Julie Washington on Dialects and Literacy

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Read here now: the fine profile of my friend and research collaborator Julie Washington in the April issue of the Atlantic magazine. It’s been out for a while but you might not have seen it if, as in Madison WI where I live, it’s still February (we had the biggest snowstorm of the season this week). Julie is a professor at Georgia State University and the head of their program in Communication Sciences and Disorders. She’s an expert on the structure, acquisition, and use of African American English (AAE), and her research focuses on how use of the dialect affects reading achievement and educational progress, the assessment of children’s language and reading, and the identification of developmental language and reading disorders. The article describes her view that children who speak AAE in the home and community will make better progress in learning to read, and in school, if they can code switch between AAE and the mainstream dialect, often termed (though not by her) "standard" American English.

The article, by William Brennan, was initially going to focus on whether the “achievement gap” in reading might be addressed by reviving dialect readers, a brief educational experiment from the 1970s. Children would initially read books written in Black English (as it was known) and then transition to ones written in the “standard” dialect. Were dialect readers a successful method that had been prematurely abandoned?  That’s not my reading [sic] of the literature, and I wrote a post about it.

The Atlantic article morphed into a profile of Washington, who forcefully argues that African American children’s success in reading and in school depends on mastery of the school dialect—the “standard” dialect used in the books and other materials that children are learning to read, and in higher education, business, government, and other institutions.  (Researchers now prefer terms such “mainstream” American English for reasons I’ll get to.) Children whose home and school dialects differ greatly, she says, need to become bidialectal: fluent in both dialects and able to alternate between them as contexts demand. For the learner, the demands are similar in many respects to becoming bilingual. Children who speak Spanish in the home and community are likely to progress more slowly in reading and speaking English than monolingual speakers of mainstream English. The reason is obvious: the children are still learning English. With adequate education and sufficient time, they can catch up and become bilingual, with the numerous benefits that confers. Children who speak AAE may fall behind for a similar reason—they are still learning mainstream English—but the situation is usually interpreted differently:  they are behind because their English is deficient. They too might catch up with adequate instruction and sufficient time, gaining the benefits of being bidialectal, but those enabling conditions are rarely met.

Brennan shadowed Julie during the most recent convening of the venerable NWAV (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) conference, number 46, which was held in Madison.  The conference was amazing, not least because talks were given by William Labov, Walt Wolfram, and John Rickford, participants in NWAVs I and/or II.  Julie gave the closing keynote, Exploring the Growth of Language and Literacy of African American Children: The Influence of Gender and Dialectal Variation, presenting some results from a large longitudinal study of almost 900 African American children in grades 1-5 (Washington et al., 2018; PDF, paywall).

Among the findings:  use of AAE is negatively related to reading acquisition, but the impact is not uniform. One modulating factor is dialect density. Dialect density refers to the extent to which speakers use AAE-specific features, which varies greatly. In this study, higher dialect density placed children at higher risk for poor reading achievement.  Children with higher dialect density progressed more slowly; conversely, children who were strong readers were more likely to decrease the use of AAE over time.  These findings are consistent with other studies showing that use of the mainstream dialect is strongly related to reading acquisition. Becoming proficient with MAE (Mainstream American English) does not require extinguishing AAE, but the proportion of individuals who become fluent in both dialects and how this variable relates to reading isn’t yet certain.

Gender also matters.  Gender differences related to language or reading were not observed until grades 4 and 5, which is late in learning-to-read years. Girls in those grades pulled ahead of boys in both reading and in the use of MAE.  Why this occurred isn’t clear, though there are plenty of potential explanations.  (Girls also outperformed boys in every country/region that participated in the 2012 and 2015 OECD PISA assessments of 15 year olds’ reading.)

The Atlantic article notes that the idea that African American children should become bidialectal is controversial. It is.  One opposing view is that there’s no reason to encourage the use of the home dialect because the goal is for children to be proficient in the “standard” one. Code switching just increases the cognitive and linguistic loads on children who are already behind in reading and language.  Another view is that having to learn a second dialect is another version of having to be twice as good to succeed.  Which dialect functions as the “standard” is determined by social, historical, and economic factors, not linguistic ones. The disadvantages associated with using AAE are due to social and cultural conventions that are unjust.  Some educators, viewing themselves as agents of social justice and cultural change, believe the goal should be to create alternatives to a biased system rather than perpetuate it.

