Welcome to Pellissippi Parkway's Dialect Discussion

This is an introduction to what will probably become a series of pages dealing with The Smartness of NonStandard Speakers. On this page (and one side-link below) I'll discuss the relative value of a dialect as measured against a standard in formal, especially an academic, setting.

Later, I'll take up how dialects and 'substandard' forms of language work, and just why they are as good as the standard in a linguistic view, and demonstrate (I hope) how their speakers are, again linguistically speaking, just as smart and competent as the speakers of standard versions (and maybe more so).

If all languages are equal, how come you marked my grammar wrong?

One of the things you often hear is that, somehow, people who speak nonstandard English of some sort, whether it's Black English, or deep-Southern English, or what have you, that these people are "dumb". The implication--hell, often the outright assertion--is that speakers of nonstandard English are stupid because they don't talk "correctly".

On the other hand, once some people hear a linguist say the opposite of that, say that "all languages are equal", they start asking (to paraphrase a question someone threw at me a couple of weeks ago): "How can you cite descriptive linguistics to justify saying X, and then turn right around and say that no one should write Y?" This is a classic confusion of registers and meanings. Saying that historical development has, for instance, gotten rid of the singular and plural forms of you, leaving people groping for a deeply-felt need and coming up with "y'all, youse, you guys" is DESCRIPTIVE linguistics. Saying that you should write "John and he were assigned the project" instead of "Him and John ..." is PRESCRIPTIVE . And Standard English is, well, standard. It's what we write in, whether we speak it or not.

And let's start right now by admitting something we don't want to admit. Our dirty little secret is that we none of us speak "correctly". Pay attention to the people around you: none of them speak as well as they CAN. Pronunciation is sloppy (dijeet? naw, djoo? = Did you eat? No, did you?) and grammar goes by the board. People who would never write "incorrectly" talk that way (give Al Gore and I a chance; so I says...; "Who wants to make some money?" "Me!"). Why? Lots of reasons, but one of them is that Standard English is not necessarily intuitively correct. As the written form, it's more conservative; because it's the English written form, it has some forced features to it. (You can see my page on language use for more on that.)

So what we're talking about is dialect usage: and the fact is that one dialect nearly always beats out all the rest to become the standard, either because of literary usage, economic power, social status, governmental influence or force, or some combination of these. This doesn't make the "losers" less worthy, it only makes them non-standard.

This is what the Encarta encyclopedia has to say about dialect:
version of a language differing in some aspects of grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary from other forms of the same language. A dialect restricted to a certain area or locale is a geographical dialect; one spoken by a specific group of people of a similar level of education, social class, or occupation is a social dialect. Some dialects are written and others are only spoken. The standard literary dialect of a language often was developed from a spoken dialect that was recorded by a talented writer or writers. Thus, the Tuscan dialect, employed with literary genius by the poets Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, dominated all other Italian dialects and became the written language of Italy. The High German dialect into which Martin Luther translated the Bible became standard German. The East Midland dialect of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer became the basis of the English language. [© 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation; © Funk & Wagnalls]

Generally, linguists believe that no dialect is objectively better or worse than any other. That is, the phonological and grammatical characteristics of these non-standard dialects are not wierd, unworkable, or deficient when compared with "real" languages, and that they work perfectly well for the communicative needs to which they are put. The people who are speaking them are not making them up as they go along, and they are understood by their co-dialecticians. (Ooo, that word always makes me think of Henry Higgins.) But I do not see any contradiction between that position and the requirement for using some version of Standard Written English in formal writing.

