Nothing New about Non-Standard Dialects

Those who would reduce English to a single bland variety of their own choosing seem to think that the many forms in which it is found today are a recent development, and one that represents a deterioration of the language.  Evidence that nothing could be further from the truth is found in writers from at least Chaucer onwards. Here’s Mr Peggotty speaking in his East Anglian dialect in Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’:

Not along of my being heer, ma’am, I hope? . . . Unless my wits is gone bahd’s neezing . . .  this morning, ‘tis along of me as you’re a-going to quit us?

That was not Standard English at the time, and it certainly isn’t Standard English now, but it is undeniably English. It has just as much a claim to linguistic legitmacy as the equally vigourous standard language of the narrator that surrounds it. Perhaps the most successful chronicler of dialect of the last 100 years or so was Thomas Hardy, who has preserved for posterity the speech of his 19th century Dorset. Here’s a passage by the elder Dewey, taken at random from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’:

They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog – well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye – well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker – good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings.

Dickens and Hardy had an ear for the way people actually speak. The dialects they record were not the dialects in which they themselves wrote, but they clearly relished them. We should do the same.


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