Arika Okrent has another mental_floss post just as good as the last one (see this LH post): “The Grammar Rules Behind 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects.” She starts off:

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.
“Every dialect has a grammar” does not mean “everything is relative, and let’s throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please.” What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar.

She discusses Appalachian a– prefixing (“He was a-huntin'”), Southern liketa (“I liketa had a heart attack”), and African-American “stressed BIN,” which “is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for.” Her approach is summed up in this fine paragraph:

People who speak this dialect don’t learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can’t describe them, the same way you know “I gave him a dollar” sounds good but “I donated him a dollar” sounds bad (even if you’ve never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn’t follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

To write well and clearly about such touchy and ill-understood matters is a rare gift, and I hope a lot of people read and assimilate what she has to say.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    A-prefixing is an archaism in the prestige variety of AmEng, but it used to be just fine: the Yale website has a self-referential hit from Yale’s own student regulations circa 1795: “If any scholar shall go a-fishing or sailing, or more than two miles from the College, upon any occasion, without leave from the President, a Professor, or a Tutor, … he may be fined not exceeding thirty-four cents. ”

  2. It seems to me that not enough linguists appreciate the music of language, and how musical many “ungrammatical” constructions are. Every culture has its verbal music, its rhythm(s), and spoken language trumps grammar, of course…. A-prefixing is a perfect example of that — a needed unstressed syllable: “I’ll go no more a-roving,” “The times they are a-changin’,” and a million other examples…. And then there’s also economy: Why say “I might be able to” when “I might could” — as we say in the southern U.S. — does the job in half the time, and in a spondee to boot? (A bacchius, even?)

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Yes, it’s a very good article (though I was aware of the basic facts from reading Pinker). Interesting that someone in the comments criticizes her for ending a sentence with a preposition, and suggests a clunky “improvement”.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Adelfons’s link for bacchius generates an error. The right one is this.

  5. “Every dialect has a grammar”: well of course. Every speaker has an accent, every person has a medical condition etc etc. It’s axiomatic. I should hope linguists agree on it.

  6. It seems to me that not enough linguists appreciate the music of language, and how musical many “ungrammatical” constructions are.
    Why “linguists”? It seems to me “non-linguists” would work better there. Similarly:
    I should hope linguists agree on it.
    Linguists agree on it; the problem is to get non-linguists to understand it.

  7. Dearieme: People aren’t born knowing that their speech varieties are rule-governed, and it’s always a discovery for a community of speakers that they speak systematically, that the way they speak isn’t just a bunch of random deviations from the way people are supposed to talk. Not everyone is lucky enough (in this special sense) to be born Scottish. There are still tens of millions of African Americans who don’t realize — nay, who are ideologically committed to the view — that their own native way of speaking is anything but “bad English”, as if it were the fumblings of a foreigner who doesn’t know English.
    Or as I like to say anent my prosopagnosia, “We all have our learning disabilities”, or more emphatically “We’re all dain bramaged.”

  8. Yes, Hat, you’re right. And thanks for the correct link, A C-B…. I guess I shouldn’t be on the internet when I’m so tired.

  9. tens of millions of African Americans who don’t realize
    Is this example that she gives a structure that occurs only in American English, or are there equivalent tenses in African languages and (for example) Caribbean English?

  10. Wishing doesn’t make it so. How can a standardized “rule” of grammatical usage be engendered of something inherently polymorphic, free-form and unruly? The blogger would have done better to define these strangely inclusive “grammatical rules” before superimposing it’s strictures where there is no there.

  11. tens of millions of African Americans who don’t realize
    ie. no “rules”, sensu stricto in the house, much less grammatical.

  12. As always, Hozo, you’re ill-informed but belligerent comments are most welcome. (The “you’re” is a tribute to your “it’s strictures.”)

  13. ‘anything but “bad English”‘ – but a dialect may very well be “bad English”, depending on the purpose you have in mind. If you’re interested in being understood outside your home environs, or in getting a job, or whatever, your dialect may well be bad (or good).

