Category Archives: Dialects

What’s Wrong With Nonstandard Dialects?

Those who think that any English other than their versions of Standard English is ungrammatical, illiterate, incorrect, sloppy, lazy and so on usually have in mind, I suspect, the kind of English they simply don’t like. Many seem not to like features that have existed in the language for centuries, such as the use of ‘I’ in object position or as the complement of a preposition when it is coordinated with a noun or another pronoun, or the use of ‘they’ to refer to a singular antecedent.

The same sort of people don’t like constructions found in nonstandard dialects spoken by those they perceive to belong to a lower social class than themselves, such as the use of ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’, or the regular use of ‘was’ for all persons and numbers as the past tense of ‘be’.

What, I wonder, do such people make of nonstandard British regional dialects? Here are examples from four of them. Are these equally ungrammatical, illiterate, incorrect, sloppy and lazy? Or are they dialects which have the same linguistic validity as Standard English, but which for political, economic and social reasons weren’t selected for standardisation?

Ar like yat lowpin, its barie. (Cumbrian. More of the same here.)

Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick. (Geordie)

Ow bist? (Bristolian)

Another skill, uh, when we used to clean the dykes out all by hand with the old meak and the old didle and crome — that‘s all lugging. (East Anglian)

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Weinreich Revisited

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Warsaw Will and John Cowan raised some interesting points about Standard English in response to my post of 30 June, and they deserve fuller treatment than would be possible in a further comment. The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, poor man, is remembered chiefly as the alleged source of the quotation that heads this post, and it is one to bear in mind in considering various views on the status of a standard language variety.

A number of definitions of Standard English are available, but this by Richard Hudson will serve as well as any. It is the kind of English which is:

1. written in published work,
2. spoken in situations where published writing is most influential, especially in education (and especially at University level),
3. spoken “natively” (at home) by people who are most influenced by published writing – the “professional class”.

Will pointed out that there is more than one Standard English. There is British Standard English and there is American Standard English, and there are many more besides. Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, seems to support this view when she writes (my emphasis):

‘The expression British English is generally used to distinguish the standard form of English used in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the varieties used in other parts of the world.’

John seemed to disagree with this view, suggesting that Standard English was a global phenomenon, ‘being spoken with one accent or another in every English-speaking country, and indeed in every other country as well.’

My own belief, subject, as always, to adjustment in the light of contrary evidence, is that English varies between, but is conterminous with, various English-speaking states. Americans walk on the sidewalk and Britons walk on the pavement. An American committee might recommend that an employee be dismissed, and a British committee might equally recommend that an employee is dismissed, or should be dismissed. Each will be using a different Standard English. This suggests to me that a standard dialect is one that is used nationally, that is, within a single political entity, or state. We speak of British Standard English and American Standard English, not of Yorkshire Standard English or Wisconsin Standard English.

Will pointed to the way in which Glasgow University recognises a Scottish Standard English, a ‘variety of language normally used in formal, non-fictional written texts in Scotland . . . It is very close to standard Englishes elsewhere in the UK, North America and Australasia, but has some distinctive features.’ It gives the following examples of the ways in which ‘the grammar of Scottish Standard English differs from its southern cousin in certain grammatical features and idioms.

Scottish Standard English English Standard English
Can I come too? May I come too?
I would, if I was you. I should, if I were you.
My hair needs washed. My hair needs/wants washing.
He’ll not do that. He won’t do that.
I have one of those already. I’ve got one of those already.
Do you have any? Have you got any?
Does anybody know? Does anyone know?
She’s a braw lass. She’s a pretty girl.
He’s hurt his pinkie. He’s hurt his little finger.
Where do you stay? Where do you live?

Anybody, braw lass, pinkies and stay are matters of vocabulary rather than grammar, and even then anybody is just as likely to be heard in England as in Scotland, and pinkie has broken out of its original Scottish confines. With one exception, there doesn’t seem to me be anything specifically Scottish about the grammatical constructions in the left-hand column. The only one perhaps found in Scotland alone is My hair needs washed. I considered this construction in a post in 2009, where I suggested that If you need anything sliced, just ask was just as possible in England as If you need anything slicing, just ask. If that is the only example available, it doesn’t suggest that there is a distinct Scottish English grammar. I would say that the English used by many Scots was distinguished by its accent and vocabulary, rather than by its grammar.

If there is one day an independent Scotland, it may make sense to speak of a Scottish Standard English, just as historical developments have changed the linguistic landscape elsewhere. As David Crystal writes in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’,

As one crosses a well-established national boundary, the variety of speech will change its name . . . It is important to recognise that the reasons are political and historical, not linguistic. Arguments over language names often reduce to arguments of a political nature.

He later points to the situation in Scandinavia, where

using just the intelligibility criterion, there are really only two Scandinavian languages: Continental and Insular. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other’s speech, to a greater or lesser extent. But as soon as non-linguistic criteria are taken into account . . . [t]o be Norwegian is to speak Norwegian, to be Danish is to speak Danish; and so on.