This isn't my singular opinion. Read Stephen Pinker's rather brilliant book The Language Instinct, published last year. Read Dr. Steven Schaufele's recent (31 May 1996) posting to Linguist on that very topic below:
Subject: non-standard grammar

Which brings me to the broader practical issue. If all those students are in a college or university i assume it means most of them want to eventually go out into the world to `seek their fortunes', as it were; at any rate, i assume they don't intend to spend the rest of their lives only with their dialect-mates. If so, then it behooves them to master at least one `standard' dialect of English, in addition to their own. Not because the standard is *better*, from a purely linguistic point of view, than their own dialect, but because it is the vehicle of social, economic, and/or political success in the outer world. If it is to them a `foreign' dialect, let them think of it as a foreign language mastery of which will bring them significant dividends. We can, i think, assure all speakers of English that the English they speak is a perfectly respectable language while at the same time encouraging them to master the `standard' English of the country they happen to be living in, in recognition of the social, economic, and political realities. We should encourage them to think of it as an 'empowerment' issue: Go on using your native dialect all you want, but when you have to deal with the Wider World, the strangers you will encounter in the course of your careers, this 'standard' dialect will prove a very useful tool, if you learn to use it well. Practice on me; i know too much to judge harshly any deviations from the 'standard' you may slip into. But if you really mean to seek success outside your own dialect-community this 'standard' will be invaluable to you.

And for a thoughtful essay on just what LINGUISTIC EQUALITY really means, look here for what Benji Wald of UCLA has to say.

So, you may ask, just what is it we're saying? What we're saying is that nonstandard dialects are full-fledged languages, and no better nor worse than other languages. Where they differ, and the only place where they differ, is that they are not the "chosen" dialect.

There's a joke about this:
Q: What's the difference between a dialect and a language?
A: A language is just a dialect with an army!
So, on these pages I'm going to examine some things about non-standard forms of English. I'll look at how they are grammatical, just use a different grammar, and how they are as cohesive and rigorous as standard English is.

What we're not saying, in case it hasn't sunk in yet, is that people should use any form of English they want to in formal situations. Kids in school need to be taught Standard English. Why, if what they speak is okay? Because what they speak isn't Standard English. Does that sound like a tautology? It isn't, really; they should use Standard English in school because that's the language the country uses as its written standard, and their ability to use it will be the yardstick they will be judged by. Moreover, if they don't use it, there may well come a time when they simply won't be understood by the majority of the country, the majority that hires and fires (if nothing else). Yes, Black English is just as "good" a language, just as valid, as Standard, but so's Dutch. So's Cherokee. You wouldn't advise a student to submit his term papers in one of those, or her resumé.

I would even argue that if using Standard English is more than mere register-switching for students, or adults, for that matter, then those people have essentially mastered a second language; and as a linguist I think few things are more valuable for people than a working knowledge of more than their native tongue.

Students should be taught standard English so that they can look like professionals when they write: many a time I have winced and moved on when I have run across written reports filled with misplaced apostrophes, incorrectly-case-formed pronouns, and mismatching of number between nouns and verbs. Even "lesser" problems, such as dangling participles, get in the way of comprehension, which should be the goal of formal writing, and will often send a subliminal message about the competency of the writer. It may well be that how well one uses "its" has no bearing on how well one can, for example, write a computer program, but I'd rather not take the chance if I don't have to.

Take a look, for instance, at this example, which arrived in the middle of an ongoing argument about implementing security features in an intranet:

PROJECT NAME has it's own web server and it's user's are 
homed to it. I can't see why we would ever want to change that.

What I can't see is why I should trust this man to design anything on my system. That's probably unfair, but it is my instinctive reaction. And this is "only" a spelling mistake, or so people will claim (though, honestly: will he make the same kind of "simple" mistakes when writing his code?). But whatever it is, it signals that the writer is not professional enough to know his way around the English language. If that image can be corrected, it should be, for the writer's sake.

Please stay tuned; topics will be posted here as I've got the time to do it. And if you have a question for me about it, please don't hesitate to email me at kmdavisus AT yahoo DOT com with them. I'll be glad to address them here, or answer them personally, and even to quote from a few books that everyone should read (okay, that I think everyone should read). Pinker's book is one; The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Gordon, an hysterically funny grammar book, and its companion, The Well-Tempered Sentence, are others.


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