There’s a lot more to these issues, obviously, which are also sensitive given the long history of mischaracterizations of the language of Black people in America.  Which brings me to my final point.  “Dialect” has to be one of the linguistic concepts that is least well understood by the general public, including many minority dialect speakers themselves, teachers, educators who develop curricula and instructional practices, and the measurement people who construct standardized assessments, among others. Language variation is a well-studied, well-understood phenomenon, but what is known hasn’t been absorbed into the culture the way that, say, the importance of reading to children has been.  This is a major obstacle to addressing the issues Julie raises.

I think that those of us who study language need to step forward on these issues. When asked about dialect, many of us fall back on Weinreich’s aphorism that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.”  That statement is relevant to the fact that (a) the boundary between language and dialect is graded rather than absolute, and (b) what a code is conventionally called is affected by nonlinguistic factors.  Hindi and Urdu, the textbook case, are treated as distinct languages but they are more like dialectal variations of a common language.  Their identification as two languages is abetted by their use by different racial/ethnic/religious groups, concentrated in different regions, and being written with different writing systems.  Serbo-Croatian is in the process of transforming into Serbian and Croatian for similar ethnic, religious, geographical, and orthographic reasons and, pace Weinreich, the speakers of the dialects literally did acquire their own armies following the break-up of Yugoslavia. The opposite case is familiar from Victor Mair’s many posts here: treating the various Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.) as one fictitious language, “Chinese”. The Chinese government has validated this non sequitur by describing the various languages as “dialects” of Mandarin, which it designated as the national language.

OK, the conventional labels aren’t linguistically reliable; can we move on?  Languages have identifiable dialects. English has a lot of them: these folks studied 46 (including pidgins and creoles), characterizing how much they overlap with respect to key morphosyntactic features.  All of the dialects are linguistically valid in the sense of exhibiting systematic variation resulting from general principles governing language change. Labov and others’ critical contribution was to show that AAE is linguistically unremarkable, an example of dialectal variation as it occurs in many languages and cultures.

The linguistic integrity of AAE isn’t at issue, but its sociolinguistic status is.  It is a low prestige, oral dialect spoken by a minority population with a lower income distribution in a country with a history of racial bias. There’s substantial evidence that use of this lower status dialect can impede progress in school, not because of characteristics of the dialect or dialect speakers, but simply because the home and school dialects differ. Hence Julie’s recommendation to promote code-switching.

The problem is that most people conflate linguistic integrity and sociolinguistic status. Calling one dialect “Standard American English” encourages this.  The dialect is “standard” in the sense of being the higher prestige one used in important contexts, not its linguistic superiority. That’s why researchers are gravitating to terms such as “Mainstream American English.”

Few people make these distinctions and so the recommendation that AAE speaking children learn to speak the mainstream dialect is easily taken as conveying the unwanted message that AAE is defective, which many speakers will rightly resist. Teachers are in a particularly bad bind.  They are poorly-informed about dialect and the rest of language because Linguistics 001 is not part of their basic training.  Many teachers, including some African Americans, still believe that AAE is bad English, NWAVs 1-46 notwithstanding.  Their goal is to promote using proper English, not code-switching. Correcting the child’s speech may be less effective—and more disaffecting—than using it to bootstrap the second dialect.  Teachers who aren’t African American may feel that it isn’t their role to impose the mainstream dialect on another group. Meanwhile, achievement gaps continue (see figure, from here), due in part to dialect differences that our educational system does not accommodate.

The Atlantic article is a good place to start learning more about these issues.  I’ve included some additional resources for people who are interested.

