Inner-City Dialects


Clichy-Sous-Bois, a banlieue of Paris.

This week’s Economist features an article about the Kiezdeutsch dialect of German, mostly spoken by inner-city youth. One may recognize controversies similar to those about non-standard English: ‘purists’ argue that Kiezdeutsh is bad/lazy German, while linguists see it is a legitimate variant of the language.

The article explains the difference between the dialect and Standard German by using the phrase ‘Tomorrow I’m going to the movies’ as an example.  (I’ll summarize this here, as the original article’s explanation is a bit cursory.) In Kiezdeutsch, the phrase is …

Morgen ich geh Kino

… which literally translates as ‘Tomorrow I go movies.’  This is already a strikingly non-standard sentence, but keep in mind that in Standard German, the verb would come before ‘I.’  So the Kiezdeutsch realization equates to a hypothetical English dialect where the construction would be ‘Tomorrow go I movies.’

Throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond it, one finds similar varieties of non-standard ‘inner-city’ language. These include urban African-American Vernacular English in the US, Multicultural British English in the UK, and ‘Verlan‘ in the French Banlieu*. But what do we mean by an ‘inner-city’ dialect, exactly?

The descriptor ‘inner-city’ is admittedly problematic. The term harkens back to 1960s America, and is very much an artifact of its time and place. In the mid-to-late-20th-Century US, cities were typically blighted and low-income, yet surrounded by affluent suburbs. In non-American cities quite the opposite is often the case: In Paris the ‘inner’ city is largely wealthy while low-income neighborhoods lie on the outskirts.

‘Inner city dialect,’ then, is crude shorthand for speech common among young, urban speakers, often the children of immigrants or ethnic minorities. Such dialects differ from London’s Cockney, Montreal’s Joual, or other urban working-class dialects (although their origins may have been similar). ‘Inner city’ language is often more of a political issue, prompting a lot of handwringing from the linguistically conservative set. Here is a thinly-veiled gripe, as per the Economist article (emphasis mine*):

Kiezdeutsch is not a dialect but a style of speaking, says Helmut Glück, professor of German at the University of Bamberg. Such patois often develops among students, soldiers and other groups to foster a sense of belonging.

I don’t buy into the notion that ‘inner city’ dialects arise purely out of a desire to ‘sound different’ or ‘belong.’ (Although that may play some part.) I think it’s more a matter of children who lack ‘standard language-speaking’ parents and peers. So why the ongoing perception that non-standard language is a ‘deliberate’ choice? Perhaps because cities are by definition densely populated places.

Let me explain. If I were to travel to a remote part of Appalachia, no doubt encountering a strong regional dialect, my first thought would not be that the locals are ‘trying’ to talk differently. I would just assume that their geographical isolation offered them little exposure to English ‘norms.’ But if I were to travel to a neighborhood two miles from my house, a dialect radically different from my own might seem willfully ‘out of place.’

To put that more simply: Do we feel that those who live geographically closer to ‘standard’ English have less of an excuse to not speak ‘standard’ English?

*A least two of these require caveats.  AAVE is only urban in the sense that a large proportion of its speakers live in cities, and ‘verlan’ is (apparently) less a dialect than a narrow set of syntactical features vaguely akin to rhyming slang.

**I’m actually a bit unclear whether these sentiments are directly attributable to Prof. Glück, as there are there are no quotation marks.


About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to Inner-City Dialects

  1. Mark says:

    Are there people who only speak that way and couldn’t speak the standard way if a gun were held to their heads? If not, it’s not a real dialect.

    • Sandra Jansen says:

      In Germany this topic was covered in quite a few newspapers over the last two weeks and triggered very emotional responses from lay persons similar to comments made about the MLE variety in England.
      Heike Wiese, who is the principle investigator, actually mentions that the speakers of Kiezdeutsch can and do switch between the standard and non-standard variety. Though I don’t understand why only code-switching would make this a ‘real’ dialect I don’t understand. @Mark

      • trawicks says:

        I would presume they do quite a bit of code-switching. What I tend to object to is the attitude the ‘they’re just TRYING to sound different’ line of thinking. It’s true that in our teenage years we make conscious choices about the language we use, but this doesn’t delegitimize the dialects teenagers speak or mean that such dialects were arrived at non-organically.

