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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Socio-Linguistics: Against ’’Correct’’ English

Guess what: There is no such thing as correct English! Or correct any other language for that matter. 99 per cent of people don’t know this, least of all the ones who want us to be “educated” about language, but it is one of the first things you will learn in any introductory sociolinguistics course (sociolinguistics is the study of language use): There is no ‘correct’ form of any language – the accents and dialects we consider correct were just historically more prestigious than others, so they became the standard ones, with standard spelling and standard grammar, to be used for things prestigious people did, and things that needed a standard for practical reasons – education, literature, media, and so on. Prestigious varieties are not prestigious because they are better, but are considered better because their speakers are prestigious; non-standard varieties are not ungrammatical, they just have different but equally sensible grammar to the standard variety, and there is nothing inherently beautiful, good, ugly or bad about any language, accent or dialect.

Essentially, our attitudes to language varieties are just our culture’s attitudes to the stereotypes associated with them, and so despite the indignant views expressed so often in places like the DomPost letters page, you are not ignorant, stupid or butchering the English language just because you don’t talk like the Queen. Rather, your speech reflects the speech of the people you grew up with, and the speech of social groups you admire or identify with. Speaking ‘correct’ English doesn’t make you intelligent and intelligence doesn’t make you speak ‘correct’ English (although plenty of people who identify as intellectual will use a more standard style than they grew up speaking – an example of speaking like those you admire.).

So this point of view debunks a lot of assumptions some people make about socioeconomic class, for example. We could assume that lower class people are less intelligent (listen to their lazy speech and their terrible grammar!) and that’s why they haven’t pulled themselves up into the middle class – they are where they are because they’re too dumb and lazy for an education or a decent job! They’re so stupid they can’t even speak properly! But as we know somebody’s dialect is not caused by their intelligence. However, ‘ignorant’ speech can hold a person back academically, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If teachers judge a child unintelligent on the basis of non-standard speech they will, usually unintentionally, hold them to lower standards than other students, and the child will perform badly in kind.

Contrary to popular belief, children who speak non-standard dialects like African-American English are usually perfectly capable of understanding and using Standard English at school, so their lower performance can not be from a lack of understanding. Also, discrimination against those with non-standard speech can inspire conscious rebellion against the ‘standard’ speech community: a rejection of middle-class values, a desire to never be anything but working class. The establishment’s indignation that anyone would ever make such a life choice reinforces the stereotype that the lower classes must be stupid and lazy, which in turn reinforces the belief that lower-class speech reflects an intellectual deficiency, which reinforces lower expectations of those speakers, and so on.

But is there anything we can do about linguistic prejudice? It’s inevitable that the language variety used for education will be associated with intelligence, but does that necessarily mean we should think that all others are inferior? Would it be possible to educate the public that there is nothing wrong with non-standard dialects? Or is linguistic prescriptivism just part of human nature?


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