Resources: Reconstructing American Tongues

In 1988, the Center for New Media produced American Tongues.  Since then, this Peabody-Award-winning documentary, which highlights the range of language variation in the United States, has been a staple in American linguistic classes.  Even now, when the average 18 year old has only seen the 1980s shoulder pads in thrift stores, the film does a remarkably good job of showing both the variation and our reactions to it.

Fair warning to those who have never seen the film: the people interviewed in this documentary express very frank opinions about language, including some which are racists, classist, and otherwise shocking.  Some use profanity when doing so.  If you’re planning to show any of these in your classroom, you should probably view them first so that you’re appropriately prepared for academic discussions of these topics.  And, if you’re using this film with younger students, you’ll want to remind them that their judgments of social class may be a little off if they’re using clothing and hair styles as their primary markers.

Although the film is no longer available in its entirety, snippets of it are available on YouTube, including the following, which (we hope) are labeled in ways which will make them easy to locate for specific class discussions:

1. The “I was engaged to a Yaley” woman; Southerners are the worst cause they talk like [the n-word]; Ohio journalist reports on NY vs. OH language discrimination; Southern ladies complain about grating Northern dialects and local “blacks” and “white trash” while another Southern lady talks about the importance of using terms of endearment; /ay/ monopthongization in “ice chest” causes confusion; Molly Ivans; vignettes of media portrayals of regional accents 

2.  Molly Ivans and movie clips on portrayal of regional variation; followed by  discussion of negative stereotypes (By Walt Wolfram and Dennis Becker) and people trying to learn more standard pronunciations; intro to Boston segments

3.  Tangier Island; Roger Shuy; Cratis Williams and Appalachian English; Mike Harden and Ohio English; A. C. Green and Texas English

4.  I let them guess my dialect like they did my weight; Mary-had-a-little-lamb readings from different parts of the country; Texas cowboys; and other vignettes from the intro credits

5. Lexical Variation in the Pastrami King (Southern foods vs. New York Deli foods), Cabinet in Rhode Island; Gumband in Pittsburgh; Pau Hana in HI; Jambalaya in Lousianna; Antigogglin in South and West; Snicklefritz in PA; Schlep in NY (but not in TX).  Follow up with children playing and vintage interview with Dr. Walt Wolfram.

6.  Major dialect regions (voice over of United States map)

7.  Two Boston Brahmins discuss sex, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and their heritage.  (“My family came over with the first load of bricks.”)

8.  Comedian Robert Klein imitates the intonation patterns of Southern dialects (“Charge?”)

9.  Boston’s North End Dialect–variation within one family

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About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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