Adjunct Professor of Linguistics Honored by American Dialect Society

By Richard LeComte 

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Dennis Preston, adjunct professor of linguistics in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts & Sciences, was named a Fellow by the American Dialect Society. He is among the first group of 10 who were chosen for the honor and was President of the Society in 2001-02.

He is also an Erskine Fellow of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Linguistic Society of America; in 2004 he received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic.    

He earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1965 and is a former Regents Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University and University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. At Oklahoma State he was director of the Research on the Dialects of English in Oklahoma project and co-director of the Center for Oklahoma Studies. He directed the 2003 Linguistic Society of America Institute at Michigan State.

His work focuses on sociolinguistics and dialectology, fields that he began to study at the University of Louisville. He has had an ear for the ways people of differently across the United States. 

"Some people think that dialects are funny ways of speaking,” he said. “If you grew up in Michigan, then you think that people in Alabama talk funny. And if you grow up in Alabama, then you think that people in Michigan talk unfriendly and too quickly. So dialects in the old sense are simply different ways of speaking according to the region where you grew up. There is no such thing as a so called ‘general American’ or ‘standard English’; everybody who grew up anywhere sounds pretty much like where they came from in spite of some people making great efforts, not to sound that way.” 

He notes, however, that even within regions vast linguistic differences exist among different social groups.  

“The field now includes sociolinguistics and gender linguistics and ethnolinguistics and every other kind of linguistics,” he said.  

One of his research areas lies in how people who move from one area of the United States adapt their dialect to the place where they move. He noted that men who move to the US South tend to adapt their accents and dialects to the new region more quickly than women do but that women who move to the North are quicker at adopting local norms of speech there.

“Some of the first articles I published said that, as a person goes from not knowing the language to knowing it very well, they don't just go through a helter-skelter process,” he said. “Each stage that they move through shows variations, so they didn't just get it right or get it wrong. How much they get right and wrong changes within certain proportions. This idea carries over into the sociolinguistic notion of variation and change into second language acquisition. I had, I think, a lot to do with people paying attention to that.” 

Among his book-length publications that reflect his major interests are Folk Linguistics with Nancy Niedzielski and Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition.