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Do You Speak D.C.? Georgetown Linguists Study Washington-Area Language

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Contributors to The Language and Communication in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitcan Area (LCDC) Project have been collecting and analyzing interviews from hundreds of Washingtonians. (L to R: Patrick Callier, Sinae Lee, Anastasia Nylund, Natalie Schilling, Jessica Grieser, Jinsok Lee, Mackenzie Price, Amelia Tseng)
LCDC Team (Georgetown Dept. of Linguistics)
Contributors to The Language and Communication in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitcan Area (LCDC) Project have been collecting and analyzing interviews from hundreds of Washingtonians. (L to R: Patrick Callier, Sinae Lee, Anastasia Nylund, Natalie Schilling, Jessica Grieser, Jinsok Lee, Mackenzie Price, Amelia Tseng)

Washington, D.C. area residents share a number of things: a special appreciation for a good half-smoke, knowledge of walking on the left/standing on the right, and a love/hate relationship with the Beltway.

But do Washingtonians share a particular way of speaking? Is there such thing as a specifically D.C. accent, dialect or language?

Researchers at Georgetown University's Linguistics Department are trying to answer that very question, through The Language and Communication in the D.C., Metropolitan Area Project (LCDC).

Project members have interviewed nearly 150 Washingtonians, and listened to recorded interviews from the 1960s, to get a clearer idea of how people in the D.C. area talk. And not just how people talk, says PhD student Anastasia Nylund, but "how people tell stories, what people tell stories about, and how people use language to sort of situate themselves in the social life of the city."

Let's start with that first one: "how people talk." Nylund says she's found that when you ask folks in D.C. if they speak with an accent, "A lot of people will say, 'Well, I don't really have an accent.'"

But, Nylund adds, they also say they're often perceived as having one.

"I've got people telling me, 'some people think I'm from the south, and other people think that I'm from the north. And I'm wondering where they get that from, because I'm a Washingtonian.' Or 'People hear a southern drawl, and maybe it's there. But I don't hear it. I'm not southern; I'm a Washingtonian.'"

And that, Nylund says, shows how closely language is connected with identity. And ever since D.C. became the nation's capital in 1791, its language and identity have been richly influenced by African American culture.

"Some people would say that Washington speech is African American speech," she says. "And the most probably distinctive is some of the local words. Like 'bama,' for [an] uncool person. 'Jont,' for pretty much anything; any noun can be replaced with 'jont.' 'Cised' - to be cised about something: psyched."

But as Anastasia Nylund's colleague, Patrick Callier attests, the study of African American English in D.C., goes beyond words, since he's been studying how sound systems in African American English in D.C. have been changing over time, particularly, certain vowels. "I looked at the pronunciation of the vowel in 'glide' or 'pry' or 'price,'" Callier explains. "And in traditional southern vernacular, be it white or African American, that would be pronounced like 'glahd' or 'prah.'"

But as he and his team have analyzed LCDC's archival recordings from the 1960s, "basically what we've seen over time is a slight decrease in overall use of this 'prah' pronunciation among African Americans, particularly among African American women."

Patrick Callier may have the vowels covered, but Jessi Grieser another sociolinguist PhD at Georgetown, is all about the consonants. In particular: TH.

"So, saying 'dat' instead of 'that,'" she explains, "and how much that comes out." Grieser says a number of factors seem to affect how much it comes out among speakers, such as "who they're talking to, what they're talking about, whether the person they're talking to is also white or black, all these sorts of things."

Grieser recalls interviewing this one woman about her traditionally African American neighborhood, and how she thinks it's changing.

"As she was talking about her neighborhood becoming integrated, she started using the more standard English as opposed to African American English variants. So she was using 'dat' and 'de' and all these things as the neighborhood was black. And as the neighborhood became whiter, so did her speech."

Examples like these, Anastasia Nylund says, demonstrate how fluid language can be, as it reflects the ever-changing social, cultural, political and economic landscapes of Washington, D.C.

"Language isn't something that just happens," Nylund says. "It's not just something that we're born with. It's something that we use creatively as we go through our lives."

And the beauty of something like The Language and Communication in the D.C., Metropolitan Area Project, she says, is how it can capture some of that language, and... she and her colleagues hope... bring about a greater understanding of this dynamic and complex place we call home.


[Music: "Everybody's Talking" by Elastic Band from Coma, The Album 3]

Photos: D.C. Language

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