Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Accents & Dialects' Category

Catawba or Catalpa?

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Judith Hanlon sent me an interesting question today: “Is it “catalpa or “catawba”? I’ve heard both, and seen both in print (gardening or fishing references), but “catawba” isn’t in any dictionary. Should it be?”

I responded the following:

Thank you for this question. These words have fascinated me for a long, long time.

Today these are two different words, both originating in the Carolinas in Siouan languages. One of those languages is the Catawba language spoken by the Catawba indians who once inhabited an area close to the North and South Carolinas border, along the—wouldn’t you just know it?—Catawba River.

It is also the name of a reddish-yellowish grape and the wine made from it. This name probably came from one of the sources above. I’m from central North Carolina and, as a teenager, loved to climb up grape vines to the tops of trees and eat “fox grapes”, a smaller reddish-yellowish wild grape, no doubt related to the catawba. Folks in central North Carolina also grew catawba grapes commercially.

Catalpa in the English language refers to something quite different. A catalpa tree is a broad-leafed tree with seeds that look like long beans. Down South in the spring they are attacked by caterpillars that make great freshwater fishing bait. Everyone in North Carolina mispronounced this word “catawba”.

We had one on the street where I was born and my mother loved to tell this story about me as a baby. She took me in her arms one day and visited the catalpa tree which was at that time filled with catalpa worms. She took one on to her finger to show it to me up close and, according to her, I said, “Go ‘way, Worm Beard!”

These two words may have historically been the same word, since in many dialects of English the L before a consonant is pronounced like a W. That is the case in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My sons grew up pronouncing milk [miwk], help [hewp], and belt [bewt]. Still do. Caulk everywhere is pronounce [cawk].

So, catawba and catalpa may, in fact, have originated as the same word pronounced differently in different parts of the country.

Labov “Dialect Diversity in America”

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Review of William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press)


I. What the Book is About.  It has been brought to my attention that my pseudonym has been taken in vain by another respected scholar in his recent monograph, Dialect Diversity in America, by  William Labov. Labov quoted this blog:

“Regional accents are dying out…the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all accents are currently located in the east. However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota).”

His remark to this quotation was, “This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong.”  The popularity of this opinion makes Labov’s task especially difficult, since the opinion is popular among professional linguists like Mr. Labov and myself.

I will proceed as follows. I will describe his monograph chapter by chapter and then remind us of what he omitted.

Chapter 1 About Language and Language Change. This chapter explains the common knowledge of how dialects emerge when some speakers of a language split away from the main body of speakers of a given language and that language continues to develop, but along different paths. Eventually, these two dialects become so different that mutual comprehensibility is lost, at which point we say that they have become different languages. We should expect that when dialect areas reintegrate, differences in dialectal characteristics disappear, but Labov claims that this is not happening in the US. In fact, dialectal differences are growing and spreading.

Chapter 2 A Hidden Consensus. This chapter explains how we know the suffix -ing is only pronounced -in’ in informal situations. He admits that this phenomenon is not strictly American; it has existed in all dialect areas for at least 1000 years. But he makes the point, well known by linguists, that there are not only regional dialects but social ones as well.

Chapter 3 Hidden Diversity. Having spent the first two chapters explaining the obvious and irrelevant, Labov begins this chapter by telling the reader that only phonological diversity will be considered, not morphological, syntactic, semantic, or lexical. So, Labov will be writing only about accents, not dialects. Dialects comprise differences in all aspects of grammar.

He them proceeds to quote some studies done in the 60s and  70s of the pronunciation of words, selected on the basis of known accent differences, recorded with Philadelphia, Chicago, and Birmingham. Recorded passages with accents were played in isolation to subjects in the same cities except the one they lived in. In isolation the subjects listening to each word recognized about 5% of them. When conjoined with one other word the percentage rose to around 30-40%. When the words were then repeated in complete sentences, the percentage rose to 90%.

Labov does not mention that linguistic sounds are relative to one another. We have no difficulty understanding people speaking with different foreign accents, even if they are using only native sounds. The ear has no trouble making the adjustment in seconds. So, Labov doesn’t even make the case that accents interfere with comprehensibility. Incomprehensibility, which leads dialects to become fully fledged languages, comes only with morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical differences.

