Review of Race and the Rise of Standard American
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2003 21:09:44 +0000
From: Don Walicek
Subject: Race and the Rise of Standard American
Bonfiglio, Thomas Paul (2002) Race and the Rise of Standard American,
Mouton de Gruyter, Language, Power and Social Process 7.
Don E. Walicek, Department of English, the University of Puerto Rico
at Río Piedras.
PURPOSE / CONTENT: This book investigates the process of language
standardization in the United States, focusing specifically but not solely
on the assent of the 'midwestern accent' as a standard of pronunciation
during the first half of the twentieth century. The views of prominent
statesmen, writers, actors, broadcasters, historians, linguists, and other
influential figures serve as points of discussion throughout the text. They
characterize what Bonfiglio sees as a linguistic ideology unique to the
United States, one based on notions of purity, prescriptivism, and racial
superiority. The book consists of an introduction, three chapters, a
conclusion, and an afterword.
OVERVIEW: Bonfiglio positions the book as a response to his observation
that American Standard's rise to prominence has not been described in a
satisfactory way. In offering his explanation, Bonfiglio argues that the
process of language standardization in the United States was quite distinct
from that of other countries. He holds that xenophobia and anti-Semitism
led to the unconscious adoption of western and midwestern speech patterns as
the norm for a 'general American accent.' Moreover, he challenges Labov's
suggestion that the shift in the pronunciation of postvocalic /r/ relates to
the role of the United States in WWII; he does so by linking the factors
responsible for this and other changes to an altogether different and
earlier set of social phenomena.
The first chapter, The Legitimation of Accent, has three purposes.
Most significantly, it develops a social theoretical framework for analyzing
the legitimation of accent. It also reviews relevant work in language
standardization. Finally, it develops what the Bonfiglio describes as a
working concept of standard American English. The chapter begins with a
discussion of Karl Marx's formulations of the relationship between economic
power and structures of thought. Bonfiglio points out that some social
historians investigating language as social capital have been influenced by
Marx's work. One such scholar is Pierre Bourdieu. Bonfiglio explains that
work such as Bourdieu's Language and Symbolic Power (1991) is useful for
linguists precisely because it places language outside the realm of the
economic market while still recognizing critical links between economic and
linguistic capital. Accordingly, he considers Bourdieu's concept of
linguistic capital, defined as "the capacity to tailor specific locutions to
the demands of specific markets," (12) to be of crucial importance for
this study. The theory Bourdieu puts forth allows us to see some linguistic
exchanges between individuals as episodes of symbolic violence and social
coercion. These are often founded on class-conscious notions of
acceptability and unacceptability.
Notions of appropriate speech are not limited to conversation-level
interactions between individuals in which the balance of power between
speakers is skewed; instead, dialect regions and cultural areas can be
understood as possessing or lacking linguistic capital. However, linguistic
capital is in no way to be linked to what some may consider superior
language features. Bonfiglio turns to the work of John E. Joseph (1987) and
James Milroy (1999) to strengthen his explanation of why this is so. These
scholars, like Bonfiglio, show that it is not the elements of particular
languages that determine their value or worth. They link such assessments
instead to a dominant group's ability to marginalize or suppress another
language. Bonfiglio states: "There is nothing in the particular language
itself that determines its worth: it is the connection of the language in
question to the phenomena of power that determines the value of that
language and that contributes to the standardization process." (23) As made
clear in the following chapters, the forces of social coercion are evident
in widely shared language attitudes and supralinguistic beliefs, ones that
exist across classes and regions.
The second chapter, Pronunciations of Race, takes a predominately
diachronic look at the relationship between pronunciation and ideology. It
discusses this juncture in eighteenth, nineteenth, and early
twentieth-century contexts. The chapter pays special attention to figures
that shaped opinions about language by conflating notions of ethnicity,
morality, and race. Examples Bonfiglio discusses in detail include Benjamin
Franklin, Noah Webster, and Henry James.
