Dialect, Diversity, Language

How Many Englishes Do you Speak?

It’s no secret that English-speaking Americans can sound vastly different from one another. We have different accents (Southern, Jersy, “Bah-ston”), vocabulary (pop vs. soda), and good ol’ colloquial idioms (Really New England, how can 15 minutes before an hour [e.g. 12:45] be referred to as “quarter OF?”). A grad student at N. Carolina State University created some amazing maps of some of these differences which, according to the Huffington Post, briefly “set the internet on fire.”

The levels of allegiance to this word are staggering.

We freely discuss these differences, but rarely talk about how they impact our perceptions. We know people make assumptions based on race, gender, or clothing styles, but do we judge based on dialect as well?

In my Language, Literacy, and Culture course, I used Morocco as an example of a Linguistically Stratified Society in which the language you speak strongly indicates your social class. French, for example, is more often used in universities and legal documents, while Darija tends to be the at-home language of urban communities, Tashelhit for rural areas, etc. I used the graphic below to “rank” the social status of each language.

Note that this is NOT a comparison of the actual legitimacy, complexity, or beauty of the languages – from a linguistics standpoint they’re completely equal.

 Naturally, more opportunities open up as one moves toward the top: A student who grows up speaking a language near the bottom must learn his way up the pyramid to access the social, economic, and employment options already available to those who grew up using the “higher” languages.

After showing my students the image, I asked if they thought the US was similarly stratified – not only by languages, but by the dialects of English we speak. “Absolutely,” they resoundingly replied. So I then asked them to construct a similar pyramid for Linguistic Stratification in the US, and here’s what they came up with:


Their on-the-spot pyramid was fascinating on many levels. I especially liked their inclusion of “British” and “Shakespearean” dialects as those perceived to sound “smarter.” (When we discuss “dialects” in America, it’s easy to forget what a Brit might remind us: That NO American speaks “proper English” in the first place.)

This exercise started an eye-opening discussion about linguistic prejudice in America. I’ll address this in future posts, but in the meantime: Are there any additions/revisions you think we should include in this pyramid? What did we miss?


5 thoughts on “How Many Englishes Do you Speak?”

  1. Chris, I wonder how your students broke down British English. Did they mean Received Pronunciation British English, as in the one spoken by Royalty and OxBridge/Russell Group folks, or did they include Scouse? I’ve had a student from the adult ESL class I taught tell me that Scouse isbetter than the Academic Language we speak hear in the US because “English comes from England” and as such, is always correct.

    In any case, the different types of Englishes have always fascinated me. Being mixed race and having been brought up all over the world, I’ve become so adept at code-switching that I sometimes wonder what my true English is. Do you think people have one true or mother language, or can they have more than one?


  2. Good call Lilo – one student brought up that England would have an entire dialect ranking of its own, but none of us were familiar enough with it to speak on it.

    I also found the class fascinating, for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. There’s a great TED talk on the multiple-mother-tongues you mentioned, but I’m saving it for my next post 🙂

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