“Honest-to-Goodness American Speech”: MLA “Outtakes” Part 2

This post is the second in a series inspired by material I came across in my research for MLA 2021, but did not quite fit into the presentation project. My MLA project traced the way literary texts were used as data for insight into African American language in the important journal, American Speech, in the 20th century. Along the way there was much more to see.

In this post I want to share the way specific states in the Midwest start to arise as having their own Englishes in this specific scholarly community. Why do I want to share this? Because there is a myth in the mind of the general public that the Midwest is the source of “standard” American English, and that this is because that is the variety of English that is the most neutral and easy to understand. Because Midwestern English is so neutral, it was chosen to be the English of radio broadcasting, which then perpetuated it. On the contrary, linguists have long studied the quirks of Midwestern Englishes. By looking at when, where, and how Midwestern Englishes become registered as “different,” we can help to dispel the myth of the neutral Midwestern Standard. In short, if Midwestern English is so neutral, why has it historically been so fascinating to early linguists?

For this post, I focused on articles that specifically mentioned in their title “Midwest” (or actually “middle west” for this era) or a state that today I would recognize as part of the Midwest (although each person likely has different judgments on this). I excluded any articles about place names. Overall, I found that in American Speech, specific Midwestern states’ Englishes began to pop up slowly beginning in 1928, especially Nebraska. Some of the content is from full on studies/informants, but much of it comes from amateur write-ins to the journal. Other states that are mentioned are Idaho, Wyoming, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, etc. I found that usually the English examined was specific to a region in the state–not a variety attributed to that whole state.

We learn that in Nebraska, folks can say “cheesy” to mean “pale,” and “misbobble” for “mistake” (Burwell 1931). Iowans, we learn, say “boughten,” and use the phrase “sit up” to mean “court” (Buxbaum 1929). In Idaho you can call a “dust devil” a “brainstorm” (Jensen 1931).

Most pieces were about specific vocabulary, but there was still some documentation of pronunciation/phonology. One experiment tested and documented the length of speech sounds of a “Middle Westerner” reading a narrative (Parmenter and Trevino 1935). One literary enthusiast argues that Edward Eggleston’s rendition of “Hoosier” dialect in the Ohio River Valley checks out, where they say “WAIR” for “were” (Bloom 1934).

There was often an association with Midwestern English and racial “purity,” which tracks with a lot of work by scholars like Thomas Bonfiglio, who argue that white supremacist ideology is actually the force behind what we historically associate with the “standard.” One B.D.J. from Chicago complains in 1933 about New Yorkers’ bias against Midwestern speech:

. . . And one can hear fearful speech in New York City, perhaps the least American of our cities. In our metropolis the English tongue is mutilated by foreigners from many lands as well as by the natives. Their perpetrations are far worse than anything heard in the Middle West.


Midwestern Englishes are often framed by these early linguists in ways that are inseparable from their settler-colonial history, like the language used by the “Nebraska Sandhillers;” “sandhillers” are those who took advantage of the Kincaid Act of 1904, an add-on to the Homestead act, intended to facilitate “progress” via settlers farming land in the west. Melvin Van Dern Bark’s 1928 article, “Nebraska Sandhill Talk” offers mostly regional rancher/farmer slang, but links the land and the language in a particularly romanticized way that is notable:

This great sea of hill country is inevitably becoming “improved,” though the marks of change are not yet discernible. Some day the “sandhillers” may no longer say “God never made this land fer farmin’.” That day the sandhills will have lost much of their present picturesqueness and its people much of their “talk.”

Van Den Bark, pg 133

Finally, the other aspect of the Standard Midwestern English myth I wanted to address is that it was chosen by radio broadcasters to be the target English. The myth makes this sound easy–there is a selection of Englishes, so of course choose the most neutral one. Everyone agrees, right? But that’s not quite what happened. Much ink has been spilled since the late 1920s about how radio broadcasters should speak, including among early linguists.

In the journal American Speech, alongside the articles about Midwestern states mentioned above, we can see almost a parallel rise in pieces about how radio broadcasters should speak. Some call out specific pronunciations; others argue for the formation of special committees, modeled after the recent British Broadcasting Company’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English. For example, a “miscellany” article in 1930 argues that “there is need for some impelling force to direct attention to pronunciation that has become acceptable through usage” (vol 6 no 1 pg 78), like using the correct vowels in “victory” and “apparatus” (77). Another writer complains that listening to the radio means hearing your “mother tongue” “hung, drawn, and quartered,” and offers a long list of pronunciation corrections (Combs 1931). One writer argues that “the radio is making us take stock of the other fellow’s pronunciation, more than ever before” (vol 5 no 5 pg 420). He rails against what he hears on the radio as affectations of “especial culture” in pretentious pronunciations, and compares them to a recent MLA presentation (I’m not joking!) in which a presenter pretended to “speak as an Englishman” but then “he would drop right back into plain, honest-to-goodness American speech” (422).

Overall, Standard English is a project; it’s found in our language ideologies, not in any particular place.