Gatlin, B., & Wanzek, J. (2015). Relations among children's use of dialect and literacy skills: A meta-analysis. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58, 1306-1318. [PDF]

Pearson, B.Z., Conner, T., & Jackson, J.E. (2013). Removing obstacles for African American English-speaking children through greater understanding of language difference. Developmental Psychology, 49, 31-44.  [PDF]

Seidenberg, M. S. (2013). The science of reading and its educational implications. Language Learning and Development9, 331-360.  [PDF]

Seidenberg, M.S. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It. Basic Books (pp. 235-245). [Amazon]

Seidenberg, M.S. & MacDonald, M.C. (2018). The impact of language experience on language and reading: A statistical learning approach. Topics in Language Disorders, 38, 66-83. [PDF]

Terry, N. P., Connor, C. M., Petscher, Y., & Conlin, C. R. (2012). Dialect variation and reading: Is change in nonmainstream American English use related to reading achievement in first and second grades? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 55, 55-69. [PDF]

Washington, J.A., Branum-Martin, L., Sun, C., & Lee-Jones, R. (2018). The impact of dialect density on the growth of language and reading in African American children.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 232-247. [PDF, paywall]



  1. Bathrobe said,

    April 21, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    I find it amazing but sad that this kind of debate is still going on. It appears to be heavily tied to sociolinguistic prescriptivism, which tries to outlaw all "non-standard" varieties of language.

    I grew up speaking a variety of English where it was common to say things like:

    "Could you give me one of them chocolates?"

    "Me and me girlfriend are goin' to the movies."

    "I never broke it, he did."

    "If you hadna done it nobody woulda said anything."

    Despite the inevitable fuddy-duddies who corrected you to "those chocolates" or "My girlfriend and I are going" or "I didn't take it" or "if you hadn't done it", these non-standard speechways cling on. They certainly never stopped me from learning standard or mainstream English, whatever you want to call it. Recognising the differences between one's native spoken language and the formal written register is part and parcel of learning to read and write.

    The essential problem is the shame that people have been made to feel about spoken varieties of English. In the case of Black English, Ebonics, or AAE, the problem is compounded one-hundred-fold by sociolinguistic and racial attitudes.

    In an era when increasing tolerance and recognition is being demanded and given to LGBTQ people, it is truly amazing that such backward ideas about language are still so entrenched. The debate about bidialectal teaching is a non-debate. Whether recognised intrinsically or explicitly, teaching children a written language on the basis of a spoken language they already know is a no-brainer.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 3:55 am

    I’m actually sceptical, pace CGEL, that [me and x] in subject position is even correctly described as non-standard.

    1) Pretty much everyone learns it naturally as kids and has to be deliberately trained out of it

    2) it folllows the syntactic pattern of the rest of standard English – plain form of pronouns is default in all positions except when it’s the *whole* subject of a finite verb (as admitted by CGEL)

    3) [X and I] remains unlikely or impossible even in formal speech in certain situations, e.g. “Fido and I are going for a walk”, “My big mouth and I”.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 5:40 am

    Last year, Switzerland was mentioned. My experience in Austria was similar – and very different from the topic here. Like in Switzerland, Standard German is not a sociolect in Austria (Vienna excepted); just about nobody speaks it and only it natively. The dialects (mutually intelligible through most but not all of the country) differ from the standard in phonetics, phonology, vocabulary and grammar, on the phonological side enough so that German spelling conventions simply can't handle half of it. That's part of the reason why the dialects written even less often than Swiss ones. And yet, everyone grows up with very good passive and fairly good active competence in Standard German: all writing, as mentioned, is in the standard (aka Schriftsprache), so are most of radio and TV, and parents who read stories aloud to their little children don't translate them. I can't remember having not known the standard. People even know many of the regular sound correspondences between dialect and standard, so that some borrowings into the dialects are etymologically nativized by substituting the usually corresponding phoneme (most spectacularly OK coming out with /ɛ/ instead of /e/). Teachers code-switch pretty often. When grammar is taught* in the 3rd and 4th years, I'm sure more emphasis is put on the synthetic past tense** and its irregularities than in northern & central Germany where that tense is/was native to the local dialects, but there's no expectation to use any of that in normal speech. The systems are so separate that my grandpa used to deliver prescriptivist rants about the standard, in dialect, at the standard-speaking TV, and nobody so much as blinked.

    * As "this is how grammar works and what the technical terms mean" and with the implication that "you'll need that to learn other languages"… and of course there's the fact that, to spell German, you need to have a pretty good idea of what a noun is.
    ** The normal tense of narration in written German, therefore very common and impossible to avoid in the 1st and 3rd person. Cognate with the English past tense, down to sharing most of the irregularities, but with no aspectual meaning whatsoever; the analytical past tense, cognate with the English present perfect, is an exact synonym and has taken over in all southern dialects.

