Dialects and Accents in Popular Culture

Posted on: 4. Mai 2009

Since the topic has been one of the most-visited on our blog, I thought I could talk a bit more about it, namely I picked the topic of dialects and accents in popular culture – most importantly, film.

Now, you’ve all noticed this – in Germany your average actor has to speak High German – there are almost no series, no movies in which dialects are used. And since High German was originally devised as a written language, the same holds true for literature – the only area where you will find dialect freely in German popular culture would be comedy – as a means of getting people to laugh at (stupidly sounding) dialects. A good example of that would be Mario Barth: listen to some of his stuff, he speaks in dialect (albeit a weak form), but he uses that mostly to underline his jokes. Now try to find a movie or a series in which a character continously speaks in dialect – you will have a hard time finding someone.

Now, in the English realm of popular culture, the whole situation is reversed. Dialects and accents are everywhere – not only because the different countries claiming English as their mother tongue have different accents of the same language, but also because one country might use different local dialects more freely, due to missing stigmata. For example – the black vernacular is used regularly and, if it were missing, would completely ruin a character. Let me explain that – if you had a black character in a movie, he had to talk like one – while it seems racist to assume the color of your skin changes the way you speak, Hollywood has basically mimicked „street language“ to be a working dialect for black characters. And while there are exceptions (Dr. Eric Foreman in House MD, who could not be „busting heads“ due to him being a doctor and all), those are rare and usually the few well-rounded black characters in American popular culture. Another example would be the latino vernacular – basically the same deal as with the black vernacular, only instead of „fo‘ sho!“ you’d have „Esse!“ – I kid.

But those were dialects depending on a different subculture, not just on regional differences – but we have those too. The regional dialects of the South (I know there are more to distinguish from, but for shortness‘ sake I will abbreviate them like this) are widely used to mark characters as stupid (redneck stereotype) – an example everyone can relate to would be Cleetus from the Simpsons. More honest (and less degrading) examples would be movies like Forrest Gump and TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard.

So, why is the American dialect so much more accessible to the media? I don’t know, I have my ideas though – due to the cultural melting pot, there is no uniform American culture – it consists of many small cultures that blend together. That means, the way people speak is more diversified – while Germans speak their dialect and a degree of High German to communicate with people that don’t understand their dialect, Americans don’t have the distinction of a „higher“ language and their everyday speak. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand each other, they just don’t speak the other persons dialect, they understand it well enough, though.

If you have any comments or insights about this topic, feel free to leave them!


1 Response to "Dialects and Accents in Popular Culture"

[…] Dialects and Accents in Popular Culture « WORLD OF TEXT November 18th, 2006 at 1:12 pm […]

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