Culture & Society / Politics & Current Events

There is literally no such thing as good English: on rejecting “standard american english” and embracing language change

By Jagravi Dave

The way we speak ties us to where we’re from. Our speech is infused with linguistic markers, some extraordinarily salient and others more subtle, that identify us as coming from particular places so significantly that The New York Times was able to create a dialect quiz for the United States that identifies, based on self-reporting, the very town to which someone’s speech can be traced. The country is divided fairly clearly into dialects recognizable to most people who have lived here for a significant amount of time, even if they do not extensively study language.

The typical Southern drawl, for example, stands out in the Northeast especially, conjuring up images of fried Southern food and confederate flags, associated with the presumed culture of polite hospitality in the South as well as, more recently, Trump voters. And so the Southern dialect is often perceived with prejudice, given the biases of most of the Northeast and the West Coast against that part of the country. This dialect, significantly different from what is knownas“StandardAmericanEnglish,”inescapablyidentifies its speaker as coming from the South, and would require extensive training to alter. Having these particularities of speech, then, has real consequences for an individual’s experience, and can result in anything from social ostracizing and harassment to being denied employment.

“Standard American English” is the general, unmarked English of the United States that is not associated with any particular region. It is the language used to prescribe grammatical rules and used by “professional communicators and businesses,” according to a PBS article about Standard American English. Some dialects vary from the “Standard” less significantly. They could be defined by only certain quirks of vocabulary, which are the source not of immediate prejudice but of friendly teasing (for example, jimmies vs. chocolate sprinkles; rotary vs. traffic circle). These dialects are less salient, less immediately identifiable with a place, and thus less likely to significantly affect an individual’s experience.

Where I’m from in the Northeast, most people speak the same way. It is a dialect not really recognized as a dialect, since this is the speech heard across the majority of television and radio, and the grammar of this dialect is considered standard. Yet I, too, found myself working the particularities of Massachusetts from my speech after coming to Cornell. As far as I remember, I did not make a conscious decision to distance myself from Massachusetts. But, maybe because I moved to the United States at the age of ten after living in two other countries, and because I was one of the few non-white kids in my suburban school system, I am extra sensitive to comments about the way I speak. I was made fun of by my friends (not meanly) for saying “wicked” and for pronouncing the word “room” with a shorter vowel and more like “rum,” and so these dialectal particularities disappeared from my speech. Dialects are marked; the “Standard language” is not. We configure dialects and accents as Other in opposition to the “Standard.” There is therefore an implicit and explicit demand, an internally and externally imposed pressure, to conform to the unmarked “Standard language” in order to not be Other-ized. The drive is towards reducing the amount of difference between an individual’s speech and the “Standard.”

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Art by Fauna Mahootian

But when and how does difference become constituted as incorrect or lesser? What could be inherently better, inherently more accurate, about speaking the “Standard” that justifies the imposition of this way of speaking at the expense of all others? The answer, of course, is power. Difference becomes constituted as lesser when the stakes involve power. The Northeast is the cultural, political, economic, and educational center of the United States, and has been essentially since this coast was first settled by English colonists. Thus it is the Northeast that holds power over the rest of the country, and has the power to dictate what “Standard American English” is and what constitutes it being produced accurately or inaccurately. “Standard American English,” which is almost indistinguishable from most Northeastern dialects, is the measure by which to mark distance and difference from the Northeast of the United States.

This standardization of the language is internalized by speakers who then strive to emulate “Standard American English” in order to speak “proper English.” There is, however, no such thing as “proper English.” In fact, there is no such thing as a unified English language. We can think about this in terms of the fact that there are many countries that have English as one of their national languages, yet the standards for all of these are different. There is also the fact that many countries formally utilize English in their particular variety regardless of its status as a national language. When studying language, linguists do not look to the “Standard” but instead rely on the judgments of native speakers, which often deviate from the “Standard.” Native speakers themselves do not speak standard languages, since they acquire the regional dialect of their hometowns. “Standard American English,” then, does not exist naturally.

And yet, there is the demand and expectation that people produce “proper English,” which in the context of the U.S., is “Standard American English.” This is the expectation that creates prejudice against those that speak differently, both in the context of dialects, but also in the context of non-native speakers and second-language learners. Immigrants are expected to speak “Standard American English” in order to accepted into American society, and failure to do so results in extreme discrimination and exclusion. Speaking English is, in fact, a requirement for being granted U.S. citizenship. It is this same rejection of difference that, to a less violently oppressive degree,results in the resistance to adopt the rapid linguistic changes that are developing mostly because of the interactions of young people on the Internet. Only reluctantly are words like “selfie” included in the vocabulary of “Standard American English.” Most particularities of the speech of younger generations—for example, the ironically antonymic use of “literally” or the “because” + [noun] construction—are completely rejected as incorrect, despite the fact that these particularities are used extensively and consistently by a significant portion of American English speakers. This resistance to language change can have important political consequences, such as when the singular “they” is rejected by academia as ungrammatical, erasing the fact of gender fluidity.

The fact is, language is constantly changing. English has undergone centuries of change in order to become what it is today, and it will continue to do so regardless of whether or not we want it to. Forcing prescriptive standards upon it and rejecting the variation that develops within it is not only oppressive but also futile. The imposition of “Standard American English” is nothing more than an imposition of power disguised as an imposition of accuracy. So, let’s just continue to use language flexibly and fluidly, allow variation and other linguistic influences, and embrace these changes and differences.

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