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Language in the USA
Cambridge University Press
0521771757 - Language in the USA - Themes for the Twenty-first Century - by Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford

Language in the USA

This textbook provides a comprehensive survey of current language issues in the USA. Through a series of specially commissioned chapters by leading scholars, it explores the nature of language variation in the United States and its social, historical, and political significance.

   Part 1, “American English,” explores the history and distinctiveness of American English, as well as looking at regional and social varieties, African American Vernacular English, and the Dictionary of American Regional English. Part 2, “Other language varieties,” looks at Creole and Native American languages, Spanish, American Sign Language, Asian American varieties, multilingualism, linguistic diversity, and English acquisition. Part 3, “The sociolinguistic situation,” includes chapters on attitudes to language, ideology and prejudice, language and education, adolescent language, slang, Hip Hop Nation Language, the language of cyberspace, doctor–patient communication, language and identity in literature, and how language relates to gender and sexuality. It also explores recent issues such as the Ebonics controversy, the Bilingual Education debate, and the English-Only movement.

   Clear, accessible, and broad in its coverage, Language in the USA will be welcomed by students across the disciplines of English, Linguistics, Communication Studies, American Studies and Popular Culture, as well as anyone interested more generally in language and related issues.

EDWARD FINEGAN is Professor of Linguistics and Law at the University of Southern California. He has published articles in a variety of journals, and his previous books include Attitudes toward English Usage (1980), Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register (co-edited with Douglas Biber, 1994), and Language: Its Structure and Use, 4th edn. (2004). He has contributed two chapters on English grammar and usage to the recently completed Cambridge History of the English Language.

JOHN R. RICKFORD is Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University, and Director of Stanford University’s program in African and Afro-American Studies. He has published articles in a variety of journals, and his previous books include Dimensions of a Creole Continuum (1987), African American Vernacular English (1999), and Spoken Soul: the Story of Black English (co-authored with his son Russell Rickford, 2000). Most recently, he has co-edited with Penelope Eckert Style and Sociolinguistic Variation (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Language in the USA

Themes for the Twenty-first Century

University of Southern California

Stanford University

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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© Cambridge University Press, 2004

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2004

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typefaces Times 10.5/13 pt. and Formata   System LATEX 2e   [TB]

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data
Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century / [edited by] Edward Finegan, John R. Rickford.
   p.   cm.
ISBN 0 521 77175 7   ISBN 0 521 77747 X (pbk.)
1. United States–Languages.   I. Title: Language in the USA:   II. Title: Language in the United States of America.   III. Finegan, Edward   IV. Rickford, John R.
P377.L33   2004
409′.73 – dc22   2003055819

ISBN 0 521 77175 7 hardback
ISBN 0 521 77747 X paperback

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.


List of figures      vii
List of tables      ix
List of contributors      xi
Acknowledgments      xii
Foreword      xiii
Editors’ preface      xvii
Part 1   American English
1 American English: its origins and history      RICHARD W. BAILEY 3
2 American English and its distinctiveness      EDWARD FINEGAN 18
3 Regional dialects      WILLIAM A. KRETZSCHMAR, JR. 39
4 Social varieties of American English      WALT WOLFRAM 58
5 African American English      LISA GREEN 76
6 The Dictionary of American Regional English      JOAN HOUSTON HALL 92
Part 2   Other language varieties
7 Multilingualism and non-English mother tongues      JOSHUA A. FISHMAN 115
8 Creole languages: forging new identities      PATRICIA NICHOLS 133
9 Native American languages      AKIRA Y. YAMAMOTO AND OFELIA ZEPEDA 153
10 Spanish in the Northeast      ANA CELIA ZENTELLA 182
11 Spanish in the Southwest      CARMEN SILVA-CORVALÁN 205
12 American Sign Language      CEIL LUCAS AND CLAYTON VALLI 230
13 Asian American voices: language in the Asian American community      THOM HUEBNER AND LINDA UYECHI 245
14 Linguistic diversity and English language acquisition      ROBERT BAYLEY 268
Part 3   The sociolinguistic situation
15 Language ideology and language prejudice      ROSINA LIPPI-GREEN 289
16 Ebonics and its controversy      JOHN BAUGH 305
17 Language planning, language policy, and the English-Only Movement      TERRENCE G. WILEY 319
18 Language in education      LILY WONG FILLMORE 339
19 Adolescent language      PENELOPE ECKERT 361
20 Slang      CONNIE EBLE 375
21 Hip Hop Nation Language      H. SAMY ALIM 387
22 Language, gender, and sexuality      MARY BUCHOLTZ 410
23 Linguistic identity and community in American literature      JAMES PETERSON 430
24 The language of doctors and patients      CYNTHIA HAGSTROM 445
25 The language of cyberspace      DENISE E. MURRAY 463
26 Language attitudes to speech      DENNIS R. PRESTON 480
Index      493


