The Science of Dialects

Recently, Heina posted about some of the blatant racism that’s been going around in response to Rachel Jenteal and her testimony during the Trayvon Martin case. She rightly pointed out that Rachel simply speaks a dialect of English and that the dialect is not improper or lazy in any way. So I’d like to take this opportunity to go a little bit more in-depth about dialects. What is a dialect? How are dialects different from separate languages? How does one differentiate different dialects? What about code-switching? And finally, how does a dialect gain prestige or lose prestige?

A dialect is any form of a language that has different pronunciation, sentence structure, or vocabulary from the standard. Now of course the standard is also a dialect if we’re speaking technically: there is no such thing as a version of a language that is not a dialect. There is no gold standard of any language that is exactly what the language is supposed to be. This is because languages only exist in the context of a time and a place and are constantly changing, which means that every version of a language is a dialect. Dialects can be based on location, class, race, gender, age, or any number of other factors that affect your pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax.

The line between dialect and language is a bit hazy, and there are absolutely debates about certain languages and dialects and where they should be placed. In general, dialects are mutually intelligible, meaning that speakers of the different dialects could understand each other. African American Vernacular English, which is what Jenteal speaks, could under this definition be called a separate language, as it does have some very particular rules of conjugation that a standard English speaker would not understand. However in addition to mutual intelligibility, politics also plays a role. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, however the Chinese government has defined them as dialects of the same language for cultural unity. Similarly, Swedish and Norwegian are nearly mutually intelligible, but they are defined as separate languages for cultural and political reasons.

Code switching is what it’s called when someone switches between languages or dialects in a single conversation or sentence. It can be done for a number of reasons, including to signify membership in a certain group, to talk about particular subjects, or to address different people. If you are of Hawaiian ancestry and you don’t speak Hawaiian you might include some sort of tag at the end of your sentence to signify inclusion in the group of Hawaiian natives. In the United States, people who speak AAVE are typically expected to code switch to standard American English whenever they speak to someone outside of their community, or at least to make an effort to speak a dialect that is not their own. If they don’t, they are viewed as lazy or speaking bad English. Most hiring managers and teachers expect AAVE speakers to speak standard English.

Why would that be? Speaking in the most general fashion, dialects gain prestige when they have money or power behind them. A common phrase in linguistics is that a language is a dialect with an army. In English, dialects that are considered prestige are generally those spoken by the well-educated and the wealthy. Received pronunciation is the name for the dialect British royalty speaks, and it generally has a very high prestige because it’s associated with power and money. Unfortunately for speakers of AAVE, their dialect not only is associated with poverty and blackness, it also has certain elements from African languages mixed in, and there are many “English only” movements in America that also push for a pure language. Because the dialect is associated with low class, it is considered improper, and is policed by many people.

The most important thing to take away from this is that any dialect is equal to any other dialect on a purely linguistic level. Some may have more societal prestige or power to back them up, but if one were to analyze them for consistency, rules, and clarity, they would all be approximately equal. Speakers would make mistakes at approximately equal rates (although studies generally show that higher prestige speakers make more mistakes like um.. ah… and breaking off sentences at points that would not be considered grammatical by speakers of their dialect). Many people believe that speakers of AAVE or other dialects are lazier, particularly pointing to things like “ain’t” or the pronunciation of ask as axe. However AAVE distinguishes more tenses than standard American English, and includes a good variety of vocabulary words that standard American English doesn’t. Different pronunciations and abbreviations are not lazy, they’re simply language change. It’s how languages grow and develop, and without those changes a language would die.

Dialects are a natural part of language. At one point the English that we spoke was a lower prestige dialect, and only with power, money, and armies has it become the dominant “language”. We should remember this when judging other dialects.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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