LINGUIST List 7.870

Tue Jun 11 1996

Disc: Non-standard grammar

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Greg Shenaut, Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar
  2. Michael Newman, nonstandard grammar
  3. Dick Hudson, Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar
  4. Charles Rowe, re: 7.850 non-standard grammar (fwd)

Message 1: Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar

Date: Sun, 09 Jun 1996 08:04:52 PDT
From: Greg Shenaut <sonet!>
Subject: Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar
In message <>, Alison Henry quoth:
>The main arguments put forward are:
>(a) comprehensibility - if students could submit work in any
>non-standard variety, the person marking the work might not be able to
>understand it
>(b) social and employment considerations - students need to acquire the
>ability to write in the standard dialect because, whether we like it or
>not, they will find it difficult to get a good job if they can't.
[reasonably compelling arguments deleted]

I would offer another reason why use of a standard written dialect is
preferred so much--it has to do with the nature of the process of
fluent reading. Reading and listening are different skills--the visual
system has capabilities and deficits which are not shared by the
auditory system; this results in strategies of reading which may be
quite different from strategies of listening.

Since so little material is available for reading in nonstandard
dialects--and in fact, there is little agreement as to how to
represent nonstandard dialect in written form--it is very rare
for someone to be a fluent reader of a n. d., even the reader's
own personal dialect. Therefore, writing in n. d. tends to be
difficult to read.

Actually, I would argue that "incorrect grammar" in writing does
not represent a n. d. at all--it is writing produced by someone
who is probably not a fluent reader, and certainly has not fully
learned to be a fluent writer. Or, of course, it can simply be
an uncorrected typo or an incomplete mid-course correction--for
example, in changing from a singular subject to a plural, not
catching all of the verbs and pronouns which need to be updated.
If there were "official" or widely-used styles of writing which
were not standard, and if both the professor and student were
familiar with them, then perhaps they could agree to use this form.
It would be similar to an Italian student in America making an
agreement with a Psychology professor from Italy to hand in written
work in Italian.

An example of a nonstandard written dialect might be post-Webster
American written English. In this case, I imagine that an American
student in England might make a deal with a visiting American
professor there to use the n. d. Furthermore, since there is so
much written material available to fluent readers of English in
both dialects, I imagine that it would be acceptable in most cases
simply to use the native written dialect. I'd be interested in
hearing about cases where this isn't true.

-Greg Shenaut
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Message 2: nonstandard grammar

Date: Mon, 10 Jun 1996 09:12:53 CDT
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: nonstandard grammar
I'm sorry if I am repeating something said earlier, but I missed a good
deal of the discussion so far. In any case, in the postings I have read,
no one has made this point which is the crucial one. It explains why I
think, nonstandard forms of a language are unlikely to be used in academic
writing of any kind. It's not that they should be used or shouldn't; it's
that they won't be.

The main reason is that the issue is not one of dialect but of register.
Nonstandard dialects, like all dialects are not monolithic varieties, but
consist of various registers. However, either they do not have academic
registers or they use the standard as their academic register, depending on
how you choose to look at it (see Arthur Spear's concept of Standard Black
English, which is syntactically identical to SSE, but pronounced with
noticeably African American patterns). The reason register matters is
because it allows a reader/listener to place a text into the appropriate
genre. I hardly need to tell an audience of linguists that in intimate
settings with people you are close to you speak in different ways than in
formal ones when talking to a dean, even if the utterance has the same
propositional content. If you do not do so, you get a negative reaction
because you are subliminally or not so subliminally sending out information
regarding the situation, utterance, and relationship which is discordant
with the expectations of your interlocutor. In other words, (that is in
another register) you are being cold where you need to be affectionate.
Registers do not only vary in terms of formality they indicate considerable
amounts of information regarding the situation of the utterance generally.
Anyone who has written a paper for academic journals in two subdisciplines
or in different theoretical camps in the same discipline knows how
important it is to get the style of the journal right. Language in
Society, LI, Studies in Language, etc. all have subtly different styles,
some of the features of which are explicit in the instructions for authors,
and some implicit.

So linguistics papers from students have to be in Standard Written English
because they are a subgenre of academic papers. Academic papers are a
genre of formal text. Formal written texts are a (super)genre, and like
other genres, intimate pillow talk, parliamentary discourse, undergrads
shooting the shit, taking orders in a fancy restaurant, taking orders at a
truck stop, academic papers are marked by certain linguistic features, that
tells readers that they are just that, academic papers. Linguistic
equality is ultimately irrelevant to the issue in spite of the mythology of
correctness which is a post hoc justification. I think the fact that all
the messages and academic articles I've seen decrying the mandating of SWE
have been written in something that looks a lot like SWE is evidence for
the inescapability of using appropriate registers.