1-1 An Old Curiosity Shop page 14
3-1 The Speech Areas of the Eastern States 43
3-2 Dragon fly 45
3-3 The North Ⅰ 47
3-4 The Northern Area 48
3-5 The Midland and the South 49
3-6 The North and the South 49
3-7 The Southern Area 50
3-8 Vowel systems in the Eastern USA 51
3-9 Urban dialect areas based on the acoustic analysis of the vowel systems of 240 Telsur informants 54
4-1 Example of sharp stratification 67
4-2 Example of gradient stratification 68
6-1 The DARE map of the United States with a conventional map for comparison 97
6-2 Darning needle, mosquito hawk, snake doctor, snake feeder (4 maps) 99
6-3 Blue norther, gum band, jam cake, lawyer, leader, money cat (6 maps) 100
6-4 Indian pudding, bank, draw, kaput (4 maps) 103
8-1 Estimated population by race in South Carolina (east of the mountains) 137
8-2 Coastal South Carolina and Georgia 138
8-3 Hawaiian Islands 146
8-4 Southern Louisiana 147
12-1 SUMMER, UGLY, DRY 232
12-2 DEAF in the Hold–Movement–Hold model 232
12-3a The ASL signs TREE and CAT 233
12-3b The ASL signs WRONG and LOUSY 233
12-4a The ASL sign MICROWAVE 234
12-4b Full fingerspelling J-A-N-E 234
12-4c Reduced fingerspelling #FAX 235
12-4d The ASL sign ITALY and the LIS sign ITALY 235
12-5 The ASL sign 9 MONTHS 236
26-1 A Michigan hand-drawn map 481
26-2 Computer-assisted generalizations of hand-drawn maps showing where southeastern Michigan respondents believe speech regions exist in the USA 481
26-3 Means of ratings for language “correctness” by Michigan respondents for US English 484
26-4 Means of ratings for language “pleasantness” by AL respondents for US English 487
26-5 Three social status group judgments of lower “occupational suitability” of “inconsistent r” production 489


