My English is Valid-er than Your English

I’ll admit it: I enjoy the occasional Grammar Police diatribe (especially Weird Al’s recent “Blurred Lines” parody, “Word Crimes”). Who doesn’t love hyperbolic prophecies of the demise of the English language as we know it? But I’ve recently seen this gem floating around Facebook walls, and it’s messing up my grammatical superiority buzz:

Grammar Disc 1

The post, displayed with pride (usually by teachers), succinctly expresses what many of us feel: that people who use “peopler English” seem smarter, more articulate, and more worthy of employment at my future coffee-and-catnip shop than those who do not.

As clearly explained by gems like this:

Grammar Disc 2And this…

Grammar Disc 3

Thank you for enlightening us Suit Guy and Musketeer Man… But there’s a question these gods of grammar are forgetting to ask:

When is there a difference between using English correctly and using it differently?

We all make errors: When a student writes their when she means there or they’re, this is an error – it’s not what she means to communicate. Teachers need to fix that. But when a student says “He be mad,” she means exactly what she said in exactly the way she’s used to hearing it. It’s not the way Im used to hearing it, but that doesn’t make it an error, especially when I clearly understand what she means (which is, after all, the purpose of language use in the first place).

“But it’s just… you know… less linguistically valid.”

This response came from a colleague as she discussed the need to correct students’ use of “Ebonics.” She’s not alone in her thoughts. According to a 2005 survey by Bowie and Bond:

  • 76% of teachers felt that “[Ebonics] did not sound as good” as Standard Academic English.
  • 61% agreed that [Ebonics] “operated under a faulty grammar system.”
  • Only 39% believed that “attempts to eliminate [Ebonics] could be psychologically damaging to African American students.”

I’d wager that these numbers would be similar, or even higher, among the general public. The problem is, none of the statements are true. Few of us, however, were ever taught otherwise (myself included), and it is we, as teachers, who are largely responsible for perpetuating this misinformation.

As discussed in my last post, we speak the English language in a cornucopia of dialects. But don’t we still have to teach students the “correct” one? Well, first we have to ask:

What’s the difference between a language and a dialect in the first place?

The answer, from a linguistics perspective, is absolutely nothing.

 That’s right, if an alien linguist came down and kidnapped representatives from every dialect of English, he would be utterly unable to determine which was the “standard,” “richest,” or the “most correct” from of English.

"Like, take us to your leader, bro."

“Thou shalt, like, take us to your leader, bro.”

“But the students must learn The Standard English!”

Yes. There is a particular form of English used in academics and we should all become well versed in it. We should also become well versed in Shakespeare, and Beowulf, and probably Chinese these days, but that doesn’t mean one is better, more desirable, or more “proper” than any of the others; We don’t teach that Shakespeare writes correctly and the rest of us use “broken English” – but we DO teach this way when it comes to modern dialect diversity.

But before we even broach that topic, it’s necessary to ask:

“What is this “Standard English” in the first place?”

Since all dialects are created equal, society decides which dialect is “standard” or the most beautiful/intelligent. This is, unsurprisingly, most often the dialect spoken by the group in power, which brings up my favorite (but non-attributed) quote on the distinction between a dialect and a language: When all is said and done:

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

In the absence of actual differences in worth, we “rank” dialects based on the political clout of their users. As Charles Debose put it:

“…the superior position of the dominant group is justified by its “proper” speech. Similarly, the subordinate position of marginalized groups is legitimated by the characterization of their language in such pejorative terms as poor, slovenly, broken, bastardized, or corrupt.” (2007)

All the terms above (with the exception of “slovenly” because who uses that word anymore?) are freely used when discussing dialects of English, vocalizing judgements most wouldn’t be caught dead making about race, gender, or social class. As Adger, Wolfram, and Christian describe:

“Members of the majority culture, the most powerful group, who would be quite willing to accept and champion equality in other social and educational domains, may continue to reject the legitimacy of a dialect other than their own. It is safe to say that dialect prejudice is one of the last prejudices to go.” (2007)

While I wouldn’t say that the “other prejudices” have necessarily gone anywhere, at least we generally acknowledge them as “bad” and, keep them under wraps and (off our Facebook walls).

So what is it that makes language different? Is there substance to the dialect-based judgements we’re taught to make? And if not, why have we been so “slovenly” (bringin’ it back) in embracing dialect variation as part of the diversity we so emphatically espouse to value?

~C.B.

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