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No Such Thing As Bad English?

Yale’s Grammatical Diversity Project is examining regional deviations from standard American English, and attempting to trace their roots. Here’s an example from the Yale Alumni Magazine story about the project:

How widespread are expressions like “This needs washed”? The Grammatical Diversity Project database has them centered on Pennsylvania, but also spreading over nearby states to the west and southwest. There are even a couple of far-flung examples sourced to Idaho and Florida. But farthest of all is Scotland, where researchers have recorded, for instance, “We would like picked up at Fort William Train Station” and “Would you like fed?”

The reason isn’t hard to guess. Pennsylvania was a center of Protestant Scots and Scotch-Irish immigration during the 1700s. As several linguists have noted, Pennsylvania’s “needs washed” is probably a direct descendant of the same kind of syntax in Scotland.

A different case is “negative concord,” recorded all over the United States in some African American English and other dialects, as in “I don’t see him no more” and “Don’t nothing come to a sleeper but a dream.” In these sentences, the negatives reinforce each other instead of canceling each other out. And consider this expression from fourteenth-century England: “There nas [was not] no man nowhere so virtuous.” It’s by Chaucer, and is just one example of many from his era and earlier. But there is no direct relation. Negative concord, as wrong as it sounds to those who grew up without it, is common among the world’s languages.

Here’s a link to a data table for the project.  Most of these sentences I’ve never heard, but some of them I hear almost every day in south Louisiana, and had never thought of them as non-standard English. I mean, if you had pointed them out to me I easily could have identified them as non-standard, but they’re so much a part of common speech here that they don’t stand out to me.

For example, “She loves her some time off” — that “her some” construction is common, especially if you want to emphasize that the thing desired is especially particular to a person. If you say, “Daddy loves him some dewberry cobbler,” you generally mean to indicate that your father is especially fond of dewberry cobbler. “Daddy loves dewberry cobbler” is standard English even down here, but the “him some” is added for emphasis. Similarly, it’s common to hear, “Get you some” for “have some,” e.g., “Sugar, get you some of this chicken we got here.”

It’s fun to think about regionalisms. I used to be puzzled by the expression some south Louisiana people would use for grocery-shopping: “make groceries.” Then, when I first encountered French as a junior in high school, I learned that the French expression for grocery shopping is “make groceries.” Somehow, it migrated into south Louisiana English.

We have another common phrase, an imperative involving the expression, “Don’t be,” e.g., “Don’t be telling me what to do.” Why not say the standard, “Don’t tell me what to do”? People do say the standard thing, but we also say the other thing. I don’t know why, and I’m not aware of it when I do it.

Interestingly, in the South, so much spoken black English and working-class white English share expressions, as they also share tastes in food. For example, you this kind of exchange happens every day where I live:

“How y’all getting along today?”

“We fine.”

“Getting along” = “doing,” of course, but the construct I want to draw attention to is the verbless “we fine.” You could have this kind of exchange between or among blacks and whites who are negotiating a transaction:

“We straight?”

“We straight.”

It means, “have I paid you what I owed you?” or “do we understand each other clearly?”

One basic way the black dialect differs from white dialect, though, is the much more frequent deployment of the word “be.” I don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe the operation linguistically, but this kind of sentence is what I mean: “He be going to the store later on.” (That “on” added to later is also characteristic of our speech.) Or: “She be trying to get to town.” You never hear a white person here use that construction, except in the negative sense I mean above, e.g., “Don’t you be coming down here starting something with us.” Whites say that kind of thing all the time, but would never say, “You be coming down here starting something with us, and we don’t like it.” I wonder why one, but not the other, why the migration across racial lines for the subject-be-gerund construct never occurred, except in the negative imperative case. Yale will tell us, I presume.

There is, of course, a political and cultural hegemony angle to this:

One might think that between video, radio, and the blogosphere, regional differences are on their way out. But the linguists say that just isn’t happening. “Certain people want to get rid of features that are stigmatized, but that’s certain people,” says Zanuttini. “Some people want to get rid of any linguistic feature that marks them as coming from the South. Other people like to have their own identity”—and those who are proud of being recognized as Southern don’t want to homogenize their language to match other parts of the country.

