Dialect notes for geeks

From several sources on Facebook, a pointer to a Mental Floss piece from July 29th on American dialects — by a linguist, written for a non-linguist audience. Arika Okrent talking about three phenomena in commonly disparaged dialects:

Appalachian a-prefixing; Southern American English liketa; and African-American English stressed bin

(It seems to be Mental Floss week on AZBlog: on the 28th, “Rude Britain” and “Ice cream time”.)

The Mental Floss audience is heavily geeky (people who, like me, read xkcd and Dinosaur Comics) and playful with language (puns and other word play appear on the site often), but not oriented towards linguistics. So it’s nice to see Okrent speaking to them.

From the beginning of her piece:

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

“Every dialect has a grammar” does not mean “everything is relative, and let’s throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please.” What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems.

Lots of linguists have addressed non-specialist audiences on this topic: in recent decades, Bill Labov, John McWhorter, Walt Wolfram, John Baugh, Geoff Pullum, John Rickford, and others. Okrent has a special appeal to geeks, however, via the geeky subject of conlangs (constructed languages). On Okrent, from Wikipedia:

Arika [pronounced like Erica] Okrent … is an American linguist, known particularly for her 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language, a result of her five years of research into the topic of constructed languages. She is also featured in Sam Green’s 2011 documentary The Universal Language.

Okrent was born in Chicago to parents of Polish and Transylvanian descent and was fascinated by languages since an early age, which is what made her pursue a career in linguistics. After Carleton College, she left for Hungary to teach there for a year; she earned an M.A. in Linguistics from the Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from the University of Chicago in 2004. She can communicate in English, Hungarian, American Sign Language and Klingon, and has a good passive command of Esperanto. She is the niece of writer/editor Daniel Okrent.

3 Responses to “Dialect notes for geeks”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    And her book is really excellent; good reading for linguist and non-.

  2. Amy Dahlstrom Says:

    Another of Arika’s Mental Floss pieces was picked up by the Atlantic: “Why Great Sign Language Interpreters are So Animated.” Great synopsis of ASL structure for a non-linguist audience. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/why-great-sign-language-interpreters-are-so-animated/264459/

  3. Ellen Says:

    I’m teaching a linguistics course this fall (a project I’ve been meaning to write you about!) and thinking of using several of Okrent’s articles, which I’ve found quite accessible.

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