Book Review

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 13 13:37:21 UTC 2003

Forwarded from Linguist-List:

Bonfiglio, Thomas Paul (2002) Race and the Rise of Standard American,
Mouton de Gruyter, Language, Power and Social Process 7.

Announced at

Don E. Walicek, Department of English,
the University of Puerto Rico at Ro Piedras.

PURPOSE / CONTENT: This book investigates the process of language
standardization in the United States, focusing specifically but not solely
on the assent of the 'midwestern accent' as a standard of pronunciation
during the first half of the twentieth century.  The views of prominent
statesmen, writers, actors, broadcasters, historians, linguists, and other
influential figures serve as points of discussion throughout the text.
They characterize what Bonfiglio sees as a linguistic ideology unique to
the United States, one based on notions of purity, prescriptivism, and
racial superiority.  The book consists of an introduction, three chapters,
a conclusion, and an afterword.

OVERVIEW: Bonfiglio positions the book as a response to his observation
that American Standard's rise to prominence has not been described in a
satisfactory way.  In offering his explanation, Bonfiglio argues that the
process of language standardization in the United States was quite
distinct from that of other countries.  He holds that xenophobia and
anti-Semitism led to the unconscious adoption of western and midwestern
speech patterns as the norm for a 'general American accent.' Moreover, he
challenges Labov's suggestion that the shift in the pronunciation of
postvocalic /r/ relates to the role of the United States in WWII; he does
so by linking the factors responsible for this and other changes to an
altogether different and earlier set of social phenomena.

The first chapter, The Legitimation of Accent, has three purposes. Most
significantly, it develops a social theoretical framework for analyzing
the legitimation of accent.  It also reviews relevant work in language
standardization.  Finally, it develops what the Bonfiglio describes as a
working concept of standard American English.  The chapter begins with a
discussion of Karl Marx's formulations of the relationship between
economic power and structures of thought. Bonfiglio points out that some
social historians investigating language as social capital have been
influenced by Marx's work.  One such scholar is Pierre Bourdieu. Bonfiglio
explains that work such as Bourdieu's Language and Symbolic Power (1991)
is useful for linguists precisely because it places language outside the
realm of the economic market while still recognizing critical links
between economic and linguistic capital.  Accordingly, he considers
Bourdieu's concept of linguistic capital, defined as ''the capacity to
tailor specific locutions to the demands of specific markets,'' (12) to be
of crucial importance for this study.  The theory Bourdieu puts forth
allows us to see some linguistic exchanges between individuals as episodes
of symbolic violence and social coercion.  These are often founded on
class-conscious notions of acceptability and unacceptability.

Notions of appropriate speech are not limited to conversation-level
interactions between individuals in which the balance of power between
speakers is skewed; instead, dialect regions and cultural areas can be
understood as possessing or lacking linguistic capital.  However,
linguistic capital is in no way to be linked to what some may consider
superior language features.  Bonfiglio turns to the work of John E. Joseph
(1987) and James Milroy (1999) to strengthen his explanation of why this
is so.  These scholars, like Bonfiglio, show that it is not the elements
of particular languages that determine their value or worth.  They link
such assessments instead to a dominant group's ability to marginalize or
suppress another language.  Bonfiglio states: ''There is nothing in the
particular language itself that determines its worth: it is the connection
of the language in question to the phenomena of power that determines the
value of that language and that contributes to the standardization
process.'' (23) As made clear in the following chapters, the forces of
social coercion are evident in widely shared language attitudes and
supralinguistic beliefs, ones that exist across classes and regions.

The second chapter, Pronunciations of Race, takes a predominately
diachronic look at the relationship between pronunciation and ideology.
It discusses this juncture in eighteenth, nineteenth, and early
twentieth-century contexts.  The chapter pays special attention to figures
that shaped opinions about language by conflating notions of ethnicity,
morality, and race.  Examples Bonfiglio discusses in detail include
Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Henry James.

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to an overview of influential texts
that deal directly with language.  It examines pronunciation manuals from
the antebellum period and the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Bonfiglio finds that the former group characterizes 'correct'
pronunciation in terms of social class and morality.  Among these manuals
are some that were published in Britain.  Such texts, though written
primarily with British readers in mind, served as key points of reference
for subsequent manuals written in the United States.  Examining
continuities between these and similar North American texts from the late
nineteenth century, Bonfiglio demonstrates that toward the end of the
twentieth century racial discourse becomes central to the ideology of
pronunciation.  He does so by commenting on passages from a number of
unsettling yet interesting texts.  These include: Theodore Mead's Our
Mother Tongue (1890) and Eugene Babbitt's The English Pronunciation of the
Lower Classes in New York and the Vicinity (1896).

