LINGUIST List 7.828

Wed Jun 5 1996

Disc: Non-standard grammar

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, Linguistic correctness and bidialectalism
  2. Peter Daniels, Re: 7.823, Disc: Non-standard grammar

Message 1: Linguistic correctness and bidialectalism

Date: Tue, 04 Jun 1996 22:14:53 CDT
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Linguistic correctness and bidialectalism

The question is asked, Why don't we linguists practice what we preach?,
meaning, If we really believe that all languages and all dialects are
equally valid, why do we nevertheless require our students to write their
essays in some standard? There is a confusion inherent in this question
between a judgment central to linguistic science and certain other extra-
linguistic considerations that boil down to matters of practicality.

Suppose i'm teaching a class made up of an ethnically, culturally, and
linguistically diverse bunch of students; this is not a very unlikely
circumstance, given late-20th-century demographics. Now, i believe in
the purely linguistic equivalence of all natural languages and dialects
just as much as any linguist, and these students can use BEV or Geordie
or Strine all they want amongst themselves and even, within reason, when
speaking to me. But since my competence in any of these dialects is limi-
ted, i would prefer that, when they prepare written assignments, my stu-
dents make use of a common dialect with which i am reasonably familiar.
Otherwise there's a risk i will misunderstand, or not understand at all,
what they're trying to communicate.

I once had the experience of grading a student essay written in some
version of BEV. Most of the discrepancies between it and Standard
American English were pretty transparent -- there wasn't a single past
participle in the paper, but it was obvious where they `belonged'. But
there was one sentence that was quite incomprehensible to me as it stood;
i could imagine three different ways in which i could plausibly read it,
only one of which was anywhere near being correct in terms of content;
and i had no idea what the writer intended to say. I don't want to have
to go through an experience like that too often.

Now, it could perhaps be argued that, as a linguist, it behooves me to
strive to master each and every dialect in my class; after all, to para-
phrase Roman Jakobsson, i am linguist, i ought to could. Maybe so, and
it might even be rather fun, but i submit that it's an unreasonable expec-
tation; more reasonable to expect all my students to strive to master one
common, `standard' dialect than for me and the rest of world to master
the multiplicity of dialects that make up World English.

Which brings me to the broader practical issue. If all those students
are in a college or university i assume it means most of them want to
eventually go out into the world to `seek their fortunes', as it were; at
any rate, i assume they don't intend to spend the rest of their lives
only with their dialect-mates. If so, then it behooves them to master at
least one `standard' dialect of English, in addition to their own. Not
because the standard is *better*, from a purely linguistic point of view,
than their own dialect, but because it is the vehicle of social, econo-
mic, and/or political success in the outer world. If it is to them a
`foreign' dialect, let them think of it as a foreign language mastery of
which will bring them significant dividends. We can, i think, assure all
speakers of English that the English they speak is a perfectly respecta-
ble language while at the same time encouraging them to master the `stan-
dard' English of the country they happen to be living in, in recognition
of the social, economic, and political realities. We should encourage
them to think of it as an `empowerment' issue: Go on using your native
dialect all you want, but when you have to deal with the Wider World, the
strangers you will encounter in the course of your careers, this `stan-
dard' dialect will prove a very useful tool, if you learn to use it well.
Practice on me; i know too much to judge harshly any deviations from the
`standard' you may slip into. But if you really mean to seek success out-
side your own dialect-community this `standard' will be invaluable to you.

*Penalizing* students for failing to use the `standard' is another mat-
ter; in the case i mentioned earlier, i sincerely could not interpret
one particular sentence, and therefore could not give the student credit
for the one piece of knowledge she might, or might not, have been expres-
sing in it. But i definitely think we, as linguists, should be very
careful about penalizing people for what is essentially code-switching.

- -------------------
Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801
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Message 2: Re: 7.823, Disc: Non-standard grammar

Date: Tue, 04 Jun 1996 22:29:50 CDT
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 7.823, Disc: Non-standard grammar
For a couple of months now, almost, there has been a List going that deals
with Afrocentrism and such. There have been a number of ongoing battles
between Classicists and Afrocentrists, and some of the Afrocentrists use
rhetorical styles that have perhpas not been seen on the Internet before.
They can be difficult to understand, and some of the Classicists have com-
plained about the language; but a fairly neutral party took time out to
explain something of contrasting speech styles, which have in part been
translated into the informal writing style encouraged by the instantaneity
of response.

So perhaps Labov's long-ago statement about the universality of Standard
English for public communication is due for rethinking.
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