Monday, August 16, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English"

My presentation at the meetings of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics last week centered on sharing a teaching strategy for reducing the prejudice I encounter, in my classes and elsewhere, toward "non-standard" varieties of language. These include African American Vernacular English (AAVE), any of a number of creole languages (Jamaican, Haitian, etc.), and even my own Upper South variety of Appalachian English.

This is clearly a problem that isn't going to go away soon. Every semester for the last 20+ years I have faced a new group of students in my introductions to linguistics, and every semester these students bring with them the very same nonsense about the nature of language, and the nature of English. Some of that nonsense: English has five vowels (because there are five or six, depending on how you count, vowel letters); the articles (the, a/an) are adjectives that modify their nouns; sentences containing "double negatives" actually are affirmative; dialects that deviate from "standard English" are inferior, stupid, illogical, etc.; and so on, and on.

Because I work on "non-standard" languages, I may have heard all this more than most. In 1979, while gathering data for a description of the English Creole spoken in Carriacou, Grenada, I had one person, a visitor from Canada, tell me that Carriacou people had no right to their own words for things (mug for pitcher, for example), and that their children should be taken away and placed in standard-speaking homes because if they spoke Creole all their lives, their brain cells would deteriorate. During the same fieldwork, a Grenadian physician told me that if I were successful in showing that Creole speakers followed grammar rules, that would show that they were human beings worthy of better treatment than that usually dealt out to them. And that same year, in the National Geographic Magazine, Ethel Starbird wrote that people of St. Vincent, Grenada, and the Grenadines speak English "with a certain free-form style."

So, over the years I have developed a way of approaching the problem. It involves some linguistic sophistication, so I usually do it toward the end of an introductory linguistics course. Now and then, though, I do it as a Lone Ranger exercise (ride in, fire a few silver bullets, ride out). This might be, for example, a literature course in which students are reading a lot of AAVE. The target language is most often AAVE or Appalachian, but sometimes I'm asked to do the exercise for Gullah in a course on the peoples and cultures of the Sea Island, and every couple of years I do it for Caribbean Creole in my own course on the West Indies. The language can change, but the method and many of the details remain much the same. For this iteration, I am using the English Creole spoken in Carriacou.

The strategy is to begin with examples of things people notice that make Creole seem unlike English. Usually, this involves features that are "missing," features that may be attributed to a lack of education although in fact they are simply features of the language in question. Here are a couple of things that might be perceived as "missing" in Creole:
The plural suffix (-s)
The possessive suffix (-'s)
Dental fricatives (the "th" sounds)

The trick is to show that these features are not necessary for something to be a human language. For example, many languages do not overtly mark number on nouns. Two that come quickly to mind are Bambara, a West African language, and....  wait for it.....  French!  Here's how this looks (note that in Bambara, the number follows the noun):
English:     one cow...      three cows
Creole:       wan kow...     tri kow
Bambara:   mishi kele...   mishi saba
French:       une vache...   trois vaches
Okay, I know what you're thinking: the French plural vaches has an -s on the end, so it's not an example. But here's the thing: both vache and vaches are pronounced [vaʃ], roughly the first syllable in the name "Vashti."

Let's take the possessive suffix. Note the following.
English:     Anansi's shoulder
Creole:      Anansi shōlda
It's pretty easy to find languages that do not require marking on nouns for possessive.
Bhasa Indonesian:     kuda Ali   (Ali's horse)
Urhobo Isoko:           emete ose  (daughter [of] father; father's daughter)
So, neither a plural affix nor a possessive is required for something to be a human language. But what about those dental fricatives?
English:     thin,  then
Creole:       tin,  den
It turns out that the sounds [θ], as in thin, and [ð] as in then, are quite rare among the world's languages.  And furthermore, we can say that Creole speakers use [t] and [d] as substitutes for them, much as English speakers substitute an aspirated alveolar [tʰ] for unaspirated dental [t̪] in Spanish words like taco.  This process of sound substitution happens whenever languages collide, so it's ton be expected in creole languages.

So, something doesn't need possessive or plural affixes, or "th" sounds, to be considered an example of human language. But what does it need? We'll tackle that issue in the next installment.

Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156 (September 1979), pages 399-425.


  1. Examples like the ones here are what helped bring about a major yet oddly quick change in my own way of thinking. Quick, most likely because it just makes sense: how could a group of people survive together without a language that works for them? Likewise, this lesson still influences the way that I teach composition courses. I try to show my students that they already use and understand a variety of Englishes that are all appropriate in their contexts, and Academic English is just one more variation. Still, I can't seem to break them of the habit of calling the language they speak with their friends "informal" or "slang" even after they agree that there are rules that must be followed in those settings.

    The combination of the intro to linguistics course and a Caribbean literature course revolutionized the way I thought about language. In one of the courses, I remember hearing the idea that it didn't make much sense for slaves in the Caribbean to speak "the King's French" because that was the language of their oppressors. It wasn't a result of a defect in the slaves' mental capacities or an unfortunate disintegration of the language. The idea that people could choose to speak a certain way blew me away.

  2. Domestic Kate: Being free to choose is a central point in much of Jim Sledd's work. Sledd was a University of Texas linguist who wrote about English; I met him at a Southeastern Conference on Linguistics (SECOL) at either Memphis or Auburn back in the 80s. I had read some of his stuff, and after I did my talk somebody came up to me and said "Jim Sledd wants to see you." I was nervous, but he liked my work as it turned out. See his article "Dialectology in the service of Big Brother."

  3. What is the point of having a language if you can't communicate in it? Ever try to ask for directions in Newfoundland?

    Having a non-standard dialect can and will prevent advancement in any organization for many reasons, the very least of which might be prejudice against the fellow who "talks funny". Other reasons are obvious. One is reminded of kids communicating with each other in "pig latin". Or in MY school, it was Elvish. This is merely pretentious blather.

    Which begs the question, "what is standard". This would depend on the organization. People who live in Newfoundland have no troule with "stay where ye be, I'll come to where yer at." Hang around any military and listen to the initals being bandied about as if they were language. (The cee ohh put his two eye cee in charge of the ohh pee while he went to the em aye are. Should be back in the aye emm.) Not using the jargon will set you apart from the group, but you would still be able to communicate. In all cases, communication should trump stilted exclusivity.


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