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!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I am glad to see this. When I was an undergrad in the department in New Haven in the mid-’80’s I certainly did not get the impression that the primary way to do research was to go out there and find out how people of different social backgrounds than your own were actually using the language, as opposed to just thinking up example sentences and using the researcher’s own native-speaker intuitions of their grammaticality. I did take one course where we read about the famous Labov-in-the-Sixties experiment of getting employees of different Manhattan department stores to say “fourth floor,” but there was no immediate suggestion that we go out and do likewise ourselves. (Plus that course was technically taught in the Anthro dep’t although it qualified for credit toward the Ling major; I think that may have been the same course in which I first read analyses of the syntax of AAVE – so long ago that it was still BVE.)

  2. So what were those employees saying instead of ‘fourth floor’, JWB?

  3. The YGDP has come up on Language Log from time to time, e.g. my 2011 post on “needs washed.” (I also plugged it in a piece on The Atlantic Wire on National Grammar Day.)

  4. Iakon: It’s how they were saying it, that is to say, with what phonological features. Here’s the paper (PDF).

  5. It sadly feels as though “a grammatical system that is as complex and systematic” is standard boilerplate academics (or college publicity offices) give to reporters. Few people with a scholarly or humanistic interest in language think that difference is a mark of primitiveness or inferiority. And for the people who do think so, the detection of grammatical differences is often an important mechanism for the creation and preservation of social capital. Trying to persuade them that grammatical differences have no inherent value is asking them to give up the capital they’ve accumulated.

  6. JC: I see. A pity the interviews weren’t recorded.
    We read something different from Labov. Whatever it was hasn’t stuck with me to today. *Fap!* as Major Hoople used to say. That was half a century ago!

  7. iakon: my sister and I still use *hak-kaff* to this day. I’d forgotten about *Fap!*.

  8. ~~ light bulb ~~
    I always wondered why my father said “Fap!” to express that something was nonsense. Now I know.

  9. Writers know that what Maya Angelou said is true: there’s the language of the heart, and the language of the marketplace.
    We need to be able to speak both.

  10. Wimbrel,
    “Few people with a scholarly or humanistic interest in language think that difference is a mark of primitiveness or inferiority.”
    Humanistic interest in language – would that include writers of the kind who regularly bemoan the decay of the langauge in Goths-at-the-gates tones of impending doom?

  11. What was your putative dissertation topic?

  12. Sixth-Class Thematic Presents in the Early Indo-European Verb.

  13. It was a real thigh-slapper, let me tell you.

  14. dearieme says

    It seems to me that statements such as “Why ‘bad’ English isn’t” are, at the least, silly and possibly dishonest.
    The silliness stems from failing to allude to purpose – it’s perfectly possible that for particular purposes one variety of English will be worse, or better, than another. For having a conversation with the man on the Clapham omnibus, Chaucer’s English is undoubtedly bad compared to mine. For writing Middle English poetry, critical opinion would probably lean towards the notion that his is better than mine.
    It is dishonest if the linguist making the statement carefully brought up his own children to speak a high-prestige variety of English. For hypocrisy is often a form of dishonesty, is it not?

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    The “bad English isn’t” is from a headline, not a direct quote from Prof. Zanuttini. I don’t know her family situation, but I can assure you from experience that the children of Yale faculty will typically grow up (because of their typical playmates and schoolteachers, and also because it’s not like there’s a strongly marked/stigmatized default regional accent in Connecticut anyway) speaking the prestige standard variety of AmEng even if their parents adopt a completely laissez-faire attitude. She was born and raised in Italy (came to the U.S. for grad school), so a more interesting question might be whether she would try to pass on competence in Italian to any hypothetical children and if so how she would focus as between the prestige standard and any regional dialect she might have learned natively.

  16. The premise of that Labov article, that you would hear upper or lower class accents in different branches of Saks, seems so old fashioned. The writing made me want to shop at S.Klein on Union Square “near the Lower East Side”, it sounded much better value for money than Saks & Macy’s. I remember it went out of business.

  17. It seems to me that statements such as “Why ‘bad’ English isn’t” are, at the least, silly and possibly dishonest.
    In the first place, it’s a headline, for God’s sake, not a philosophical treatise.
    In the second place, equating “no native speaker speaks ‘bad’ English, i.e., English that is inherently worse than the prestige variety and should be stamped out” (an attempt to counter what is still the default prejudice of most educated speakers) with “all varieties of English are exactly equivalent in every respect and valid for every occasion, and thus if I write prestige English and/or teach it to my kids I am a hypocrite” is silly and possibly dishonest.

  18. Your dissertation sounds like an avant-garde school play.
    Sixth-Class Thematic Presents:
    in the Early Indo-European Verb
    Forgive me. I’m new here.

  19. I’m not sure that Major Hoople meant ‘nonsense’ when he said *Fap!*. That meaning is better expressed by ‘Pap!’, is it not?
    I think the major was expressing surprise or shock, and the *Hack! Kaf!* followed because he choked on his cigar.

  20. Yes: surprise or shock, followed by intimations of mortality (sic). As a kid, I found this a pleasing gloss on my father’s fapuousness.

  21. I only heard my father say “pap” once, and it was not an expletive. “Fap!” definitely was, and in my father’s mouth it meant “Rubbish! Nonsense! Spinach!”

