QWhat was your role in the HBO miniseries?
A I was brought on as a language consultant to go over the script, which has been 10 years in the making with many different writers, and to see if there is any way to improve the dialogue for the characters. Do the words fit for this time period? And right off the bat, I found some words in the dialogue that weren’t around in that time period. For example, the story is taking place around 1800-1806, and they had the word “golden boy” in the dialogue, but that word wasn’t documented until 1937. In addition to choosing words that made sense for the time, I also talked with the dialect coach to help depict accurate representations of dialect. People who are from different regions — Kentucky, Virginia and Massachusetts — will have different vowel sounds. Plus a few of the characters are more educated and refined, while others are more rough and tumble, so that is reflected in the way they speak and the words they use. I sent in 13 reports overall, on everything from profanity to pronunciation. Whether or not they get incorporated in the final product is yet to be seen.
Why is it important to study language?
Language is part of who we are as humans; it’s a social tool to identify people. It's one of our most important tools for communication. It’s a beautifully complex natural system. And to study it is to study a piece of our social fabric.
What is the study of linguistics?
Linguists conduct scientific studies of language and provide a descriptive account of what's going on, while a prescriptive grammar class focuses on the social fashions of writing. The prescriptive grammar class is going to give advice on social missteps to avoid in formal writing.
So, is there a correct way to speak?
No dialect is "incorrect." English is an ever-changing, living language, and all dialects of it are legitimate forms. Human languages change because our brains are wired for language variation. But some dialects carry more social baggage than others – certain characteristics signal a standard or stigmatized way to pronounce a word or phrase: For example, saying “birfday” in the North is stigmatized, but there are parts of the South where it is standard. The ways we classify and judge people get transferred to the way they speak, and often, judgments of language are socially motivated.
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