Brianna Raquel London is an African-American 23-year old who lives in Georgia but spent her first nine years in the South Bronx. Today she maintains a YouTube vlog, where she informs and entertains by airing issues that her friends clam up about but which London feels need discussion, everything from why black men seem to pass up darker women for “redbones” (those with lighter skin) to racism on Empire, the new Fox television show about hip hop and drugs.
London has also discussed the social aspects of language on YouTube, though she doesn’t use the term “sociolinguistics.” She’s also never taken a course in the subject or read any scholarly work in the field. Even so, in one of her video blog posts, she recites studiously from a list of words designed to showcase the speaker’s variety of American English. Going down the list, she hits the question, “What is a bug, that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?” “Roly poly,” London answers.
Then: What do you call gym shoes? “I call gym shoes sneakers or trainers . . .For the most part I say, ‘Go get my Nikes. Go get my Taylors.’ . . .You know what I’m saying? I was Taylor game before Wiz Khalifa started repping that hard. Yeah. I got Converse by the case, so I be like, ‘Go get my Chucks. Go get my Taylors.’”
As for a certain soft, chewy candy, London’s three-syllable pronunciation is less telling than her commentary on the word itself as she pats her long hair for the camera: “Vixen, villain, you know what I’m saying? Me, my skin complexion. I love the word ‘caramel.’”
London has listened to lots of people on YouTube reading the same word list, so she’s aware that some call roly polys “pill bugs” and gym shoes “tennis shoes.” She knows that “caramel” can be pronounced with two syllables—and not everyone is referring to skin tone. She knows she sounds different from people of other regions, classes, ethnicities, and races. But the difference causes her no shame; to her, she sounds fine. “I can speak proper English. I just choose to speak with my accent,” she tells her audience. Then she continues reading words: “Sure.” “Crayon.” “Both.”
On London’s list are 31 pronunciation questions and 10 multiple-choice vocabulary items, including the bug-that-rolls-into-a-ball question and the one about candy. On YouTube one can find over 400,000 such videos, made by people throughout the world but mostly in the United States. Many have “tagged” their friends to use similar lists and post their own results. That’s why these YouTube productions are called “Accent Tags.”
No one knows exactly how Accent Tagging started, though its prehistory seems associated with two linguists who posted some work on the internet over a decade ago and who are now amazed that it ended up as part of the YouTube lists used today by lay people to perform what’s lately been called “citizen sociolinguistics,” “folk linguistics,” and “perceptual dialectology.” Even more amazingly, other linguists have started paying attention to the laypeople’s performances. Back in the academy, they’re watching Accent Tag videos and discussing them.
The criss-cross started in the late 1990s. Linguist Bert Vaux (his last name is pronounced “vox”) was at Harvard then, teaching a “Dialects of English” class. Preparing his syllabus, he had difficulty finding material he considered relevant to contemporary students. “The people surveyed in traditional US dialect scholarship were old, white, male farmers,” Vaux says, “talking about the parts of a plow.” Even the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) seemed outmoded. It had fewer than 3,000 informants. Its data were gathered in the 1960s and 1970s, and 90 percent of the interviewees were middle-aged and elderly.
Vaux couldn’t make pedagogical use of his students’ talk, either, because virtually all of them spoke Broadcast Standard. Non-standard pronunciation, he realized, was largely extinct among these well-educated young people, no matter what region they hailed from or what ethnic or racial group they belonged to. So Vaux decided to do a dialect survey based on syntactic and vocabulary features that, as he puts it, ”sneak under the radar” even when someone tries, consciously or unconsciously, to polish their speech.
To get under that radar, Vaux started handing out a survey with a long list of 122 yes-no and multiple-choice items. “How do you pronounce the second syllable in ‘pajamas’?” was one question. With the “a” like it’s pronounced in “father”? Or like the one in “cat”? Does “caramel” have two syllables or three?” “What’s the bug called that rolls into a ball?” Vaux posted a shorter version of the questionnaire on his Harvard website.
The survey first appeared on the web in 2000, followed by distribution maps in which America looked like a version of Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, with respondents’ answers strewn across the country as tiny, multicolored dots. The maps were created by Harvard undergrad Scott Golder, who was studying linguistics at the time. They were hosted on the web by an undergraduate computer-and-technology student group at Harvard.
There was no Twitter then, no Tumblr, Facebook, or YouTube. Going “viral” was still something associated with the flu and chicken pox. But Vaux knows now that his survey went “protoviral.” Within months, he says, some 60,000 people had taken it, most not associated with Harvard. In terms of number of respondents, “it was the biggest survey ever except for the census,” Vaux says. As a dialect instrument, it was gargantuan—the DARE, with its 80 field interviewers traveling the country for years, had collected data from less than five percent as many people as Vaux did in just a few months.