Race-centered ideas about language also figure prominently in the
publications of individuals that Bonfiglio highlights in this chapter. Due
to limitations of space, only two will be mentioned here.  First is the
work of James F. Bender, an NBC employee who trained announcers and had a
profound influence on the development of Standard American and its use in
the media.  A number of Bender's writings invoke dialectics of morality
and ethnicity in their call for standard pronunciation: The Personality
Structure of Stuttering (1939), NBC Handbook of Pronunciation (1943),
Salesman's Errors of Grammar (1946), and How to Talk Well (1949).  Second
is the linguist Louis Mencken, author of the multi-volume The American
Language and founder of the journal American Speech.  Bonfiglio
characterizes Mencken as ''the Paul Revere of language, the alarmist with
one monotonous reveille whose anti-British message was to set the tone for
subsequent accounts of the etiology of standard American pronunciation.''
Here the author asks why Mencken, given the predominance of xenophobia in
his thinking, has been designated ''the patriarch of the American
language.'' (142)

While a precise answer to this question is held in abeyance, Bonfiglio
does review the writings of social theorists who center language purity in
their analyses of race and society.  Among these are: Madison Grant's The
Passing of the Great Race (1918), Stephen Graham's With Poor Immigrants to
America (1914), Alexander Melville Bell's Elocutionary Manual (1878) and
his The Sounds of R (1896) and Margaret Dewitt's Our Oral Word As Social
and Economic Factor (1928).  This survey situates Mencken^'s work in
sociohistorical context and provides an oblique outline as to how
Bonfiglio's question can be answered.

Chapter three considers immigration to the northeastern United States and
migration to the western regions in light of the phonemic shift away from
the eastern seaboard toward western and midwestern varieties of speech.

The chapter discusses a variety of icons of American popular culture. The
author begins with comments on the 1997 movie ''Good Will Hunting.'' Here
Bonfiglio notes that the production's depiction of Harvard students'
speech is marked by the continuant postvocalic /r/ while working class
characters drop /r/ postvocalically.  This and other examples are included
to show that prestigious forms of pronunciation are inextricably
associated with upward mobility, higher education, and proximity to
network standard.  Such tendencies are also characteristic of the second
half of the twentieth century.  In contrast, as mentioned above, the
evidence Bonfiglio presents demonstrates that linguistic prescriptivism is
more overtly tied to racial fears in early periods, most notably the late
nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Another significant theme of this chapter is its analysis of racism and
discrimination against immigrants and other disenfranchised groups.  An
episode of xenophobia Bonfiglio emphasizes is the rampant anti-Semitism
existing in the Ivy-league schools of the northeast in the early part of
the twentieth century.  The author notes that in 1922 Harvard formed a
faculty committee to address the 'problem' of increasing Jewish
enrollment.  Bonfiglio explains that in reacting to an increase in Jewish
enrollment, the school many consider the nation's premiere university
looked away from itself and Boston to construct the ideal student, a
prototype with specific racial, cultural, and ethnic characteristics.
Other institutions, he suggests, followed suit.  Bonfiglio describes their
model student as ''the Nordic Christian (mid)western country boy'' (186)
and argues that this ideal profoundly influenced linguistic norms and
goals in the nations most prestigious universities.

According to Bonfiglio, this midwestern identity served as a model in
standardizing American English and later influenced recommendations for
the archetypal broadcast voice.  The author sums up this process nicely in
the section Occident, Orient, and Alien; he writes: '' ideology of ;
'accentlessness' or standard speech was based upon generalization and
extrapolation from a geographical area that was then instantiated as the
network standard.'' (206) He shows that this ideology was shaped by a
paranoid reaction to eastern immigration and a celebration of the American
frontier that in terms of linguistic capital ultimately devalued the local
varieties of English spoken in places like New York and Boston.  He
suggests that in more recent times these and related phenomena distinguish
both the voices of actor heroes (such as Will Rogers and John Wayne) and
trusted newscasters (such as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather) as both
quintessentially American and correct.

