Not everyone in the United States speaks the same English, as a recent American Dialect quiz made very clear. In an essay originally published on her blog, Harmless Drudgery, lexicographer and Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper explains why that's a good thing.
I was talking with a friend – well, a "friend" – about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you'd use the word "behoove."
Photo Credit: coconinoco via flickr.
So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. "You're saying that wrong."
It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. "What?"
"'Towards'. You're saying it oddly– 'TOE-wards'. It's 'TWARDS'."
I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. "It is?"
He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. "It's pronounced 'TWARDS'. I mean, right? Here, we'll ask the waiter."
My stomach hit my shoes. "No, no, I'll take your word for it." And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say "attempted": we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don't recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word "towards."
Fast-forward a week and I'm sitting in the back conference room at Merriam-Webster. We're two hours into my portion of the video shoot. Though we're using "cool lights," it's 100 degrees in the room; my throat is raw; I am wearing enough makeup to cover the surface of the moon; my antiperspirant has long since given up the pH-balanced ghost and I am sweating through my clothes. I know that we are fast approaching the tipping point when I will end up slipping into complete incoherence and blinking idiocy, the point when I will not be able to say my very own name without getting it wrong, which means we need to finish this script quickly, quickly.
It is, of course, the script that features the word "towards."
My reserves, which are naturally on the scanty side when you put me in front of a camera, were very low as we started. I tried to relax as I came up on "towards," but I could feel my stomach tighten. "That's the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I've been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right TWAAAAAAARDS," I brayed like Balaam's ass.
The director looked out from behind the monitor. "Um, okay," she laughed. "Let's try that again?"
It took five more takes, each sounding slightly less asinine before we moved on to the next script. Even now, I can't watch the video because there is still a hint ofohmigod, ohmigod in my eyes as I say "towards."
We finished; I raced back upstairs to the burlap comfort of my cubicle; I pulled up the entry for "towards" in the Online Dictionary.
I put my head down on my desk in relief. "I knew it," I whispered, prompting my long-suffering cubicle mate to mutter, "I'm sure you did."
Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they've been dislocated. They're part of the reason why we have five listed pronunciations of "towards" in the Online Dictionary; they're the birthplace of words both loved ("kerfuffle") and despised ("irregardless"); they're the linguistic air we live and move and have our being in.
To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic, tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a "dialect." Most of us don't just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn't be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.
You know what I mean. You're on the bus, heading home from work. Some people are reading; some people are talking on their phones; some people are having loud, shrieking conversations with each other. (I am leaning against the window, hoping the swaying of the bus will jostle my after-work brain back into place.) Two teenagers are talking:
"Yeah, I aks him, how many tesses you gonna give us? And he's all, I ain't tell you that!"
"We better not have no tesses on Wednesday. I workin' Tuesdays."
"I hear that."
At this point, I will close my eyes, because there will be at least one person on the bus (and usually it turns out to be the person sitting next to me) who will crane their neck to verify that the teens in question are black, and then will turn to me and sneer, "God, don't they teach English anymore?"
I will keep my eyes closed, because I do not want to have this conversation right now. I do not want to open my eyes and stare sweet, smiling death at this person and inform them that what the teenagers are speaking is, in fact, English. I do not want to try to explain to this person–a person who is, no doubt, just as tired and carsick as I am–that the teenagers are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English, that the dialect is actually a rich and complex (albeit controversial) one, and that if the listener doesn't like listening to AAVE, then they can stop eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn't involve them.
Languages are made up of dialects. They fit together like jigsaw puzzles: remove one or two pieces and you'll still be able to see the whole image, but the picture is incomplete nonetheless and you're definitely not getting more than $0.50 for it at a garage sale. Oh, of course, you nod, dialects GOOD–and yet there are likely dialects you'd be happy to lose between the couch cushions or down the heating vent. It's easy to decry the banning of a dialect you don't encounter in a far-away school district; it's much harder to live with the dialects that ride the bus with you. I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong.
I've lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I'd use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people "chica" and "homes"; I "-g"-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.
One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. "Can you queet talkin' like deese, because we don't talk like deese? Drives me crazy."
I was flummoxed. "I'm just talking," I said.
"You sound Mexican," she said, "and you're not. If you're not careful, your friends are going to think that you're making fun of them." It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.
My classmates and I came of age before the Great Ebonics Controversy, but what boiled over in Oakland was simmering everywhere else. I watched my African-American friends split over sounding "white" and sounding "black." One particularly nasty middle-school teacher told students that if he called on them and they spoke "improper English," they'd receive a failing grade in class participation; more than once he told students to "learn the language we speak here in the U.S." My friend Stephanie was incensed. We lay on our stomachs in her living room, doing our current events homework and talking about this teacher. She sneered, "I don't need no old white man tellin' me to learn English, 'cuz I already speak it." Her mother hollered from the kitchen, "I don't needsome, Stephanie. Some old white man."
