American Dialect: Baltimore & The Wire

It’s rare for a television show to accurately portray regional or social dialects, but one show that has done so consistently over the past few years is HBO’s The Wire. Set in inner-city Baltimore, the show details the exploits of a police department wiretap unit and the drug dealers it pursues. Throughout the show, which has just started its fourth season on the pay-TV channel, the characters speak in authentic Baltimore dialects.

In addition to its linguistic accuracy, it’s probably the best show on television right now–at least, that is, until tonight’s season premiere of Battlestar Galactica. The drama is gripping, the dialogue well-written, and the characters multi-layered and intricate. It’s also a very adult program, not at all suitable for children, with horrifying portrayals of the violence that surrounds illegal drug trafficking.

But here we’re primarily concerned with dialects and there are two major ones that appear on the show. The most striking, at least to most viewers, is the speech of the drug dealers, a local variation on the inner-city African-American dialect. The second is almost Southern dialect of Baltimore’s white working class, heard on the show most often from the mouth’s of police officers.

The opening scene of this season’s first episode demonstrates the difference between these two dialects, both linguistically and socially. Snoop, a cold-blooded assassin, is buying a nail-gun in a hardware store. The store clerk shows her one that is the "Cadillac of nail guns." Later on, Snoop tells a fellow assassin "He mean Lexus, but he ain’t know it." A deft bit of writing that is both authentic and demonstrative of the social distinctions contained within automobile brands.

Last season, when a police commander permitted drugs in a particular section of west Baltimore in order to control crime everywhere else in his district, the police officers took to calling the area Amsterdam, because drugs were "legal" there. The dealers, not understanding the reference to Dutch drug laws, took this to mean Hamsterdam, because it was like a cage where the police could watch them like pet rodents. Another bit of clever writing that combines a pun with social commentary.

Among the dealers, what up and yo are the common greetings. One boy tells a friend after spotting an undercover cop, "yo, he police." The most common epithets are bitch, used to refer to both men and women (or perhaps more accurately boys and girls as most of the dealers are, sadly, still in their teens), and nigger.

Working-class black dialect is also captured. An African-American political campaign manager assures his white candidate that it is possible for him to win the black vote, "Black folk been voting white for a long time. It’s y’all that don’t never vote black."

Distinct from the African-American dialects portrayed on the show, but just as authentic, is the speech of the white police officers. Bawlmer accents abound, particularly among the minor characters–it’s clear that the producers have done a lot of local casting. Police slang is also common. The word police is used to mean police officer, as in "being a police isn’t just about carrying a gun." Innocent bystanders are taxpayers, ghetto youths are hoppers, and quick arrests without a lengthy investigation are rips. And of course, the famous Baltimore honorific hon is often heard.

If you subscribe to HBO, I highly recommend tuning in to The Wire and listening closely to the dialects portrayed there.

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