The only solution for those dedicated to the idea of using nonstandard
dialects in academics would be to create formal registers for them. This
of course happens. It's called standardization. It happened to what we now
think of as the European languages between five hundred, and I guess the
early part of this century. Now it is happening with Kiswahili and Haitian
Creole. However, it's unlikely to happen in the case of NS English
dialects, even Carribbean Creoles. It's a lot of work, and for speakers of
nonstandard English, it's just a lot easier to learn the standard. The
process only occurs when people are highly motivated enough to do so, and
that usually seems to be in the context of nation building of some kind, as
far as I can see.

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Message 3: Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar

Date: Mon, 10 Jun 1996 09:16:28 BST
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: Re: 7.850, Disc: Non-standard grammar
Alison Henry writes:
>It might be argued that it is easier to learn a new dialect than to
>change race/religion/sexual orientation, but it seems to me that
>research in linguistics shows that this means in fact abandoning one's
>identity with a particular group, and is also not very easy to do
>consistently for most people.

dh: I dond't think sociolinguistic research shows this. Rather it shows that
we're capable of maintaining a diversity of group-allegiances, even
conflicting ones, and reflecting these complex and competing allegiances by
varying our language. This I think is the theoretical background to the view
that schools should in fact teach Standard English as an *addition* to the
students' existing repertoire.

>The fact is that, although no one 'speaks' standard written English, it
>is much closer to the dialect of some, largely middle class, speakers,
>than it is to that of others. Are we giving non-standard speakers the
>message that, while their grammars are all right for some informal
>purposes, they aren't good enough for serious uses?

dh: Casual Standard English isn't `good enough' for writing either. That's
not a problem for SE speakers, so why should it be a serious problem for
others? The problem is, of course, that schools in USA and UK traditionally
haven't simply taught that SE is the correct form for serious writing, but
that non-standard varieties are incorrect under all circumstances. That's
not so in countries that have more sensible attitudes, such as (I think)

Richard Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone +171 419 3152; work fax +171 383 4108
email; web-site
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Message 4: re: 7.850 non-standard grammar (fwd)

Date: Sun, 09 Jun 1996 18:44:21 EDT
From: Charles Rowe <>
Subject: re: 7.850 non-standard grammar (fwd)

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 9 Jun 1996 18:38:59 -0400 (EDT)
From: (Charles Rowe)
Subject: re: 7.850 non-standard grammar

I cannot agree with A.Henry's assertion--as I understand it, at any
rate--that the standard language, in its structural proximity to certain
class- based varieties, is inherently discriminatory. View the following
counterevidence from the history of standard German:
What is known as "standard German" or "high German" is a variety that
developed primarily from two regional macrodialects
(Southern--essentially Bavarian--and East Central German). It is the case
that this variety developed/was developed from a written
standard that formed/was formed as a communicative "bridge" between
groups whose dialect barriers would otherwise hinder comprehension.
Interestingly, it is now the case that with the exception of Allemanic,
the group whose dialect features were essentially excluded in the
formation of the standard (ie, primarily northern German dialects) is the
group who, for a variety of socio-historical reasons, now speaks the
standard *natively*. One could claim that this group now has greater
"access" to the standard; but I do not believe that (e.g.) Bavarians
would consider themselves "discriminated against" as a result. If
anything, this group of speakers considers their dialect a prestige variety,
and identify themselves by it socially and culturally. They do not,
however, attempt to argue that even superregional varieties of Bavarian
German should function as the standard for all of Germany--even if
if it is the case that superregional Bavarian can be understood throughout
all of Germany.

I have used German as an example because I feel that similar
processes were in effect in the evolution of the American standard.
>From the structural side, feature selection and levelling are prototypical
and unavoidable processes in the formation of standard lects. Where standard
languages form/are formed from sub-varieties, these processes are in effect. I
think it is important not to confuse these processes with the
phenomenon of language "imposition"--a phenomenon typically found only in
multilingual societies and in colonialism. Is A.Henry claiming that AAE (per
her examples (1)-(3)) is a separate *language*, and in following, that it
should be officially recognized and treated as such?

C. Rowe
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