I have rather fond memories of English class in school. Discussion was encouraged and it was a generally exciting class full of lively debate. I also remember (not so fondly) our teacher’s almost daily correction of our speech:
Student: ‘Please can I go toilet?’
Teacher: ‘No, but you may go to the toilet’ (with excessive emphasis upon the preposition and definite article)
Similarly, we would be repeatedly reprimanded for dropping our ts and hs, or for failing to pronounce the g in ‘everything’ and ‘anything’.
I have no doubts that my teacher had only the best intentions, perhaps believing that our ‘poor grammar’ would negatively affect our academic writing, or that we would be unfairly judged in future interviews for our idiolect. Indeed, in some ways she was entirely right. In written language of the kind taught in English class, a defined standard is required to enable the effective dissemination of information; yet enforcing these rules more widely, upon informal written or spoken language, is problematic on two levels.
First, supposing a ‘correct’ way to speak denies the evolving nature of language. Waismann deemed ‘correctness […] a useful, but a negative virtue. Follow those prophets [those who assume guardianship of language], and you will soon find yourself imprisoned in a language cage, clean, disinfected, and unpleasant like a sanatorium room.’ We must be able to bend and shape language to the purposes for which we require it, and expecting it to remain static makes it obsolete. Language is a tool for communication; we would not hold back from sharpening a blunt knife for fear of changing it.
Secondly, the very idea of ‘correct’ language, gives undue authority to single societal clique – typically the academic elite. R. A. Hall contends that ‘the only time we can call any usage completely incorrect is when it would never be used by any native speaker of the language, no matter what his social or intellectual standing’. Language is a vibrant democracy where all speakers contribute to its evolution, allowing them to express ideas meaningful to them and communicate on the same level as anyone else. Enforcing draconian grammar rules upon a conversation between two close friends transforms language into a technocracy governed by a council of faceless mandarins.
To give an example, the reproach and scorn speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) meet from some speakers of General American English (GAE) only serves to reinforce an unjust societal mechanism of marginalisation. Many white Americans term AAVE ‘slang’, ‘ghetto’ or ‘broken English’, yet AAVE is not, as it is commonly misperceived, a series of mistakes within the framework of GAE, but rather a complex and consistent system of grammar and phonology, and a fully-fledged dialect in its own right.
For example, the use of the double negative is a grammatically consistent feature of AAVE governed by rules like any other. ‘I didn't go nowhere today.’ intensifies the negation, whereas ‘I didn’t not go anywhere’ negates the initial negation i.e. makes it positive. In AAVE double negatives cannot be used however one pleases, but must be used on either side of the main verb. This is similar to the ‘ne . . . pas’ construction in French or Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of the friar in The Canterbury Tales: ‘Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous’. Speakers of GAE would be hard pressed to justify criticism of Chaucer or the entirety of the French language, yet find it easy to dismiss AAVE as ‘bad English’.
In the same vein, they would be unlikely to condemn the Shahada as grammatically incorrect. لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله would literally translate as ‘no god but God’, yet while Arabic is regarded as a language of poetry, AAVE speakers are told dropping verbs is uncouth. AAVE allows verb dropping only in very specific contexts, typically where GAE allows contraction, and applying it haphazardly would sound strange to any AAVE speaker. Again AAVE functions in the same consistent way as any respected language.
Yet perhaps the most commonly misappropriated part of AAVE is the habitual be. Speakers of GAE will often mockingly say phrases like ‘she be crazy’ reinforcing stereotypes about African Americans while simultaneously devaluing an incredibly complex grammatical feature. Speakers of AAVE use ‘be’ to express habituality. In other words, ‘he be working’ does not mean ‘he is currently working’, but rather, ‘he is in the general state of working’, ‘he works habitually’ or more simply ‘he has a job’. GAE can express habituality as well, but only when referring to the past. For example, ‘I used to walk to work every day’ means ‘I was previously in the habit of walking to work daily’. The habitual be is effectively an entire tense which is exclusive to AAVE, and allows speakers to concisely express complex concepts that speakers of other English dialects cannot.
Fundamentally, AAVE has a systematic and organised grammar, and in many ways is more complex than GAE. The abhorrence it induces is rooted in racism and classism. The United States public school system is more segregated now than at any point in American history since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. AAVE speakers are not less educated, but lack exposure to speakers of GAE (and vice versa). To deem speakers of a dialect unintelligent when the dialect itself developed in response to social segregation is unjustifiable. Humans are diverse and so too is the way we speak. Next time you encounter someone who speaks differently to you, consider that, maybe, they are not wrong, but simply express themselves in a different way.
By Michael Hendle, Linguistics Editor