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Dew as you dew: Baltimore Accent and The Wire

August 15, 2012

Even though HBO’s television show The Wire ran from 2002-2008, today it still remains hugely popular with television audiences around the country. This show continues to captivate viewers with its frank and realistic portrayal of life in the city of Baltimore. Each of its five seasons focused on characters in different urban domains including the drug trade, the seaport, local government, the education system and the print media, all as they interacted with Baltimore’s police department. The Wire has been praised by viewers for its anti-network stance and its devotion to presenting life in an American city in a way that is both authentic and thought-provoking. For linguists, perhaps of one of the show’s greatest achievements is its portrayal of local Baltimore accents.

While many television shows and movies have shied away from having actors make use of local dialect features, The Wire has put the Baltimore accent in the forefront with many of the lead characters and supporting cast incorporating it into their onscreen dialogue. It may not have been too much of a challenge for these actors either, since a large percentage of the predominantly African American cast hails from the Baltimore/DC area.

The cast is made up of three types of actors: (1) local professional actors, like Robert F. Chew who plays Proposition Joe and was born and raised in Baltimore (2) non-local professional actors, like Idris Elba and Dominic West, who are both from the U.K. and play Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty respectively and (3) local residents who appeared in the series but had little or no experience in acting prior to the appearances on The Wire, the most well-known being Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Here it is the local actors, both professional and non-professional, who bring in the Baltimore accent and give The Wire a linguistic authenticity that separates it from other TV shows.

Probably one of the most noticeable features of Baltimore African American English is what linguists call u-fronting, where the sound in a word like “do” gets pronounced as “dew”. It’s called fronting because while the u sound (pronounced “ooh”, not “you”) is typically produced with the tongue at the back of the mouth, speakers who have this feature tend to pronounce it closer to the front of the mouth. u-fronting in Baltimore AAE is unique because this feature is not typically found in African American English, rather it is primarily found in dialects of English spoken by white Americans, such as in California English (think of the pronunciation of “duuuude”).* You can hear u-fronting in the clip below, when Proposition Joe uses the phrase “do as you do” (listen to the pronunciation of ‘do‘ in all instances). In this scene, drug kingpin Prop Joe is attempting to make a deal with rival Marlo Stanfield that would have him be part of “the Co-op”, a democratic alliance of drug deals in the region.

You can hear u-fronting again in the clip below when Donut, played by Baltimore native Nathan Corbett, describes a particular car as “a nice one too… sitting on 22s” (22s refers to 22 inch rims).

It’s not just black Baltimoreans who have u-fronting in their dialect, but white Baltimoreans as well. White Baltimoreans tend to pronounce o (“oh”) at the front of the mouth too, although this does not appear to be occurring in Baltimore AAE. Here’s a clip of middle school assistant principal Marcia Donnelly, played by Baltimore actor Tootsie Duvall. Pay attention to her pronunciation of the words ‘no‘  and ‘so‘ to hear o-fronting. To hear more u-fronting, listen to Duvall’s pronunciation of ‘who‘ , ‘knew‘, ‘classroom‘ and ‘two‘. In this scene, Donnelly is filling in the school’s principal on the numerous problems they’re encountering at the beginning of the academic year.

As we’ve said in many posts, African American English is spoken by men and women from a variety of ages, regions, professions, social classes, and even different ethnic backgrounds. While the Wire’s cast of AAE-speaking characters includes police officers, politicians, teachers and journalists, a large proportion of the cast portrays drug dealers, killers, robbers and addicts. It could be argued that this is because the show deals with very specific themes of corruption and urban decay, and therefore having the predominantly African American cast play these parts is a necessary part of the narrative. Regardless, we hope that in the future we will see more television shows that not only showcase local dialects of AAE, but we also show African American English speakers in an increasingly positive way that reflects the diversity of their backgrounds.

For more on the features of African American English in Baltimore, check out this great podcast in which we here at Word. were interviewed. In the podcast we also had the chance to talk about other features Baltimore AAE,  specifically a phenomena in which words like “carry” are pronounced as “curry“.

*u-fronting has been attested in a few other dialects of African American English, including Memphis, Tennessee and Columbus, Ohio.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Holman Tse permalink
    August 15, 2012 5:24 pm

    Pittsburgh, PA is another city in which /u/-fronting is found in AAE. See the following article: Eberhardt, Maeve. 2009. African American and White Vowel Systems in Pittsburgh. Publication of the American Dialect Society 94(1): 129-157; doi:10.1215/-94-1-129

  2. Aziza Barnes permalink
    November 26, 2013 5:13 pm

    “Regardless, we hope that in the future we will see more television shows that not only showcase local dialects of AAE, but we also show African American English speakers in an increasingly positive way that reflects the diversity of their backgrounds.”

    I only hope for this future if it is dictated by the reality at large. If Black American speech is not reflected in positive environments, document that and we can get to the nature of the issue. I don’t agree with or abide the telling of fraudulent stories (unless they are fictive and even then, there’s a power in the supposed “unreal). I think one of the largest problems with telling any Diasporic narrative is the nature of it’s singularity. Chimamanda N’gozi Adchie has an incredible TED talk about the danger of a single story. This is the danger I feel is the burden of the Black American narrative. That we only show the downtrodden, the drugs, the gangs, police etc. Black Americans speak their dialect from the law firm to the liquor store: document it all. Shows like “The Wire,” are absolutely needed because they reflect the current environment. The diversity of Black American experiences must be reflected in television as with anywhere else: once we can acknowledge there is not just ONE BLACK, many joys can spring from it.

  3. December 2, 2013 5:58 pm

    I think ” The Wire” should be the kind of program needed to always bring people together and forge ahead as a people with a common destiny.Anytime we as humans come face -to-face with challenges and problems such as robbery, addiction and corruption which affect our social life and the fiber of society, negative self tendencies and personal acrimony reduce. For me it was successful because of the themes chosen for the show. The rich diverse experiences of African Americans should be shown for others to see they are not what really they see them to be.The racial and linguistic stereotypes must give way for the creative ingenious AA whose contributions and commitments have built the so-called heaven-on-earth developed European countries.Stand for black and stand you black because BLACK is Brainy.

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