    So. Um. There is such a thing as a stable diglossia where the spoken/informal variety is ignored in school (not suppressed, but ignored) and everyone ends up competent in both varieties. The great difference to America is social.

    I’m actually sceptical, pace CGEL, that [me and x] in subject position is even correctly described as non-standard.

    Still, me girlfriend vs. my girlfriend. (Dialect mixture during the Great Vowel Shift?)

  4. David Marjanović said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 5:48 am

    I'm curious about Finland, where the education system routinely comes out on top in international comparisons, social inequality is very low, and the domain of the standard is even more restricted than in Austria (not sure about Switzerland), but the dialects diverge very noticeably from each other within the same country.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 5:49 am

    is an exact synonym

    "Means exactly the same", I mean.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    David, isn’t the [mɪ] in “me girlfriend” just a matter of variant pronunciation? There’s nothing grammatically non-standard about it. Whether it’s the vowel shift or some other phonological process, or even if it’s descended from e.g. dative “me”, synchronically it’s an ordinary possessive pronoun right?

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

    I think what the Austrian and Finnish examples suggest is that it is helpful to have a standard which is significantly different from anyone's ordinary speech. If some people are speaking the standard, or something close to it, as their first language, then speakers of other dialects are at least unfairly burdened by having to learn the standard, and quite possibly also stigmatised by the idea that they are trying to speak the standard and doing it wrong. If it is no one's first language these problems need not arise.

  8. MIlan said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    To add to the German-language impressions here: Bavaria is about the German state with the highest density of non-standard dialect speakers (Bavarian, or Boarisch). That dialect is not normally intelligible to speakers of Standard German, so I think it is fair to say it is more divergent from Standard German than AAVE is from Mainstream American English. That notwithstanding, Bavaria is constantly among the states that score highest in comparisons of academic achievement, including in reading and writing.
    Pace Andrew, there are a fair number of mono-dialectal native speakers of Standard German in Bavaria, though dialect speakers are hardly stigmatized.
    All this has most likely to do with the fact that Bavaria is wealthy and has overall low immigration rates, meaning that few pupils have to acquire Standard German without already speaking some German dialect. Nonetheless, it seems to suggest that the relation between being a native non-Standard speaker and learning to read and write is mostly conditioned by the social status of the dialect rather than simply the cognitive load of acquiring bidialectality.

  9. Jo said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    Andrew (not the same one) said:

    … it is helpful to have a standard which is significantly different from anyone's ordinary speech.

    Is it clear that this is true of mainstream spoken American English and written American English? Before I assume that they're not that different I'd like to see some kind of quantitative evidence that the perceived insignificant differences between the two aren't more of a sociological artifact than anything.

    Isn't it at least plausible that high status speakers will tend to perceive greater differences between low status dialects and the standard written dialect even if there's no evidence or maybe even no plausible metric for measuring the significance of differences?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    Presumably the attempt to switch the terminology from "standard" dialect to "mainstream" dialect is motivated by a notion that speakers of lower-social-prestige varieties of AmEng will feel less stigmatized by being told their dialects are "out of the mainstream" as opposed to "non-standard"? Is there an empirical basis for that? It strikes me that if anything "mainstream" suggests a natural/empirical/statistical reality while "standard" implies a social convention which is more likely (because this is the nature of social conventions) to be somewhat arbitrary and historically contingent. My subjective reactions obviously aren't that reliable since I'm not in one of the groups the reformers are trying to reach (I either have the advantage of natively speaking the prestige variety of AmEng or the disadvantage of having never needed to learn to code-switch, with the possible accompanying benefits of that skill), but I think I would find it more irksome to be told I needed to join the mainstream than that I needed, for purposes of social mobility, to be able to master an arbitrary standard.

  11. Milan said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

    @J. W. Brewer,
    Perhaps it is supposed to highlight the fact that the prestigiousness of Standard/Mainstream American English advantages some people while disadvantaging others? An industrial standard, typically, is something that it takes every participant some effort to adhere to. This analogy seems to apply to situations such as in Finland, Austria or Switzerland where virtually no-one speaks the Standard natively. In the US, however, the "Standard" is fundamentally identical to the native dialect of a certain class of people, giving them an advantage (or perhaps, disadvantage) over others. The word "mainstream" might describe that situation better.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    Bathrobe: What did you snobs have against "If you wouldna done it nobody woulda said nothin'"? (Just kidding.)

