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October 04, 2006

Dialect Update and a Public Apology

Today I would like to make a public apology to Caroline Eisner (whose name I inadvertently misspelled in a previous post) for not discussing my concerns about African American dialect with you when I had the opportunity. I am fascinated to learn the pedagogy and theory behind the argument you made for not correcting our students' dialect. Thank you for emailing me this passage:

NCTE, "On Students' Right to their Own Language": We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unaccpetable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

I agree with this passage that the idea of a standard American dialect is a myth. After all, there has never been a single standard dialect, which is why such people as Noah Webster spent so much time trying to standardize American English. What I refer to as "standard American English" really is just the WASP dialect. This passage says that "the claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another"; in other words, the claim that one dialect is more correct than another is cultual imperialism. I can't disagree with that. The problem is that those in power have been exerting this dominance for the entire history of our nation. As a result, those who make hiring decisions in workplaces and admissions decisions in universities tend to be (but are not uniformly anymore) members of the dominant group. Furthermore, because they learned in school that their dialect is "standard American English," they will view grammatical constructions that may be correct in another dialect as unacceptable. I am speaking for myself here, but I don't think I'm alone.

I'm not arguing that this is moral, just that it is the reality. Unfortunately, not all members of our nation are proud of its diverse heritage. I agree that teachers must respect their students' diversity, but they also must prepare their students to get by in a world that, unfortunately, isn't always so respectful.

Posted by eklanche at October 4, 2006 11:15 AM


Emily - Although I respect the view that individuals should be able to maintain their dialects and "patterns of language" in casual writing and conversation, I believe that it is important for individuals to use standard English in more formal or "official" writing and discourse. While it is true that standard languages "are dialects with an army behind it," they are also the most effective means of communication in societies with a considerable diversity of different language patterns: if you're going to communicate to different social groups, you and they have to be trained in a standard language that everyone can understand (even if you or they don't use it in normal, daily interaction). When you don't have this you have the Habsburg Empire. To write in or speak standard English isn't, in my view, to submit to a dominant dialect but instead to *master* it, to command it - to use the rich resources, expressive power and, yes, beauty (I know, an outmoded term) of language to its fullest effect. And those who have mastered that language have often been those who have eloquently, and powerfully, spoken on behalf of the dispossessed - Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin. To prove my point: read Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" or King's 1967 speech against the Vietnam War and then read any article by Spivak or any other deconstructionist seeking to subvert the "dominant discourse." Which has the most impact, which makes its points most eloquently, and which, frankly, offers a more forceful critique of power? "Standard" language has a richness, beauty, and force of its own that should not be denied just because it has been institutionalized or formalized. (Admittedly, most "standard" English is lousy, boring bureaucratese). As a former English major, I will forever maintain the value of clarity, concision, and, sorry, "correctness" in formal writing - even if I don't use them myself in web log posts! - over the use of dialect. Dialects have their own expressive power but mastery of the "standard" allows you to command a language's nuances, richness, and expressiveness in the service of an argument. Read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" - I read it every year, it is practically my Torah.

Posted by: khgarner at October 5, 2006 10:26 PM

I am so glad you posted this! I think that Eisner's point (which I was going to make as I have been reading about it in my teacher ed classes) and the need for students to "get by" in the world are not at all mutually exclusive. The answer is code-switching - the ability to fluently switch from one language or dialect to another as socially appropriate (sometimes within the same sentence). People of every minority group in the US do it (including 4th-generation Ashkenazi Jews, mind you) - it is not a bastardization of language by any means, but instead it is a very sophisticated knowledge of the social role of language. In other words, a child can easily be taught that their dialect is every bit as valid as "standard" English, is in fact the most appropriate dialect to use in most of the situations in which they find them selves on any given day, and they should also learn to speak "standard" English because it is the most appropriate dialect to learn when on a job interview. The ability to use one dialect does not in any way detract from the ability to use another, and in fact, bilingual children tend to have cognitive skills that monolingual children don't, including a more sophisticated (metalinguistic) knowledge of how grammatical structure works.

And anyway, the job interview concern, while crucial, is short-term - in the long term, white hegemony is going to get turned on its head. We've gotta learn to work within the system, and work to change how the system works at the same time.

Posted by: cbergen@alum.pomona.edu at October 6, 2006 03:56 AM

Thanks for these insightful comments. I agree with both of them, which is what makes it so difficult for me to engage in this semi-public debate. After I wrote my update, I realized how cynical I sounded. The saying "be the change you want to bring about in the world," (or however it goes) came into my mind, and I realized that, by advocating getting by, or bowing to the status quo, I am not contributing to the solution. I was reinspired yesterday when I picked up Michael Lerner's Jewish Renewal, which I have been reading on and off most of this year. He reminds me not only that change is possible, but that it is our duty as humans to work toward it. This book should be required reading not just for Jews, but for the whole human race.

Claire -- thank you for bringing up the issue of code-switching. As a "fourth generation Ashkenazic Jew" (actually, I think I'm third, but I never quite know how to count it), I do find myself code-switching: not just between "standard English" and the Yiddishisms I have learned from my family, but also between these "dialects," Britishishms I have picked up on my travels, and academese, not to mention the Michiganisms I'm learning from David (though I still use air quotes around these). And you are right, "white hegemony is going to get turned on its head" -- so let's do what we can (as white people) to help out!

Ken -- I too am a big fan of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which David forced me to read under duress during the first year of our courtship because historical jargon had pervaded my everday vocabulary. I also love your comment that learning the standard dialect is a form of mastery rather than submission. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, which discusses the use of language as a tactic of the oppressed.

Thanks, both of you, for engaging with me on this issue.

Posted by: eklanche at October 6, 2006 04:40 AM

Emily - Thanks for the response. Allow me to illustrate my point with a comparison. Below you'll find two quotes on the same subject- which speaker do you think is more "imprisioned" by his language? Can we really say that good English is a tool of domination?

"The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese --the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go -- primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers." - Martin Luther King, 1967

Q: Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?

A: Hmmm, uhh, hah -- ummm -- I, the answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way, heh, heh. Heh. Here's how I think of it. Ummm -- heh heh. First I've heard of that, by the way, I, ah -- uhh -- the, uhh -- I, I guess I'm more of a practical fella. Uhh. I vowed after September the 11th that I would do everything I could to protect the American people. And, uhh -- my attitude, of course, was affected by the attacks. I knew we were at a war. I knew that the enemy, obviously, had to be sophisticated, and lethal, to fly hijacked airplanes, uhh, into -- facilities that would, we would, killing thousands of people, innocent people, doin' nothing, just sittin' there goin' to work.
- George W. Bush, White House Press Conference, March 2006

Posted by: khgarner at October 6, 2006 09:14 AM

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