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What’s in our words?

On Feb. 25, Professor Blossom gave an intriguing lecture on linguistics.

There are lots of ways to talk about and think about diversity, but it’s much more difficult to think about linguistic diversity. Language is governed by rules, but we are not aware of these rules. Languages vary with context. “The last time you talked to your friends, did you use words, terms, and phrases that you wouldn’t use with your professors?”

Many of us nodded.

Languages can also vary with cultural groupings, age, gender, and region. No language is completely uniform.

One myth is that a dialect is ‘something that someone else speaks’.

The truth is that a dialect is a regional or social variety of language that differs in terms of their pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar from one another that are developed over time.

It’s also a myth that dialects result from unsuccessful attempts to learn the ‘correct’ form of a language. Dialect speakers acquire their dialect by adopting the speech features of those around them, not by failing in their attempts to adopt standard language features. 

Another myth: Dialect is the same as accent. An accent refers to only the way that a language sounds—the way words are pronounced. But dialect differs from other dialects across multiple domains: vocabulary and grammar as well as pronunciation.

Here we start to get judgmental. When someone says: “He don’t like it,” that person is more likely to be told that they can’t speak English properly.

Then we started to talk about grammatical differences in language. For example, Blossom asked us, is the phrase ‘I might could go there this weekend’ grammatically correct? Most of us said that no, it wasn’t. But in fact, in the American South it’s perfectly acceptable to add multiple modal verbs to a sentence.

Our use of language unifies us with others who share our language and divides us from those who do not. In the judgmental eyes of the mob, some dialects are more equal than others. This is not unique to our country. In the show Downton Abbey, everyone speaks a dialect of English different from American English, but the masters of the house speak a different dialect of British English than the servants.

Certain accents are looked down upon as being the sign of the uncivilized, the crude or the dumb. This includes the Boston dialect, the African-American dialect, and the thick, heavy Southern dialect.

In one sad but telling incident, an American who could speak three dialects of English—standard American English, African American English, and Chicano English—-went and telephoned various people, asking about whether or not he could get an interview for an apartment advertised in the paper.

Using the African-American English dialect, he got 63.5 percent of meetings in Frisco. Using the Chicano dialect, he got 53.2 percent of meetings and using the Standard English dialect, he got 71.9 percent of meetings. 

This is just one example of how the use of language can serve to divide us. How many people hear a Southern accent and immediately think the speaker must be an uncivilized moron? No one should.