Similarly, the language spoken in large parts of the former Yugoslavia was Serbo-Croat. Now that Serbia and Croatia are separate sovereign states, there are two languages, Serbian and Croatian.

If Scotland continues to be part of the United Kingdom, there will continue to be a single British Standard English used in the United Kingdom. Varieties of the language spoken, and occasionally written, in its various parts are dialects. There is no more a Scottish Standard English than there is there a Welsh Standard English, a Northern Irish Standard English, or even an English Standard English. That’s because it’s not so much that a language is a dialect with an army and navy as because the standard variety of a language, within a single state, is a dialect with an army and navy.

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The Grammar of Speech

As a supplement to my post yesterday, it might be of some interest to mention that Ronald Carter (‘Grammar and Spoken English’ in ‘Applying English Grammar’) has listed some of the ways in which the grammar of spoken English differs from the grammar of written English. They include:

‘Heads’ and ‘tails’. Heads ‘occur at the beginning of clauses and help listeners orient to a topic’:

The white house on the corner, is that where she lives?

That girl, Jill, her sister, she works in our office.

Tails ‘occur at the end of clauses, normally echoing an antecedent pronoun and help to reinforce what we are saying’:

She’s a very good swimmer, Jenny is.

It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?

Ellipsis ‘in which subjects and verbs are omitted because we can assume our listeners know what we mean’.

Discourse markers. Anyway, right, okay, I see, I mean, mind you, well, right, what’s more, so, now.

Vague language. Words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, or anything, or whatever, sort of.

Deixis. ‘The “orientational” features of language and includes words and phrases which point to particular features of a situation.’

Modal expressions. Modal verbs, but also words and phrases such as: possibly, probably, I don’t know, I don’t think, I think, I suppose, perhaps.

Carter quotes this piece of speech from ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Sure we got there um at seven actually around six fifteen and class starts at seven and I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high and I was the only one there and I was the only one there I was. And I yeah I was thinking gosh you know is this the right place or may be everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in there’s nothing said you know come on in knock on the door and come in or anything like that.

That is very different from what we’d expect to find in a piece of formal writing, but isn’t it still Standard English?

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Standard or Non?

Six of the following sentences are written in Standard English. Which are they? Answers and comments in my next post.

1. Yon house hasn’t been lived in for a year.
2. I ain’t seen nothing.
3. Someone should have told us, shouldn’t they?
4. I only done it last week.
5. This check-out is for less than five items.
6. Can I go now?
7. Happen she were in a hurry.
8. You’ll need to slowly back out and then turn round.
9. It was only when I come home that I seen it.
10. What was you after?
11. I’m afraid I don’t really know who you’re referring to.
12. They invited my husband and I to lunch.

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There’s So Many Questions Here – Or Are There?

There’s lots of people outside. There’s a few things I’d like to discuss with you. There’s too many sentences in this paragraph. Those are all sentences you might hear native English speakers say. You might hear me say them.

There’s followed by a plural noun phrase is found in non-standard dialects, as in this OED citation from 1888: There’s a good many chores I ‘ant a put down at all. The gutter’s a-stapped again. Is it a feature of Standard English? It is if we recognise, as John Ayto does, that ‘there is both written and spoken Standard English’ (‘The Oxford School A–Z of English’ in Paul Kerswill’s ‘RP, Standard English and the standard/non-standard relationship’   (and, in passing, we might note his there is followed by a compound noun phrase). Ayto cites the use of bust for broken as appropriate in speech but probably not in writing. He also accepts I didn’t use to like eggs as the spoken alternative to I used not to like egg’, which he recommends for written usage. Similarly, Peter Trudgill describes a sentence such as The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip, while colloquial and informal, as being ‘clearly and unambiguously Standard English’. He contrasts it with Father were very tired after his lengthy journey, which is nonstandard but formal.

I think we can take a similar approach to ‘there (i)’s’ + plural noun phrase. There’s probably good reasons for that (an authentic example) is informal Standard English in a way that There probably be good reasons for that, grammatical in some nonstandard dialects, would not be. If you don’t like informality, you’re entitled not to do so, but the right to be informal should not be denied to others.

Pam Peters goes further. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ she writes that

various uses of ‘there’s’ with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard. It seems to be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French ‘C’est . . .’, serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence.

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Dialects and Varieties

I repeat here for a (slightly?) wider readership the following contribution, lightly edited, which I’ve made to a language discussion group about dialects.

