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AstroChuck's avatar

Why is it that black Americans seem to be exempt from regional accents?

Asked by AstroChuck (36382 points ) July 30th, 2008 from iPhone

With the exception of Cajun country black America generally speaks the same, whether from Boston, New York, Minnesota, Mississippi or Baltimore. I’ve heard other minority groups such as Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans speak with regional accents (when English was the primary language in the home). What’s the dope?

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21 Answers

girlofscience's avatar

I’ve definitely heard some black southern accents and some black Philly accents.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Actually AstroChuck, I think you were very smart to “seem to be exempt” because according to linguists they are not, even though it does seem that way.

I’m going to try to not explain every single concept in Linguistcs, but still try to answer your question (which can be difficult for me, so sorry if this runs a little long).

One thing first, an accent is one aspect of a dialect. I will refer to dialect from now on, keep in mind that this includes accent, and other factors such as vocabulary and syntax choices, and cadence of speach, among other factors.

Basically, you can think of language like a tree with many many branches. French, Italian, Spanish and Portugese are descended from Latin. English and German are descended from West Germanic. West Germanic and Latin are both descended form Indo-European.

Okay, so at some point in their infancy, Spanish and French were just dialects of Latin. They sounded a little different, but they were mutually intelligible.

So, today Southern accents and Northern accents are different dialects of English, just as African American Vernacular English (the linguistics name for African Americans’ dialect) is another dialect of English. EVERYONE HAS A DIALECT. In fact, no two people speak exactly the same way, and an individual’s unique way of speaking is called his/her idiolect.

Astrochuck, it sounds like you perceive the influence of AAVE more strongly than you perceive the influence of the geographic region in most African Americans’ idiolect. I think this is probably the case with a lot of people, but the geographic influences still exert and effect, it just may not be as pronounced. (As proof of this I can offer my linguistics teacher, who could tell all my classmates where we were from without asking us).

To answer your question, (up until now I was stating facts, but this part is hypothesis on my part) in America today, people move around pretty frequently, including black Americans. However, it is often the case that many African American develop social networks within the African American community, (churches, schools, neighborhoods) no matter what city or part of the country they live in, and so it is easier for you to perceive their sociolect (dialect based on social factors) than their regional dialect, but they do still have a regional dialect.

andrew's avatar

Now THAT is a Fluther answer.

AstroChuck's avatar

I don’t mean to imply that 100% of African Americans speak without a regional accent, but you have to admit it is the exception. For example, just yesterday I was talking to a customer on my mail route and he told me that up until a year and a half ago he lived in a suburb of Boston. He’s black and I’ve never heard him say anything such as “I have to pahk my cah.”. In fact he could have told me he grew up here in California and I wouldn’t have been able to tell. On the other hand, my sister-in-law’s white ex-boyfriend is from New Hampshire and there is no doubt he grew up in New England.

AstroChuck's avatar

La Chica- Dialect and accent are two different things. This is not a dialect question as I’m not talking about local language but about accents.

andrew's avatar

@astrochuck: You’re right. Dialect and accent are different things. You’re talking about dialect.

Edit:
Ah, I’m guessing that linguists and actors have similar definitions of dialect and accent, and I’m guessing la_chica is going to explain.

I retract my snark.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Astrochuck, i addressed that in the 3rd paragraph of my answer. accent is one aspect of dialect. you could replace the word dialect with accent if you wanted to, and it would still all be true.

marinelife's avatar

I have not had this experience. I think you can defiintely tell the difference between a black American from New York and one from Georgia. I also think it is not true that all black Americans speak the same way, just as all white Americans do not speak the same way. There are all sorts of factors involved included region, education, and more.

andrew's avatar

I’m think it just depends on the individual, since I have black southern friends who have southern accents, and I have black midwestern friends who speak AAVE.

Maybe a followup question: What makes AAVE a dominant dialect, and are any similar dialects that trump regional dialects?

marinelife's avatar

TV News dialect.

AstroChuck's avatar

I think of dialect as encompassing regional words and phrases and accent solely on how a word sounds when spoken. That’s why I specifically didn’t use the word dialect. But this is a different discussion altogether.
Everyone altogether: “But this is a different discussion.”

marinelife's avatar

@ac Yes, but if you are misusing the technical terms, maybe you need to rethink that.

megalongcat's avatar

Hmmm. I never actually noticed that. (Is a Black American) but since you mentioned it I would say that it holds true. There really isn’t a regional accent for us. This does not apply if you were born in another country then moved here. I’m not exactly sure why, but any guess I could fathom would probably irritate a lot of people.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Andrew, great question! but it does open up a WHOLE other can of worms…

