Would You Like a Frappe with Your Burger?

You are what you eat, buy and speak.

Posted Jan 11, 2011

image of McDonald's hamburgerIn a recent post, I talked about how a dialect change called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift was wreaking havoc and causing confusion between brand names like iPod and iPad. Which raises a broader question: If dialect change often leads to confusion, what could possibly induce the speakers of a new dialect to stubbornly persist in using a variety of English that actually impedes communication?

The answer seems to be, that to a large extent, people use nonstandard vowels or words for much the same reason they choose to drive a Subaru rather than a Passat, buy a Mac rather than a PC, or wear Chuck Taylors rather than Nike shoes: to construct and broadcast a social identity.  And just as quite a few Mac users wouldn't be caught dead buying a PC, people's loyalty to their regional dialects can run pretty deep. Recently, linguists were surprised to find that American dialects are actually pulling apart over time, getting more distinct from each other, rather than growing closer together. So much for national unity. (And this finding showed up largely before the splintering of the mass media). 

Bill Labov, one of the first linguists to scientifically study language variation, noticed the connection between dialect and identity while spending a summer on Martha's Vineyard, where many of the long-time islanders pronounced a "raised" version of "aw" and "ay", so that the vowel in "rice" was produced a little higher in the mouth, sounding a bit like "roice". Not all of the islanders did this to the same degree though, and the ones who were most likely to "raise" their vowels were those with the greatest attachment to traditional islander ways of life, and the greatest contempt for the mainlanders who were increasingly tromping over their island. What's really interesting is that these vowels were subconsciously used as badges of the islanders' personal attitudes. While these folks were very aware of a number of ways in which they sounded different from mainlanders, they hadn't registered that they pronounced words like "rice" any differently.

And in a separate study that showed that rebellious teens were no more likely to wear their teacher's vowels than her blouses, a detailed study by ethnographer Penny Eckert revealed that the early adopters of the Northern Cities vowels were kids who refused to buy into adults' expectations of what it meant to be a successful student. The more compliant kids, on the other hand, produced vowels that were more conservative, more like their parents' and teachers' vowels. In fact, the kids' pronunciation of the novel Northern Cities vowels turned out to be correlated with the width of jean legs—another marker of group identity.

These days, we are more likely than ever to view our product choices as expressions of who we are, which provides advertisers with some pretty powerful marketing opportunities. And it's no surprise they're catching on to the symbolic potential of linguistic dialects.

Even McDonald's, a company that hardly markets its product to a small niche audience, has abandoned mass marketing practices in favor of "glocalization"and tailors its messaging to specific market segments. A couple of years ago, the company did some market research and discovered that New Englanders tended to favor a lighter blend of coffee than much of the rest of the country. McDonald's did more than just adjust the coffee served in local outlets. It launched an ad campaign linking the coffee with regional pride, and the star of its TV spots was the enigmatic New England dialect.

In one of these commercials, a young man in a plaid shirt walks up to his friend at a boat dock, bearing two cups of take-out coffee. "Nice, McDonald's." says his friend. Plaid Guy pulls the coffee out of reach and proceeds to administer a quiz that his friend must pass before earning the beverage. He fires off a series of questions that come straight out of a "You know you're a New Englander when..." survey—all in a thick New England accent.

Plaid Guy: "Blizzard of...?" (pronounced "blizzuhd");  Friend: " '78" 

Plaid Guy: "Newyorkachusetts.";  Friend: "Connecticut."

Plaid Guy: "Drinking fountain."; Friend: "Bubbler" (pronounced "bubblah")

Plaid Guy:"Whadda they ask for at a packy?"; Friend: "ID."

 Plaid Guy:"Sprinkles or jimmies?"; Friend: "Aw, jimmies."

 Plaid Guy:"Five inches of snow."; Friend: "A dusting."

 Plaid Guy:"Manhattan chowder." (pronounced "chowdah"); Friend: "Never heard of it." 

Plaid Guy, apparently satisfied that his buddy has proven himself worthy of the coffee, hands it over.

This commercial is incomprehensible to any non-New Englander. And that's the point. As every schoolkid knows, what's the use of having a club if you can't exclude anyone from it?

Need a translator? Only a red-blooded local would know about the blizzard of '78 that dropped two feet of snow on the area and killed dozens, that "Newyorkachusetts" is a term for the state of mixed loyalties that divides the region into New York Yankees fans to the south and Boston Red Sox fans to the North, that a "packy" or "package store" is a shop that sells liquor and cigarettes, and that jimmies are the little chocolate sprinkles you put on your ice cream. Not to mention that the only kind of clam chowder you'd ever consider eating is the creamy New England variety, the tomato-based "Manhattan clam chowder" being beneath contempt.

A voiceover tells us, "True New Englanders take pride in their heritage-and their coffee. So McDonalds had Newman's Own create a new exclusive blend that you can only get here." The shirt, the vowels, the dropped "r" sounds, the quirky lexicon and the special coffee are all signs that you belong to the club.

(And, by the way, frappe is New Englandese for a kind of milkshake.)

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Penelope Eckert. 2000. Linguistic Variation as Social Practice. Blackwell Publishers.

William Labov. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press.