4-1 Relative frequency of variable phonological and grammatical structures in four social groups in Detroit, Michigan page 66
5-1 Examples of AAE lingustic patterns 89
7-1 Mother tongue of the native-of-native parentage of twenty languages (1940–70), with percent increase 1940–70 and 1960–70 120
10-1 Hispanics in the six northeast states 185
11-1 For the USA and Southwest states: total population; number and percentage of Hispanic population; number of persons five years of age and older who claim Spanish at home 206
11-2 Hispanic population in California by place of origin 209
11-3 Percentage increase of the Hispanic population and of the Spanish speaking claimants five years of age and older in the Southwest, 1980 to 1990 211
11-4 Los Angeles County, ability to speak English by those who report speaking Spanish at home 213
11-5 Southwest states, ability to speak English by those who are five years of age or older who report speaking Spanish at home 214
13-1 Immigrants by country, 1965 and 1970 252
13-2 Demographic data on Asian Americans, 1990 253
14-1 Most commonly spoken languages other than English, 1990 and 2000 270
14-2 Population who speak languages other than English at home 271
14-3 Generation, nativity, and language use among selected ethnic groups, 1976 274
14-4 Spanish home language claimants as a percentage of the Hispanic population 275
14-5 Percentage and number of the populations of interest for ESL classes, by participation status and adult characteristics: 1994–95 278
14-6 Characteristics of adults who reported a main barrier to attending ESL classes: 1994–95 280
17-1 Historical highlights regarding the status of English and of efforts to restrict other languages 328
18-1 US and California immigrant and student population, 1997 351
18-2 A decade of anti-immigrant, anti-diversity voter initiatives in California 354
19-1 Percentage use of negative concord by jock and burnout girls and boys 371
19-2 Percentage use of innovative vowel variants by jock and burnout girls and boys 372
26-1 The two factor groups from the ratings of all areas 483
26-2 Mean scores of individual factors for North and South 486


H. Samy Alim,   Duke University

Richard W. Bailey,   University of Michigan

John Baugh,   Stanford University

Robert Bayley,   University of Texas at San Antonio

Mary Bucholtz,   University of California, Santa Barbara

Connie Eble,   University of North Carolina

Penelope Eckert,   Stanford University

Lily Wong Fillmore,   University of California, Berkeley

Edward Finegan,   University of Southern California

Joshua A. Fishman,   Yeshiva University (emeritus)

Lisa Green,   University of Texas at Austin

Cynthia Hagstrom,   California State University, Northridge

Joan Houston Hall,   University of Wisconsin, Madison

Thom Huebner,   San José State University

William A. Kretzschmar, Jr.   University of Georgia

Rosina Lippi-Green,   independent scholar and novelist

Ceil Lucas,   Gallaudet University

Denise E. Murray,   Macquarie University

Patricia Nichols,   San José State University (emeritus)

Geoffrey Nunberg,   Stanford University

James Peterson,   University of Pennsylvania

Dennis R. Preston,   Michigan State University

Carmen Silva-Corvalán,   University of Southern California

Linda Uyechi,   Stanford University

Clayton Valli,   Deceased (formerly Georgetown University)

Terrence G. Wiley,   Arizona State University

Walt Wolfram,   North Carolina State University

Akira Y. Yamamoto,   University of Kansas

Ana Celia Zentella,   University of California, San Diego

Ofelia Zepeda,   University of Arizona


With tremendous gratitude, we acknowledge our indebtedness to the many individuals who contributed to this volume: to Kate Brett of Cambridge University Press, who invited us to undertake the work and solicited and interpreted reviews of the prospectus that helped shape the current contents, and who offered all manner of support, including invigorating hikes through the California mountain ranges, and to Andrew Winnard, Lucille Murby, and Helen Barton who guided the volume through its final production stages. Julie Sweetland at Stanford University helped immeasurably with our final proof reading. We extend our appreciation to Geoffrey Nunberg for his foreword to the volume. Above all, we are grateful to the contributing authors, whose expertise and passion for their subjects are evident in every chapter, and we are thankful to those authors who stepped in to write chapters when ill health or other significant setbacks prevented almost half a dozen initial contributors from completing chapters. We especially express our appreciation for the patience authors showed as the book faced delays of various sorts. On a personal note, we are grateful to Angela Rickford and Julian Smalley for support and encouragement throughout the project.

   Finally, we wish to dedicate this book to Charles A. Ferguson, a founding father of modern sociolinguistics, who died in 1998, and to his spouse Shirley Brice Heath, who has made and continues to make significant contributions to sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication.


