Bonnets, lice, and dialect differentiation

You’ll often hear people bemoan the loss of dialects due to television. No worries: it’s not happening. Also, a cute kid and some off-color language.

Just in case you’re worried that television is taking away all of the dialects: every study I’ve ever heard of concludes the opposite.  What’s different today from 100 years ago is that geographic proximity has become somewhat less important in dialect differentiation relative to other social factors.  For example, all of the action in American dialects at the moment is in increasing differentiation between urban and rural speech.  All other things being equal, the dialects spoken within an American city are more likely to change to become more like dialects in other cities than they are like the dialects in the immediately surrounding rural areas.  That’s not to say that they’re all becoming the same, either!  But, what drives dialect differentiation in early-21st-century America is increasingly about the urban/rural split.  (Note that I’m not claiming that urban/rural distinctions in America or anywhere else are new–this is about a shift in degrees of relative importance, not a wholesale appearance of a new phenomenon.)

In fact, regional dialects of English can still be sufficiently distinct that native speakers of one regional dialect of English can’t necessarily understand native speakers of other regional dialects of American English.  Hilarious stories of the ensuing misunderstandings abound, but few of them (or few of my stories of the ensuing misunderstandings, at any rate) are as adorable as this video of a little Scottish girl speaking with her (much bigger) Scottish father.  Take a look/listen–if you can’t follow it, there’s a version with subtitles floating around out there somewhere.  Scroll past the video for linguistic details (and considerably less cute examples of the local dialect), if you’re interested.

Linguistics trivia, for those who are geeky enough to care

It’s actually difficult to find evidence for television playing a role in language acquisition–that is, learning by children of their native language(s).  However, here’s a nice paper by Jane Stuart-Smith and her colleagues that shows a role for television in increasing dialect differentiation amongst adolescents.

Here is a master’s thesis written byMichaela Zikmundová, a graduate student in the Czech Republic at the time, on language in the novel Trainspotting.  It is a very Scots novel, and Americans have to watch the movie version with subtitles.  She concludes that Scots is itself composed of so many different dialects that it should be considered a language, not a dialect of English.  (This is not actually a valid argument, for my money–see this blog post on the surprising irrelevance of linguistics to the definitions of the terms language and dialect.)

Family trivia, for those of us who are related closely enough to me to care

My father is extremely fond of mixing languages with…wild abandon, I guess one might say.  A typical email from him might have six, I would suppose–English (obviously), Portuguese, Hebrew, French, Latin, and Yiddish being the standards, with occasional guest appearances by Hawaiian (my father remains convinced that the similarity between the Hawaiian word for priest (kahuna) and the Hebrew word for priest (kohen) are evidence for one of them being the original human language, and I’ll give you a hint: he’s not thinkin’ Hawaiian.  More on this another time), Polish, and a déclinaison of Scandinavian tongues.

Despite this linguistic profligacy, none of those languages is ever Scots.  In fact, my childhood exposure to Scots consists all and only of the following:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

…which is from Robert Burns, and therefore, I hear, linguistically suspect as to authenticity (whatever exactly that means in this context).  However: it’s a damn good line or two to keep in mind, nonetheless.

More Scots listening practice

Here’s an interview with a Scottish airport worker, just after he attacked a terrorist who had just dumped gasoline over himself and gone after a police officer; from what I’ve read, he kicked him in the balls bollocks couilles beitzim cojones testicles so hard that he broke his foot.  Crucially (from our perspective), he did this after yelling something at the guy in Scots which I understand every Scottish male would mean let’s fight!, but that is so not like any dialect that I speak that I can’t remember it.  (Native speakers?  C’mon’en, or something like that?)  I can understand maybe a bit more than 90% of this, I would guess–for perspective, I’ve been a native speaker of English for my entire life, and I’m old.  (And, for more perspective: this guy’s a native speaker of English, too.  See this blog post for how that’s an example of using what’s called mutual intelligibility for labelling things as languages versus dialects.)



2 thoughts on “Bonnets, lice, and dialect differentiation”

  1. I think “on’en ! “is the Scottish opening for brawlings, lazy articulation of “C’me on then”. The guy in Glasgow airport spiced it up “Fuckin’on’en !”.
    What would your father say about this stunning thing I discovered in Mexico, temples called teocalli in Nahuatl, in which “teo” stands for “teotl” and means God ? The similarity of Nahuatl and Greek for such an essential concept catches the mind . Besides this the most powerful temple of Upper Egypt was called Karnak while the widest standing stones circle of all Celtic lands, on the west coast of Britanny, is called Carnac . Rather than a simple Hebrew-Hawaiian connection maybe somewhere in time was an earth language brought everywhere by those who knew the true names of created realities . This language is like a far but desirable goal for me, for any actual language is a bit of an entertaining gewgaw .


  2. saw your post on scottish. I’d love to know if you can understand Begby in Train Spotting. Not a word myself. Mandy argues with the translation from, uh, English to, eh, English.

    Sent from my iPhone



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