Globalization and the Production of Linguistic Locality

Barbara Johnstone
Barbara Johnstone

Attention to linguistic variation worldwide is evidenced in efforts to document or revive dying languages; in political struggles over language and dialect rights, national languages, and language in education; and in the commodification of languages and varieties in film, on TV, radio and the internet, in folk dictionaries and on other tourist artifacts. New attention to regional variation has been part of this trend. This is not the first time regional linguistic variation has become salient in political and popular culture. But it seems paradoxical that regional variation among ways of speaking should be so noticeable in the early 21st century, in the context of the globalizing trends that are leading people to speak more like people from other places. What are we to make of such apparent returns to the local in the context of globalization? Why does discourse about linguistic variety arise even as the differences between dialects and languages threaten to disappear? I suggest that dialect loss and dialect awareness in fact have exactly the same origins, in social and geographical mobility and discursive practices that arise in its wake. The noticing of linguistic difference that can lead to celebrations of or conflicts over linguistic localness can also lead to the eradication of difference, and the conditions that make dialect awareness possible are the same as those that make dialect homogenization possible. At least when it comes to language, renewed attention to the local is not a nostalgic or desperate response to globalization but an inevitable result of globalization.

Contact among speakers who use different linguistic forms might be expected to lead to linguistic accommodation (Giles & Powesland, 1975; Trudgill, 1986) by speakers needing to express solidarity or avoid miscommunication with others. Over the long run, this process might be expected to lead to the “leveling” of varieties–the reduction, that is, in the number of differences between them. In the U.S. as in Europe, industrialization beginning in the 18th century led people to move from the countryside to the cities. Subsequent developments included the emergence of suburbs and “new towns” during the 20th century and a current “urban revival” trend that in some cases is shifting poorer people outwards from city centers as wealthier people move back in. The sociolinguistic consequences of these historical developments have included dialect leveling and the formation of “new dialects” when sets of simplified, mixed, and leveled forms are no longer identified with the source dialects (Kerswill, 2005).

Dialect leveling has been documented in many parts of the world. However, leveling is not the only consequence of dialect contact. For one thing, leveling at the sub-regional level has been accompanied by the maintenance and even increase of dialect differentiation among larger “supralocal” dialects such as Midland versus Northern speech in the U.S. or Northern versus Southern speech in England. On a more local scale, too, the linguistic effects of dialect contact are unpredictable. Natalie Schilling (Schilling-Estes, 2002) compares two islands off the east coast of the U.S. whose residents are now in massive contact with outsiders. While the pronunciation of /ay/ (as in tide) in one of the two once-insular dialects is becoming more similar to that of the dominant outside dialect, the pronunciation of /ay/ in the other is becoming more dissimilar to that of the outside. Schilling suggests that there are linguistic, social, and attitudinal factors at work to differentiate the behavior of the two island dialects in the face of contact.

The fact that the social meanings of linguistic forms can change means that forms that once sounded non-local can be preserved if they come to function as part of the local semiotic repertoire. For example, language forms brought to Corby (an English steel town) from Scotland have come to index Corby identity in opposition to a nearby English town (Dyer, 2002). In Glasgow, the people with the loosest social networks and the most ties to speakers of English English are maintaining distinctive Scottish features in their speech, while less mobile working-class adolescents are adopting non-local forms that distinguish them from other Glaswegians (Stuart-Smith, Timmins, & Tweedie, 2007).

Awareness of regional dialects, and the evaluative attitudes that accompany dialect awareness, are often enacted in stylized performances of localness. In the U.S. Outer Banks the pronunciation of /ay/ (as in tide), often in the context of the phrase hoi toid on the sound soid (‘high tide on the sound side’) has come to serve as the key element in self-conscious performances of the receding island dialect (Schilling-Estes, 1998). Nikolas Coupland (2001, 2008) has explored how radio and television personalities use features of Welsh English to project particular local personas. Joan Beal (1999) has described how “Geordie,” historically associated with the Northumbrian gentry, has come to be overtly associated with the city of Newcastle, in particular its working-class population. A particular subset of locally-hearable forms, often represented in particular lexical items, have come to stand in for the variety as a whole, as when the words Broon (Newcastle Brown Ale) and Toon (referring to the Newcastle football club) stand in for the Northern long /u/.

