Dissecting Dialects

Language is more than just a systematic means of communicating ideas and feelings: It is an important part of culture. American English differs from the Queen's English, but subtle differences are determined not just by geography but by gender, class, and ethnicity, among other factors. Every dialect defines who we are as cultures, nations, and individuals.

Jennifer Bloomquist, an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, studies the connection between linguistic variation and culture. Bloomquist specializes in the dialects of African-American English. There are, she says, threads of similarity that tie most of them together.

But the English spoken by a small group of African-Americans living in Gettysburg is unique--and quite different from dialects spoken by other African-American cultural groups. "What's so interesting," Bloomquist says, "is how they've created these kinds of blends of dialects." Her work on local dialects has made major contributions to the study of language variation, but the benefit has passed both ways: Her work has provided her with more than a measure of professional fulfillment, and that's something she wants to share with others.

Bloomquist says it's not surprising that she ended up being a linguist: She was influenced by her father, who worked for the U.S. Department of Education and was responsible for funding bilingual programs in the United States. The Washington, D.C., native says the topic of language was always of interest in her household. But it wasn't until she was an undergraduate, majoring in English literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, that she found the specialty that would become her career. "I had a professor who taught a class on American dialects, and I thought that that sounded pretty interesting," she says. "So I decided I should go to graduate school for linguistics rather than English literature."

After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1995, she enrolled in the master of arts program in linguistics at the University of Buffalo. But she soon found that most of linguistics was not focused on dialectology, the topic that sparked her interest. The graduate program she chose didn't even have a dialectology program. So she specialized in child language acquisition instead. It wasn't a perfect match, but she never stopped being fascinated by language, particularly by the fact that although everyone uses language, few people think about it very much.

"I really like the behavioral aspects of language," Bloomquist says. "So much of it is a signifier of who we are and what we believe. One of the things you notice first when you meet a new person, beside if they look different from you, is that they sound different. There are so many rich conversations that average, everyday people have about language and just don't realize it."

After finishing her master's degree (1998) and her Ph.D. (2003)--both in linguistics--at the University of Buffalo, she was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at Gettysburg College through the Consortium for a Strong Minority Presence (CSMP), which encourages rising faculty members of color to teach at liberal arts institutions. The program is based at Grinnell College in Iowa, but 36 institutions of higher learning participate. Bloomquist spent 2 years as a postdoc at Gettysburg. While still a postdoc, she submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF). "Because I only taught one course a semester at full salary, I was freed up in terms of time and was able to apply for the NSF grant."

[Editor’s note: CSMP is now hosted at DePauw University in Indiana .]

Getting on (tenure) track

Even though Gettysburg College doesn't offer a degree in linguistics, the chair of the Department of Africana Studies was so impressed with her teaching and research skills that he created a position for her. That NSF grant was funded, so she had the money to do research. She got on the tenure track at Gettysburg in 2005. Now, in addition to research, she teaches undergraduates.

During the school year, Bloomquist's heavy teaching load--three courses each semester, including courses on American dialects and African-American English--takes up most of her time. Outside of her teaching responsibilities, the majority of her time is spent mentoring students. When she finds time to do research--mostly during the summer--she employs lots of undergraduate students as research assistants. So far, Bloomquist and her team have logged almost 300 hours of interviews.

Jennifer Bloomquist (credit: James Hale)

Dialect work--finally

The idea that grew into Bloomquist's NSF-funded research hit her while she was still a postdoc during a conversation with a friend--an African-American woman who was born and raised in Gettysburg--over dinner. "In this [geographical] area, there's a specific [sentence] construction," Bloomquist says. "Instead of saying, 'The car needs to be washed' or 'the house needs to be painted,' they say, 'The car needs washed' or 'the house needs painted.' This is actually a Scots-Irish construction we find all along the Appalachian Mountains."

