This week in my writing pilgrimage, I’m focusing on language. In my last post, I debunked a couple common misconceptions about so-called “good” grammar. Today, I’m going to discuss one more linguistic myth.
The myth: Some dialects are better (richer, clearer, more organized, more precise) than others.
The truth: All dialects are equally, rich, clear, organized, and precise, and they are all correct to the people who speak them.
We should start with some clarity about what a dialect is. Basically, it is simply a variety of a language distinguished by region or by social group. Dialects differ from one another in pronunciation, in vocabulary, and in grammar, so what sounds right to the speaker of one dialect may sound incorrect or strange to the speaker of another—or may not be understandable at all. Cities, states, and regions—even neighborhoods— can have distinct dialects. An ethnic group can also have a dialect and, in some languages, women and men speak different dialects. The standard variety of a language—the one taught in schools as “correct” —is just a dialect that got enshrined as the Best One.
Many speakers of the mainstream or standard dialect—such as white-bread Standard North American English or upper-crusty Queen’s English—think every other dialect is sloppy, slovenly, lazy, or corrupt.
Nonsense. A dialect is just a dialect. And, to a language nerd like myself, they are all miracles.
Take these varieties of English:
Black English, possibly the most vilified dialect spoken in the United States. Not only has it given rise to the stunningly vibrant poetic form known as hip hop, but it is one of the most influential dialects worldwide.
The English of Southern Appalachia. Widely considered the speech of ignorant hillbillies, this collection of dialects is actually laced with traditional forms that have been lost in more standard varieties, but can be found in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible.
The Cockney of working-class London. This often-parodied dialect (the one Henry Higgins found so objectionable in My Fair Lady) has some of the most colorful descriptive phrases to be found in any form of English, including unique rhyming slang, in which a word is replaced with a phrase that rhymes with it, such as “Ken Dodd” to mean odd and “Al Murray” to mean curry. Who can’t love that?
The scores of New Englishes springing up throughout the world. These include the charming English of India, the musical variety of the Caribbean, and the rich English dialects of Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others.
Traditionalists may rage, rend their garments, and decry the destruction of the language they imagine to be a pure and perfect system, but English (like every other tongue) is a hodge-podge of forms and varieties. Instead of disparaging the differences, we should be celebrating them.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...