Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Of Dialects, Vernaculars, and Code-Switching

February provides two occasions for this edition of Language Lounge: It’s Black History Month (also known as African American History Month), and Monday, February 21, is International Mother Language Day. “Mother Language” doesn’t have official status as a linguistic term but its intuitive meaning is the correct one: your first language, the language you learn by hearing your mother talk and talking with her. The term also borrows from more figurative uses of mother, like the ones that are conjured by such terms as Mother Earth, mother ship, mother lode, and the currently popular book Finding the Mother Tree: that is, being the source, inspiration, or protector of something.

A leitmotif in the social history of any language is the distinction between the standard or “proper” varieties of it, and the nonstandard or dialectical varieties–which are called vernaculars in some contexts. Speakers of the standard varieties typically belong to a group that is a numerical majority or that enjoys economic hegemony; often both of these are the case. For English, no matter what Anglophone country you are in, such speakers are usually white and of European descent. Blacks in these countries, whether they are aboriginal (e.g., Australia and South Africa), the descendants of slaves (e.g., Barbados and the United States) or immigrants from former colonies (e.g., the United Kingdom), are often held by the standard English speakers to have an inferior grasp of the language; to speak a version of it that isn’t proper or authentic; to have defective grammar. They are characterized as speaking not only a nonstandard variety but a substandard variety of English.

The white/black = standard/substandard perception of English is not baked into the language. Rather, it developed in tandem with social, economic, and political events throughout history. The ways in which some white speakers feel licensed to disparage black speech is not different in kind from the way the Britons, starting in the 1600s, disparaged the speech of Americans. In both cases, the standard speakers do not recognize the minority speakers for simply doing what we all do naturally–that is, communicate in our mother language. Instead, the majority speakers’ assumption is that the minority has somehow failed to master and model the preferred forms of the language..

If anyone’s hackles are still up as this paragraph begins, their protest is probably along these lines: “But their speech has grammatical errors so it can’t be right or acceptable. If we ignore these kinds of errors, the purity of English will be lost.” My modest goals are to suggest that (1) there is no such thing as the purity of English, and (2) vernaculars of any language are internally consistent. They simply have forms of expression that differ phonetically, grammatically, syntactically, or lexically from the standard variety.

So let’s deal with the easier protest first: the purity of English. Like all languages and all organisms, English evolves. You can take a snapshot of its preferred form at any point in time and call that the standard or best model, but if you peek at another point on its long timeline, the preferred form will look very different. Here’s a sentence representing the standard of English in 1608:

To bring downe thine hie stomacke withall, Almighty God hath ordained that thou shouldest bee vexed here in this life with the most vile and simple creatures, as gnattes, frogges, and such like vermine as he plagued the proude Egyptians withal.

But of course we don’t talk that way now. So if you like the purity of English argument, the best you can do is to point to the standard variety of today, or perhaps more honestly, the variety of English that you speak.

If your objection to vernaculars is that they are simply corrupted versions of the standard, riddled with errors, your argument may hold in some quarters. These would be the quarters where no one knows very much about language generally. It’s the nature of language, whether you call it a dialect, a vernacular, or a creole, to develop rules. Without this, we might be flummoxed whenever we set about to speak, torn between whether we should say this, that, or the other thing. But we aren’t often in such a predicament because we speak the way that others around us speak, and that gives us the confidence to believe that we will be understood. It’s natural that different speech communities will innovate and deviate from the standard: consensus wins in language, and the way the most people in a community speak has a way of becoming the way that everyone speaks.

Here’s a screenshot of a conversation that one of my semantics students submitted for an assignment. Note the two utterances (hers) that I have indicated with arrows.

If you were asked to speculate about attributes of the speaker you might suppose that she was African-American. Why? Because the utterances instantiate two features that we associate with Black American English.

The first one, “I might have some idk [I don’t know] if they heavy duty tho[ugh],” has what linguists call copula deletion. In Black English, Inflected forms of the copula be can be deleted when they stand in positions that can be contracted in standard American English. So “if they heavy duty” instead of “if they’re heavy duty”.

The second utterance has what linguists call habitual be, that is, uninflected be in cases where there is a connotation of action that is done repeatedly, or that identifies a trait. So, “my stuff be all over” instead of, perhaps, “my stuff is always all over”.

The conversation above took place among three white sorority sisters at my university. Do they always speak this way? No; the one who was in my class certainly never did in front of me. But in this conversation she seems to be code-switching, using a version of English that is preferred, or perhaps standard, in her small and intimate social world. It’s not the case that she doesn’t know standard American English; she’s just not using it.

Why does this affluent white-girl convo make use of language forms that are associated with black speech? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s currently fashionable (influenced by rap?), perhaps these are shibboleths to indicate membership within their group, perhaps they’re just taking advantage of the kind of abbreviation that abounds in text conversations.

The worst possible reaction to this reality would be along the lines of “See? The speech of the uneducated is now corrupting the flower of our nation’s youth!” A more reasonable response might be to observe that she talks this way for the same reason that a Black American would switch to standard American English in a job interview, even though it isn’t the way they speak in their community. Most of us have the ability to fit our speech to the circumstances we’re in, and perhaps we are all the best judges of what version of our native language will work best in the moment.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday February 5th, 5:10 AM
Comment by: Adolf V. (Lawrenceville, GA)
Informative article! Thank you.
Wednesday February 16th, 11:01 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Lots of food for thought, Orin.

Fiction authors employ "code-switching" all the time, using one style in prose, another in dialogue. In my mother tongue, my parents both having eighth-grade educations, we use "to hardly matter" not "hardly to matter" or to matter hardly." I never rose above (or below) my mother tongue to master Fowlers MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, and my failure haunts my steps in formal writing until this day.

Your essay encourages me to believe that language revolves around groupthink, groups thinking differently and vying for power. Rather than admit a power struggle is a power struggle we rely on justifications of "tradition" or "righteousness."

Traditionally to be read, one's thought must clear the hurtle of "standard English, which enhances communication between those who use standard English and denies communication from those who do not. Again, a powerful tool for maintaining power.

As for my own thinking, I'm not unhappy with my lot in life and therefore prefer tradition to righteousness, and I am not above using language to forward my position. Still, it is difficult, per your essay, to use language as a justification of tradition if we allow that language itself reflects power--or in your words "social, economic, and political events."

There will always be a pecking order so long as grain is limited or people exist to make it seem so. Language, tradition, righteousness--all are tools that can be used to maintain or change the order, usually by those hoping to either continue giving or one day give the orders themselves.

If there is any doubt about power and language, consider Mark Antony swaying the mob in JULIUS CAESAR: "For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action nor utterance, nor the power of speech, to stir men's blood. I only speak right on."

Brutus should have argued, "Hey, fellows, the guy talks funny. Don't listen to him."

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