Published: May 8, 2018

With media permeating our everyday lives, we are exposed to cultures and ideas that we might otherwise have a hard time accessing.

James “Jack” McCurdy
Course: Language in US Society (Ling 1000)
Advisor: GPTI Maureen Kosse, TA Irina Wagner
LURA 2018

As a result, dialectical varieties such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Chicano English (CE) have become more accessible to the common person. The cartoon South Park frequently uses these two dialects in its representations of race. The representations are satirical, yet they provide an opportunity to analyze language ideologies present in the show and possibly provide insight into such ideologies in the wider circle of global media.

This analysis was designed to uncover whether or not the show contains fair representations of the dialects or rather just a play on their most marked features. Post-analysis, I concluded that the show incorporates dialects in a way that essentializes speakers by stereotyping them. The dialects seen in the show did not contain all of their reported features, but the features that were included provide indexical cues to the ethnic and social groups associated with the dialects.

In the study, I analyzed three episodes that contain representations of the two dialects: “D-Yikes!” (ep. 6; szn. 11), “You Got F’d in the A” (ep. 4; szn. 8), and “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (ep. 1; szn. 11). From these episodes, I collected data on the marked features of each dialect and how often each one was used. Previous studies demonstrate that AAVE features include (1) “th” (/ð/) sound shift to a /d/ sound at the beginning of words (there /ðɛr/ becomes /dɛr/), (2) a /f/ sound at the end of words (mouth /maʊθ/ becomes /maʊf/), (3) a post-vocalic /r/ drop (door /dɔr/ becomes /dʌ/), (4) monophthongization, and (5) stress pattern shifting from the latter to former half of words. For CE, reported features include (1) a two-way shift from /t∫/ to /∫/ and vice versa (teacher /tit∫ər/ becomes /ti∫ər/ and shy /∫aɪ/ becomes /t∫aɪ/), (2) a shift from /z/ to /s/, (3) dropping of plural markers, and (4) a syllable-timed speech pattern. Both dialects are also known to use serial negation (“this isn’t fun” becomes “this isn’t no fun”), consonant cluster reduction (test /tɛst/ becomes /tɛs/), and omit present tense copula be (“they are fun” becomes “they fun”),

In the data analysis, the most frequently used feature of AAVE was the post vocalic /r/ drop; it was used by every character whose speech was analyzed in the episodes “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” and “You Got F’d in the A”. Other notable features of AAVE used were a /ð/ to /d/ shift, one case of monophthongization, and a consonant cluster reduction. Otherwise, the features of AAVE seemed to be fairly sparse. The CE data was slightly less consistent. There was the dropping of the /s/ sound, but it was dropped at the end of present tense verbs rather than plurals. There was also an inconsistent use of syllable-timed speech, a singular copula “be” drop, and a single case of /∫/ to /t∫/ shift.

This data on the irregular linguistic use of the AAVE and CE features yields insight into the show’s construction of race. For AAVE, I concluded that since a lot of the features were lacking, it may be indicative that the ones included are the most indexical features of the dialect, in particular the postvocalic /r/ drop, as it is the most used feature. Also, since the show is a satire, the use of these indexical features allows the creators to minimize the separation between language and race while also entertaining the common viewer. Furthermore, when the data is considered in sociocultural context, the lack of AAVE features and the way the characters are portrayed in relation to each other and through their vocations seems to both strengthen and detract from the erasure of linguistic subordination and typification of AAVE. As for the CE data, the representation of the dialect was less linguistically accurate and the social implications seemed to be much wider. The features of CE present in the characters speech were both inconsistent and incorrectly incorporated. As this is a widespread media representation of CE, the implications of such usage contributes to what linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa might call the raciolinguistic enregisterment of the CE dialect and Chicano speakers. This complicates language ideologies about CE as well as social perceptions of Chicano people.

My analysis of the way these two dialects are represented, though not necessarily in depth or indicative of the entire South Park series, serves as preliminary research on the use of linguistic representation in the series as well as on comedic media representations of marked dialects. It is, of course, difficult to reach conclusions regarding linguistic representation as it applies to all of media. Further research into South Park and other satiric shows with these kinds of dialect representations, especially those targeting audiences within particular racial boundaries, could yield further information about broader characterizations of race in the media.