He then moves on to explain the major point of the book: Northern Cities Shift (NCS). NCS involves a circular shift of five sounds involving such those formerly heard only in the northeast, such as the pronunciation of bat moving bet, and bet to bit. He uses this shift, which has moved west across the northern tier of states, to prove that dialectal differences are increasing.

He fails to note that as this dialectal “difference” as it moved westward, must have obliterated all the dialectal differences in its path, proving my point, too, that dialectal, even accentual differences, are disappearing.

Chapter 4 The Growing Divergence of Black and White English. Amazingly, after claiming in Chapter 2 that only phonological features of “dialects” will be considered, this chapter deals almost exclusively with morphological differences.

Labov discusses the following features of Black English (or AAVE, African American Vernacular English, as he calls it):

1. Loss of r at the end of syllables;

2. Use of present tense with an infinitive (He can goes out)

3. HAD as a simple past based on one study in Springville, Texas;

4. BE as marker of habitual past (Imperfective Progressive: He be good);

5. BEEN as a remote present perfect

6. BE DONE as a remote present perfect

7. Omission of -s possessive: My mom room

8. Omission of -s present tense: She hit me when I come into her room.

Notice that only one of these topics involve phonology: the omission of R at the end of syllables. This is a universal trait of all English dialects, including the one  spoken by the Queen of England. Neither the Cambridge British nor the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciations ever include an R at the end of syllables.

On the loss of verbal S (He see me), the possessive S (my mom room) and the copula (he good), Labov reports a 1983 work by Baugh: “The majority of speakers, those who had very little contact with whites, show 78% absence of the possessive [‘s], 72% for verbal /s/, and 52% for the copula. In contrast, the African Americans with high rates of contact with whites . . . show very low rates of -s absence . . . .”

What this description lacks is any number identifying how many speakers had “very little contact with whites”. Or any mention of the effects of the 1952 Brown v Board of Education decision, or the 1964 or 1965 civil rights laws, forced bussing, or affirmative action. Citing a 1983 work to prove a point is too early in the startling process in US education that brought an African American to the presidency.

So does Labov prove that Black English is expanding or splitting up? Although he cites much research based on interviews, he only cites in detail one work not written by him, a work that tracks the usage of had as a marker of the simple past: I had pushed him, where had marks, not the past perfect, but simple past. This usage is reported to have spread throughout the African American community of Springville, Texas. However, notice that a feature already in the dialect only spread within that dialect. It did not lead to an increase in the number of dialects.

Labov explains the expansion of African American English in these terms: “The answer to the question, why are the differences increasing? Is, first and foremost, residential segregation, as reinforced and maintained by institutional racism.” He cites a 1981 study by Hershberg based on a study of segregation between 1850 and 1970. An analysis of historical U.S. Census data by Harvard and Duke scholars, “The End of the Segregated Century”, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (January 2012) shows that racial separation has diminished significantly since the 1960s. That means that more African Americans since the 1970s have had “high rates of contact with whites.”

Chapter 5 – Politics of African American English.  At the center of this chapter is a series of jokes about Ebonics followed by a report on the failure of that movement’s claim that African American English is a foreign language, that courses needed be taught in African American English vernacular. The chapter ends with a description of the research into two commercial products produced by Labov, research which shows them successful.

Again, Labov does not mention the effects of integration, bussing to force the integration of schools, or affirmative action designed to fully integrate colleges and universities.  Did these politically motivated upheavals not affect the dialectal differences between white and black English?  How could Labov discuss the politics of “dialects” without mentioning the major political events that have had a great impact on the two major dialects in the United States? He does not raise this issue because it undermines his thesis.

Chapter 6 – Language Change as Language Politics.   This chapter discusses two phenomena: Canadian Raising in a village in Martha’s Vineyard  and similar the shift of the pronunciation of the diphthong in words like down [aw] to [ew]. Labov admits that two follow up studies found it to be non-existent or “showed signs of recession among the youngest speakers”. I fail to see why this bit of putative evidence was even mentioned in the book. Since, again, Labov only claims that this phenomenon is only spreading, not leading to dialectal distinction, I will omit comment in further detail on this phenomenon.

Chapter 7 – The Political Ideology of the Northern Cities Shift. This chapter returns to the Northern Cities Shift, tying it to the building of the Erie Canal (1817-1875). Without first showing that the Northern Cities Shift had taken place in New York by the time we started building the Erie Canal, Labov declares that it followed the route of that canal.