Stylized representations of regional dialects appear in advertisements in the dialects of their target audiences. (King & Wicks, 2009). Internet sites now that list and define regional words and phrases now supplement print folk dictionaries. Souvenirs inscribed with“Bawlmer” are on sale in Baltimore, as are souvenirs featuring “Pittsburghese” in Pittsburgh. Groups on social networking sites emerge around regional identities, and membership often requires knowing or acting as if one knows, the correct regional words for things.

Scholars and laypeople alike pay attention to regional variation when they think it is under threat. Beal (2010) shows how current scholarly discourse about dialect leveling echoes the discourse of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when ‘the enclosure of common land, the mechanisation of agriculture, and the Industrial Revolution … caused people to move from the countryside into rapidly-expanding industrial towns and cities” (139). Beal points out that many of the English dialects now considered endangered were themselves the result of leveling processes sparked by geographic mobility. In England, a boom in dialect dictionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was accompanied by a surge in dialect literature and the development of regional dialect societies. In the U.S., 19th-century “local color” fiction featured respelled representations of regional dialects, and actors performing stereotypical regional characters were popular on the entertainment circuit. The American Dialect Society was founded in 1889, at the height of the “Gilded Age” of industrialization and geographical mobility.

Figure 1: T-shirt ‘Yinzers’
Figure 2: Sam MacCool's New Pittsburghese front cover
Figure 2: Sam MacCool’s New Pittsburghese front cover













Figure 3: 'Taste of Dahntahn'
Figure 3: ‘Taste of Dahntahn’

While it may not be the first, we do appear to be in a moment when the production of locality is hard to miss. This is evident in Pittsburgh, the city where I have done a dozen years of research. Through activities like online and face-to-face talk about “Pittsburghese” and the consumption of “Pittsburghese” t-shirts (Figure 1), a folk dictionary (Figure 2), talking dolls, commercial signage (Figure 3), radio skits, YouTube videos, and websites, Pittsburghers recruit ideas about local language to make sense of what it means to be a Pittsburgher in an era when the answer to that question is no longer as obvious as it once was (Johnstone, Bhasin, & Wittkofski, 2002; Johnstone, Andrus, & Danielson, 2006; Johnstone & Baumgardt, 2004; Johnstone & Kiesling, 2008; Johnstone, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2013).

Many of the people who do this locality-producing work do not live in Pittsburgh. In an analysis of an online discussion of Pittsburgh speech (Johnstone & Baumgardt, 2004) we found that at least half the participants were members of the Pittsburgh diaspora, often called the “Steeler Nation” because of their fanatical relationship with the city’s football franchise. The Steeler Nation could be said to constitute a diasporic public sphere of the sort that globalization theorists argue has replaced physical public spheres such as 18th-century coffee houses (Habermas, 1989). From a normative, Habermasian perspective, the Steeler Nation could be said to be a simulacrum of Pittsburgh in which serious discourse about ethics and politics is replaced by football statistics and arguments about whether Pittsburgh speech is charming or embarrassing. From a sociolinguistic point of view, however, this mostly virtual community is engaged in the work of dialect-construal. While they may not increase the number of people who speak the dialect in unselfconscious daily life, such activities help to make people aware of the dialect’s existence and, ultimately, to preserve its memory.

The effects of globalization are hard to resist. Nothing seems more local than discursive practices like the production and consumption of folk dictionaries or t-shirts or the broadcasting of radio programs that circulate dialect awareness and celebrate locality by inscribing dialects imagined as unique onto people and locations thought to be unique. In fact, though, these practices become possible only in the context of larger-scale social forces and formations such as the globalizing economy, changing communication technology, and the mass media.


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