Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Dialectal Overcompensation

Bill Taber today wrote about one of the most fascinating aspects of English dialects, overcompensation. He wrote, “Wash, warsh—seems most women say warsh and man say wash. Why?”

Kennedy-BunkerThe only linguistic explanation is that most women you know, Bill, come from a different background; their immigrant ancestors were the urban middle-class British. These British English speakers tend to say [warsh], [lawr], etc. It is overcompensation in a dialect where the R is regularly (yes, regularly, governed by rule) lost after the sound AH: car become [cah], marsh become [mahsh], and so on.

At some point some influential speakers of this dialect became aware they were dropping the Rs and tried to replace them. However, since they had never heard them from their parents, they didn’t know where to put them. As a result, they tended to put Rs after every AH sound, whether they were supposed to be there or not.

Various dialects show the same effort after the UH sound. Both the Boston Brahmins and my mother, a rural Southerner, pronounced Cuba [Cuber], Eva [eever]”, etc. This is because one of their ancestors tried to stop dropping Rs after UH in words like mother [mothuh], gather [gathuh], matter [mattuh]. Again, they were not sure where the Rs go, since their ancestors always dropped them, so they tended to put them everywhere. Some of the overcompensated Rs stuck in the dialect; others didn’t.

Overcompensation is the unfortunate result of guilt and shame felt by those who speak a non-dominant dialect. The ‘standard language’ is always the dialect spoken by the most powerful people in a society. All others are disdained, laughed at and, most unfairly, taken as a sign of ignorance. This latter prejudice leads to economic discrimination which makes no sense, as the explosive economic rise of the South after the invention of air conditioning demonstrates.

Overcompensation occurs elsewhere in the North. Those who followed the US TV series “All in the Family”, might have noticed that the Queens dialect of Archie Bunker reflected some inconsistencies. Archie pronounced bird [boid], murder [moiduh], and third [toid]. However, Archie’s toilet was his [terlet], his “dingbat” of a wife, Edith, cooked with [erl] rather than oil, and tended to [berl] rather than boil the spaghetti.

Again, the (brighter) speakers of Brooklyn and Queens dialect became painfully aware of one reason why their speech made those outside their dialect area laugh at them and they tried to repair it. Problem was, they didn’t know which OIs should be ER and which, not, since they had never heard ER in their neighborhood. The result was, again, overcompensation.

As I have said over and over again: a regional dialect is nothing more than variations in the grammar of a language that naturally arise when the language is spoken over a wide area. It has nothing to do with intelligence and the only difference between a regional dialect and the ‘standard’ or ‘literary’ dialect is the (lack of) power of the people speaking it.

2 Responses to “Dialectal Overcompensation”

  1. JD Says:

    Following on from Bill Tabler’s question, could it be that women overcompensate more than men? I’ve noticed in my family and others that it is often the men that have the ‘thicker’ regional accents, perhaps because the women attempt (successfully or not) a more standard, ‘socially acceptable’ accent. Or have I just opened a big sociolinguistic can of worms here?

  2. rbeard Says:

    That shouldn’t be the case since these pronunciations become “crystalized”. For example, when Archi Bunker says ‘terlet’, he isn’t overcompensating; he is just pronouncing the word like the people he learned the language from–probably his parents. The overcompensation gets built into the dialect and is passed on from person to person. “Overcompensation” applies to a dialect group, not to individuals.

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