The Linguistics Behind Dialects

When we spoke with English secondary education student Jessica Hatcher last year, the ’16 grad reflected on how the scholarships she received afforded her the opportunity to conduct hands-on research and find her passion for linguistics. One year later, we caught up with Hatcher to learn about how she is using her research to educate high school students as she works toward her M.A. in English linguistics.

Can you tell us about your research and the work you are doing with high school students this summer?  

I’m interested in the intersection between sociolinguistics and education. I want to further support equity in our schools through teaching practices that include an understanding of language variation.

The Language Diversity Enrichment Program for high school students is the first of its kind at NC State. It is a week-long educational program designed to promote language awareness and explore dialect diversity in English. We introduce high school students to linguistics and promote inclusion and empathy through education about sociolinguistics.

Language diversity is overlooked, and I want to help high school students learn more about this increasingly relevant aspect of diversity. I view community education and outreach as a vital aspect of research.

How did you become interested in studying linguistics?

I learned about the Language and Life Project from Dr. Jeffrey Reaser at an English Club meeting. I began working as Dr. Reaser’s research assistant, and I transcribed videos of class discussions. As I listened and typed, I wrestled with ideas I had never considered. All my life I had thought that the people around me, myself included, spoke “bad English.” But learning about sociolinguistics reframed my understanding. As I pursued a minor in linguistics, I became increasingly interested in the field and I decided to pursue a master’s degree. My experiences speak to the opportunities offered by NC State. You never know what you’ll learn or how that will influence your future.

What is the most common misconception about your research or field of study?

People often think that dialects are just “bad English” and the people who speak them are lazy, unintelligent or lesser in some way. In reality, English dialects, such as Appalachian English or African American English, are linguistically valid and are rule-governed and patterned like mainstream English. The judgments about dialects are usually related to the people who speak them and are used to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or place of origin.

What do you find most fascinating about your research or field of study?

Language is complex and deeply intertwined with many aspects of our lives. Language is tied to identity, and people can, often unconsciously, signal an aspect of their identity through one seemingly insignificant sound. For example, because I pronounce pin and pen identically, I reveal myself as someone raised in the American South.

As an undergrad, you were a Fulbright Summer Institute scholar and recipient of the William and Lesa Edwards College Merit Scholarship. How have scholarship and giving made a difference in your college career?

I could speak for hours about the various positive impacts. Throughout college, scholarships allowed me to focus on my academics and engage in a variety of opportunities offered by NC State that I would not have been able to pursue otherwise. I was able to use time that would have been devoted to working a minimum-wage job to instead serve as an officer of the English Club, pursue a minor, work as a research assistant and act as an ambassador for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Study Abroad Office.

Participating in the UK Fulbright Summer Institute enhanced my understanding of not only the United Kingdom, but also of the United States. Being able to experience another culture and interact with people face-to-face was so much more powerful than reading a textbook or writing an essay. Without the Fulbright scholarship, I would not have been able to afford this opportunity.

This post was originally published in Giving News.

4 responses on “The Linguistics Behind Dialects

  1. Suzanne Hugus says:

    Hi Ms. Hatcher. I am fascinated about sociolinguistics. From your perspective then, as an example, if you know a person that says “AX” instead of the word “ASK”, do you thing we should be accepting of this, or should a person mention it to them? I know a lot of people that mispronounce words which makes them hard to understand. I may even be guilty on occasion. I usually overlook it but sometimes feel like it would help them to be understood if I bring it to their attention. What is your take?

    1. Erik Thomas says:

      There are a number of angles involved in answering your question. First, there’s the issue of why only one way of pronouncing a word should be considered standard. We actually have lots of words that have two standard pronunciations–think of applicable, pajamas, Caribbean, and aunt, for example–so why shouldn’t ax be considered just as acceptable as ask? Another angle is to remember that there are numerous words whose pronunciation has changed over the years. The word pestle, as in “mortar and pestle,” traditionally rhymed with wrestle, but most people today say the t in it; does that make one of the two pronunciations “wrong?” Similarly, the h in humble used to be silent, but now most people say the h–is one of those pronunciations “wrong?” A third issue is that just because somebody uses a pronunciation that’s labeled as non-standard doesn’t mean that they’re incompetent at any particular job. Fourth, of course, it’s generally considered rude to tell a person that they’re saying something wrong. And, finally, it’s important to remember that language is all about identity, and the way a person speaks is a way of expressing who they want to identify with–or not identify with.

    2. Jessica Hatcher says:

      Hello Ms. Hugus,

      I am so glad you’re fascinated with sociolinguistics! A lot of people notice and have strong opinions about “ax”/”ask.” The differences in pronunciation are the result of sound change in English. “Ax” can be traced to the eighth century, with the Old English verb, “acsian.” Its shortened form, “ax,” can be found in Chaucer’s work, as well as the first complete English translation of the Bible. At one point, some English speakers metathesized, that is, switched, the k and s sounds, and formed “ascian.” This was later shortened to “ask.” You can read more about this form and its history from linguist Jesse Shiedlower in this article from the Smithsonian (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/people-have-been-saying-ax-instead-ask-1200-years-180949663/).

      To learn about other possible explanations as to why the aks form is still used, you can read this column by John McWhorter in the LA Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/19/opinion/la-oe-mcwhorter-black-speech-ax-20140119).

      In regard to your question — language is always changing, but sometimes old forms are preserved. I personally would not comment about someone’s pronunciation of a word, especially if the meaning is still clear. For example, with “ax,” we know that means the same thing as “ask.” At the same time, we also know that other people may make negative judgments about others based on their speech, and so many teachers, parents, and friends may feel it incumbent upon them to share with the speaker that some people might view a pronunciation in a negative way. There are a lot of debates about encouraging people to speak “mainstream” or “standardized” forms of English because of the possible negative ramifications they may face in the workplace or at school for speaking differently. Part of what I, and many sociolinguists, hope to do is foster linguistic tolerance and awareness of dialect differences. Instead of asking people to speak differently, I encourage people think differently about language.

Leave a Reply to Erik Thomas Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.