Monday 6 February 2012

Who's the expert?

The linguist?

Who decides where one regional dialect stops and another begins? And who decides what are the distinctive features of a dialect? Barbara Johnstone’s research in Pittsburgh, USA, finds that linguists and local people tend to give different answers to these questions.

Local people talk about “Pittsburghese” and are interested especially in words that they think are specific to their city. They assume that the features of Pittsburghese are used only in the Pittsburgh area, and that everyone from that area uses at least some of them. Linguists, on the other hand, talk of “the western Pennsylvania dialect area”, recognising that none of the local features are unique to Pittsburgh or even to western Pennsylvania. Earlier dialectologists may have been more interested in words, but present-day linguists are concerned more with accent and grammatical features, many of which are shared with other areas. None of these features is used by every local person.

In public discussions about the local way of talking it was the type of communication technology used that determined whether local people’s views or linguists’ views dominated. In print newspapers, where journalists decide what sources of expertise to represent, claims about Pittsburgh speech used to be attributed mainly to newcomers to the area, whose authority arises from personal experience. Increasingly, claims now come from people with various kinds of institutional authority, such as school teachers, Human Resources personnel, and linguists. People on the street are also quoted. However the headlines for newspaper articles are not usually written by the same journalist, and these often push against the voices of authority. For example, “Pitt prof finds Pittsburghese a slippy subject” juxtaposes the academic linguist with the non-linguist’s preferences for thinking in terms of local words (here, slippy) and referring to Pittsburghese.

Or the people on the street?

On a local website about Pittsburgh speech, on the other hand, anyone could act as an expert, whether or not they were from the local area. There was no way to indicate the source of a person’s expertise and no way to contest the claims of others. Although the information was presented on the web site as there for entertainment rather than as representing any linguistic expertise, this did not prevent it being drawn on by students of language and linguistics. 

Contributors to an online discussion forum, by contrast, could indicate where their expertise came from, and most of them seemed to feel the need to do so. Some told stories to show their local experience, others mentioned local linguistic features to demonstrate their knowledge and some justified their comments by referring to books or scholarly articles.

Johnstone also analysed the Wikipedia entry on Pittsburgh English, which she had developed herself. Of course, the entry had been altered and added to by other people, since this is the way that Wikipedia works. However, the volunteer editors who monitor Wikipedia rely on the citation of scholarly research as a way of evaluating entries. Although it might be thought that the Wikipedia entry would have the most potential for interaction between different kinds of expertise, in fact the voice of local people is less present there – unless they can cite the published research of sociolinguists or dialectologists ­ – than it was in the least interactive of media, the newspaper reports.  

Johnstone’s research suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that if linguists want to get their voice heard in public discussions of language, their best chance of doing so is through Wikipedia. But her research also shows that public understanding of language and dialect comes from several different kinds of expertise, of which the linguist’s can never be the only one.
Johnstone, Barbara (2011). Making Pittsburghese: Communication technology, expertise, and the discursive construction of a local dialect. Language and Communication 31: 3-15.

doi. 10.1016/j.langcom.2010.08.010

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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