The bulk of the chapter is devoted to an overview of influential texts
that deal directly with language. It examines pronunciation manuals from
the antebellum period and the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Bonfiglio finds that the former group characterizes 'correct' pronunciation
in terms of social class and morality. Among these manuals are some that
were published in Britain. Such texts, though written primarily with
British readers in mind, served as key points of reference for subsequent
manuals written in the United States. Examining continuities between these
and similar North American texts from the late nineteenth century, Bonfiglio
demonstrates that toward the end of the twentieth century racial discourse
becomes central to the ideology of pronunciation. He does so by commenting
on passages from a number of unsettling yet interesting texts. These
include: Theodore Mead's Our Mother Tongue (1890) and Eugene Babbitt's The
English Pronunciation of the Lower Classes in New York and the Vicinity
Race-centered ideas about language also figure prominently in the
publications of individuals that Bonfiglio highlights in this chapter. Due
to limitations of space, only two will be mentioned here. First is the work
of James F. Bender, an NBC employee who trained announcers and had a
profound influence on the development of Standard American and its use in
the media. A number of Bender's writings invoke dialectics of morality and
ethnicity in their call for standard pronunciation: The Personality
Structure of Stuttering (1939), NBC Handbook of Pronunciation (1943),
Salesman's Errors of Grammar (1946), and How to Talk Well (1949). Second is
the linguist Louis Mencken, author of the multi-volume The American Language
and founder of the journal American Speech. Bonfiglio characterizes Mencken
as "the Paul Revere of language, the alarmist with one monotonous reveille
whose anti-British message was to set the tone for subsequent accounts of
the etiology of standard American pronunciation." Here the author asks why
Mencken, given the predominance of xenophobia in his thinking, has been
designated "the patriarch of the American language." (142)
While a precise answer to this question is held in abeyance, Bonfiglio
does review the writings of social theorists who center language purity in
their analyses of race and society. Among these are: Madison Grant's The
Passing of the Great Race (1918), Stephen Graham's With Poor Immigrants to
America (1914), Alexander Melville Bell's Elocutionary Manual (1878) and his
The Sounds of R (1896) and Margaret Dewitt's Our Oral Word As Social and
Economic Factor (1928). This survey situates Mencken^Òs work in
sociohistorical context and provides an oblique outline as to how
Bonfiglio's question can be answered.
Chapter three considers immigration to the northeastern United States
and migration to the western regions in light of the phonemic shift away
from the eastern seaboard toward western and midwestern varieties of speech.
The chapter discusses a variety of icons of American popular culture. The
author begins with comments on the 1997 movie "Good Will Hunting." Here
Bonfiglio notes that the production's depiction of Harvard students' speech
is marked by the continuant postvocalic /r/ while working class characters
drop /r/ postvocalically. This and other examples are included to show that
prestigious forms of pronunciation are inextricably associated with upward
mobility, higher education, and proximity to network standard. Such
tendencies are also characteristic of the second half of the twentieth
century. In contrast, as mentioned above, the evidence Bonfiglio presents
demonstrates that linguistic prescriptivism is more overtly tied to racial
fears in early periods, most notably the late nineteenth century and the
first few decades of the twentieth century.
Another significant theme of this chapter is its analysis of racism and
discrimination against immigrants and other disenfranchised groups. An
episode of xenophobia Bonfiglio emphasizes is the rampant anti-Semitism
existing in the Ivy-league schools of the northeast in the early part of the
twentieth century. The author notes that in 1922 Harvard formed a faculty
committee to address the 'problem' of increasing Jewish enrollment.
Bonfiglio explains that in reacting to an increase in Jewish enrollment, the
school many consider the nation's premiere university looked away from
itself and Boston to construct the ideal student, a prototype with specific
racial, cultural, and ethnic characteristics. Other institutions, he
suggests, followed suit. Bonfiglio describes their model student as "the
Nordic Christian (mid)western country boy" (186) and argues that this ideal
profoundly influenced linguistic norms and goals in the nations most
According to Bonfiglio, this midwestern identity served as a model in
standardizing American English and later influenced recommendations for the
archetypal broadcast voice. The author sums up this process nicely in the
section Occident, Orient, and Alien; he writes: "..an ideology of ;
'accentlessness' or standard speech was based upon generalization and
extrapolation from a geographical area that was then instantiated as the
network standard." (206) He shows that this ideology was shaped by a
paranoid reaction to eastern immigration and a celebration of the American
frontier that in terms of linguistic capital ultimately devalued the local
varieties of English spoken in places like New York and Boston. He suggests
that in more recent times these and related phenomena distinguish both the
voices of actor heroes (such as Will Rogers and John Wayne) and trusted
newscasters (such as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather) as both
quintessentially American and correct.
