Reply to Troy re: non-standard varieties

One Troy asked the following: what was I getting at in this post?

My post: I pulled out the only book I have by John Rickford when his name came up on the List and I was reading about the issues faced by linguists in the infamous Ebonics controversy.

Does it sound right? Well, it depends on what you hear around you. Many List members write that real acquisition has taken place when we know something “sounds right”. We may not be able to explain the grammar but we know it “sounds right”.

Well, that’s how it sounds to people who have grown up with a variety of English some of you say “sounds terrible”. It may sound terrible to you but not to the person whose speech it is and whose family’s speech it is. It sounds normal; it sounds “right”.

If a student told you that Spanish sounded “terrible”, just because it was unfamiliar to him or not his way of speaking, you would consider him uncultured, even rude. But when you say it about a non-standard variety of English, you are merely expressing your distaste for “improper” English.

But are you? Might it not be more a matter of your just not understanding his form of speech? If you listen closely, you might find some things of interest, even of beauty.

Now you know someone is going to write in to say I’m advocating against teaching kids standard English or advocating we use non-standard English in the classroom. But if someone grasps this, it’s worth the slings and arrows.>>

I’m glad Troy took the trouble to try to figure out what I was saying. It does seem that everytime someone suggests to the List (whichever list it is; flteach in this case) that we regard non-standard varieties as something other than horrible and terrible, we are advocating the abandonment of standards. It’s as if the only way we can maintain Standard English SE is by denigrating other varieties.

The pernicious effect of Prescriptivism is found in the silly statement that SE is somehow “more logical”, “clearer”, “more precise”, etc., as if other varieties of English were not. These sentiments are usually expressed by people who have never associated with people who speak a non-standard variety.

There is great variety in English. If you heard the recipient of one of CNn’s “Hero” awards, the Scottish man who behaved bravely in the attack on an airport in Scotland, you heard a brand of English that almost became a separate language: Scots English. It was only be virtue of being conquered by England that Scots English is now considered a “dialect” rather than a “language”. (See McNeil’s wonderful “The Story of English” video series for a good treatment of this; it’s in the “Guid Scots Tongue” volume). Yet all the elements different from SE continue to exist in Scotland and Northern England.

So here are some examples of English sentences which are marginal, i.e. understandable but somehow quirky and not “the way we’d say it”. These are not dialectal forms but rather examples from people who speak and use English quite regularly but not as native speakers (Indians).

From Aitchison, Jean, Language Change: Progress or Decay, p. 99:

“Your friend went home yesterday, isn’t it?”

“We have a party tonight – why don’t you come and enjoy?”

“I am understanding the lesson now.”

“All of these pens don’t work.”

“Evidence that it is not so has come recently.”

“Three all-India ski champions told this reporter that even Kashmir had not had enough snow for skiing.”

p. 41

“I saw a man scarlet in the face.”

“Who did the postman bring the letter?”

“Did you see anyone not pretty in Honolulu?”

“He promised me to come.”

“He donated the charity ten dollars.”

p. 109

“Billy is kissing Petronella, and is loving it.”

Charles is understanding French a lot better since he’s been to France.”

“The matron does not know all she should be knowing about this affair.”

We’re certainly hoping they’ll be wanting to do it again.”

p. 119

“Deborah laughed her eyes out.”

“His way into the room was elbowed by Bill.”

The p. 119 examples are obviously ill-formed, based on the sentences, “She cried her eyes out.” and “Bill elbowed his way into the room.”

p. 109

Mental state verbs traditionally are not found in the progressive but – and I noticed this myself in the early 70s and ascribed it to the desire for vividness – we hear these examples frequently.

p. 41

These are interesting: quite comprehensible but sounding ’funny’.

p. 99

Indian English is rapidly becoming a major branch of English but cannot achieve status of dialect, IMHO, until it becomes the native language of a significant number of people. Much of the divergence from other varieties of English derive from the fact that Indian English speakers have other languages as their mother tongue.

Today a post appeared on flteach in which a native speaker, educated, said that “Give me it” sounds juvenile but is correct and another replied that it is incorrect, meaning, I suppose, non-English. I would submit that the writers both mean that in their experience with English, this sentence is not typical. I cannot imagine a comprehensive treatment of English that would declare this sentence non-English or even juvenile. We can go to Jespersen or other treatments of English grammar to find examples at the highest literary level of English. Anyone care to do that or do we just stay with our infallible “gut reactions?”

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