If dialect is not a neutral word, it’s because of the linguistic prejudice still inherent in many schools, and elsewhere. That prejudice means that non-standard dialects come to be thought of as sub-standard dialects. The alternative term variety is a convenient word, and one which I use myself, but only with an awareness of how vague it is. As one linguist, Joan Swann, who also uses the term, has described it, variety is ‘a device for letting linguists off the hook by avoiding the need to specify whether they are talking about a language, a dialect, an accent, or indeed a register associated with a certain professional or technical field.’ (English Voices in ‘Changing English’ edited by Graddol and others)

For the sake of clarity it might be helpful to offer the following, very broad, definitions:

REGISTER: A variety of language distinguished by its context of use.

ACCENT: The distinguishing features of individual speech.

DIALECT: A variety of language that reflects regional or social background.

LANGUAGE: A group of dialects sharing certain common features.

STANDARD ENGLISH: The English dialect used in most published writing, and, in both spoken and written forms, in education, courts of law, public service broadcasting and government.

Few native speakers have Standard English as their mother tongue, and ‘the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures’ (Radford and others, ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’). Any who doubt that Standard English is but one English dialect among many might like to consider what John McWhorter has written in ‘The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language’:

‘Because the standard variety is the vehicle of almost all writing and official discourse, it is natural for us to conceive of it as “the real deal” and nonstandard varieties as “other” and generally lesser, even if pleasantly quaint or familiar. This state of affair also tends to foster the misconception that the standard dialect is developmentally primary as well: one can barely help operating on a background assumption that, at some time in the past, there was only the standard dialect but that, since then, nonstandard dialects have developed through the relaxation of the strictures of the standard. But in fact standard dialects were generally only chosen for this role because they happened to be spoken by those who came into power as the nation coalesced into an administratively centralised political entity. What this means is that there is no logical conception of “language” as “proper” speech as distinguished from “quaint, “broken” varieties best kept down on the farm or over on the other side of the tracks.’

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Teach Them What They Know

The teaching of English has recently been in the news in the UK following the proposal for a test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling for children between the ages of 7 and 11. David Crystal was consulted on the test, and has set out some of his objections to in this post on his blog. The numerous comments support his view. The basic problem seems to be summed up in those words that drew so much attention a couple of weeks ago in the letter written to the Education Secretary by 100 academics: ‘too much, too young’.

Children don’t need to be taught the grammar of their own dialect. They learn that by the time they go to school, without instruction and without effort. What they need to be taught is the Standard English dialect. How that is done and when it is done is a matter for professional educationalists. Because Standard English is the dialect of the printed and written word its use requires instruction in the conventions of punctuation and spelling by teachers who are themselves properly trained, and who understand that punctuation and spelling are not grammar.

Grammar is, in very simple terms, a description of how a language works, and a prior understanding of it will help in learning Standard English, just as it will help in learning other languages, provided the distinction between learning grammar and learning about grammar is maintained. How and when it is introduced is again a matter for professional educationalists. But here’s an off-the-wall proposal to get the harrumphers going. Why shouldn’t schools teach grammar in terms of the predominant regional dialect? This would give young children something they could relate to, it would remove the shame that it is sometimes associated with regional dialects and it would give children a sound basis on which to build when they came to learn  Standard English, as they most certainly must.

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It’s About Time

The Swiss watchmakers Swatch have published their annual report in the Swiss German dialect, rather than as is usually the case for company reports, in Standard German. Here’s the first paragraph:

Sie wondere sech vilicht, dass de Gschaftsbricht 2012 sehr vill mit em driessigschte Geburtstag vo Swatch z’tue het. Alli Aktionarinne und Aktionare, fascht alli Schwiizer wie au veli Monschei andere Lander wossed, dass Swatch 1983 gebore worde isch. Und sie hand racht: D’Marktiifuherig vo de Swatch e de Schwiiz, d’Wedergebort vo de Schwiizer Uhreinduschtrie und de Beginn vo de Erfolgsgschicht vo eusem Undernahme, das alles isch of e Marz 1983 gfalle. Harzliche Gluckwunsch zum Geburtstag, Swatch!

It’s as if, let us say, a firm of Scotch whisky distillers published their annual report in the Lallans dialect, which looks like this:

The Scots Leid Associe wis foondit in 1972 an aye ettles tae pit forrit a feckfu case for the Scots language in formal, informal and ilka day uiss. Scots wis aince the state language o Scotland an is aye a grace til oor national leiterature. It lies at the hert o Scotland’s heirskep as ane o wir three indigenous leids alang wi Gaelic an Scottish Inglis.

Swatch are to be applauded for their initiative. I have shown here, here and here that the Swiss have no hang-ups about their dialects. On the contrary, they are proud of them, and use them all the time. The Swatch report will be understood by all German speakers in a way that a report in Lallans, or any other British regional dialect, would not be understood by most English speakers. But Swatch know that Swiss German is not understood by most non-German speakers, so they have also made it available in English. It would be a gesture in the cause of linguistic diversity if a British company published their annual report in both Standard English and in the dialect of the region in which they principally operated. But they wouldn’t dare.

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