Contrary to common belief, television does not make people sound more alike. It is good at spreading words, like catchphrases (“Yabba dabba do!”), but there is no proof that it affects changes in pronunciation or grammar.
English and its dialects are changing all the time. No one fully understands how or why, but it seems to have little to do with television: some changes are in the direction of television English, some are not.
- ‘fraid, finna, be – In Black American English saying “‘fraid” for “‘afraid” is dying out while studies show that the use of finna and the invariant durative or habitual be (“He be dancing”) are becoming more common, not less! Even though blacks hear plenty of Standard English on television and at school – and in most cases can speak it on demand (code-switching). Class, segregation and regularly talking to white people seem to matter more than television or school. Musicians, for example, speak a Black English closer to Standard English.
- dove - In southern Ontario most people who grew up without television say the past tense of dive as dived, while most who grew up with television say dove - the very form used in the American North whose dialect has been heard in southern Ontario on television since the 1950s. This sounds like a perfect example – but there are two things wrong with it: First, the change started in the 1800s. Second, dove is hardly a common word on television, certainly not common enough to affect how anyone talks.
- Uptalk – This is where you make a statement into a yes/no question by a rising tone at the end and waiting to see if the other person denies it (“Hello, I’m a student in your phonetics tutorial?”). Uptalk spread to the U.S., Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand in the late 1900s, the very time television came in. This sounds like another perfect example – except that as of the 1990s no one on mainstream television regularly talks that way – not Oprah, not Wolf Blitzer, not Fred Flintstone, not Bart Simpson. No one knows how uptalk spread so quickly to so many countries.
- The 9/11 firefighters – spoke a white working-class New York English little changed from the 1950s. As if they came from a land without television.
An even more telling example is Vincent, a three-year-old boy studied by linguists. He could hear perfectly well but both his parents were deaf and only used American Sign Language (ASL). To learn English they had him watch television regularly. It did not work: he could not speak a single word of English – even though he had no trouble signing.
People mainly learn language not from television or schoolteachers or even parents but from their playmates. A clear example of this are the children of immigrants. They do not speak with the foreign accent of their parents or that of television or even schoolteachers but in most cases with the accent of where they grew up.
Sources: This post is my take on the chapter of the same name by J. K. Chambers in “Language Myths” (1998) edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Chambers is an expert on dialects and Canadian English. He is a professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Also: “Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English” (2000) by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford.