Friday, July 22, 2011

Ain't Nothing Wrong With Dialects, Y'all

Looking at the tag cloud at the right of this post, I see the word "language" growing larger and larger.  I've always been interested in language, particularly regional dialects.  That's probably because I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, which means the rest of the country loves to make fun of the way I talk. Being laughed at as soon as you open your mouth (or being written off as stupid, uncultured, or racist) will make you think long and hard about dialects, and what they really mean.  Upon reflection, I've decided I like my accent, and I like hearing other accents.  English would be mortally boring if everyone spoke it the same way.  Besides, when people jump to conclusions about my smarts based on my accent, it's their foolishness, not mine.  I'll explain why that's true below, but first I want to point out the amazing variety of southern English.

I live in Louisiana now, which surely has the widest variety of English dialects in the south.  At least five different dialects mingle here.  In north Louisiana, you get the twangy drawl of the upper south.  When these people tell you they are southerners, they pronounce the two R's in that word.  There are also a few southuhnuhs around Louisiana, who do not pronounce those R's.  They tend to come from old money, or at least imagine they do.  All across south Louisiana there are Cajuns, who generally speak English these days, but a very different English from the rest of the south.  Anybody who's ever watched Justin Wilson's cooking show has heard an exaggerated version of this dialect.  Of course, you can hear African American English throughout Louisiana.  Linguists recognize this as a distinct dialect, although it does share a lot of common ground with other dialects originating in the south.  

One of the most unusual dialects in Louisiana is the working class speech of New Orleans, which doesn't sound like anything else in the south. This dialect is known as Y'at, because its practitioners say "Where y'at? (which actually means "How are you?").  The accent sounds more Brooklyn than Mississippi, although the people who speak it still say "y'all".  Where I live, southwest of New Orleans, most people's speech seems (to my outsider ears) to be a cross between New Orleans and Cajun. They use syntax I've never heard outside of Louisiana; saying things like "I been knowin' him for years", or "Why you didn't call me?", or "Is that you new house?"  Even "y'all" is different.  Here, and in New Orleans, if a couple had just gotten that new house, people would ask "Is that y'all new house?"  Being from Arkansas, of course, I know that the proper way is to say, "Is that y'all's new house?" I mean, we have to have some rules here, right?

Whether it's "correct" or not, Louisiana's speech is as flavorful as its food, and hearing it every day has revived my longstanding interest in language and regional dialects. But I'm not alone. Most people are fascinated by language, or at least have strong views on which kinds of language are better than others.  When newspapers publish articles that stray from the rules people learned in school, they get letters lamenting the Decline and Fall of the English Language.  These letters describe the near-physical pain their readers suffer at the sight of split infinitives and questionable subject-verb agreements.  They claim to get sick to their stomach, to suffer from headaches, or to just get deeply depressed (oops, I mean "just to get".  Don't want to cause split infinitive sickness). 

People react pretty strongly to differences in spoken English, too.  If you have a strong regional dialect, you already know that strangers will draw conclusions about your intelligence and social class based on how you talk.  Many intelligent, well-educated southerners who have lived outside the south have had someone tell them "You know, you're a lot smarter than you sound!"  Astonishingly, this is usually intended as a compliment!  Dialects and other non-standard speech styles, like teen-speak, cause strong emotional reactions.  Most people like certain speech patterns, and they may deeply, viscerally hate others.

I'm guilty, too.  There are types of language I really dislike.  For example, the buzzwords and catch-phrases of business-speak (leveraging, actionable) and education-speak (the whole child; the apparent quota for using constructivist and praxis every few words) make my skin crawl.  When it comes to the pompous, difficult style so pervasive in academia these days, especially in the humanities and social sciences, hate is not too strong a word.  I admit it: I hate that stuff.  In case you haven't encountered this style, here's a sample.  This is the first sentence in an article called "In Other Words: The Other as Inventio, Allegory, and Symbol", by Stephen Tyler, a professor of anthropology at Rice University:

"The narrative of the symbol is the account of the object's impassioned upward flight from the outer world through the pathemata of the senses to the phantasms of of (sic) the imaginatio to the symbols of the nous and beyond( into the realm of the anagogic, and it is simultaneously the poem of the object's journey from expression to impression to representation (repression) to expression." (Italics and typographic error in original)

Call me a Philistine, but I think this is pretentious, impenetrable crap.  The ideas being "communicated" here may or may not be coherent.  I don't know, but I will assume they aren't until they are put into language that makes some degree of sense.  Life is too short to try to navigate a linguistic smokescreen like this.

So yes, I have my share of strong feelings about language usage.  I don't think language should be used to exclude or obscure, and the passage above does both.  Some kinds of language irritate me in far more minor ways.  In a previously blog post I discussed how people who are trying to sound educated (for example, those being interviewed on NPR, or speaking at conferences) keep saying "sort of" and "kind of".  I do find this mildly irritating, but I don't think I made my reasons clear.  It's not that it offends my sense of "correct grammar" or "proper English".  I dislike the constant repetition of "sort of" because I see it as an indicator that people are consciously trying to speak like a certain group, which means they are in danger of automatically thinking like that group.  I see buzzwords, catchphrases, unnecessary jargon, and stereotyped linguistic tics like "sort of" as signs of an imitative, parrot-like habit of mind, which is not conducive to independent thinking.

But I'm actually a big fan of regional dialects.  Imagine how boring the world be if everyone spoke the Standard English that newscasters use, with its rigid grammar and its nondescript accent.  Dull, dull, dull.  Regional dialects add an enormous amount of spice to the world.  Many people (though certainly not all) would agree.  Far fewer people would agree with my next claim, however: there's no real evidence that any dialect is inferior to any other.  If you ask most linguists, they will tell you that the most backwoods hillbilly uses a grammar that is just as complex and rule-based as William F. Buckley's.  It's a different grammar, but not an inferior one. 

This isn't just knee-jerk ivory tower relativism; it's based on piles of painstaking empirical research. People tend to think of regional dialects as variants of language in which the rules have broken down, but this is a fallacy.  Dialects have their own rules; those rules are very subtle; and native speakers know them very well.  Take African American English, which was at the center of the extremely contentious Ebonics debate several years ago.  Some African Americans say things like "He be taking night classes".  In this dialect, this is a standard way of saying something is happening in the present tense.  It's not just sloppy usage.  No African American would use "be" when speaking in the future tense: you wouldn't hear "He be gonna take night classes next semester".  In the grammar of African American English, that would be incorrect.  Only someone who didn't know any better would say a thing like that.  

It is certainly possible to speak a dialect incorrectly.  As a southerner, I've heard non-southerners try to imitate southern speech, and get it all wrong.  There's this strange misconception, for example, that y'all can be singular.  I have a friend from the Midwest who used to poke fun at my speech by greeting me with "Hey, y'all".  I would always look around, to see who else was there.  He just didn't get it.

To speak sensibly about disputes over the grammar of different dialects, I need to distinguish two kinds of grammar.  When people tell you not to say things like "He don't know nothing", or "He be taking night classes", they're advocating a prescriptive grammar.  They believe English should follow a standard set of grammatical rules, and that deviations from these rules constitute incorrect grammar.  This is different from descriptive grammar, which is what linguists are studying when they record how people really do speak, and try to work out the rules they follow.  Prescriptive grammar is concerned with how people should speak, while descriptive grammar is about how people really do speak.

Looking at language from the descriptivist point of view, it's clear that no language is a unitary, static thing.  All living languages naturally evolve, as people invent and import new words, combine old ones, develop new styles of slang, and so on.  Since the language evolves differently in different places, any widespread language develops dialects, which may eventually evolve into different languages.  Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, for example, all evolved from regional dialects of Latin.  

The tendency for language to transform and diversify over time has been noted, and lamented, for thousands of years.  Many look at the changes they see in the language in the course of their lives, and conclude that the language is decaying into gibberish.  It isn't. It is changing, and, given enough time, it will evolve into something unintelligible to its current speakers.  But, as atavistic as the teen-speak in the mall may sound to you, no language has ever devolved into something that can't be used to communicate.  As old distinctions fade away, new ones appear to take their place.  

Of course, all I have established so far is that most linguists are descriptivists, that languages always change and diversify into new dialects and languages, and that dialects follow complex, consistent rules of their own.  This doesn't prove that some dialects aren't inferior to others. The mistake the prescriptivists make is thinking that the rules and pronunciations of Standard English are somehow the perfect form of English, and that regional dialects are corruptions of this form.  There are several problems with this point of view.  For one thing, what is considered Standard English has changed considerably over the years, so it is certainly not eternal.  Also, the rules and pronunciations that have been codified as standard are mostly based not on modern understandings of language, but on historical accidents, false analogies with Latin, and arbitrary proclamations by self-appointed guardians of the language.

The very idea of a standardized English first became popular in the 1600's, in--not surprisingly--England.  By this time, the city of London had come to dominate the politics and culture of the country.  London was where the royal family lived, where Parliament met, where the rich and fashionable congregated, and where most books were published.  All this made the English of upper class London the most prestigious dialect in England.  Naturally, this strain of English served as the model when people started trying to standardize the language.  If history had gone differently, and the city of York had become the political and cultural center of gravity in England, then the Yorkshire dialect would have been the model for the standard.  The rise of the London dialect as the standard had far more to do with accidents of history and social prestige than with its intrinsic logic or superiority.  While the Standard American English we hear on TV over here is very different from the Standard English of the 1600's, it didn't become the standard by a process any more rational.
In both cases, the pronunciations and grammatical rules that people think of as "proper" are based on whatever dialect the upper classes in the most influential regions happened to speak.  There are no compelling reasons to think the dialect that became standard was any better than any other dialect.  People simply confused "spoken by high class people" with "intrinsically better".  For example, there's no good reason to think one pronunciation is better than another, as long as it's understandable.  In New York, people in the lower classes are more likely to drop R's at the end of words than the upper classes are.  On the Upper West Side, people have "brothers" and "mothers", while in the grittier areas, they have "brothuhs and mothuhs".  The dropped R is correlated with lower social status, but does that make it worse?  What about in parts of the deep south, where the upper class people are the ones more likely to drop their R's?  

Distinctions between "good" and "bad" accents are arbitrary, and based more on prestige than intrinsic worth. Saying "He can't talk very well" is considered more correct than "He cain't talk very well" for the same reason that a particular fork is considered the correct one to use for your salad--some influential group of people decided it was correct, and that's that.  It has no foundation in rationality. Oftentimes, differences in pronunciation can be used the same way the "correct fork" distinction is: to determine who's in the in-group, and who isn't.  They are shibboleths, which mainly serve to determine whether the person speaking is "our kind of people".

Regional accents, like regional syntax, follow very complex, albeit mostly unconscious, rules.  Being from Arkansas, when I say the words "ten" and "tin", they sound exactly alike.  Both sound like "tin".  My father's name is Ben, but I call him Bin.  He doesn't mind, because that's what he calls himself.  Once I was thinking about this, and thought, "If I say tin and ten so that they sound alike, why not bit and bet?"  I say bet the same way most people in the country say it, with a clear "e" sound.  When I looked up linguistic studies about this, I was amazed at the complexity of the rule I'm unconsciously applying.  The pin/pen merger, as this phenomenon is called, only happens with words that end in nasal consonants: m or n.  When you make either of these sounds, you drop your soft palate, so that air escapes through your nose.  The nasal cavities resonate, which helps give these consonants their distinct sounds.  Other consonants in English are pronounced with the soft palate raised.  What's interesting here is that I knew this rule without really knowing it.  Before reading up on the pin/pen merger, I couldn't have told you what a nasal consonant is, or that m and n are examples of one.  But I automatically applied the rule, which is why pin and pen sound alike for me, but bit and bet don't.  That's how language works.  People learn the rules implicitly, not explicitly.  They know how to speak their dialect fluently, but they would have a hard time explaining the rules they're following.

I'm mentioning all these facts about accents to show that a regional accent, like regional syntax, is not an example of an offshoot of the language in which the rules have broken down.  It's simply an example in which the rules have changed.  In the case of the pin-pen merger, the rules have actually become more complex, not less.  People who speak like me follow an additional rule, which people in other regions do not. 

Based on these kinds of arguments, I think most people will concede that value judgments about accents are based on stereotypes and historical accidents, not the inherent worth of the accent.  But what about grammar?  Isn't it still wrong to end sentences with prepositions? Shouldn't we be careful about splitting infinitives?  Surely people who use double negatives, like "He don't know nothing" are mangling the language?  Consider the rule against ending sentences with prepositions, which has caused generations of writers to compose tortured sentences like "To whom are you speaking?" instead of the perfectly straightforward "Who are you speaking to?"  According to David Crystal, the restriction was first promoted by John Dryden in the late 1600's.  Dryden was one of the first people to think it might be possible to perfect the English language, and then freeze it in its "perfect" form (Dryden's English sounds archaic now, ironically).  To this end, he started proposing rules he thought good English should follow.  One of these was to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.  His reasoning is not well known, but it's likely he was basing his judgments of English grammar on his extensive knowledge of Latin.  Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that Classical Latin represented a sort of pinnacle of human language.  English was thought to be a barbarous tongue compared to the language of Cicero and Caesar.  In Latin, prepositions always come before the nouns or pronouns they modify, which is why they are called pre-positions in the first place.  English has a different structure than Latin, and there is no reason why this should be true in English. 

Nevertheless, Dryden's preference stuck, and is with us to this day.  Even though influential grammarians have been saying for over a hundred years that the rule is silly, people are afraid to abandon it, for fear of sounding uneducated.  Just yesterday, I was writing a grant proposal, and keeping an eye out for dangling prepositions, because there are still people out there who would see them as a sign of a poor command of the language. The fact that a tradition is patent nonsense has never been sufficient reason for a society to abandon it.

The rule against using double negatives may seem to be on slightly firmer footing.  Logically speaking, isn't saying "He don't know nothing" equivalent to saying, "He does know something"?  The negative words "don't" and "nothing" cancel each other out and produce a positive, right?  This is what the people who originally proposed the restriction against double negatives argued.  But the fact is, as much as we might like language to follow the rules of logic, it doesn't.  When people hear Marvin Gaye sing Ain't No Mountain High Enough, they don't think he means "there is a mountain high enough".  We naturally interpret double negatives as, well, negative.  In fact, their widespread use in popular music suggests they pack more punch than more formal usage.  Would a song called There Isn't Any Mountain High Enough have ever made it onto the charts?  In many languages, double negatives are standard.  When the French say "Je ne sais pas" (I don't know), both the ne and the pas are negative.  Chaucer and Shakespeare also used double negatives, and most people don't fault them for their poor grasp of the language.  

The point I'm trying to make in this unfeasibly long blog post is that not that some styles of English can't be inferior to others.  Some are inferior, because they don't work well.  The reason language exists is to help us communicate complicated ideas and emotions to each other.  Any style that fails at that task is bad English.  The passage I quoted above by Professor Tyler is a shining example of bad, bad English, because it fails to clearly communicate any idea (except, perhaps, "I think I'm smarter than you").  I also think other kinds of English are bad, if not that bad.  The jargon used in business, government, and education is unfortunate, because it reveals questionable, herdlike mindsets, and because it often serves more to obscure clear thought than than promote it.  While I think teenage slang can be expressive and entertaining, the teenage tendency to try to sound dumb are is not a positive one.  I certainly wouldn't want to see writers and newscasters trade in their Standard English for teen-speak.  I wouldn't even want them to start using whatever regional dialect they grew up with--at least not entirely.  There's no reason they shouldn't speak in version of their regional accent, as long as it's understandable.  In fact, it would do some good, because it would lessen the stereotype that no one with a non-standard accent can be smart and successful.  Still, having a standardized form of the language makes good sense, because it serves as a common medium between different regions, different social groups, and different generations.
When it comes to judging regional dialects against Standard English, I think people need to realize two things:  First, Standard English is not "Perfect English".  Its pronunciation is just as arbitrary as any other, and many of its rules were simply made up.  Second, regional dialects are not corrupted, "fallen" forms of English.  They're healthy varieties of a diverse language, with their own rules and their own strengths.  While I think we should keep teaching Standard English, I also think we should start emphasizing to students that it is just a tool for communicating to a wide audience.  Standard English wasn't handed down to us from on high.  We invented it, to serve a certain purpose.  With this in mind, there's no reason not to do away with rules that exist for no good reason.  Let's teach kids, once and for all, that it's fine to end sentences with prepositions. This would save them a lot of heartache, and ourselves from a lot of ugly sentences.  Let's accept that some nonstandard usages exist because they fill gaps in Standard English, and consider whether Standard English should adopt them.  For example, Standard English has no non-gender-specific singular form.  To say "If someone is using a dialect, that doesn't mean they are stupid", is widely considered to be poor usage, because "they" is plural, and "someone" is singular.  But people say it because they don't want to specify a gender.  Since Standard English doesn't give us a neutral option, let's declare that "they" will work, plural or not.  Who's the boss here, anyway, the language or the people who created it?  

Maybe we could even accept that words like "ain't" and "y'all" are widely used because they make the language more efficient.  Standard English doesn't distinguish the singular and plural forms of "you", but sometimes you want to make that distinction.  When people from various parts of the country address a group as y'all, youse, or even you'uns, they are actually being more precise than people saying the more ambiguous you.  Maybe we should listen to them.  Finally, let's ask ourselves why ain't, that venerable outlaw of a word, is used in countless popular songs, even by well-educated singers. I suspect it's because ain't is more expressive, concise, and versatile than "aren't" and "isn't".  Maybe we should finally accept this fact, and let ain't come in from the cold.  Finally, and most importantly, let's stop assuming that people are less worthy because they speak in a dialect.

Will these things happen any time soon?  Probably not.  Groundless snobbery is a habit as hard to break as hand wringing over where to put prepositions.  Old, meaningless rules are especially hard to abandon when being the trailblazer could get you branded as being provincial or stupid.  And that's the problem, right there:  equating provincial with stupid or unworthy.  This equation is nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry and stereotyping.  While it's true that some populations speaking regional dialects may have lower average educational levels than others, that doesn't mean they are dumber, or that some of them aren't highly educated or naturally brilliant.  When we write people off as being dumb, old-fashioned, or small-minded based only on the dialect they are using, we're the ones being stupid, not them.

Recommended Links and Reading

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Do You Speak American?

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York: Walker & Co, 2009.

Pinker, Steven. "GRAMMAR PUSS." New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperPerennial ModernClassics, 2007

Yeah You Rite! New York, NY: Cinema Guild, 1985.

Non-Recommended Reading

Tyler, Stephen A. "In other words: The other as inventio, allegory, and symbol." Human Studies 16.1/2 (1993): 19-32.