accent is a very real thing; for example, in California, lawyer John Baugh spent years collecting information on housing discrimination, phoning landlords and asking about advertised apartments, and using identical sentences but adopting African American, Hispanic, or “standard” American accents. Often, apartments were available to standard American speakers, but unavailable or more expensive to non-standard speakers. In Mississauga we may have it good, but non-standard speakers don’t have it so lucky everywhere!

While we’re on the subject of talkin’ funny, tune in next time for a fun, try-it-at-home experiment on exactly what it is that changes from one accent to another!