Posts Tagged ‘dialect

21
Mar
12

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.

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