Labov then goes on to explain “the tendency to superimpose Yankee ideology on the rest of the world” as an explanation why, of all the accents brought in by workers on the Erie Canal, the New York accent prevailed. He then moves into an explanation of “Yankee ideology”, a topic far off subject.

II. What Labov Left Out. Although my claims were anecdotal, most of Labov’s arguments are anecdotal, too, based on interviews with individuals. The anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming as to make a statistical study, were it even possible to base such a study on data collected over the past 30 or so years, moot.

First, I began by noting that ALL my grandnieces and grandnephews, who live in rural North Carolina speak without a trace of even their parents’ mild accent. I have attended baseball games and soccer games they played in and none of their friends, black or white, spoke in the strong Southern dialect I was brought up speaking and hearing in the 40s. Remember, we are talking about rural North Carolina.

The white generation that preceded me used sot and holp as the past tense of sit and help, and et, as it is in Britain today, was the past tense of eat.  The words very and must didn’t exist in the rural North Carolina dialect I spoke. All my relatives and neighbors used mighty where Yankees would use very. I recall the first time I heard must coming from the mouth of a Southerner. Our high school was having career day and had invited a pianist from Fayetteville who had tried his luck in New York. He said, “I must go now; I have another session . . . . ”  I was so struck by the incident, that I remember it to this day, a half century later. Now very and must are commonplace and holp, sot and et are not to be heard because dialects are disappearing.

The African American friends of my grandnieces and grandnephews continue to pronounce [th] as [t] and [d], as I did growing up (I am white) and some of their (white) parents still do. But I never hear Ise (I is), nor a you is, we is, they is when I return now.  Whites and blacks drop the R at the end of syllables and substitute -in for -ing, as do people speaking English informally around the world.

But that is the extent of the accentual differences that I hear today back home or here in Pennsylvania. I do not know when I have heard the strong African American accent by anyone interviewed on television. All I have heard for the past ten years are the three characteristics mentioned above. Interviews with African American athletes on the Sports Illustrated web site ( seldom reveal a trace of African American accent beyond the three traits mentioned above.

Geographical separation is required for a dialect (not an accent) to thrive. When dialect D1 is mixed with D2 one is absorbed by the politically dominant one. It is economically advantageous to speak the politically dominant dialect or language. We had courses in standard English that were taught to Southerners and Northerners with a “Brooklyn” accent in the 80s. I haven’t heard of any such courses in the new millennium.

Migration patterns do not involve part of the US English speakers removing themselves geographically from the others. Migration is all internal and is based on economic factors. There has been an intermixture of dialects, rather than separation.

We must never forget the fundamental economic factor influencing the recent development of dialects in the US: you cannot succeed in the US unless you speak economically dominant “standard” English. Everyone, no matter which dialect or language (Spanish, Russian, etc.) you speak, wants to speak and write that dialect.

So Mr. Labov has not made his case with convincing examples or statistics. He offers a few tables of long-term statistics which show the development of pronunciation differences over time, no massive chronological tables which his case requires. The anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, so overwhelmingly favors my position, I personally see no need for long-term statistics, even were they to exist.

Snarlers that don’t Snarl

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Andrew John (no I didn’t reverse his names) responded to our Good Word snarl with this thought:

“In NZ the word snarler does not usually mean something that snarls. In my experience when Kiwis use the word snarler they mean a sausage, particularly when it is on a BBQ. Which makes me wonder if its use is derived from hot-dog?”

My response:

A snarler usually refers to a dog (or human) that snarls. Could the transfer of this sense of “dog” to “hotdog” be justified? Or is it more likely that, because they tend to curl when heated, they seem to become entangled?

There is also another sense of snarl used in metal-working. A snarling-iron is used to “raise up the projecting part”. Whether this is used for curling or not, I don’t know. (I’m not metal worker.)

Does anyone out there know what a “snarling-iron” does?

More “Tucker”

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

We received two responses to our Good Word tucker back in mid-December that fell between the cracks until now. Brian Peretti wrote, “Just an addition to the tucker post. My mother was from West Virginia, and she would use the phrase: “best bib and tucker”, as in, “We’re goin’ to church, so put on your best bib and tucker” (otherwise known as your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes).”