The French are funny about their language, as everyone knows. But then, so are the Germans, the Italians, the Belgians, the Canadians, the Turks, the Slovakians, the Russians, and the Sri Lankans. And so are we in the United States, for that matter, although we tend to make only an intermittent public fuss about it. In many other nations, “the language question” is a persistent topic for newspaper editorials, television talk shows, and parliamentary debates, and occasionally the source of major political crises. In the USA, discussions of language tend to rumble along in Sunday-supplement features and the usage screeds arrayed in the language shelves at the back of the bookstore.

   Every so often, though, controversies over the language erupt into a wider national discussion in America. That has happened perhaps half-a-dozen times in the last half century. In the early 1960s, there was a furor over the publication of the Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which took what critics regarded as an excessively permissive attitude toward usage – it refused to condemn the use of ain’t for “am not,” and it included the “incorrect” use of like as a conjunction, as in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” The dictionary’s derelictions were front-page news for months – The New York Times condemned it as a “bolshevik” document, and the Chicago Daily News took it as the symptom of “a general decay in values.”

   Other recent American language controversies have followed more or less the same pattern – they flare into wide discussion for a relatively brief period, and then, when the point is made, they subside again into the back pages of the national consciousness. From the 1960s onward, for example, there has been a series of debates sparked by efforts to reform the English vocabulary in the interest of social justice, some of them involving the feminist program of eliminating sexist usage, and some involving the introduction of new terms to describe groups defined by race, ethnicity, physical condition, sexual orientation, and the like.

   Then there was the English-Only movement, which received a huge amount of national attention from the mid-1980s onward, as several groups tried to have English declared the official language of the country and eliminate bilingual programs and services. The campaign resulted in the adoption of English-Only measures by a number of states, and continues today in the form of state initiatives aimed at ending bilingual education.

   In December of 1996, the great “Ebonics” controversy was set off when a local school board in Oakland, California announced it would be adopting a new approach to helping inner-city African American students to master standard English. The program was widely but inaccurately reported as recognizing African American English – or “Ebonics,” the term used by the school board – as a legitimate language of instruction, and as rejecting the need for students to master the standard language. The resulting controversy raged for months, as virtually every major newspaper editorialized against the Oakland program, and cartoonists and Internet wags had a field day with Ebonics jokes.

   Those affairs remind us that while we Americans like to think of ourselves as easy-going about language, our feelings about it actually run very deep, and it can take only the slightest pretext to arouse our national passions – the appearance of a new dictionary, the adoption of a speech code at a university, or the action of a local school board. In fact, a certain forgetfulness about the importance of language is one of the abiding characteristics of American language attitudes – every language controversy seems unprecedented.

   There are historical reasons for this. The United States hasn’t had a continuously tumultuous linguistic history in the way many other nations have. We have always had a single dominant language – and a relatively homogeneous one, without the major divisions of dialects that most European nations have had to deal with in the course of their nation-building. American English may have notable regional and class differences, but they are nowhere near as broad as the differences that have separated the regional varieties of nations like France, Germany, or Italy. And while there are some varieties that depart substantially from the standard English pattern, they have been spoken by marginal or disempowered groups, so haven’t been deemed worthy of serious consideration by the mainstream media until recently.

   True, America has never been without large communities of speakers of languages other than English – indigenous peoples, the language groups absorbed in the course of colonial expansion, like the French-speakers of Louisiana and the Hispanics of the Southwest, and the great flows of immigrants in the period between 1880 and 1920 and over the past thirty years or so. And from the eighteenth century onward there have been energetic efforts to discourage or suppress the use of other languages. But these episodes have generally been local or regional rather than national affairs, and interest in them has generally waned as language minorities became anglicized or as waves of immigration decreased.