Even my less-reviled dialect of birth proved problematic. When I moved east for college, I had to learn to code-switch again. I said "howdy" so many times that someone worked up the courage to ask if I lived on a ranch (no) and rode a horse to school (are you fucking kidding me?). If I let "well" slip into a polysyllabic smear, I could expect to hear someone respond with a "yeehaw." I switched from "pop" to "soda," from "sub" to "grinder." It was in vain. "Wow," my college roommate said to me the first time I met her, "you have an accent."
"So do you," I responded, and she riposted with exactly what I was thinking. "Nuh-uh," she said. "No, I talk normal."
Everyone, from the guy with the poshest British accent on record to me in full-on hick mode, thinks that they talk normally. And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture, a context, an era that is peculiar to them, and within that culture, context, and era, their speech is normal. That's why, when we want to lampoon uncool parents in comedies, we have them either use the slang of their generation ("Groovy, man") or butcher the slang of their children's generation ("That plan sounds radical, my home bro.") The language of their youth is outdated, and they haven't mastered the language of today's youth. They are linguistically out of joint, which leads to copious lulz.
People like to belong; the corollary is that we like to set up boundaries betweenus and them. And so most of us struggle to accept that different ways of speaking are just that: different, not wrong. We've had a lot of correspondents write in recently to complain about Ebonics and how it's ruining the purity of English &c. Ignoring the fact that "Ebonics" is a skunked and outdated term, used more to disparage than anything else, the complaints have touched on American-English spellings, the pronunciation of "nuclear," and the existence of "irregardless"–none of which are unique to or markers of AAVE. Furthermore, lots of the constructions used in AAVE are also used in Southern American English. Are yousure it's all AAVE's fault?
The impulse to set up divisive boundaries runs deep: even though I'm a dialect lover (so much so that the first time I met a new colleague who grew up in Pittsburgh, I immediately pestered him to do the dialect, do it, do it, and wouldn't leave him alone until he had), I'm not above sneering myself.
My youngest daughter is a crazy smart, crazy chatty girl who happens to have spent her formative linguistic years outside of Philadelphia. This means she has a terminal case of hoagiemouth: the odd diphthonged Philly O; the pronunciation /wooder/ for "water"; the way that she says the personal pronoun "I" as if she is reciting, in reverse alphabetical order and all at once, all the vowels we have in English.
One day I came home from work to find her playing videogames on the couch. "Have you done your homework?" I asked.
"Yeah," she responded, "I'm done my homework."
The cliché record scratch, the loud fart in church. "You're what?"
"I'm done my homework."
It's a common construction in these parts: you hear every local with every level of education say, "I'm done my/the X." And yet hearing it in the mouth of my daughter drove me–champion of dialect!–out of my goddamned mind, becauseso Labov help me, someday you are going to be in a job interview and you're going to tell someone 'you're done your college education,' and they are going to think you are a moron and you will never get a job, and then you will live with me forever.
That I code-switched as a kid–and was called out for not code-switching at home–was lost on me as I pictured this bright young woman, my baby, being called "stupid" because of that dialectal missing preposition. I tried to gently impress this on her.
She was unfazed. "Whatever," she said, "you say 'howdy' and you got a job."
"You just need to realize," I fretted, "that people will judge you based on how you talk."
"Mom," she said, "I know." Of course she knows: I'm judging her already.
Standard English (a dialect in and of itself, hey oh!) is the form of English used by the people with power and prestige, but it is a minority dialect. Most English speakers natively speak something besides Standard English. It's also mutable as different groups with different speech patterns gain power and prestige. "Sunk" for "sank" was once derided as wrong, hickish, and uneducated in the U.S. Now it's Standard English. "Aks" for "ask" isn't illiterate: it was the original pronunciation of "ask" and appears in a number of American-English dialects. It's ludicrous to think that the vast majority of people who use the "aks" pronunciation–people who, unlike lexicographers, go outside on a regular basis and have human interaction with a wide variety of people–don't know that it's not the currently accepted pronunciation.
So when you encounter dialect in the wild, instead of getting angry that another English speaker is ruining English, perhaps see it as a sign of acceptance. The speaker feels comfortable enough with you to let down their guard and speak in the most natural way possible. You might consider reciprocating. After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there.
This post by Kory Stamper originally appeared on her blog, Harmless Drudgery, and has been published here with permission. Stamper is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster who spends all day reading citations and trying to define words like "Monophysite" and "bodice ripper." She has been doing this sort of thing since 1998, long enough to remember blue galleys, grease pencils, rubber stamps, and inter-office mail. Follow her on Twitter.