dialects in movies

Damien Hall halldj at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Mar 30 16:20:55 UTC 2008

Dear Ula

> More specifically, I'm searching for the use of stereotypes based on dialects
> and trying to determine how much the use of dialects in the movies influence
> view of people.

What national perspective (if any) are you doing it from?  It's a question of
interest because it seems to me (a Brit who's lived for four years in
Philadelphia) that the view that the average movie-goer gets of a character,
based on the character's dialect, is fundamentally different depending on the
place of origin of the movie-goer.  That is, an American will probably be able
to distinguish between, say, (at least) a NYC accent, a Northern Cities accent,
a Midwest-ish accent, various types of Southern accent, and something that maybe
has none of the distinguishing features of the accents I've named (like, for
example, the phonology of a lot of the West).

A Brit, on the other hand, will be seeing the same movies, but the average Brit
will not be able to distinguish so many American accents, and will therefore be
able to make much less use of a character's accent to nuance their view of that

Of course, I'm a linguist, not a lay-person in that sense, so my intuitions
about non-linguists' views of American accents are to be taken with a pinch of
salt.  It's certainly true, though, that the vast majority of Brits have this
concept of an 'American accent' (just one, monolithic).  I haven't done the
research to know what the features of it are (maybe someone else has), but it
seems to me that its principal characteristic is r-fulness, and maybe the
cot-caught merger.  It's obviously not a very detailed conception in a
linguist's sense.

FWIW, I think that the average Brit will probably be able to hear the difference
between 'General American', Forrest Gump's accent, a stereotypical NYC (maybe
Italian) accent, and maybe a Northern Cities accent (this last because of the
extreme raising of /ae/).  The stereotypes associated with these are:
- 'General American':  neutral, maybe no stereotype, since the others need
somewhere to react against
- Forrest Gump:  stupid.  But this is because he speaks slowly, not because they
think he's from the South and see people with a Southern accent as stupid.  I
don't think most Brits would be able to identify Forrest Gump's accent as a
Southern one specifically, so you may take the view that any connection between
an allegedly slower speech-rate and a Southern accent is irrelevant
because most Brits wouldn't know about that stereotype.  (Side note:  I believe
that experimental corpus work has proved that people with a Southern accent
don't necessarily have an average slower speech-rate in any case!)
- NYC / Italian:  tough (they see such people mostly in roles as city cops and
detectives, so again their impression comes from the characters they have seen
with that accent, not because they associate that characteristic with people
who have that accent in general, outside the movies.
- Northern Cities:  (if the Brit is conscious that this is different from NYC,
which they may not be!)  again, tough.

You should of course check these impressions with lay-people if this is a topic
of interest.

Hope that helps!

Damien Hall
University of Pennsylvania

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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