So, we have this thing called AAVE, but it’s not like anyone speaks “pure AAVE” and it’s almost kind of like… it sort of purports an underlying racist attitude that it’s the blacks who speak differently from the whites, it’s not that white americans have a “WAVE” or something. you know? it’s not that there is no AAVE, but there is also an unnamed “white” dialect, a korean dialect of english, and many others. i like to emphasize the sociolect. there are many aspects that make up the way a person talks, and no two people speak the same.

so basically, you can say that, dialect is caused by distance. it can be any kind of distance. usually we talk about geographic and social. geographic distance is obvious. ppl who live in diff parts of the country talk differently.

so then the tricky one is “social distance”
there are all different kinds of social networks, but we can make a few distinctions, ie. working class, middle class, upper class, and ppl tend to socialize within these boundaries, so dialects develop inside of them.

then we can catagorize based on race, because the truth is, people tend to socialize based on this too. not always, and it is certainly not a hard and fast rule, but people who do socialize within their race, (over a LONG period of time) will develop a dialect within that boundary. this is the case with AAVE.

SO, to answer your question, i would have to say i’m honestly not sure, but i do know that the way we perceive language is very psychologically influenced. i learned SO MUCH in my first linguistics class that it took me a long time to accept as true because the scientific facts of linguistics are often contrary to “common sense”.

for example, Marina mentioned “TV News Dialect” which a Linguist would say does not exist. When my prof first told me that, i just straight did not believe her. i thought, “no, they all sound the same, they all talk the same!” and yes, they have been coached to speak with a certain cadence and rhythm, and are often coached to try to “lose” their accents and dialects, total loss is impossible. maybe the average person cannot tell the difference, but a trained ear certainly can.

marinelife's avatar

@La_chica_gomela I am sure you are correct. I have heard the little distinctions myself. I was being a little bit flip, because when my family first moved to Tennessee, the kids in school said, “Hay, y’all talk just like the people on TV.”

charliecompany34's avatar

dialect, when the human ear is used to its sounds from birth, is the acceptable sound and tone because the hearer has heard it spoken that way for a great deal of time. your ear can detect acute speech differences the “speaker” takes for granted as correct dialect. words like “ten,” “then” and “when” in some inner-city urban black areas is pronounced “tin,” and “whin,” where others pronounce it as “taen” and “thaen” with more emphasis on the “th” rather than the vowels. .

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Andrew, I was thinking about your question a little bit more, and I came up with one other idea.

From what I’ve learned we do have some impact on our idiolect. We can never completely change it, but we can alter it to some degree, and many linguists posit that people often adopt certain speech patterns by emulating a group they want to belong to, or rejecting patterns of a group they want to disengage themselves from. It may be that many African Americans subconsciously have a stronger attachment to their black identity than their geographic identity. But that’s just a theory.

Charlie, the patterns you’re describing are called the “Northern Cities Vowel shift” and the “Southern Vowel Shift” or dipthongization,” respectively. In the case of dipthongization, it’s not that the emphasis is changed, it is that the vowel sound is different from a “mainstream” pronunciation. Instead of the “e” sound in “egg” a dipthong is pronounced where a secondary vowel sound is added. In the example you gave, the second sound is an “uh” sound, like in “umpire” so it comes out more like “theh-un” or “tha-en” (these are just visual representations. i don’t thing fluther supports the international phonetic alphabet).

more importantly, There is NO SUCH THING AS A CORRECT DIALECT. Everyone speaks in a dialect. everyone together now—There is NO SUCH THING AS A CORRECT DIALECT. Everyone speaks in a dialect.

AstroChuck's avatar

@Marina- Just what am I supposed to be rethinking. My question involved regional “accents” and not dialects, pidgins, or anything related. I’m sorry if you think my definition of dialect is incorrect but you might want to research the word for yourself. Dialect refers to a variety of language such as differing grammar, vocabulary, even slang terms and vulgarisms. Although I recognize that there is a common African American dialect, I was not refering to that. The truth is there isn’t a great diversity of English dialects in the US, at least in relation to Spanish dialects spoken here (Mexican Spanish, Central American Spanish, Argentine Spanish). Nothing like the different dialects of German in Germany or Chinese spoken in China.
Diversity of accents in this country on the other hand…

Knotmyday's avatar

This link shows a sharp contrast between “News Dialect” and the vernacular.

Caveat: I can’t link to the site due to the work firewall, so don’t ding me for any idiotic comments made on the site. Please.

Maybe (to answer the question) the answer might lie in the solidarity of the nationwide community, or “family” if you will.

flameboi's avatar

Oh my, LcG, you know a lot about linguistics and dialects :)

dulong's avatar

Black people are no more and no less likely to speak with a regional accent than other people. As someone that has traveled and lived in different areas I’ve never observed what you describe, and I don’t believe there is any scientific evidence to support your statement.

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