Two years after Vaux’s work first appeared on the Internet, Robert Beard, a linguist who at the time was recently retired from many years of teaching at Bucknell, received an email that he remembers was “floating around” among linguists. It contained Vaux’s list from the Harvard website. Beard curates a cheerily readable website called Alphadictionary.com; it’s all about language, and it’s pitched to Linguistics 101 students and laypeople. Beard grew up in North Carolina, and he decided to modify Vaux’s list into a survey that would identify speakers from the South. He called his new quiz “Yankee versus Dixie.” Once up on his site, it became so popular that Beard was interviewed about it on National Public Radio in 2006.
Social media was coming into its own around then: YouTube had launched in 2005, Facebook began recruiting the public for membership in 2006, and Tumblr would start up a year later. No sooner was everyone schmoozing with friends on the net than Beard’s list went stunningly viral—he says that by the end of 2006, five million people had taken the quiz. It’s still on the net today, with questions like: Do you say cot and caught the same way or different? Crawfish or crawdad? Hoagie or sub or po’boy? Your answers, the survey promises, will tell whether you are “Dixie or Yankee.” (“Find out how much Southern blood your speech shows,” goes one iteration on one website.) After you find out, you click a “share” button to send the survey to your social networks.
“Dixie or Yankee” was fun. But it did not allow people to discuss their results with many others. Reviewing one’s results and talking about dialect was a largely private experience.
Then, 2011 saw the first postings to YouTube of “Accent Tag,” the dialect performance genre that Brianna Raquel London eventually plugged into and which has so far generated those 400,000 very easy-to-find videos, with copious and spirited audience comments (“New York and New Orleans have very similar accents! Love listening to you speak. Check mine out here,” says one response to London’s video).
The taggers, mostly young women, mainly come from throughout the US and read from more lists, their authors unknown, which quote liberally from Vaux’s and Beard’s lists but include many additional words (among them “syrup,” “Alabama,” and “both”). Varying levels of video production quality still suffer from the murk of bedroom lighting crossed with cheap web cam. Performance style runs the gamut, from nerdy to witty to raucous (the last is especially common when partners tag together, often after drinking alcohol).
But common to all the videos is something remarkable: the performers are unlike most people who have never studied linguistics. As Vaux puts it, they’re “a self-selected group of people who are not prescriptivists.” In other words, they make no value judgments about the “rightness” and “wrongness” of how people speak their native dialect. Instead, they take delight in merely describing their speech. They’re just like linguists: they’re descriptivists.
And with Accent Tag videos, they’re getting a chance to bust myths about language — not just laypeople myths, but even those held by linguists.
At least one instance of myth-busting has come from Accent Taggers who identify as black. They are somewhat of a rarity—the vast majority of taggers appear to be white. Brianna Raquel London is one of the minority. Schwa Fire spoke with her recently about how she ended up doing a video of her own. Using completely standard English grammar, she recounted how, in 2012, her friends in Georgia started telling her about Accent Tagging as they remarked about her “Northern” accent. She told them her mother is from New York City and that she, herself, spent her early childhood there.
After defending her New-York-inflected speech—she says her “a” in “water” like the first vowel in “lawyer”—she got interested in further exploring her assumption that other factors besides where one lives determine how one speaks. At the time, she was employed by an upscale business whose customers were mostly white. “At work I had to have a customer-service, educated accent,” said London. “I couldn’t use my accent.” To show off that accent—which, more than anything, sounds like what linguists call “African-American English“ (or AAE for short), she browsed Google and found one of the lists you read from when you do a tag video. She copied it, turned on her webcam, and started discussing Chuck Taylor shoes and caramel-colored skin, all the while sounding like a black woman who’s clearly spent formative time in the Bronx.
In 2012, the same year that London posted her tag, Chicago’s National Public Radio station WBEZ did a program about the Chicago accent, accompanied by a blog post. The producers were white, and the program’s focus was almost exclusively on how white Chicagoans use vowels differently from people in other parts of the country (many Chicagoans pronounce the word jockey just like Jackie, for instance). The program went on to say that African Americans in Chicago don’t use these vowels, and further, it claimed that they have an alternate set of vowels that are invariable, no matter what city they live in. “AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas,” WBEZ said. “Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc. So while an African-American Chicagoan might not sound like a white Chicagoan, he or she may sound a whole lot like an African-American Washingtonian.”
What happened next depended in large part on YouTube’s Accent Tag phenomenon. WBEZ ended up doing a second, mea culpa, program dedicated to African-American English and recognizing that African-American English pronunciation varies from city to city.