   It isn’t surprising, then, that assimilated English-speaking Americans are apt to take the dominance of standard English for granted – and, often, to become irritated when linguistic diversity obtrudes itself. “This is America – speak English,” people complain, with the implication that the identification of English with American national identity was always unproblematic and natural before recent times, and that earlier generations of immigrants eagerly abandoned their native languages for English in the interest of becoming “true Americans.” That has become a central element of American linguistic mythology, and it helps to explain why English-speaking Americans tend to think of the mastery of a foreign language not just as a difficult accomplishment, but as a suspicious one. Teaching students a foreign language, the Nebraska Supreme Court opined eighty years ago, must “naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of their country.” While few people today would put that point so baldly, a great many people still have the sense that a loyal American can’t serve two linguistic masters.

   That attitude contributes to many Americans’ readiness to support English-only measures and to believe claims that America is faced with a “dangerous drift toward bilingualism.” By the same token, Americans become indignant when they believe that a school board is maintaining that a nonstandard variety is “just as good” as the standard language, when everyone has been taught since the seventh grade that features like the “double negative” are illogical forms of speech.

   In fact these are just two signs of a chronic American blindness to the complexities of our sociolinguistic history and of the contemporary linguistic situation. As the anthropological linguist Dell Hymes observed more than twenty years ago in his foreword to the 1981 Language in the USA, “The United States is a country rich in many things, but poor in knowledge of itself with regard to language.”

   Since then, to be sure, there has been an enormous amount of scholarship and research that has illumined the variety and richness of the American linguistic scene, much of which is summarized and explained in the chapters of this book. These questions aren’t restricted to the role of languages other than English and the status of the minority language varieties like African American English or the ongoing efforts to preserve Native American languages. They also extend to the particular problems faced by the users of American Sign Language, to the efforts of groups to forge linguistic identities for themselves, and to the challenges faced by anyone who speaks English with an accent that happens to be stigmatized.

   These questions have become far more urgent over the past twenty years. Courts, legislatures, government agencies, corporations, public officials, college administrators – there’s scarcely a sector of American life that hasn’t found itself having to make complex decisions about language policies and programs, as the United States tries to come to terms with the challenges of diversity. Too often, people respond to these issues by appealing to “common sense” ideas about language, which usually amount to no more than myths and folklore. Indeed, to linguists who have studied these questions, most of these “everyday common sense” ideas about language sound very much the way an appeal to “everyday common sense” ideas about inflation would sound to an economist – they’re hardly the grounds that you would want to rely on for making policy.

   But an understanding of language diversity is important for other reasons, as well. As the chapters in this Language in the USA make clear, there is virtually no important social issue or cultural development in American life that isn’t somehow signaled in language. The changing consciousness of gender roles, the emergence of hip hop culture, the development of new communications media like the Internet, the sociology of adolescence – all of these phenomena have a linguistic side that isn’t significant just for its own sake, but sheds a particular light on the social phenomenon it’s connected to.

   In the end, that’s the greatest cost of the conventional ideas and attitudes that people tend to bring to language. If you come to language with the ready-made categories that society prepares for you – “good” and “bad,” “correct” and “incorrect,” and the like – you will almost certainly be deaf to its complexities and subtleties.

   Take the various uses of the word like that have become popular among adolescents and, increasingly, among other speakers as well: “I was like standing there and she like came up to me,” or “So I was like, Hello?” To listen to a lot of columnists and critics, like is no more than a meaningless noise or the sign of an alarming decline in communication skills among adolescents. But charges like that are always self-deceptive – do those critics really mean to claim that they spoke in polished, slang-free sentences when they were teenagers? Worse still, they miss the point. As shown in a chapter of this book, like is actually doing a subtle kind of conversational work in adolescents’ speech, one you can attend to only if you are willing to set your linguistic preconceptions aside.

   Language in the USA will unquestionably be an important resource for policymakers and decision-makers, and it should make us all better citizens, attuned to the sociolinguistic complexities of the contemporary American scene. But perhaps my greatest hope for the book is that it will help to make us all better listeners, as well – both to the diverse voices around us and to our own.

