“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.

“A Crude Duplication of the Sounds”: Some “out-takes” from my MLA 2021 talk

I’ll be honest; my presentation for MLA this year–a pilot study on how linguists talk about literary texts in the journal American Speech in the early 20th century–was probably the least polished talk I’ve ever done at MLA, or maybe anywhere. It was difficult to focus on that work knowing people were storming the capitol and not knowing what that might mean. I made my slides using the MLA template and never figured out how to change the session # info at the bottom–I just left it that way, y’all! Wow. Anyway, I thought some of you might enjoy this series of posts I’m doing to share some of the “out-takes,” as I’m calling them–bits and pieces of what I found that didn’t fit in the time, or just weren’t maximally relevant to the talk.

I’m interested in (among other things) the relationship between linguistics as a field (as broad, varied, and ever-changing a thing that is) and literary texts. Literary texts are often used as data for variationist studies, like documenting varieties of English or analyzing how those varieties change. This is both important and problematic, as we know that literary texts are not transcriptions of speech at all, and are subject to confounding effects from the author, genre, etc. (Some researchers attend to this confound; many don’t.) I know a fair amount about the long nineteenth century, and I know a fair amount about sociolinguistics of the 2000s and beyond, but I wanted to know what was happening in the 20th century–how is literature being used by linguists in that era? To limit the study, I did a pilot of sorts, looking at the first 40 years of issues of the journal American Speech, and specifically looking at studies on African American language.

The results show a real anxiety about the use of literary texts as data. I’d like to sit with one of the later articles for a bit, called “Negro Dialect in Eighteenth-Century American Drama” from 1955, by Richard Walser. Walser argues for using early American drama as a source for what early African American language was like because:

Askew or not, the dialect as written was uninfluenced, at least in the earliest efforts, by literary tradition; and there can be little doubt that most of the Negro characters were drawn from life and that their speech is a crude, if occasionally distorted, duplication of the sounds which the playwrights thought they heard. (269)

There are a few things going on here that are interesting to me. One is that, although Walser is making a case for verisimilitude, it seems to be a weak one that I’m not sure even he truly believes. The representations are “askew,” “crude,” “distorted” versions of what writers “thought they heard.”

I’m also interested in the metaphors–“drawn from life” is an artistic endeavor. “Duplication” sounds a bit more rigorous and reliable, but how do you duplicate a sound?

The crude distortions are framed here as a result of the honest pursuit of verisimilitude-inconsistencies are to be expected, right? And they are framed in opposition to the suspicious regularities of the “local color” movement, which Walser argues is the result of literary convention and genre taking over:

The ten plays impose two general observations. None of the playwrights, with the exception of Murdock, exhibits any great consistency in rendering the dialect. Spelling is capricious, even within one play; and syntax is widely variable […] The variations are understandable. Not until much later did written Negro dialect assume its literary conventionality; nor was any uniformity possible in the eighteenth century. (269)

This inconsistency=authenticity (and therefore reliability) claim is a regular one in this era. But so is the opposite. Consistency=authenticity (and therefore reliability) is also common. (These contradictory logics are also present in studies from the 1990s and 2000s, as I discovered in my dissertation.)

Overall, the goal posts for when and how to use literary texts as American English variation data shift a lot in this era. More out-takes soon!