Her friend's unusual usage got her thinking. Why was her friend different? "It had snowed that day," Bloomquist recalls, "so my friend said, 'Girl, my driveway needs plowed.' " What interested her was how her friend and others reared in Adams County kept African-American English features but also incorporated other features from the regional dialect. "The 'girl' part obviously comes from [the fact that] we're two black women talking and that's something that is very common, but 'my driveway needs plowed' is certainly a local pattern," Bloomquist explains.

Bloomquist's friend is from a small, isolated community of African Americans in Gettysburg, numbering about 1000. Many of these families have lived in Adams County since before the Civil War. They have had a lot of contact with the local majority population and very little with other substantially black communities. "Most of the work that's been done on African-American English comes from blacks living in the South or urban centers on the East Coast," she says. "Pittsburgh is in the same dialect area as Adams County," she says, "but blacks from Pittsburgh don't sound that way because there's a large black community there."

Learning to be a linguist

According to Bloomquist, undergraduates interested in careers in linguistics should realize that the people who study language behavior study it in two different ways: formal and functional. "Formalists begin with theories of language, then find data to support the theory," she says, "whereas functionalists begin with language data and then develop theories of explanation." Students should figure out what kind of linguistics they are most interested in doing, locate a linguist doing that kind of work, and volunteer to help. The most important class they are likely to take, she says, is the first: an introduction to linguistics. Usually, it's a technical course that defines the field and teaches basic methodology. Another very helpful class is the one focused on language and culture, which may be offered in anthropology or sociology departments, especially if no linguistics department exists. The language and culture course opens discussions on language and gender, language and race, and language and class.

Other good sources of information on the field are national professional associations. The largest is the Linguistic Society of America. Other societies are organized according to specialty. Bloomquist is a member of the LSA and the American Dialect Society.

Linguistics resources

The Linguist List is a free resource maintained by linguistics professors and graduate students at Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University.

Linguistic Resources on the Web is maintained by the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Before they graduate from college, students should look for a graduate school or a particular lab that offers the kind of research they want to do. And because most graduate students in the social sciences have to pay their way through school, linguistics has recently become a field that has funds to recruit linguists of color. "Instead of funding scholars from underrepresented groups, specifically, granting institutions fund projects that focus on underrepresented groups," Bloomquist says. "There are a lot of linguists out there who are doing some very interesting work and have been funded very well. There are plenty of opportunities, particularly for students of color."

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Bloomquist says that, when she was in grad school, she worried that she wouldn't find a job. Her anxiety proved unfounded, she says. Today, linguists seem to be in demand, with large research universities and small liberal arts institutions vying for talented linguists. Linguists may also teach English to non-native speakers, in the United States or abroad. Linguists are perfect for the job because they teach English to people with a wide variety of native tongues. Because few people have command of all of them, a deep knowledge of the structural aspects of language is valuable for the position.

Jobs in computational linguistics--which has to do with computer-generated language and artificial intelligence--may be found outside of academia; this is the most profitable and popular (according to job postings) linguistics-related employment sector. Several years ago, traditional linguistic subdisciplines such as sociolinguistics were losing workers, Bloomquist says, but they seem to be making a comeback. Surprisingly, many undergrads who graduate with degrees in linguistics go to law school; their language training--particularly in semantics, which is the study of meaning--can be helpful in legal discourse and analysis. Semanticists can reduce language to strings of logic to represent the most literal meanings. "Remember the famous line from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? It depends on what the definition of 'is' is," she says.

Bloomquist encourages students to consider entering the profession. "For hard-core linguistics, things are looking better now than when I started grad school," she says.

The importance of mentors

Mentoring from a black female linguist made a big difference for Bloomquist. "After I came out of grad school, I was lucky enough to get in touch with Lisa Green, an expert in African-American English," Bloomquist says. She considers herself lucky because there aren't many black linguists--especially women--to serve as mentors. But Green, who is at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, isn't just a mentor; she remains a good friend, supporting Bloomquist's career at every turn. Green offers her support because she admires Bloomquist's work. "Her cutting-edge research makes major contributions to linguistics in general and language variation in particular," she says. "Jennifer is a bright young scholar who has already begun to develop a stellar teaching and research program."

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Robin Arnette is editor of Minority Scientists Network.

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