    Pflaumbaum: I don't see those as the criteria for "standard". To me, "standard" is what's accepted in school and in edited text. (And like J. W. Brewer, I see "mainstream" as more stigmatizing than "standard".)

    What's wrong with "Fido and I are going for a walk"? Though I'd probably say, "I'm taking Fido for a walk" or something.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 10:58 pm

    @Milan, a cynic would argue that in many cases industrial standards are the result of political maneuvering to advantage well-connected industry players who are already doing (or can easily/cheaply do) what the proposed standard contemplates while disadvantaging less well-connected competitors who are not doing it that way and will find it more challenging to comply. But my broader concern is perhaps that it seems puzzling or at least naive to suppose that "mainstream/non-mainstream" is a less potentially judgmental or inequitable or hierarchical way to conceptualize the situation than "standard/non-standard."

    On further reflection I may be thinking of "non-standard" as a neutral, non-judgmental word used by descriptivists doing sociolinguistics because I am thinking of it as contrasting with "substandard," a pejorative and judgmental word for deprecated usages or dialects found in the lexicon of prescriptivists (boo! hiss!). But I wonder if there's a Euphemism Treadmill thing going on, such that after the passage of some decades "non-standard" is now felt in some quarters to have taken on the negative baggage that I associate with "substandard"?

    I do like the point in the original post that Labov et al showed that AAVE (or whatever synonym you wish to use) is "linguistically unremarkable." "Unremarkable" is in many contexts in AmEng a somewhat pejorative word, but I learned several years ago, after a radiologist looked at an ultrasound scan of my abdomen and pronounced my liver, spleen, etc. to all be "unremarkable," that in a medical context that adjective was not at all pejorative and was to the contrary the highest praise one of your internal organs could hope to receive.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2018 @ 11:15 pm

    On the separate vexed and apparently unstable question of what the heck to call the variety of English called "AAE" in the original post here, the first book-length treatment I ever read about it, as an assigned text in an undergraduate sociolinguistics class I took in '85 or '86, was John Baugh's excellent "Black Street Speech." Even then, BSS struck me, at least superficially, as a vaguely dated-sounding label, somehow evoking the hairstyles and wardrobe choices of circa 1974. But the internet tells me that Baugh's book was virtually brand-new at the time (published 1983) so I guess that neither Prof. Baugh nor his editors/publishers thought that BSS was an inapt label to use as of that late date.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 3:55 am

    David, isn’t the [mɪ] in “me girlfriend” just a matter of variant pronunciation? There’s nothing grammatically non-standard about it. Whether it’s the vowel shift or some other phonological process, or even if it’s descended from e.g. dative “me”, synchronically it’s an ordinary possessive pronoun right?

    I'm sure it is, but that's not what it sounds like if you aren't used to it and are only familiar with fully diphthongal my (or with contractions towards [a]). Hence the spelling me.

  16. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 4:35 am

    I can see some tiptoeing round the subject. Understandable, because "prescriptivist", "snob", "elitist" are some of the more harmless epithets that some in the wings are waiting to hurl at anybody who suggests that it's probably better that kids learn at school to use the mainstream form of the language.

    But what it's all about is mutual intelligibility over a wide geographic range, staying in contact with an enormous body of literature, and giving kids the best chance in life.

    There's a widely-held opinion that any attempt to keep a spoken language stable is doomed, and a diglossia situation is inevitable. That's the case in the Arabic-speaking world, I think. But how this pans out in the long term could still be an open question: I'd say in the German-speaking world spoken dialects, in Germany at least, are slowly dying out in favour of mainstream.
    In fact, both France and Germany have moved since the 19th Cent. to more uniformity in both written and spoken language.

    Some will see this as a bad thing, but the absence of an accepted standard form can bedevil attempts to keep endangered languages alive: the case with Irish and Rhaeto-Romansch, I think.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    @ Jerry Friedman

    I don’t think that definition works. Edited text differs greatly from the spoken language, especially the colloquial spoken language. And schools teach all sorts of (widely variable) nonsense that does not reflect modern English as actually spoken.