EVALUATION: This book is appropriate for beginning students as well those
who have already developed specific interests in the field of
sociolinguistics.  The fact that it is written in a clear style and
contains no jargon makes it accessible for all.  For readers new to
linguistics, the author's discussion of popular movies, actors, and other
famous figures gives it an appeal and relevance that other studies lack.
The book will be of special value to more advanced readers who have
interests in the following areas: perceptual dialectology, language
standardization, historical sociolinguistics, and the history of

One of the strong points of the book is that it is easy to locate
information in it.  Moreover, it includes a useful and detailed index and
a complete bibliography, thus making it a valuable resource for those who
may wish to do research related to one of the many fascinating texts
Bonfiglio mentions.  There are some minor discrepancies between
publication dates cited in the text and those included in the bibliography
(see entries for Alexander James Bell and James Bender).

My strongest recommendation is that if another edition of this book is
published then the second chapter, the longest of the three, should be
reorganized and perhaps divided into two chapters.  One section could be
organized chronologically and the other made to deal with specific topics.
Each of the existing sections is interesting and filled with insights;
however, the second chapter covers a wide variety of themes and at times
the connections among these are unclear.  Additionally, the inclusion of
immigration statistics to the United States would strengthen the author's
already engaging arguments concerning the rise of xenophobia and stigmas
associated with varieties of English native to the northeast.  This
information could be included in either the first or second chapter.

While reading I sometimes found myself confused about what to remember and
how the many examples that the author includes related to one another and
to the book's main arguments.  The author's general arguments are
clarified somewhat in the many instances in which he states the purpose of
the study.  However, this statement changes significantly throughout the
text.  If some of these were reworded to indicate the purpose of including
specific theoretical concepts, individual sections, and chapters then the
connection among these and the text as a whole would be more apparent.

The minor frustration I occasionally felt was compounded by the fact that
there is so much discussion in which language and linguistic
discrimination figures only briefly.  While I was always aware that there
was a connection between topics such as xenophobia and language attitudes,
it seemed that the link was being dealt with only superficially.
Moreover, I felt that the excellent collection of data that the author
brings together itself called for the more sophisticated and in-depth
treatment of the intersections of race, language, and ideology.  A related
issue is that little attention is paid to linguistic processes at the
micro level and how these differ from macro-level processes, even when
Bonfiglio's focus is on individuals and specific historical events.

One possible remedy for this problem is a greater emphasis on the work of
Pierre Bourdieu.  In the current text the author offers a captivating
discussion of Bourdieu in the first chapter, but never explains nor uses a
concept central to Bourdieu's writings -- his theory of habitus.  What
seems absent in the text is the acknowledgement that speakers create a
series of different linguistic registers according to social values and
norms of prestige.  Narrowing this gap, thereby offering a more nuanced,
language-centered theory of power, could tighten the book's already strong

Few scholars have accepted the challenge of bringing together the topics
of race, language, and history together in one text.  The author does so
effectively and systematically, making this volume a must for linguists,
historians, anthropologists, and others with interests in understanding
how speakers articulate and make sense of decisions related to language
and identity.


Babbitt, Eugene.  1896.  The English Pronunciation of the Lower Classes in
New York and the Vicinity.  Norwood: American Dialect Society

Bell, Alexander Melville.  1887 (?).  Elocutionary Manual.
Washington: John C. Parker.

- ---.  1896.  The Sounds of R.  Washington: Volta Bureau.

Bender, James.  1939.  The Personality Structure of Stuttering.  New
York: Pitman.

- ---.  1943.  NBC Handbook of Pronunciation.  New York: Thomas Crowell.

- ---.  1949.  How to Talk Well.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  1991.  Language and Symbolic Power.  Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.

Dewitt, Margaret.  1928.  Our Oral Word As Social and Economic Factor.
London and Toronto: J.M. Dent.

Graham, Stephen.  1914.  With Poor Immigrants to America.  New York:

Grant, Madision.  1918.  The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial
Basis of European History.  New York: C. Scribner's Sons.

Joseph, John E.  1987.  Eloquence and Power.  London: Frances Pinter.

Mead, Theodore.  1890.  Our Mother Tongue.  New York: Dodd, Mead, and

Milroy, James.  1999.  The Consequences of Standardisation in
Descriptive Linguistics.  In Bex, Tony and Richard J. Watts (eds.),
Standard English: the Widening Debate.  London and New York:
Routledge, 16-39.


Don Walicek is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the
University of Puerto Rico, Ro Piedras where specializes in the study of
Caribbean Creole languages.  His general area of concentration within
linguistics is sociolinguistics.  He has related interests in the study of
race, critical theory, and postcolonial studies.  He completed his B.A.
in Social Anthropology and his M.A. in Social Anthropology and History,
both at the University of Texas at Austin.

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