September 22, 2014—Your dialect says a lot about you—which is why linguists at Georgetown are studying the Washington, DC, dialect and what it can tell us about residents of a city in the midst of change.
The Language and Communication in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area Project (LCDC) was founded in 2006 by Associate Professor Natalie Schilling and Professor Deborah Schriffin. According to Schilling, scholars have done little sociolinguistic study of Washington, DC. There’s an incorrect assumption, she says, that “no one is actually from DC.”
The city’s transitory and international populations have also made the study of the DC dialect more difficult. “It’s more complicated to look at dialects in contact with other dialects,” Schilling explained.
A dialect includes many aspects of speech: pronunciation, word choice, and sentence structure. Researchers in the Department of Linguistics Minnie Annan and Anastasia Nylund have spent time in the field listening to DC residents and documenting how they use language.
In their research, Georgetown linguists have found use of particular words such as lunchin’, meaning not paying attention or “out to lunch”; cised, meaning excited; and bama, meaning a person who is unkempt or uncool.
While linguists at LCDC have documented these lesser-known words, they've also discovered how individuals use the DC dialect in everyday life. The topic of a DC dialect stirs a lot emotion in the community.
“People use the idea of a DC dialect to either claim identity from [the] area or distinguish themselves from it,” Nylund, the interim director of the master’s degree in language and communication, explained. The DC dialect also illustrates “what DC means to people,” she says, referring to the disconnect between “DC” and “Washington.”
A dialect can also serve as a way for individuals to make connections and navigate their communities, Annan said. Annan is LCDC’s project coordinator and conducted some of her fieldwork at Ben’s Chili Bowl in the U Street neighborhood.
“When I want to make [a] connection with certain people, I turn on Southern features [of my speech],” Annan explained. But other times, Annan shifts away from certain aspects of her speech to avoid misconceptions about Southerners. Likewise, a person who wants to connect with fellow DC residents may use more of the “DC words,” while others may avoid those words in order to distance themselves from the crowd.
We all make these choices when speaking, although we may not be aware of it. “There are no single-style speakers,” Nylund said. “Every single person has an array of styles of language and ways of connecting,” she continued.
Studying the DC dialect not only provides insight into individual perceptions and interactions, but it also allows linguists like Natalie Schilling the opportunity to see how Washington, DC, has changed over time. Schilling is particularly interested in language variation and change. Her work focuses on how “people tell stories about growing up in a neighborhood that’s changed over decades,” she explained. In addition to mapping changes in neighborhoods and demographics, the DC dialect is another way to understand significant changes in the city’s recent history.
According to Schilling, sociolinguists always have two goals: one academic and one social. Schilling hopes that LCDC’s research helps individuals gain a better understanding of others in their community. When The Washington Post covered LCDC’s research, Schilling and her colleagues saw that many people commented that a DC dialect was simply “incorrect,” “sloppy,” or “broken.” But that’s not the case, Schilling explained. Dialects have regular patterns, and there are many unconscious rules.
“We would really like people who don’t study linguistics [for] a living to understand that dialect variation is normal and natural,” Schilling said. “It can be a very important part of peoples’ identity, culture, and personality.”
Annan, who also works at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, teaches young children about the differences between dialects and how people use language for particular reasons. It’s a stark contrast from the prescriptive view of language frequently taught in schools—that one type of speech is good and one type of speech is bad.
“Everybody’s language has value and everybody’s language is wonderful, [but] everybody’s language is different,” Annan explained. “If you understand and acknowledge that language is different, we can move on to the next thing. That’s what I’m trying to do with linguistics.”
Curious about dialects? The Department of Linguistics offers many courses that delve into these aspects of sociolinguistics: