Native Americans learn English
In 1960, linguists predicted that compulsory education, mass media, foreign immigration, and the “mobility of restless Americans” would eventually normalize English, and within just a few generations regional accents would disappear.
Today, some researchers such as University of Pennsylvania sociolinguist William Labov note that while some accents fade, others strengthen.
One example, according to Kalina Newmark, is Native American English, more commonly known as the “rez accent,” found in many native communities in the United States and Canada. Ground is short for reservation.
Newmark, who is Dene and Métis from the Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, a school well known for its diverse Indigenous student population.
“I’m Dene, but I don’t speak Slavic, my original language,” she says. “My mother can understand it and speak it, but she didn’t pass it on to us. She learned it from her great-grandmother. My grandmother chose not to pass on the language because she wanted to make it easier for her children to go to school.
At Dartmouth, Newmark met Indigenous students from across North America and noticed an interesting phenomenon: Despite their different linguistic backgrounds, their English shared some distinctive characteristics, especially when they came together socially. She found that this was the case even for students who had never learned their native languages.
When given a project to study a non-English language, she and fellow Dartmouth student Nacole Walker, a Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota, decided to investigate the rez accent, which had never been studied before.
“There are other types of studies around different groups, like African-American Vernacular English or Chicano English, where linguists have noted similarities. We knew something unique was happening [with indigenous English] and I wanted to cut it down,” Walker said.
The Dartmouth team interviewed and recorded conversations with 75 people from tribes and nations across North America. Their findings, “The Rez Accent Knows No Borders: Native American Ethnic Identity Expressed Through English Prosody,” were published in the journal Language in Society in September 2016.
They found that Native American and Canadian First Nations communities speak different dialects of English, but many share similar patterns of pitch, rhythm and intonation – features that linguists call prosody, the “music” of speech. language. Even students who didn’t use the rez accent knew it.
“The most important feature we found is ‘contour pitch accent,'” said Dartmouth sociolinguist James Stanford, who framed their study. “We called it the ‘Thomas’ feature.”
It refers to the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire, played by actor Evan Adams in the groundbreaking 1998 film Smoke Signals, the first commercial feature film to be written, directed and starred by Aboriginal people. Thomas, an incessant storyteller living on the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, speaks with an exaggerated rez accent. Its intonation rises and falls melodiously (see an extract from the film below).
“Another characteristic [that] study participants identified as ethnically distinct had to do with what we call mid- or high-rise terminals,” Stanford said.
In standard English, Stanford explained, speakers’ voices tend to drop at the end of a sentence. Many native speakers, like the character Thomas, end their sentences in a mid or high tone.
“Another important feature we noted was syllable timing — or rhythm,” Stanford said. “Each syllable takes the same time.”
These prosodic features can be heard in the three YouTube videos below.
“Whispers” of the ancestors
While she does not discredit the influence of individual heritage accents, Newmark believes the rez accent is rooted in intertribal contact that took place during the reservation era of the 1880s, when Indigenous and First Nations children of diverse linguistic backgrounds were forced into residential schools, or during the relocation era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States sought to move Native Americans to cities and end reservations.
Gathering in schools or urban communities, Native Americans were forced to interact with each other in English.
“They were all learning English together,” Newmark said, “and doing their own English.”
“What we’re seeing is adaptation – and Native Americans have always been adept at adaptation,” said Twyla Baker, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (MHRA) and president of Nueta Hidatsa. Sahnish College on the Fort Berthold reservation in the north. Dakota.
She pointed out that before contact with Europeans, tribes did not live in a vacuum.
“We travelled. We engaged in trade. We married. We built political alliances with other tribes,” Baker told VOA. “The ability to learn other languages was crucial, and it was not uncommon for people to speak four or five languages, as many Europeans do today.”
She is aware that some people, native and non-native alike, make fun of the rez accent or consider it “inappropriate English”.
“One of my big goals as an educator is to break down this idea, which has been imposed on us, that we should be ashamed of who we are, where we come from, how we speak English and how we present in a very westernized society,” Boulanger said. “I would like our young people to feel accepted not just in the spaces they occupy in Indian Country, but when they step off the reservation.”