Kory Stamper has a great post called “In Defense of Talking Funny” that starts with a friend, or “friend,” interrupting her in “a crowded, chichi restaurant” to say “You’re saying that wrong.”
“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”
I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”
He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”
My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”
In the first place, can you imagine having the gall to “correct” a lexicographer on her pronunciation? (I know a lot of people don’t like the word, but it’s a classic example of “mansplaining.”) Anyway, she goes on to say “Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated,” and explains:
To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic, tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.
And then she says, “I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong”:
I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.
One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”
I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.
“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.
And then she goes on to tell how she did the exact same thing to her own daughter, despite her professional knowledge and her best intentions. It’s a wonderful essay and a stirring call for acceptance: “After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there.” Read the whole thing!