The Word Gap is a Racist Myth (and it follows kids to college)

Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked, during the most recent Democratic debate, to speak on “inequality in schools and race,” which was framed (correctly) in terms of “the legacy of slavery in our country.” Biden topped off his bumbling response with a gesture towards this idea of a “word gap” that children of color in low income neighborhoods are supposed to experience. His response was so bad, it deserves to be repeated in full right here:
Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining banks, making sure that we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out — the $60,000 level.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.
The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.
It’s not want they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
This response is so astonishingly bad in so many ways and has already been roasted and dismantled everywhere on the internet in funnier and smarter ways than I can do here. What I want to do is focus on something that not everyone in my online orbit knows about–the “word gap” Biden is alluding to.
The Word Gap is the idea that children of color in low income families grow up hearing fewer words than their whiter, wealthier counterparts, and that this results in a cognitive deficit, which then puts them behind at school from the very beginning. The Word Gap myth is driven by the false belief that language=knowledge and words=language. More words? More language, and therefore smarter kids.
(This is the same idea that sells products and services to middle class parents to teach their kids more words earlier than everyone else’s kids, and the same idea that makes parents think that how early their child begins speaking is a clue into their kid’s intelligence. None of this is based in linguistic reality.)
The idea that people of color have deficient linguistic and cultural practices is as old as colonization of this land, but this particular framing of it as a Word Gap that has consequences for education disparities (and the use of “low income” as a dog-whistle for non-white) can largely be connected to a widely cited study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, titled “Meaningful Difference in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (1995).  To summarize, the book argues that “by the age of three, children from affluent households are exposed to approximately 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. The authors claim that this ‘word gap’ is largely responsible for low academic achievement of students from economically impoverished backgrounds” (“Bridging the Language Gap,” 67).
The idea had already been dismantled by celebrated linguist William Labov in his famous 1972 study “Language in the Inner City.” The 1995 study was critiqued by Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas in “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children” in 2009 and clearly debunked by Sperry, Sperry, and Millers 2018 “Re-Examining the Verbal Environments of Children from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds” in Child Development. The researchers showed that there is “substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum.” One of the many problems with Hart and Risley’s study was that it narrowly defined what counted as input (numbers of words; speech specifically directed at the child) and privileged language socialization practices of white, higher income families as the norm.
The Word Gap persists into the current day as a seductive solution to educational “gaps” because it becomes a problem with parents/cultures instead of with schools, and therefore masks the structural nature of these inequalities. A more appropriate framing is the existence of what Gloria Ladson-Billings has called an “education debt,” and which education scholars since Ladson-Billings have been addressing through Culturally Relevant and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (see H. Samy Alim, Django Paris, Jonathan Rosa, and many others). These approaches, especially recent work in CSP see the object of critique as the school systems, not the students. The linguistic practices and cultures students are bringing to the classroom are an asset to build upon.
In light of the history and implications of the Word Gap myth, Biden’s finger-pointing at parents (they, them) and their problems, and the teachers and their problems (the word “problem” seems to be denoting the children themselves) is disgusting. The Word Gap framing persists, though, and while there is a robust effort to fight deficit frames in K-12 systems, I hear relatively little about it my conversations with higher ed administrators, and even less among faculty.
The Word Gap discourse follows students of color (especially those from low income backgrounds) into their time in college, but it hides itself a bit better. The idea that deficit perspectives in higher ed, generally speaking, are a problem, and that they are racist/classist, is not new. But I want to point out here that these deficit discourses are directly related to the myth of the Word Gap, and we can see that through the focus on “Academic English,” and/or “Basic Writing” remediation classes, reading and writing workshops, and other student success initiatives, as the solution to inequities in higher ed. I’m not saying don’t offer services to students; this is a large part of what I do every day, and I hope to write more about how I approach that work in future posts. My problem is with the logic and what that logic closes down, in terms of possibilities and the future of higher ed: if we can just offer enough services, programs, administrative support to help students bridge this “academic language gap,” it seems, we won’t have to face how the entire system is designed to privilege wealthy and middle class whites, whose linguistic practices are normalized.

The problem with “But some day they’ll have job interviews!”

I absolutely loved Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan’s inclusive teaching guide from the Chronicle this summer. It made me think a lot about how we support linguistic diversity in our classrooms.

Sathy and Hogan address, unflinchingly, some common questions about inclusive teaching that many of us in this space have heard before. Among them, “Are the tools of inclusive teaching just hand-holding? Shouldn’t students be expected to learn on their own?” As the guide explains, the idea is to provide more structure, not hand-holding.

Relatedly, when I’ve advised teachers that they should leave room for multiple Englishes to exist in their classroom, I often hear some version of this question: “Some day these students will be looking for jobs and have to write cover letters and speak in interviews. Isn’t it our job to hold students to those standards so they can be successful getting jobs?”

I’d like to flip that around. Our students are some day going to be the ones doing the hiring. It is important that they understand that “proper” or “correct” English is a construct that is used for gate-keeping, often around racial/ethnic lines. We want them to have the tools to distinguish between arbitrary and irrelevant “grammar” rules, and effective writing skills. (Of course, issues of audience and context are always at work, and that’s what we should be teaching. But no blanket “rules” about “correctness.”) This acceptance of the way people outside the campus are going to judge our students would never fly if we were talking primarily about race, or ability, or gender.

I suspect this appeal to career readiness is more about discomfort with the idea that there is no real “Standard English” than it is about preparing students for the job search. After all, we don’t ask students to wear job interview clothing to class (at least on most campuses), and we don’t worry (all that much) about how our course content will add to a student’s resume. The discomfort is probably more with the feeling that “anything goes,” which makes it hard to draw traditional distinctions between who is educated and who is not. And if “anything goes,” how are we supposed to grade student writing? There is a lot out there to help with this final question, and I have the privilege of helping faculty think through this on a regular basis.

Even better, of course, would be to reject the capitalist logic of this question altogether–ideally higher education would be about expanding minds instead of sorting workers into those who can be hired and those who cannot. But I don’t feel very well equipped to fight that most days.