Well, Brian, both these expressions were prevalent in North Carolina when I was growing up and I’ll bet they are still in use today, at least among the older population. In fact, “bib and tucker” was used in England as early as 1747, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so the use must have been wide-spread at one time. A bib is the front of a false shirt and a tucker was one you tucked into your pants. Originally referred to a lace front that women wore, but later on came to refer to the false-front shirts men wore as well.

Graham Thomas then wrote from South Africa:

“Regarding you comments today about tucker, I was born in South Africa of British heritage, and we often used the work tuck to refer to food and the shop supplying food at school was referred to as a tuck shop. So I think that the reference to it being uniquely used in Australia is a bit misleading. It does sounds that it could have originated in England with the two countries common heritage.”

It seems I underestimated the both the geographic and the semantic extent to which tucker is currently used. The word was printed in a London newspaper in 1858, so it must have been current was before that. However, as the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary make clear, it continued to be used only in Australia and New Zealand—and South Africa, as you write. It was never prevalent in the US or Canada nor England after the mid-19th century.

The Easiest Dental Sounds [th] > [t]

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Rudy Marinacci recently wrote:

“I enjoyed your ‘How is a Hippo like a Feather‘ article and chart very much. Could you tell me why my mother and her brother, both from Southern Italy (Reggio Calabria) could not pronounce ‘th’ and said tin iunstead of thin and tick, not thick?”

Sure can. It is because [th] is more difficult to pronounce than other English linguistic sounds. It is an “interdental” sound, which means the tongue goes between the teeth to pronounce it. It is relatively more difficult to get your tongue in between your teeth and out again before the following vowel.

The pronunciation of [t] is not that far away. It is a dental, which means the tongue goes to just behind the upper teeth to pronounce it. Much easier. The tongue remains where it is in pronouncing all other linguistic sounds (phonemes): behind the teeth. This is why people from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Deep South make the same sound change.

There is another problem your mother faces: she gets no help from Italian. This is because there simply is no [th] in Italian. In fact, this sound does not appear in any Romance languages. (Diego is right about the difference between English [th] and the Spanish dental fricative.)

Don’t worry about your mother’s pronunciation. As I said above, people from Brooklyn, Queens, and throughout the rural regions of the South (where I come from) face the same problem. She is in the company of native speakers of English around the world.

All I Hear is ‘Alls’

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I heard someone say this morning, “Alls I want is a standing order.” This misspeak is spreading like grass fire. I began hearing it in the 80s, too, but the instances were few and far between. It was mostly the locals on staff but I heard a few students say it, too. I quickly corrected them in a threatening voice.

We can’t be sure if it is alls (plural) or all’s (contraction). I can’t think of a grammatical function word that ends on an S that is so frequently used with all that it would form a contraction with it. All that and all are are frequently heard together, but a contraction with these words would produce all’t and all’re, respectively.

So we are forced back to my first hypothese—unless there is a third one. All are is a plural construction but most words occurring before are end on an S. So, for consistency, an S is added to all.

Do you have a better idea?

Aren’t you Mispronouncing “Aren’t”?

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Here is a mystery. I received a message from Stefani O’daniel today that contained this complaint:

“Please tell me if I am right or wrong. I hate didn’t pronounced [diddent], not [didnt], wouldn’t pronounced [wooddent] not [woodnt], and couldn’t pronounced [kooddent] not [koodnt]. Which is right?”

“I’ve heard these words pronounced this way for the past 30 years now and iits irritating. I was told the words are pronounced this way because that is the correct pronunciation.”

I became aware of my students using these pronunciations in the 80s. Where it came from, I cannot say but I’m very suspicious of California, Valley Speak, so to speak.

N in the English language now can be pronounced as a vowel when occurring between consonants. The schwa (UH or on this website [ê]) has disappeared from the language before N between consonants. The tongue does not move between the D and the N in these words.

The T [t] is disappearing, too, in rapid speech. So the pronunciation of these words are reduced in fast speech to didn, wouldn, couldn. Now, we approaching the point where there is very little to distinguish did from didn’t, etc.

I suspect the pronunciation that so irritates you is spreading because it more clearly distinguishes the negative forms of these words from the positive. Also, it is possible that some young speakers of English don’t realize that these words are contractions involvingi not.

