book review

English Language Books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

English Accents and Dialects:
An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles, 4th ed.
by Hughes, Trudgill, and Watt
Hodder Arnold, 2005, 159 pages + CD


T he variations in spoken English in England are such that speakers living only ten or twenty miles apart may exhibit distinct differences in pronunciation and grammar. This book describes each major regional accent and contrasts it with Received Pronunciation (RP), which is the form of speech taught to foreigners and until recently used by the BBC. In fact, only 3-5% of the population actually use RP. The strongest point of this book is an extremely useful CD, which contains examples of various dialects. Although some of the recordings are of mediocre quality, they are very useful in helping the reader to distinguish and recognize the various accents spoken in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The book does not discuss traditional dialects, evolution, vocabulary or lexical differences, or linguistic issues pertaining to English as a whole.

An Atlas of English Dialects, 2nd ed.
by Clive Upton and J.D.A. Widdowson
Routledge, 2006, 215 pages


A series of contour maps (isoglosses) depicting the geographic distribution of lexical or phonological variants of 90 selected common words, such as backward, child, you, among, and afraid. Each word gets one map, and is accompanied by a one-page description of its etymology. The maps represent a single time point, and cover England only; Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are excluded. This exercise in language cartography represents a lot of careful work; future generations will undoubtedly find it useful.









American English:
Dialects and Variation, 2nd ed.
by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes
(Language in Society, vol. 25)
Blackwell, 2006, 452 pages


A lthough the differences among American speech patterns are smaller and the distributions are more diffuse than they are in England, America still has a great variety of distinguishable accents and dialects. This book is aimed at readers with no prior knowledge of linguistics. The material is presented at a level appropriate for use as a first-year college textbook. Much of the first few chapters is spent indoctrinating readers into the basic philosophy of sociolinguistics as an aspiring branch of scientific knowledge. The authors make great effort to persuade the reader of the importance of not offending speakers of non-standard dialects, and repeatedly warn the reader against stigmatizing non-standard speech. In these early chapters, the authors also stray into social psychology, and their writing, where they describe language as a tool of gender, race, and class stratification, betrays a strong influence of social constructionism. Later, however, the book improves, and in chapters 4 and 5 they begin to approach normatization as a phenomenon worthy of study in its own right. Then, starting in chapter 6 ("Social and Ethnic Dialects"), the writing quality sharply deteriorates again and the book once again reverts to sociology.

It seems that there are really two distinct and unrelated books here: one that is concerned with linguistics, and another that seems more interested in race, status, and ideology than the subject matter at hand. By chapter 7, the writing has strayed so far into politics that one of the authors even accuses his colleagues (or someone) of racism for ridiculing the term "Ebonics." It was at this point (p.211) that I stopped reading this book and threw it in the trash.

In the parts of the book that I did read, the material is sometimes oversimplified to the point of inaccuracy. The authors undoubtedly know, for example, that there is no such thing as "Southern American English" which is talked about in the early chapters. Several different dialects, including some coastal dialects, are spoken in the Southern United States. But it's as if they are worried that this would only confuse the reader. They even shy away from using important terms like rhotic.

On the positive side, the authors try to place grammatical and speech variations in their historical context. This book had potential. Chapters 4 and 5 are excellent. Many other books on American English are thoroughly suffused with postmodernist rhetoric. So my score of "Four trash cans" actually means that this book is one of the best of a sorry lot.