  22. dearieme says

    “thus if I write prestige English and/or teach it to my kids I am a hypocrite” is silly and possibly dishonest.”
    Withdraw, sir: my statement is not remotely dishonest.
    Opinions may legitimately differ on whether it is silly; I, of course, do not think it is. But I admit to being upset at the thought that gullible youngsters may be being told that their varieties of English are just fine when they might be the very opposite, depending on the purpose the youngsters have in mind – if they want jobs, for instance. Meantime, desirable jobs go to people who speak the same variety of English as the children of those who propagate such stuff.

  23. But that’s entirely straw-man from beginning to end. Nobody is telling gullible youngsters (or any other kind) that their (presumptively substandard) varieties of English are fine for job interviews or other official purposes, and if you can find a single real-world instance of a person who lost a desirable job because of being told such a thing I will eat at least one of my hats. You (like all linguistic conservatives with strong opinions on this subject) are entirely ignoring the point of what is in fact said on the topic, which is that all native varieties of English (or any other language) are linguistically equal: they all have complex, internally coherent grammars and sound systems, and they are equally capable of expressing meaning. They differ, obviously, in social acceptability, which is why no linguist will tell a student not to bother learning the standard language. But it is a help in learning that standard language to be able to analyze it in terms of its difference from the norms of your own dialect; simply being told “You don’t speak English, stop speaking your gibberish and learn the language properly!” is not a help at all. Furthermore, a simple respect for human decency should suggest that that sort of attitude is unsuitable for anyone dealing with youth. And that is not a straw-man; children all over the world are treated like that every day. The point of linguistics from a practical point of view is to be able to address such issues from an honest and scientifically grounded perspective (“You need to be able to speak the standard language to get a good job and get on in the world, and here’s how”) rather than from a bigoted and bullying one. Since I’m sure you agree with that conclusion, I’m puzzled at your resistance to the necessary concomitant, which is a scientific attitude toward language.

  24. “because Castile and Florence became politically powerful, Castilian and Florentine eventually became the national languages of Spain and Italy.”
    It helped that these were the languages of Cervantes/Garcilaso de la Vega and Petrarch/Dante/Boccaccio etc. At least, that’s what I was always taught.
    Certainly in Italy, there were plenty of other politically powerful areas (Venice, Naples, Papal States) from the Renaissance onward.

  25. It helped that these were the languages of Cervantes/Garcilaso de la Vega and Petrarch/Dante/Boccaccio etc.
    Indeed. As Nick Nicholas points out, being the language of the State, without support from literature, does not give a standard dialect enough prestige to survive in the long run. When Greeks stopped writing belles lettres in Katharevousa around 1920, it was doomed as the official language also, though it took fifty years.

  26. Not that it adds anything to the debate here, but while the children of white Yale professors will grow up speaking perfectly standard english without any interference from their parents, Black Yale professors probably have to make a decision on how they want their children to talk.

  27. And I’m pretty sure they want their children to be able to use the majority form of speech, but that of course is up to them.

  28. Very interesting post. I’ve definitely felt stigmatized due to my southern dialect.

  29. Actually, their children will likely grow up bidialectal, as my non-white child of white parents has. The truly great black Yale (or perhaps non-Yale, I forget) professor, though, was the one who had been teaching in Iran and bringing up his daughter. And when he realized that the time had come for all Americans to leave that country, and that his now eight-year-old daughter had grown up bilingual in Persian and Standard English, he sat her down and systematically taught her AAVE — so that she would be able to fit in back in the home country she had never seen.

  30. That’s a terrific story—so good I have to ask if you’re absolutely sure it’s true.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    The percentage of black faculty at Yale is (or was as of the most recent data I could quickly google) in the low single digits and it would be false to assume that all of them (whatever their codeswitching competence) natively speak AAVE in the first place. (The fellow who was on the faculty back when I was an undergrad whose accent was more consistent with his having grown up in Ghana and then gone to university in the UK is apparently now at Princeton, but everyone has their own life story, and skin color is an imperfect proxy for the aspects of life story that determine native dialect.*) It is possible that some of them might make decisions relevant to child-rearing (what neighborhood to live in and what schools to send their kids to) that would expose their children to a peer group with a higher percentage of AAVE speakers than is the case for the median Yale faculty child, but I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that either.
    *Without belaboring the point, it is highly naive to assume that Ivy League faculty or Ivy League students of a particular skin color are likely to be a statistically representative sample of the same-skin-color group of the general U.S. population, including with respect to the social-class/ethnicity/geography variables that influence dialect.

  32. I absolutely do not guarantee the professor’s university; that part is “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” I had thought I read the story in Dillard’s Black English (1972), and I leave Dillard’s credibility up to you. However, I cannot confirm that it’s there.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    From Dillard: “A professor of economics who lives in Chicago relates the history of his daughter, who grew up in Persia while the father was employed there. Returning to the United States, she was perfectly bilingual, at the age of about twelve, in Persian and English— but she knew no Negro dialect. Finding herself uncomfortable among members of her own race in their new residence, she consulted her father, who proceeded to teach her to speak Negro dialect.” That’s cut and pasted a sentence at a time via google books – due to the annoyance of snippet view I can’t see the broader context or whether there’s a source given for the anecdote.

  34. J.W. Brewer – Whatever our hypothetical black Yale professor’s origins, it seems like a fairly safe assumption to me that his kids will be exposed to black english before they leave home for good.* (And also that they’ll decide for themselves how they want to talk, whatever his interference. Judging from my own classmates, Raffaella Zanuttini might have a hard time getting her hypothetical children to speak any variety of Italian at all.)
    *But by now we’re definitely belaboring the point.

Speak Your Mind