There is no right or wrong about this; it is normal cross-generational language change. It annoys me, too, but even more annoying is the misspelling it encourages: didn’t spelled diddent occurs 150,000 times on the Web.

Verb Agreement in English

Monday, January 9th, 2012

“Dave” recently wrote:

I just read your article ‘Bad Grammar or Language Change’ and wanted to let you know that I found a grammatical error in your article.

In the sentence ‘the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, are disappearing faster than frogs’, the subject of the sentence is number. This singular noun does not agree with the verb in the sentence are. What is most curious to me is that the subject of nouns and verbs not agreeing is discussed only a few paragraphs above this sentence”.

Thanks for the edit. I have to say, in my own defense, that this is not an uncommon error. It comes from the fact that English speakers are losing their grasp of subject and object due to the loss of case endings. At least that is my opinion.

Kay Bock of the University of Illinois (a former student of mine) disagrees. She is trying to find a grammatical pattern among these mistakes. We coauthored a paper on the subject, where I was asked only to provide data for Russian.

What happens when speakers lose control of the subject – object distinction but not verb agreement? Well, one thing is that they rely on the noun nearest the verb to reflect agreement. That is how I compensated, along with the vast majority of US speakers.

Another way is to resort to semantics: if the subject noun refers to a group, then agreement is plural. If it refers to a single item, singular. That is the British solution. They say things like “the parliament are”, “the team are” but the “player is”, “the lamp is”.

Both these approaches are temporary. We are all waiting for the -s which distinguishes 3rd singular verbs from 3rd plural to fall by the wayside. That will solve everything.

Don’t be Camp at Camp

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

My treatment of the adjective camp obviously caught Doug Schulek-Miller off guard. I thought his reaction worth sharing:

My children go to camp in the summer (and there is nothing homosexual  or kitsch about them!)

  • I made a camp in the forest when we stayed outdoors.
  • I camped on my neighbour’s doorstep so that I wouldn’t miss him.

I am confused, as I understand you will likely get a lot of other responses like this despite noting that you are talking an adjectival sense.

Apoplectically yours,

The same word reminded Harry Murphy how folks down East in Maine use the noun camp a bit different from the way it is used farther south:

Your recent description of “camp” as an adjective neglected “camp” as a noun.  As an expatriate from Maine, I prefer to think of “camp” as a noun.

In his “Maine Lingo”, John Gould defines “camp” this way:  “CAMP:  The general word in Maine for a wilderness dwelling, no matter how elegant.  It can be a one-room log cabin or the sumptuous retreat of land-owning executives.  Not always, but in many instances Mainers will use ‘camp’ for a building others would call a cottage.  ‘Going to camp’ does not mean tenting out in Maine, but moving to the cottage on the lake or in the  woods for the season, or for a vacation.”

‘Going camp’ to me means dressing tacky, so Maineiacs should be careful not to drop the “to” in ‘Going to camp’ when talking to out-of-staters.

I didn’t include all the other meanings of camp in my treatment because I wanted all my readers to finish reading it in a day.

Farewell, Southern Accents?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Bekki just dropped of this note:

Rebel-Yankee flagsThat’s too funny! I just took the Advanced Yankee VS Dixie test and it said that I am 1% Dixie. I grew up in Richmind, Virginia, the capital of the South. Still, with a father from Conetticut and a mother from a different country completely, I guess it’s not that unusual.

Well, Bekki, first let a North Carolinian correct your geography: Richmond is the capital of Virginia. Any city claiming the title of “Capital of the South” would have to be located a bit deeper in the South.

More to your point, our Rebel-Yankee and Advanced Rebel-Yankee Tests can only reflect how you speak, not where you live. In fact, as the years roll by, its accuracy may be fading.

My sisters in North Carolina just equipped themselves with Skype and we are talking with each other more frequently. The remarkable thing is that my sisters’ southern accent is still quite remarkable but their grandchildren–all of them–speak with no identifiable accent, which is to say, just like TV personalities.

If you are young, you may be in that first generation of Southerners who have lost their regional identity as expressed by regional dialects. Television and radio, combined with the growing migration from North to South, is eroding the most noticeable cultural difference between the two regions. I fear that in another 20 years, the Rebel-Yankee Tests may be irrelevant.