Non-standard Dialect in Film & Television

Your assignment is to write a minimum 1200-word paper analyzing a non-standard dialect in two movies and/or TV programs. Your paper will focus on a non-standard dialect (including accent) of English that has an identifiable set of linguistic traits (phonological, morphological, syntactical, paralinguistic, etc.) that characterize it. There are many possibilities. Your paper can focus on dialects based “class” (working class, Mid-Atlantic, Locust Valley Lockjaw, etc), region (Southern U.S., Cajun, Southern Californian/Valley Girl), specific location (Cockney, Brooklynese), or ethnicity (Black English, Puerto Rican English, Native American English). Other options would include looking at a style of speaking with a definable set of features (so-called “women’s speech”), a register (“babytalk”), the imitation of a non-standard speech (mock Spanish, mock “Ebonics,” mock “white girl”), or other enregistered form (uptalk, creaky voice/vocal fry, etc).

You are required to find a minimum of two separate films and/or television shows where your chosen speech form is used by characters. Characters must be fictional (no documentaries) and their language use should be significant to their characters. Major characters with more dialogue will give you more data to work with and analyze in the paper. Your paper should both describe and analyze the language used, making connections between at least one character’s speech and the significance and meaning of that character to the film and television program. You should analyze each of the two film examples individually, as well as make comparisons between them. Since many of the critical frameworks in the literature you will use are applied historically, it may be useful for you to pick at least one “classic” (that is, older) Hollywood film.

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An important requirement of this assignment is that you transcribe some of the speech in your film and present the transcription in your paper, where you will analyze it as data. To do this, you should first identify the critical moments of dialogue or speech that contain identifiable aspects and traits of the character’s speech. Then you should follow transcription conventions used by linguistic anthropologists and other scholars who study communication to create a textual representation of your data for use in your paper. Alessandro Duranti’s Linguistic Anthropology (1997)
contains an extended discussion of transcription formats and conventions (see chapter five). There is not a set requirement for the amount of transcription you must do for this assignment, but the effort you put into the transcription will be one of the bases on which your paper is graded.

Analyzing the language of the film’s characters

You will use your transcriptions to identify and discuss characteristics of the characters’ speech and their social significance. Using your transcribed examples, identify aspects of their lexicon, phonology, syntax, politeness, communicative style, or any other speech variables we have learned about in class. Then explore the meanings of this speech to the character and the story. Ask yourself why the writers chose to give the character the background, qualities, and speech style they did. What qualities does it serve to give the character? Is the style used humurously? Does the speech style have characteristics of mock varieties discussed in our module introduction page or the reading by Jane Hill? Why is the character belonging to a certain demographic important and what does it do for the story? Does the character have traits that are commonly held to be true of a group of people or demographic? Are these characteristics positive or negative? Do they reflect patterns in Hollywood history? Commonly-held stereotypes?


Your paper should incorporate course terminology and concepts where possible. Thus both lecture material and class readings can potentially be brought into your paper. What language ideologies are at play? Does the use of a non-standard form relate in any way to a standard language ideology, for instance? Does metalanguage come into play?? Does the language you are analyzing function to create “White public space” or function to undermine it? What qualities are directly and indirectly indexed by a character’s speech style?

You are welcome to do additional research on all aspects of your paper, including your film/TV sources themselves, the social group or demographic you are focusing on, and the characteristics of speech involved in your analysis. The internet can be useful, but make sure you avoid anecdotal and subjective observations that are not based on actual study (e.g. “women talk about their feelings more”) or are non-academic and subjectively biased (“these people speak slang”). Choose your internet sources wisely—websites referencing actual studies of language are preferable, of course.

Several of the class readings will be especially useful for this assignment. Rosina Lippi-Green’s “Teaching Children How to Discriminate” examines the use of accents in animated Disney films, and offers a useful model for your paper’s approach. Rusty Barrett’s book chapter on African American drag queens (“Fierce Fish Who Pee”) goes through the classic list of “women’s language” traits, which it applies to the embedded “white women’s speech” of AADQs. If mock or junk language is included in the speech you are analyzing, Jane Hill’s work will be very useful. For example, the “White Public Space” class reading, analyzes how dominant language use and ideologies construct a white public space. Ask yourself whether your characters’ speech helps construct a public space that is white or reflective of another dominant ideology. Ahearn’s Living Language discusses sociolinguistic variation, including William Labov’s analysis of language and class in chapter 5. Her book also includes a chapter on language, race, and ethnicity (chapter 10) that has a discussion of the traits of Black English.

Some additional readings that were not assigned to the class are also available and could be useful, depending on your paper’s focus. They are linked here and all of these sources will contain a bibliography with additional useful sources. American English Dialects and Variation (2015)
by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling is a comprehensive introduction to American English dialects. Since most of you will select topics related to sociolinguistics, Wardlaugh’s An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2010) is a useful textbook on sociolinguistics which can be used as a resource and will provide additional information related to your topic.

A book with a great deal of useful information for your paper is Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent (2014). Remember that we previously read a chapter of this book on “The Standard Language Myth” in Module 7. This week we are reading the chapter on Disney animated films, but there is much more useful material in the rest of the book also. It includes information on language-based stereotypes, the subordination of non-standard forms, Black English, regional accents, linguistic racism, and Asian English, among many other relevant topics. Some useful models for the assignment include Barbara Meek’s “An the Injun Goes How!” which analyzes stereotypical Hollywood “Injun English” in movies, television, and books and Mary Bucholtz and Qiuana Lopez’s “Performing Blackness, Forming Whiteness: Linguistic Minstrelsy in Hollywood Film” which offers a critical examination of black stereotypes in film. Norma Mendoza Denton’s “The Semiotic Hitchhiker’s Guide to Creaky Voice: Circulation and Gendered Hardcore in a Chicana/o Gang Persona” offers another potential model for your paper, focusing as it does on a single feature (and not an entire dialect) across a variety of different media types, including its use by actual community members. If you are interested in focusing on gender for the assignment, an interesting published paper worth looking at is Tyanna Slobe’s “Style, Stance and Social Meaning in Mock White Girl.”
For Finally, since Black English (also known in the literature as Ebonics or African American Vernacular English) is a popular topic for this assignment, I have uploaded a copy of Lisa Green’s important book African American English (2002) as a resource to the Canvas module as well. It is the best available resource on this topic.

You are required to bring a minimum of three sources into your paper. Lippi-Green’s book is mandatory and you should pick at least one other resource from our class reading and at least one other resource from the outside readings (either those I have provided or a suitable academic, peer-reviewed source that you find on your topic). You may use more than three total, of course, and doing so will improve the quality of your paper. This aspect of your grade will be based not only on the number of sources you utilize but how thoroughly the are integrated and how effectively you engage their concepts, claims, and ideas, so make sure to engage with their arguments and explore how they may or may not apply to your own data.


Your paper should typed, double-spaced using 12 point font and submitted to Canvas either in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. You may use any citation system (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc) but please choose a system and use it consistently in your paper. If you are unfamiliar with any citation system, please consult the Internet. The paper should be a minimum of 1200 words long. You may exceed the length requirement without penalty and with potential reward.

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