Date: Thu, 7 Dec 1995 09:03:54 -0500


Subject: Re: Language and Intelligence

I have always been amused by the inability of non-group members to recognize

sometimes subtle sometimes glaring differences within what they perceive to

be a group. A prime example is the inability of Americans in general to

distinguish between Japanese and Chinese people and later, Korean and


Those who went to Viet Nam could distinguish among various ethnicities of the

Vietnamese. My British friend is always horrified when a person with an obvious

accent from one part of England is portraying a character from another part


studying the dialect differences. I went to college in New Orleans, yet have

rarely heard a "good" New Orleans accent in the movies.

The other day on TV they had a Jamaican actress portray a Haitian. The

result was

ridiculous to anyone who knows the difference.

The old chestnut that "they all look alike" probably applies to any outsider

looking at or listening to a "group." Here in Miami, most Spanish speakers are

thought of as "Cubans" despite their country of origin and obvious differences

in clarity of pronunciation, use of slang and appearance.

If we think of prejudice as pre-judged, it all comes into focus.


Wittgenstein School of the Unwritten Word

Coconut Grove, FL


Dennis Preston wrote:

The answer is easy. It's fun to talk like possum-huntin', barefooted,

moonshine-makin', racist, Bible-thumpin', rednecks (so all Northerners can

do it, not well, but they think they can), and apprently derive an

underlying sense of moral, intellectual, and political superiority out of

it, but it ain't fun at all to talk like cheatin', heathen, rude,

fast-talkin', etc.... Northerners.

That's why.

More seriously, I suspect (as I tried to point out in my piece in the

Cassidy Festschrift on the imitations of White and Black Americans by one

another) that the degree of popularity of dialect imitation is directly

related to the degree to which a group of people (race, region, whatever)

constitute a 'folk object' for another. African-Americans,

Mexican-Americans, Southerners, etc... are more solidly 'folk objects' in

our culture than are the 'unmarked' Northern group (except, of course, for

Southerners who have the outline of stereotypes I list above, a list often

horrifying to Northerners, who, beset with an idea of their own normality,

find others but never themselves strange).

When (to make the language prejudice point) I make fun of my Michigan

students' Northern speech they are, in fact, too surprised at the very idea

to be horrified at first. Then they get really angry. Don't I know that

they are the normal ones? Many, surprisingly, recover and begin to


Dennis Preston


A former partner I had in a neighborhood bar hailed from Rochester, NY.

A steady customer we had was raised in L.A. (Lower Alabama.) My partner,

in his assertion of superior intelligence often asked him: "If you're so

smart, how come I can talk like you, but you can't talk like me?"

Seth Sklarey

Wittgenstein School of the Unwritten Word

Coconut Grove, FL



My apologies to your husband the psychologist, but he seems to have been

only half-educated by modern linguistics; he should go all they way.

In what way could vocabulary measure intelligence (if by intelligence we

mean something really crass like 'the ability to figure things out')? If

you lack some words, you simply lack them. For example, when you enter a

new technical field, you clearly do not have the vocabulary for that

endeavor. Would you say that after you had acquired it you were more

'intelligent.' Surely not. What I am sure your well-meaning huisband means

is that we (i.e., psychologists) have developed certain traditional

'benchmarks' which guide us in the evaluation of intelligence. We assume,

therefore, that the acquisition of a certain breadth of vocabulary

(nonspecialized, of course) indicates a certain 'normal' development. While

this might be a relatively effective device for a homogeneous population

(and I doubt that it is really effective there), in the midst of diversity,

it is almost as poopy as dialect prejudice.

On that latter matter, I like your list of those dialects which are 'really

heavy, thick' - 'Southern/NY/Oklahoman/etc.'

If I told you how really heavy, thik Inland Northern, especially urban

(e.g., Michigan ) dialects sound to me (and make me think of their

speakers), I would run out of the state that feeds me.

Of course, now I know that it is not true that everybody north of

Indianapolis-Columbus (roughly) will not give you the time of day and

cheat you if they can (surely the mildest of my reactions to Inland

Northern), but it has required linguistic discipline to arrive at that

conclusion. Like Virgiknia, I ofetn despair of so-called 'attitude

changing' priograms, but I think we should keep trying. There is positive

evidence as well.


(who has learned to keep a straight face while Inland Northern speakers

talk) Preston

preston[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]pilot.msu,.edu

At 4:13 PM 12/5/95, STEPHANIE RAE WELLS wrote:

I'm just curious to know if anybody out there still holds the belief that

a persons intelligence can be measured by the way they speak?

My husband the psychologist says that while we may recognize that accents,

dialects et al. are not good indicators of intelligence, vocabulary is

amongst our best indicators. (And on a personal note, I must admit that

when I hear a really heavy, thick Southern/ NY /Oklahoman/etc. accent I

have to concentrate on not immediately thinking stupid -or at least