I got the latest (July/August) issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine today, and you can imagine my pleasure when I saw in large letters on the cover “Why ‘bad’ English isn’t.” I turned to page 37 and discovered this article by Peggy Kalb, featuring Yale’s Grammatical Diversity Project: “The group of 12-plus graduate and undergraduate students, led by linguistics professor Raffaella Zanuttini, is compiling existing data on the grammar of many varieties of American English, along with a complete database of their studies. They’re also putting together a map for every piece of data that belongs to a particular geographical region… Unlike the Dictionary of American Regional English, their focus is on syntax, not vocabulary.” Kalb provides a good summary:
Ultimately, Zanuttini hopes the work will further our understanding of how varieties of English differ from each other. At the same time, she wants to show that sentences that may sound funny or strange to some English speakers “have a grammatical system that is as complex and systematic” as that of the standard variety of English. Variation in our language, she argues, is a natural and very human process, whether it happens across geographic areas or generations, socioeconomic lines or ethnic groups. After all, “we don’t now wear our hair the way our grandparents did.”
One might think that between video, radio, and the blogosphere, regional differences are on their way out. But the linguists say that just isn’t happening. “Certain people want to get rid of features that are stigmatized, but that’s certain people,” says Zanuttini. “Some people want to get rid of any linguistic feature that marks them as coming from the South. Other people like to have their own identity”—and those who are proud of being recognized as Southern don’t want to homogenize their language to match other parts of the country.
In her ideal world, people would master both their own local dialect and the dialect of the elite—which can be useful, even necessary, in certain situations. … Zanuttini and her team are determined to teach us that variation is the rule, not the exception. And grammatical differences should be celebrated, she says. “You don’t have to be ashamed of a local language.”
Further proof that ideas once confined to linguists are reaching the general public, and it makes me think a bit more fondly of the period I spent beating my head futilely against my dissertation topic in those ivied halls, forty years ago. And I love “that’s certain people.” May their tribe decrease!