  14. Trond Engen says

    Dearie: Everybody makes judgements of their own and other people’s speech. These judgements and their effects can even be quantified, and the results might well be used to develop scientifically based usage advice, complete with the correct degree of compromise between native dialect and national norms in different situations and with upper and lower margins of acceptable variation. But that’s sociolinguistics, not intrinsic quality of grammar or phonology.

  15. Dearieme, I think “bad English” there means standard English plus errors (also “anything” should probably be “nothing”). The point is that the differences from standard English aren’t just random mistakes but follow their own grammar.
    It’s certainly true that not all dialects or speaking registers are appropriate in all circumstances, any more than all ways of dressing are.

  16. narrowmargin says

    It seems to me that “anything” is exactly what was meant.
    “anything” was the point.

  17. Narrowmargin, you’re right. The problem isn’t with “anything” but with the parenthetical set off with dashes. The reason I was suggesting “nothing” is that that would fit with “ideologically committed to the view”, but of course as you point out it wouldn’t fit with “don’t realize”. Maybe “committed” should be “opposed”?

  18. Maybe I’ve lived in Appalachia too long, or listened to too much bluegrass, but I misread “A-prefixing” in the first comment as if it were an example of itself: “The dol-garn grammarian went a-prefixin’ vowels to his verbs”. I had to read it again (or ‘agin’) and revise my mental pronunciation to figure it out.

  19. ill-informed but belligerent comments
    As I always say, better belligerent than academically bovine.

  20. AJP Crown, yes, the Caribbean creoles and Gullah have similar systems of tense/aspect markers. A number of West African languages, such as Twi, Ewe, Ibo and Yoruba, do indeed have serial verbs and preverbial aspect markers, but I believe some people have backed off from finding particular direct connections.

  21. Thanks, M.

  22. “anything” should probably be “nothing”
    Maybe “committed” should be “opposed”?
    Really it should be “ideologically committed to opposing the view”, or something of the sort. The dash-bracketed insertion came last, and I didn’t realize that I’d screwed the pooch in the process.

  23. Trond Engen says

    I lost a parenthetical remark up there: “Not that I’ve ever seen such advice.” And I doubt it would be worth the effort. The parallel with clothing is a good one. Social codes and conventions change fast, and any advice would have to be given in very general terms (“Check the company’s dress code.” “Try to come through as both well-educated and genuine.”).

  24. Y’know, has anyone ever seen Hozo and Hat at the same time? They say people tend to keep their initials when they adopt pseudonyms, and comment dialogues by the Hs certainly do keep the pot a-boiling.
    Maybe it’s because I’ve just been reading this paper on adversarial stylometry, about how people can prevent computer-based detection of their pseudonymous writing by deliberately changing their stylistic choices.

  25. Th-th-that’s ridiculous!

  26. Th-th-that’s ridiculous!
    Would that be th-th as in Þ-Þ or th-th as in ð-ð or th-th as in θ-θ?

  27. Would that be th-th as in Þ-Þ or th-th as in ð-ð or th-th as in θ-θ?
    Heh. That reminds me, I have a story for this crowd in particular. About six weeks I was in a car accident and suffered a concussion. This was on the freeway outside North Philly, the accident was my fault, it was raining, traffic was backed up: the cops, in short, were none too sympathetic. They asked me to spell my name — my full name. My middle name is Raphael, so I told them, “J-A-M-E-S [PAUSE] R-A-P-H . . ..” But then I thought maybe Raphael was spelled with an f, so I raised a finger, asking for a second, and eventually decided to split the difference by sharing the phonetic term for the sound. Only, concussed, I couldn’t quite recall “voiceless labiodental fricative.” That may have saved me a beating. Instead, finger still raised, I saw stars and mumbled something about a fuh sound, as if, though disappointed in myself, I were now getting back to business. “What the hell is the matter with you? Are you on drugs?” “No, officer. I am not on drugs.” “Get back in your car.”

  28. Y’know, has anyone ever seen Hozo and Hat at the same time? They say people tend to keep their initials when they adopt pseudonyms, and comment dialogues by the Hs certainly do keep the pot a-boiling.
    Apologies to Mr. Hat, I am but a minnow in the Lake Superior of his erudition.

  29. Th-th-that’s ridiculous!
    Well, I notice you posted that with no hesitency whatever.

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