LINGUIST List 7.841

Fri Jun 7 1996

Disc: Non-standard grammar

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Rachel Lagunoff, Re: 7.806, Qs: Non-standard grammar
  2. Waruno Mahdi, Re: 7.828, Disc: Non-standard grammar
  3. Charles Rowe, Re: 7.806 'non-standard grammar'

Message 1: Re: 7.806, Qs: Non-standard grammar

Date: Wed, 05 Jun 1996 11:52:41 BST
From: Rachel Lagunoff <>
Subject: Re: 7.806, Qs: Non-standard grammar
In response to AM Henry's query:

>It is a commonly held view among linguists that, linguistically, all
>language varieties are of equal value, and 'standard' languages are no
>'better' than non-standard; however, I wonder if we really 'practise
>what we preach' in this regard.

There are two separate issues here: one is the linguistic value of
different varieties of a language, and the other is the social value of
different varieties and styles. In order to have our views taken seriously
in media and academia, we have to write and (to a lesser extent) speak
according to the "standard" variety. I don't see how to change the
expectations and prejudices of the society except gradually over time,
through educating people about the inherent equality of all languages and
varieties. In the meantime, we are not penalizing our students by
requiring them to write in the standard, but rather ensuring that they are
not penalized in their future careers. It is possible to teach a certain
variety without denigrating all other varieties.

As an analogy, there is no inherent value in wearing clothes, or certain
kinds of clothing (at least in warm climates). If someone wants to walk
around nude or in shorts and a t-shirt, it hurts no one. However, I would
not counsel someone to walk naked into my classroom or into a job interview
in order to make the point that nudity should be acceptable to everyone.

Rachel Lagunoff
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Message 2: Re: 7.828, Disc: Non-standard grammar

Date: Wed, 05 Jun 1996 18:17:10 +0200
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: 7.828, Disc: Non-standard grammar
on 04 Jun 1996 Steven Schaufele wrote:

> 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?

> 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.

In support of your basic thought, I would like to add that, as a non-linguist,
it hardly behooves a judge in court to master every dialect in which laws
might be formulated, supposing one allowed for laws being formulated in
whichever dialect a congessman might please to submit it in Congress.
Imagine the legal free-for-all one would have if legislation were not
required to use a standard dialect. An industrial enlightened democracy
simply cannot function without a standard dialect (no to be confused
with an elitarian dialect), and the requirement that persons studying
to take up reponsible positions master that standard dialect should not,
I find, be regarded as degrading other dialects.

> *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.

If the subject is that standard dialect, then you wouldn't be *penalizing*
the student for his dialect, but for not having sufficiently studied the
subject (s)he was being tested in, that being the standard dialect. I mean,
if you were teaching French, would you tolerate BEV or Geordie or Strine
as passable variants? If the students are studying to become elligible
for jobs which reqire a mastery of the standard dialect, then this would
also be the right moment to bring home to them, that they need to learn
to express themselves in that dialect BEFORE graduating and starting their
carreers. It would then not matter, if the standard dialect happened to
be the test subject. Finally, it is one thing to reqire that students master
the standard dialect, but quite another to force them to learn your own
favourite non-standard dialect. Wouldn't allowing everybody, including
yourself, to keep to his/her own dialect discriminate much more, than
having everybody agree upon the standard dialect (in reality: to keep
within some generally tolerated limits of divergence form that standard

The democratic progress in linguistics should not, in my opinion, be that
the standard dialect be disposed of in favour of dialectal pluralism in
the judiciary, legislative, administrative, informationary, and educative
process, but that contributions from all dialects to the standard be treated
as equally acceptable. This latter appears indeed to be what has been
happpening in American Standard English.

All the best, Waruno

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Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5408
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155
14195 Berlin email:
Germany WWW:
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Message 3: Re: 7.806 'non-standard grammar'

Date: Wed, 05 Jun 1996 22:59:52 EDT
From: Charles Rowe <>
Subject: Re: 7.806 'non-standard grammar'

I would like to begin by saying that I agree with E.Jones' explanation
for what it is we as linguists "preach" (i.e., that non-standard systems
are not inferior to standard ones). S.Schaufele is also correct in
pointing out that mastery of the standard in any society is tantamount to

L.Rosenwald stated this somewhat more strongly, but I believe he is
justified in so doing. Standard is indeed acknowledgeable by all
communities as the "proper" or "correct" one for formal contexts--by
definition of its domain of application. Thus prescriptivists--or anyone
else, for that matter--are not out of line in insisting on its use in
these contexts. The problem arises only when prescriptive grammarians
insist that the standard replace nonstandard varieties in *all*
contexts. The standard is equally ill-fit, in my view, to express
certain social situations that are the domain of dialect/nonstandard
varieties. Thus "slang" is not so much a variety as it is a link between
nonstandard and standard for certain "overlap" contexts/situations. It is
a borrowing from nonstandard into standard.

Having said that, I would say that argumentation can indeed be carried
out more adeptly in standard--at least, argumentation that is designed to
*convince*. This is consistent with S.Schaufele's observation that the
standard is mutually intelligible to all speech communities that it
blankets--with the tacit assumption that it is in many cases a "common
denominator" of the other dialects it serves as a superposed variety
for. That being the case, the lexis, at least, is typically
broader-based in the standard, included completely unassimilated foreign
loan words, terminology from specialty areas etc. The more precise the
speaker's terminology, for example, the more lucid--and thus more
convincing--the argument (pragmatic manipulations and rhetorical "tricks"
aside, of course).

Charlie Rowe
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