  2. ella says:

    @Mark – how on earth does the ability to code-switch between dialects make something a ‘real dialect’ or not?

    • trawicks says:

      Yeah, I’m not so sure Mark thought that argument through. I think what he’s trying to say is that if you don’t need to speak a certain way, then that way can’t be classified as ‘real’ language. Which flouts some of the most basic and uncontroversial principles of linguistics.

    • boynamedsue says:

      I agree totally. I speak a Yorkshire dialect, but I can switch into entirely standard English at will, and do so without even thinking about it. But I’m not “putting on” my dialect, if anything it’s the other way round.

  3. m.m. says:

    >>To put that more simply: Do we feel that those who live geographically closer to ‘standard’ English have less of an excuse to not speak ‘standard’ English?<<

    This reminds me of dialect islands in the south that are more midlands sounding than southern sounding, and would give the impression that the southern accent is receding, as the speech of those cities has become more 'standard' opposed to southern. I'm not sure where i was going with this anymore xD

  4. Ed says:

    I think that inner-city dialects get condemned in the media more because journalists and celebrity gossips are more likely to come across them. I am British so I’ll use an example from here. Journalists who work for London newspapers are likely to hear Multi-cultural London English on their way to work around them and may then decide to write an article deploring this trend in speech. The fact that this speech might be closer to Standard English than that spoken in the North Yorkshire Moors would not occur to them. Journalists just don’t think about rural areas and small towns very often, so the speech of these areas doesn’t get maligned as much.

  5. Lane says:

    I’m an Economist writer (the main Johnson blogger), though not the author of the piece in question. I could check with my colleague, but I think you’re reading the Glueck quote wrong in two ways. First, I don’t take it as a “thinly veiled gripe” – if it’s veiled, it must be a thick veil. The professor goes on to say that students and soldiers often do the same thing. He may well have simply been saying “It’s not a dialect (which we normally assign to an ethnically and geographically related group) but a sociolect (a type of speech characteristic of a socioeconomic class or subgroup of people not related by traditional ethnic or geographical proximity.)” I don’t know that that’s what he said – again, I can check with my colleague if anyone’s dying to know. But my paraphrase is at least consistent with my colleague’s shorter paraphrase. If I’m right, it isn’t really a gripe at all, and has the virtue of being both accurate and decent.

    Second, it’s possible that the professor said something like “Es ist kein Dialekt, sondern eine Mundart”. This bit of German Wikipedia,

    explains that while for many Germans, Dialekt and Mundart are synonyms, some make a distinction that a dialect is quite fully fledged (like Bavarian) while a Mundart is something more like a collection of shibboleths, something like a dialect but less distinct along a continuum. If someone contrasted “Dialekt” and “Mundart” to me in German, I’d have to translate them into English roughly as my colleague did.

    It wouldn’t be hard to find a German stickler to disparage this form of speech. I’m just not sure that that’s what we’re getting here.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for mentioning this, Lane! As I mention, I am not entirely sure if this is Glueck’s intent, as he isn’t directly quoted. In retrospect, the term ‘thinly-veiled’ is a poor choice of words, as it suggests an attempt on Glueck’s part to obscure his sentiments behind a veil of academic pomposity. (As he only has a few published works, all in German, I wasn’t able to locate a good sample of Glueck’s ideas.)

      My original reading of the paraphrase stems from it being wedged between two prejorative statements: “To babble in Kiezdeutsch instead of proper Hochdeutsch can suggest acceptance of a parasitical future” and “Purists complain of its shrunken grammar and vocabulary.” But you’re right that ‘dialect’ often has a more narrow definition in languages other than English, and hence the phrase ‘____ is not a dialect’ doesn’t quite mean the same thing.

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