    Pretty much all fluent, native-speaking children routinely produce [X + me], and so do many adults in informal contexts (this has been shown in linguistic studies eg https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/979e/3a7043728c349eb5080a7af30bf00d1da875.pdf).

    The usage Is certainly stigmatised. But it seems odd to suggest large numbers of people who otherwise speak Standard English switch into a non-standard dialect that is identical aside from co-ordinated pronouns in subject position, rather than categorising it as a difference in registers of the standard dialect.

  18. Flammie said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    To be exact, at least when I was young in Finland in the 1980's or so, the standard written Finnish was kind of almost spoken by the news reporters on the national broadcaster yle's channel (but not on the commercial ones which were more cool) and in the dubbed and original children's programming. But anyways, if you heard someone adult speaking like that it would be most natural to assume they were not native speakers, as this kind of language is also what is taught in the Finnish for foreigners books. I would though say that for prestige and all other purposes the standard spoken Finnish is practically comparable to this Standard English.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 8:54 am

    Peter Grubtal: As far as I can see, everyone commenting here agrees that it's better for kids to learn the standard form of the language in school.

    Pflaumbaum: I think your evidence shows that "Me and X [verb]" is mainstream, not that it's standard. The fact that it's stigmatized, as you say, is why it's one of the things kids should learn to avoid when avoiding it is appropriate. And what we're talking about here is what they learn in school.

    I agree with your comment that edited text differs greatly from the spoken language. I think it conflicts with your implication that large numbers of people speak Standard English except for co-cordinated pronouns in subject position.

    All this is connected with another reason I prefer "standard" to "mainstream". Some expressions that teachers and editors correct are used by the majority. I feel certain that in America, the large majority of people say "too big of a problem"—but that's not accepted in formal text (yet). It's mainstream, but it's not standard.

    To repeat myself, the question is what to call the form of the language that children should learn in school. I think "standard" is better than "mainstream".

    (The more important question is how to teach that form of the language, especially to children whose native dialect is very different, and in countries where the differences are tied up with a painful history and current situation. I have much less of an opinion on that.)

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 8:58 am

    Sorry about the italics.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    To add to Jerry Friedman's point(s), the percentage of schoolkids who natively speak the prestige or standard or mainstream variety of AmEng may vary wildly depending on how you define it. On a broad definition, you might have a majority or near-majority whose idiolect in a spoken-colloquial register is not non-standard/non-mainstream for that register. But the number of students who natively speak (i.e. having picked it up by osmosis from family and neighbors) the formal register that schools approve of and that is expected for formal writing (and many formal oral contexts) is much smaller. What percentage of L1 AmEng speakers don't spontaneously use "ain't" in their default informal/colloquial spoken register? (I don't think I do – if I say the word it's primed by some specific context and/or a bit of a conscious choice that might be thought affected by someone inclined to be pejorative.) 5%? 10%? Now, maybe it's not incredibly difficult for many of the much larger group who do natively say "ain't" in their default register to learn not to say it (or write it) in contexts where formal register is appropriate. And maybe it's less difficult than learning to eschew a wider suite of AAE-distinctive syntactic constructions in contexts where formal register is important. But it's still a thing that, for them, perhaps has to be learned other than via native-speaker osmosis?

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 10:02 am

    @ Jerry

    I think that all sounds perfectly consistent, but I don't think it's how "standard" is used by linguists. CGEL does use prestige publications, but it uses spoken forms too. Hence for example it classifies most uses of accusative "who" as split usage, not non-standard.

    Speaking personally, as far as I can tell the only ways my grammar differs substantially from the English spoken by, say, BBC presenters, is in co-ordinated pronouns, avoidance of "whom" and complete omission of "whomever", lack of sensitivity to the less/fewer distinction (which again CGEL classifies as split usage), and one or two other prescriptive rules and shibboleths. (Of course there will be other differences in lexical choices and the frequency of things like heavy clauses and subjunctive constructions.) It just seems unparsimonious to say I'm speaking a non-standard dialect. The usefulness of the term non-standard is in differentiating between genuinely different grammars, with systematic differences in morphology and syntax. I don't see why "register" won't do for what I'm talking about.

