Archive for March, 2012


Correct English

When I taught English in a community college some years ago, my student were mostly young, black folks who spoke in the dialect of their culture.  I was genuinely fascinated by the complexity of the dialect’s grammar, pronunciation and syntax rules as well as the intricate vocabulary that was invariably referenced as “slang”.  In polite (now called PC) company, it was called “non-standard English”.

At the beginning of every semester, the issue of “correct” English came up, whether it had to do with word pronunciation or grammar.  Nearly all my students considered their own speech incorrect, something to be vaguely ashamed about. I loathed this self-derogation, this disdain for or shame about their own speech patterns.

So I’d ask the students to give me some slang terms for money. “Chump change”, “knots”, “jits”,  “bread” and the like were offered. Then, I took each term and made up sentences using them.   And I asked the classes to tell me whether the sentence was right or wrong (for example, “His chump changes were small”.).

It was not long before we’d amassed many judgments about a sentence’s rightness or wrongness.  I then proceeded to ask them how they knew right from wrong sentences and why. To neither question could any student give a convincing response, except the vague, “It just sounds stupid, funny, etc.“.  Soon it became clear to them that the determinants of  “correct” and “incorrect” English was a judgment call, a reflection of social preferences. But I did make it clear that whether dialect or “standard”, speech forms were driven by rules (for example, “chump change” is NEVER plural; it’s a MASS noun, like milk or sand.)

Then I’d turn attention to “correct” pronunciation and ask, “What makes the pronunciation “bref” wrong and “breath” right.  After a bit, someone ultimately said,  “Bref’ isn’t in the dictionary.”  To this , I would ask, “What makes the dictionary right?”.  To this they had no answer.

I’d then take time to explain how dictionary makers sample the speech of many different speakers, then calculate the frequencies of different pronunciations (what most people said).  But there were just too many cases when NO pronunciation was most frequent.  So, the dictionary folks focused on the pronunciations of nationally known and respected speakers, Presidents, actors, TV personalities, professors, etc.  But they found that even within this group, pronunciations varied widely.  New Englanders said “Cuber” (Cuba), Georgians said “Nauf Kalina”, New Yorkers said, “aftuh” and on and on.

Ultimately, the question “What makes the dictionary pronunciation ‘right’ ? ” could only be answered with something like, “Because the dictionary says so!”  In the end, I’d point out to the classes that what was in the dictionary were “prestige” pronunciations, those used by people of influence, wealth and power. They were neither right nor better.  In fact, I’d add, they’d be dead wrong in contexts in which a dialect was spoken. I’d ask, “So what would happen if tonight you sat at the kitchen table with your families and started saying things like, “Hwen (with an initial /h/ sound) was the “wahter”  (to rhyme with “hotter”)  turned (not “turnt”) off?”.  And universally they’d laugh and say something like, “My mom ‘d  think I’d gone nuts!”

And when I asked what would happen if they continued to speak “correctly”, the unanimously agreed that “I’d have no social life, no friends and a very disappointed and insulted family”.

So they came to understand that all language forms have equal legitimacy, that these forms vary as social circumstances vary and that the truly correct speaker . . . . and educated. . . . is one who knows as many of those forms as possible.   And I added that as speakers of both so-called “standard” and “non-standard” dialects, they could move in circles that those who only knew standard forms could never do.


A liddle mistake means a lot

To be a good diagnostician, you have to attend to what a person does wrong.  What one does correctly is largely uninformative. And as  I’ve said elsewhere , scores are even less informative.

Jill scores at the 35th percentile on a standardized spelling test. That’s “average”; that’s about all we can say. We inspect her actual spelling work and see that she spelled train, bridge and receive correctly. So what have we learned? Not much, except it’s nice she can spell bridge.

But we also notice that she spelled little as “liddle“.  Now here’s something to think about, something that gives a clue as to why Jill’s teachers complain that she doesn’t know her phonics.  And how wrong they are when they say this!

Why , then, did Jill spell little as liddle? First off, NOBODY pronounces little with a /t/ sound. You can try to, but you’ll sound like you have a speech impairment. Secondly, NOBODY pronounces TWO /t/ sounds. If you do, you’ll be identified as a stutterer. As a matter of fact, no one ever says any “double” consonants. Even when the same consonant appears at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you only pronounce the first one. Try saying “great taste” by saying one of the t’s immediately followed by another.  Makes you sound like a non-native speaker, one who hasn’t really mastered English.

Why our spelling system has rules for “doubing consonants” seems quite pointless then, if we never really say them both. But there are reasons, ones we “know” rather unconsciously, ones that have help reveal both the “phonetic” and “nonphonetic” basis to that system.

We can learn aout this from Jill . We can advance the following theories about her and this rather schizoid spelling system.

1.  Jill is quite aware of the sounds of English; she clearly noted the /d/ sound in the word little.

2.  Jill knows that when a consonant sound follows a short vowel,  short “i” for example as in hit, the consonant letters representing that consonant sound are doubled (compare later and latter). So she knows the rule for consonant doubling is based on this “diacritic” function of some spelling patterns, i.e. that double letters indicate the vowel preceding those letters is “short”. She also recognizes the “phonetic” rule that “t” stands for the sound /t/….except sometimes??

3.  Being a keen discriminator of sounds and knowledgeable about spelling rules, Jill spells the word “middle” in one of her home assignments as “mittle”.  Here she is “hypercorrecting”. That is, she is applying a rule that should NOT be applied. She’s saying to herself, “Aha!  I hear a /d/ sound in middle just as I do in little, so I’ll spell middle with two “t” s just as I did with little.  I also will use two letters because the first vowel in middle is short.”

4.  Jill will learn to be careful with words like ” liter” and “feeder” because the / d/ sound follows a long vowel. (i.e. they both are pronounced /leeder/). She might then spell liter as lider, knowing that double consonants never follow a long vowel. But she may be confused for awhile until she memorizes those sorts of words where a long vowel comes before a /d/ or / t/ sound.

What  we can recommend for Jill is instruction that makes her conscious of the fact that a double letter has a diacritic function (marking the preceding vowel as “short) AND a phonetic function (i.e. that it also represents a sound). We will NOT recommend phonics. She already discriminates sounds just fine. And we’ll teach her how to memorize the visual features of words.

Finally, we’ll appreciate how much a people can know about something when we examine what they seem not to know.