In her ideal world, people would master both their own local dialect and the dialect of the elite—which can be useful, even necessary, in certain situations. “A ‘language,’” she says, “is a dialect associated with a political entity.” She points to Spain and Italy as just two examples of countries where one regional dialect prevailed over others: because Castile and Florence became politically powerful, Castilian and Florentine eventually became the national languages of Spain and Italy. We may call those successful varieties “languages” and the other varieties “dialects,” Zanuttini notes, but “from the linguistic point of view, they are equivalent.”

This is why we are able to code-switch, which is to say, toggle back and forth between standard spoken English — grammatical constructions, pronunciations — and dialect. It happens so naturally that most people don’t even notice they’re doing it. Here’s a great example from the comedy team of Key & Peele:

It won’t surprise readers of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to learn that one of the first big fights my sister and I had was about code-switching. After I went off to a public boarding school, I became much more careful about speaking standard English. This was partly a result of class anxiety. It wasn’t a rich-kid school by any stretch, but it was an academically elite school, and the expectation was that we would all take care to speak proper English. If you didn’t, you would instantly be marked out. But mostly it was about realizing that if I intended to live beyond the social milieu in which I had been raised, I had better make standard English my default. To the ears of my sister back home, this was an example of me being fake. We used to fight about it as teenagers. She was not wrong that I was speaking a different form of English to impress people not like us. What she didn’t get, and never did get because she stayed here all her life, is that if she had moved around, even just to the city in Louisiana, she would have had to learn to do this as well, and would have learned it naturally. It’s interesting to contemplate, though, how something as simple as the use of language became a point of bitter contention between my sister and me when we were young. That clash set the tone for everything to come between us.

I found over the years that no matter where I was living — DC, NYC, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale — that when I would get on the phone with my sister or my folks, I would code-switch without even realizing it unless my wife pointed it out to me. This is normal. Now that I live back in St. Francisville, I wonder how often I code-switch. I’m entirely unaware of it. The thing is, even educated professionals here speak in particular deviations from standard English, and it is perfectly normal. Some constructions, though, have class associations, and are avoided by educated people. Use of the double negative is a typical one, unless consciously done for a kind of emphasis. For example, if I wanted to emphasize that a person had lost all their money, I might drop into standard English speech, “He ain’t got nothin’.” The subtlety this conveys is that the subject of the conversation is so poor he’s country-poor. If spoken about someone who was previously rich, it implies a comedown in social status. Again, this kind of thing is such a normal part of conversation in my place that I never think about it, just do it. It’s part of what makes language so rich and interesting.

I share with Prof. Zanuttini a belief that we are best served by having a standard English for professional use, but also keeping dialects for informal use. My own culture would be impoverished if we sought to scrub our spoken language of its particular expressions and gramatically incorrect ways of speaking. When I hear a waitress say, “Let me get you some iced tea,” I know I’m in the South, and it makes me feel at home in a way that, “Let me get iced tea for you” does not and cannot. Still, standard English makes it possible for us all to communicate clearly with people who don’t share our dialect, and is therefore indispensable. Problems arise when people on either side of the linguistic line — standard English speakers or dialect speakers — impose moral judgment on those who speak the other version. To speak dialect in a business meeting marks you as lacking manners (it’s like wearing shorts and a t-shirt to church), but to insist on speaking standard English at the fish camp marks you as a stuffed shirt (like wearing a three-piece suit to, well, a fish camp). But in neither case does it make you a bad person, just one ignorant of context. And if you try to code-switch into a dialect that is not the one in which you were raised, you really look like a poseur at best, and at worst as someone who is condescending to the people around him, making fun of them.

I would love to read some of y’all’s regional dialecticisms (is that a word?), and your thoughts on when and how you use them, and when and how you don’t.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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