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer

    To me that fact that a form or structure has to be consciously unlearnt is not evidence that it's non-standard. Doesn't that basically amount to enshrining every common prescriptive rule as the standard form?

    FWIW I believe CGEL considers "ain't" fully grammatical in standard AmE.

    Interestingly it also gives grammatical status (albeit split usage) to cases like [X and I] in object position and "whom" in embedded content clauses like "He's the one whom I think will win". These originate in hypercorrections from stigmatised forms, but are now so common even in prestige usage that it claims they are now part of the standard language.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

    Pflaumbaum: maybe I'm wondering in terms of different sorts of gaps between native-language-variety and school-language whether there's a sharp difference between students needing to learn a different register of the same dialect versus needing to learn a new dialect? It seems plausible that there would be but I'm wondering if there's really a conceptual difference or just different points on a continuum of difficulty. (I don't doubt that school language variety is significantly farther from native variety for some students than others even among students who are native speakers of *some* variety of AmEng, with more consequent difficulty in getting students to get there.) Obviously to the extent there's some material difference between school-language and default native-language-variety of some key demographic group (the majority, the mainstream, the socially non-marginal, what have you), using "standard" (or any synonym thereof) to mean both of those things is going to lead to confusion.

  25. Christy Goldfinch said,

    April 23, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

    Perhaps someone here can help where my research skills have failed me. The Atlantic article states: "[L]ast June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city…. The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English." Does anyone know what city this was? I'm wondering if it's my hometown of New Orleans, where the local variety of AAE has some features I haven't heard elsewhere.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

    Pflaumbaum: If linguists use "standard" for something broader than what I'm using it for (and having glanced at the CGEL, I know what you're talking about), I still think we need a word for what's required by teachers and editors, and I don't think "mainstream" is a good choice. Maybe "formal" or "academic". I often tell my students that I'll appreciate it if their homework is in "school English", which I've occasionally contrasted with "homestyle English"—though the Atlantic article mentions the possibility of learning AAVE from one's friends, not at home.

  27. Bathrobe said,

    April 24, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum

    I was also curious about the Cambridge Grammar's stance on constructions like "me and him". It seemed to me quite arbitrary to dismiss it as non-standard. The CGEL seems to fall into the trap that befalls so much modern linguistics: an unstated preference for the written language over the spoken, running counter to the entire ethos of modern linguistics.

    But I also suspect it reflects the personal backgrounds of the authors. I don't know about Geoffrey Pullum, but Rodney Huddleston speaks perfectly modulated standard (British) English. The only hint of any kind of regionalism I ever caught in his English was his pronunciation of "one" as "wan". I doubt that he personally would have countenanced "me and him" as standard English.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 4:29 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer

    You're surely right that it's a continuum. To me there's no problem calling both standard because I see the differences as (fairly small) differences of register. We have no problem saying that, say, the construction "The ones she spoke to" is Standard English, while "Those to whom she spoke" is Standard English of a somewhat higher register. I don't understand why "The ones her and John spoke to" is not categorised as Standard English of a somewhat lower register.

    @ Jerry

    Yes, again it just seems arbitrary and unparsimonious to me to regard it as a distinction of dialect.

    @ Bathrobe

    I would be surprised if it was that. As I'm sure you know, there are numerous prescriptive rules and shibboleths that CGEL will have nothing to do with. I suspect that Huddlestone and Pullum, for instance, both use "fewer" with count nouns, but they don't prescribe "less." But I agree that the verdict with [me and X] seems arbitrary and I don't understand it.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 25, 2018 @ 4:40 pm

    I forgot to mention that an interesting case came up over dinner tonight.

    My friend was telling a story, and at one point said something like "We were round at my dad's place."

    I'd lost the thread, and asked "You and your sister?"

    He replied, "Me and Katie."

    It seems to me that replying "Katie and I" would have sounded anomalous in this context. To preserve the correct emphasis, mirroring mine, he needed either "Me and Katie" or "I and Katie". Since he has similar speech patterns to mine, I suspect he would have said "Me and Katie" anyway; but it made me wonder whether or not, for a more formal speaker, the word-order constraint against [I and X] would trump the case constraint against [Me and X].

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