The new show was created after the radio station was contacted by Amanda Hope, who was indignant about the first program. She left a comment on WBEZ’s blog: “I’m an African-American woman who was born and raised on Chicago's Southside but I've lived in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. I've also spent a significant amount of time in the South. Let me be the first to tell you that AAE has a variety of accents. In fact, Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD are about a 45-minute car drive away from one another and there is a stark contrast between the accents of blacks from Baltimore and the accents of blacks from DC. To take my point even further, Black Chicagoans make fun of the accent of Black St. Louis residents all the time because of their "errrrrr" sound. I'm so tired of articles and studies suggesting that African Americans are comprised of some homogenous group.”
When WBEZ contacted Hope, she buttressed her argument by pointing the radio people to Accent Tag videos by blacks across the country, including Chicago. The videos impressed the producers, and the station’s subsequent “Chicago blaccent” show gave African-American taggers a day in the elite-media sun. WBEZ staff posted black tagger videos, and searched out some of the Chicago creators for lengthy interviews about their perceptions of regional differences in African-American English.
These taggers sound a lot like Brianna Raquel London in Georgia—but quite unlike her, too. For instance, none say their water’s “a” like London’s lip-rounded, Big Apple pronunciation. The black Chicagoans’ “a,” for instance, sounds much more like the “jockey-Jackie” shift of white Chicagoans. WBEZ also interviewed George Washington University sociolinguist John Baugh, an African American, and white linguist Walt Wolfram, who is at North Carolina State University. Wolfram, who began researching African-American English decades ago, told the radio station that, while certain pronunciation features remain almost universal in African-American English (such as dropping “r” at the end of syllables), he thinks that he and other white sociolinguists have long overemphasized commonalities, and that they’ve failed to recognize the differences that the accent tag videos demonstrate.
“I think we overlooked our own biases in terms of seeing regionality,” Wolfram told WBEZ. He’s done a paper about the problem. In it, he calls white linguists’ older, misperceived theories about black English a kind of “sociolinguistic folklore.”
That’s a novel and telling phrase. The older one, developed by scholars over the past generation, is “folk linguistics,” also called “perceptual dialectology” and “perceptual linguistics.” These terms refer not to the way linguists theorize language, but to how those outside the field do the same thing. As sociolinguist Dennis Preston puts it, “Folk linguistics is anything that real people do, think, and respond to regarding language.”
In the United States, one thing the “folk” do is think and talk about their (and other people’s) “accents.” That’s why Vaux and other sociolinguists are not surprised by the tremendous popularity of the accent-quiz sites that have sprung up on the Internet since the dawn of social media. It’s why the “folk” in folk linguistics span the socioeconomic spectrum and even include elites. Witness how well the New York Times did with its “Dialect Quiz.” It was first published in late December 2013, and within days the quiz had received millions of hits, beating every other story the Times had published all that year. Today, the dialect quiz remains the Times’ most read online article of all time.
The folk also love to deride white Southern speech and African-American English —often even when they speak these dialects themselves. As an example, Preston, a pioneer in the study of folk linguistics, cites a recent University of Chicago study which found that, among two groups of nine-to-10-year-old children who lived in Illinois and Tennessee, most, after listening to recordings of speakers from both regions, reported that the Northern-accented individuals sounded “smarter” and “in charge.” (Many “smarter,” “in-charge” folk no doubt have taken the “Dixie or Yankee” quiz, precisely so they can feel superior to Southerners.) And the 1990s, Oakland, California school system’s plan to include “Ebonics” instruction for black students unleashed national anger based on the longstanding popular idea that African-American English is ungrammatical “street” jargon. Though most of the derision came from whites, some came from African Americans as well.
Preston says that listening closely to laypeople “redirects us to stuff that helps us as linguists.” He cites an undergraduate student from Michigan who kept insisting that people in his native region speak nasally. Preston at first paid no attention. Then he helped the student devise a study, obtain measuring equipment, and interview a random Michigan sample. Sure enough, it turned out they did speak nasally.
Not surprisingly, he also loves accent taggers. “I watch YouTube videos for fun all the time,” Preston says. Over at Kings College Cambridge, in England, where Bert Vaux now teaches, he links to hundreds of the videos on his website. He thinks it’s remarkable that so many laypeople who don’t know scholarly linguistics-speak are talking about language anyway, and inadvertently creating data that linguists can use.
In Georgia, Brianna Raquel London says the Accent Tag video she did three years ago is one of the most popular she’s ever posted. That’s probably because of the pride she exhibited as she read the list of words lifted from Harvard. “I like the way that I talk,” she says on the video, “and I think that it makes me me. In my identity. If you don’t like it, you need to get off my video. Like, straight up!”