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Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers

TrayvonMartinHoodedA stranger I will call DL recently emailed me an odious screed pouring contempt and disgust on nonstandard dialects of English. “Speaking broken English is often a sign that the speaker is monolingual in broken English,” it said; and “Sadly, rather than seeking to help such people, some in the linguistics profession see them as savages as noble as those in the Amazon or New Guinea.”

The phrase “some in the linguistics profession” is one more anonymized reference to the possibly mythical creatures that E.B. White called “the Happiness Boys“; but DL doesn’t supply what I asked for: names of specific linguists who encourage the “savages” by promoting ungrammatical English as a good thing. This passage of DL’s email struck me as particularly nasty and cynical:

Descriptivist linguists love nonstandard forms of language for the same reason that charities love poverty, psychiatrists love disorders, and criminologists love crime, they’re what keeps them in a job. If people in Harlem and Brixton spoke like most educated people in America or Britain, what reason would universities have to fund research into these exotic sociolects and ethnolects?

Brixton is a London borough famous for its high Caribbean immigrant population, and you know about Harlem. In case you had missed the dog whistle, this is about blacks. And DL is (to use an immortal phrase that I first heard from the sociologist Laurie Taylor in 1968) one of “the hangers, floggers, and let’s-bomb-the-woggers.”

As he rants on about “patois,” at one point he alludes to a paper of mine: “African American Vernacular English is not Standard English with mistakes” (in Rebecca S. Wheeler (ed.), The Workings of Language: From Prescriptions to Perspectives, Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999, 39–58). That paper argued that sentence structure in the dialect linguists generally call African American Vernacular English (AAVE) cannot possibly be accounted for under the myth that AAVE speakers are simply trying to speak Standard English but are making ignorant mistakes, omitting vital function words, carelessly dropping consonants, stupidly negating clauses more than once, and so on.

AAVE has some tricky grammar and phonology. A slew of constraints must be met before a form of be can be omitted, as in He crazy. Inter alia, the clause must be affirmative, present tense, and non-emphatic, the subject must not be first-person singular, and the verb must not be clause-final. Consonant-dropping also has constraints: [d] is dropped in lend but not led; [t] is dropped in left but not lent; and there are specifiable phonological reasons. And in negative clauses AAVE regularly employs no-words where Standard English uses any-words, and inverts the order of subject and auxiliary, so Ain’t nobody heard nothin’  isn’t a double (or rather triple) negation; under the rules of AAVE syntax it’s just the normal way to say “No one has heard anything.” (Standard Italian and Polish have rather similar negation syntax.)

None of this implies any positive evaluation of AAVE; nobody is encouraging anybody to use AAVE in contexts where using Standard English would be a better plan. I merely aimed to correct some erroneous factual beliefs. But I was recently reminded of a political connection: DL’s hostility to nonstandard dialects does link to his clearly right-wing politics.

My copy of the November 2016 issue of Language (vol. 94, no.4) arrived yesterday, and it contains a fine paper by John Rickford and Sharese King of Stanford University: “Language and Linguistics on Trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and Other Vernacular Speakers) in the Courtroom and Beyond” (948–988). [Update: It has just been announced by the LSA as the 2016 winner of the Best Paper in Language Award.] Rickford and King do a very careful analysis of the speech of the young woman who was a crucial witness in the murder trial of George Zimmerman

Rachel Jeantel gave her testimony in her Haitian-influenced variety of AAVE. (Interestingly, she is not monolingual in it. She is trilingual, fluent also in her mother’s native language, Haitian Creole, and her father’s native language, Spanish.) The jury found her speech unintelligible and ignorant-sounding, and treated her as not credible. The general public agreed, posting thousands of extraordinarily abusive comments about her in online newspaper comments sections.

She was the prosecution’s star witness. She had chatted by cellphone with the victim, Trayvon Martin (pictured above), a close friend of hers, as he described Zimmerman stalking him, right up to when he was shot. Her six hours of testimony contained crucial evidence that Martin died while trying to flee Zimmerman, and was not menacing him. But her testimony was completely ignored (no juror even mentioned her). Zimmerman was exonerated. Rickford and King argue that dialect prejudice and institutional racism contributed substantially to the prosecution’s failure.

It’s not just nonstandard dialects that are reviled, but their speakers. And that can affect the outcome of murder trials, which I take it is something that every citizen, whatever their dialect, has an interest in.

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