Why is it important to learn about and study language in society?
Language is one of our most basic human characteristics—using language is something we all do, all the time, every day. But there isn’t just one linguistic code that we use. Rather, language is a nuanced, complex social tool, naturally evolving over time and changing for different circumstances. Research on the English language examines how various segments of society use words, usages, and pronunciations in ways that reflect the cultures and identities of their speakers.
In Baltimore, the language we hear tells us about our history as a city and reflects the diversity of the people who live here. In this short podcast, “The Revelatory Power of Language,” which I produced for the Maryland Humanities Council’s “Humanities Connection” series, I talk about how language differences occur naturally and are part of how we define ourselves, individually as well as socially. Whether we drink soda or pop, whether we pronounce the word aunt as “ant” or “ahnt,” the word “Baltimore” as Bawlmer or Baldamor, whether we use isn’t or ain’t, language tells us something about who we are as speakers of the ever-changing English language.
Photo from 2018 Labs@Light City, Baltimore
Here are a few links about language variation in Baltimore:
- Baltimore Sun multimedia feature story,“Hold Up, ‘Hon’: Baltimore’s Black Vernacular Youthful, Dynamic, If Less Recognized than ‘Bawlmerese'”: This feature about Baltimore language change includes the news article as well as a short video in which I weigh in on language variation in the city, as well as an interactive lexicon. The feature story with the multimedia components do a wonderful job of illustrating the scope and complexity of language throughout our culturally and linguistically diverse city.
- The “Baltimore Accent” Wikipedia page: Read more about the characteristics of “Bawlmerese,” the most well-known of the many varieties of English found in and around Baltimore.
- “Dew As You Dew: Baltimore Accent and The Wire: An article on Baltimore accents in the television show The Wire, focusing primarily on how cast members pronounce their vowels, in what linguists call “u”-fronting and “o”-fronting.
- “A Linguist Explains the Baltimore Accent (and Kathy Bates)”: This short article remarks on the accent of Kathy Bates, who plays a woman from the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore in the television show, American Horror Story.
- “How Home-State Pronunciations Can Shape Local Elections”: When a Maryland expat moves to Montana, he takes his accent with him! This piece written by Ben Zimmer for the Atlantic, with a quote from me, considers the issue of how former Baltimore/Queen Anne’s resident and current Montana Republican U.S. Senate contender Matt Rosendale pronounces the name of his adopted home state. The piece also refers to this ESPN video clip, in which two commentators from Maryland have fun pronouncing players’ names in an exaggerated “Bawlmer”-style accent.
- “Yo Said What?”: Baltimore Youth Use ‘Yo’ As a Gender-Neutral Pronoun: In this April 2013 interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and hosted on the NPR Code Switch Blog, I talk about Baltimore adolescents’ innovative use of ‘yo’ as a gender-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun.
In Spring 2011, my “Language in Diverse Schools and Communities” graduate seminar (offered through the Language, Literacy, and Culture Program at UMBC) conducted research with city residents as well as linguistic experts, and produced four podcasts on topics related to language in Baltimore. These podcasts also help uncover and share the linguistic charm of Charm City:
- “‘It’s a Language Variation, and It Has Its Own Structure’:K-12 Educators in Maryland and Virginia Talk about Language Variation in the Classroom,” by Dr. Christine Mallinson, Laura Strickling, and Dr. Anne H. Charity Hudley
- “‘Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!’ Exploring Hon as a Linguistic and Identity Marker in Baltimore,” by Holly-Catherine Britton and Heidi J. Faust
- “‘Baldamor, Curry, and Dug’: Language Variation, Culture, and Identity among African American Baltimoreans,” by Inte’a DeShields
- “Multilingualism and Ethnicity in Baltimore, Maryland,” by Daniel Morales and Panthea Parang.
- Each podcast is also available for free through UMBC’s iTunes U. You can read more about the podcast project in this story on the UMBC News blog.
There is much yet to be learned about the accents, dialects, varieties, and languages found in Baltimore, Maryland. Thanks for visiting this site. Please leave comments and let us know what you think about language in Baltimore!
The views expressed on this blog are mine and these students’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of UMBC. The fieldwork conducted for these projects was approved by the UMBC Institutional Review Board: Protocols #Y11CM27127, #Y11CM27125, #Y11CM27126, and Y10CM27129. All of the music clips and the sound effects used in these podcasts were obtained from freeplaymusic.com and freesound.org, unless otherwise indicated in the podcast credits.