Geoffrey Nunberg


It is almost a quarter of a century since Cambridge University Press published Language in the USA, edited by Charles A. Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath. In his foreword to the 1981 volume, Dell Hymes noted that it was “the first book to address the situation of language in the United States as something to be known comprehensively and constantly to be better known.” Since then, Language in the USA has come to be widely used and appreciated as a resource for students of language, for teachers, and for a general public seeking a comprehensive, accessible introduction to the linguistic richness and variability of the United States.

   While deeply inspired and influenced by Language in the USA, the present volume is not intended as a revised edition of the original, and even less as a replacement for it. Several chapters in the original have become classics in their own right. Others are timeless. Even those that seem less relevant now are of historical interest. We plan to draw on both volumes in our classes, and we believe other readers will also want to retain the resources of both. Only four of the original Language in the USA authors (Fishman, Nichols, Wolfram, and Zentella) recur in this book, and in each case they do so with new chapters.

   The purpose of this new volume is to take a similarly comprehensive, but necessarily selective, look at language in the USA, but through the lenses of today’s issues and contemporary developments – ones that characterize the beginning of the twenty-first century. Since 1981, there have been significant changes in the sociolinguistic and political situation in the USA, and we have gained greater understanding about language and language variation in American society. We are certainly more conscious today of multilingualism and dialect variation and their educational and sociopolitical implications, as witnessed by recent public controversies, political campaigns, and state ballot initiatives centered on these issues. And while our nation is an older nation now, it is infused with extraordinary linguistic vitality from the everyday talk of adolescents and the words and music of hip hop artists.

   Some of our chapter titles are brand new simply because their subject matter was completely or virtually non-existent a quarter of a century ago, as with the chapters treating the language of cyberspace, rap and hip hop, the Oakland Ebonics controversy, the English-Only movement, and the Dictionary of American Regional English. Other phenomena discussed in the present volume but not the 1981 volume did exist earlier (as with American Sign Language, Asian American voices, adolescent language, and the relationships among language and gender and sexuality), but they were not then as salient, not then as well studied, and not then recognized as of such theoretical or social significance as they are today. Still others (such as issues having to do with language and education, especially bilingual education) are discussed in both volumes, but dramatic new developments like the passage of Proposition 227 in California (in 1998) and Proposition 203 in Arizona (in 2000) have become focal points for significant educational, political, and legal debate and warrant the additional focus on them here.

   Other changes include the fact that we now treat Spanish in two chapters (instead of one) and that Spanish is highlighted in other chapters, in recognition of its increased prominence throughout the United States. Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century also has three general chapters on English dialects instead of one, with separate chapters on regional and social variation, and a chapter dealing exclusively with the Dictionary of American Regional English. Contrary to the possible perceptions or hopes of some, dialect variation is not disappearing in the USA.

   The chapters in this book are grouped into three broad sections: Part 1, dealing with varieties of American English; Part 2, exploring other language varieties in the USA (including creole and Native American varieties, and Spanish on the East Coast and the West); and Part 3, focusing on the sociolinguistic situation (including language ideology, language attitudes, slang, the language of doctors and patients, the representation of ethnic identity in literature). Our introductions appear at the head of each chapter, and it is our hope that this placement will invite more student readers than might be drawn to introductions grouped together at the beginning of the volume or preceding each section.

   Language in USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century is a shorter book than the 1981 volume, despite its having a few more chapters. The marketing constraint on its length meant omitting certain topics we would otherwise have included. Inevitably, some readers will miss topics that were treated in the earlier volume but not here. We hope that all readers will find favorite chapters in the current volume and that its perspectives will launch inquiries into topics of interest among student readers, policy makers, and the educated public. In his foreword, Dell Hymes described the 1981 volume as “a resource to citizens, a spur to scholars, a challenge to those who shape policy and public life.” We believe that description has turned out to be accurate, and we believe the content of the current volume is much enriched by the spur the original volume provided.

John R. Rickford Edward Finegan

© Cambridge University Press
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