Saturday 8 February 2014

Accent, dialect, or disorder?

When is a feature of speech a feature of speech and when does it signal possible speech-language impairment? It may not always be easy to tell whether our linguistic habits reveal something worrying about us or just something about us.

The term accent(s) describes the way we sound (or the way we sign), as part of the dialect(s) that we use. The trouble begins right here, in that these two terms are often confused and/or misused. (In case you’re suspecting that I will, yet again, rant about one of my pet peeves, wholesale lay and professional use of obscure terminology, I’m afraid you’re right. I do suffer from a fixation with our fixation with labels whose relevance to what we’re using them for either doesn’t exist or we don’t understand.)

The trouble is compounded by the widespread use of accent and dialect as judgemental labels, not descriptive ones. Saying that someone speaks with an accent or that someone speaks dialect carries the assumption that there are ways of speaking with no accent or no dialectal features. We all speak dialect, because we all speak language varieties, not “languages”, and dialect is shorthand for ‘language variety’. Dialects come complete with characteristic vocabulary and grammar. Whole monographs have been dedicated to dialectal variation of what we call “languages”, one example being Benedikt Szmrecsanyi’s study of a restricted sample of what we call “English”, Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects. Dialects also come complete with accents, their characteristic patterns of vowels, consonants and prosody, which means that we all speak with an accent, too.

The issue is that the standard accents we’ve learned to associate with prestige varieties of language do not necessarily match the accent standards that we use in our everyday lives. Our accents reflect our social networks, because accents don’t exist without people, but also our bodies, because people don’t exist without bodies: we all speak through our own vocal tract, not somebody else’s – something I’ll come back to some other day.

So how do we tell idiosyncratic uses of language from disordered uses? Take lisping, for example. It is taken as a speech defect when it concerns replacement of other sounds, usually sibilants like /s/. But lisping in itself can’t be a “defect”, in that lisped articulations are part of standard dialects of, say, English (in words like think) and Spanish (in words like hacer), and are in fact recommended as a desirable goal in acquiring “good” accents in those languages. Or take saying [w] where /l/ might otherwise be expected, as when some of us enjoy owd friends, pick fwowers, and don’t wike to be iw. This is typical of child speech and is thus associated with “incomplete” learning. Incidentally, standard speech-language clinical terminology calls these child manipulations of speech sounds errors, a word commonly equated with ‘wrong’. Child pronunciations such as these aren’t wrong: they need no correction, because they’re developmental. In adult speech, saying [w] for /l/ may require specialist attention if it impairs intewigibiwity – or dents the user’s sewf-esteem. We can also use [w] for /l/ only in specific phonological contexts, that is, specific places within a word/phrase, in which case we enjoy owd friends, pick flowers, and don’t like to be iw. This is the rule in many Brazilian dialects of Portuguese, for example, one instance being the word Brasil itself.

There may, in sum, be nothing “wrong” with the way we pronounce our languages. One thing is an observed feature of speech, quite another is what we’ve been conditioned to think about it. There’s a world of difference between clinical and social evaluation of pronunciations. In addition, monolingual standards concerning specific dialects of a restricted number of languages have dominated the creation and implementation of speech-language assessment tools. Countless studies over countless years have insisted on “differences” between monolingual and multilingual uses of language, as if differences were unexpected, all the while portraying monolingualism as benchmark, as if multilingualism were exceptional. Against which “normal” are we assessing multilinguals, really? There’s a world of difference between typical multilingualism and disordered multilingualism.

Healthy speech does not mean standard speech and does not mean monolingual(-like) speech. If we keep using Cinderella’s slippers to serve everyone’s feet, no wonder we end up saying everyone else is an Ugly Sister.

© Anne Anderson (1874-1930) – Wikimedia Commons

Next time, I’ll try to explain why the sisters aren’t ugly at all.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Learning languages – what for? Saturday 8th March 2014.

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