EVALUATION: This book is appropriate for beginning students as well those
who have already developed specific interests in the field of
sociolinguistics. The fact that it is written in a clear style and contains
no jargon makes it accessible for all. For readers new to linguistics, the
author's discussion of popular movies, actors, and other famous figures
gives it an appeal and relevance that other studies lack. The book will be
of special value to more advanced readers who have interests in the
following areas: perceptual dialectology, language standardization,
historical sociolinguistics, and the history of linguistics.
One of the strong points of the book is that it is easy to locate
information in it. Moreover, it includes a useful and detailed index and a
complete bibliography, thus making it a valuable resource for those who may
wish to do research related to one of the many fascinating texts Bonfiglio
mentions. There are some minor discrepancies between publication dates
cited in the text and those included in the bibliography (see entries for
Alexander James Bell and James Bender).
My strongest recommendation is that if another edition of this book is
published then the second chapter, the longest of the three, should be
reorganized and perhaps divided into two chapters. One section could be
organized chronologically and the other made to deal with specific topics.
Each of the existing sections is interesting and filled with insights;
however, the second chapter covers a wide variety of themes and at times the
connections among these are unclear. Additionally, the inclusion of
immigration statistics to the United States would strengthen the author's
already engaging arguments concerning the rise of xenophobia and stigmas
associated with varieties of English native to the northeast. This
information could be included in either the first or second chapter.
While reading I sometimes found myself confused about what to remember
and how the many examples that the author includes related to one another
and to the book's main arguments. The author's general arguments are
clarified somewhat in the many instances in which he states the purpose of
the study. However, this statement changes significantly throughout the
text. If some of these were reworded to indicate the purpose of including
specific theoretical concepts, individual sections, and chapters then the
connection among these and the text as a whole would be more apparent.
The minor frustration I occasionally felt was compounded by the fact
that there is so much discussion in which language and linguistic
discrimination figures only briefly. While I was always aware that there
was a connection between topics such as xenophobia and language attitudes,
it seemed that the link was being dealt with only superficially. Moreover,
I felt that the excellent collection of data that the author brings together
itself called for the more sophisticated and in-depth treatment of the
intersections of race, language, and ideology. A related issue is that
little attention is paid to linguistic processes at the micro level and how
these differ from macro-level processes, even when Bonfiglio's focus is on
individuals and specific historical events.
One possible remedy for this problem is a greater emphasis on the work
of Pierre Bourdieu. In the current text the author offers a captivating
discussion of Bourdieu in the first chapter, but never explains nor uses a
concept central to Bourdieu's writings -- his theory of habitus. What seems
absent in the text is the acknowledgement that speakers create a series of
different linguistic registers according to social values and norms of
prestige. Narrowing this gap, thereby offering a more nuanced,
language-centered theory of power, could tighten the book's already strong
Few scholars have accepted the challenge of bringing together the
topics of race, language, and history together in one text. The author does
so effectively and systematically, making this volume a must for linguists,
historians, anthropologists, and others with interests in understanding how
speakers articulate and make sense of decisions related to language and
Babbitt, Eugene. 1896. The English Pronunciation of the Lower Classes in
New York and the Vicinity. Norwood: American Dialect Society
Bell, Alexander Melville. 1887 (?). Elocutionary Manual. Washington:
John C. Parker.
-----. 1896. The Sounds of R. Washington: Volta Bureau.
Bender, James. 1939. The Personality Structure of Stuttering. New York:
-----. 1943. NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. New York: Thomas Crowell.
-----. 1949. How to Talk Well. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard
Dewitt, Margaret. 1928. Our Oral Word As Social and Economic Factor.
London and Toronto: J.M. Dent.
Graham, Stephen. 1914. With Poor Immigrants to America. New York:
Grant, Madision. 1918. The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial
Basis of European History. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.
Joseph, John E. 1987. Eloquence and Power. London: Frances Pinter.
Mead, Theodore. 1890. Our Mother Tongue. New York: Dodd, Mead, and
Milroy, James. 1999. The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive
Linguistics. In Bex, Tony and Richard J. Watts (eds.), Standard English:
the Widening Debate. London and New York: Routledge, 16-39.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Don Walicek is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras where specializes in the study of Caribbean Creole languages. His general area of concentration within linguistics is sociolinguistics. He has related interests in the study of race, critical theory, and postcolonial studies. He completed his B.A. in Social Anthropology and his M.A. in Social Anthropology and History, both at the University of Texas at Austin.