Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Blog post written by Peter Trudgill author of Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Dialect Matters

Academic linguists are often asked questions like: Is it really bad form to sometimes split your infinitives? What exactly is wrong with saying “I done it”? Why is the pronunciation of younger people these days so irritating? Why is it OK to drop the k in know but not the h in house? Why do railway companies prefer to have customers alighting from trains rather than passengers getting off them? And what is so important about sentences not starting with a conjunction?

This book argues in favour of the language of ordinary people. It champions everyday vocabulary, such as passenger, as opposed to business-school jargon like customer. Its supports nonstandard dialects, including forms such as I done it, in the face of the tyranny of the view that the standard dialect is the only “correct” and “grammatical” version of the language. It cherishes the English used by native speakers in their everyday lives, not least where they appear to defy the views of pedants who attempt to impose “rules” on us – for example about split infinitives – which have been invented for no good reason. It makes the case for vernacular usage as opposed to politically correct language. It demands respect for local ways of pronouncing local place-names. It asserts the primacy of spoken language and explains the importance of discourse markeres like “like”. And it defends minority languages like Welsh and Navajo, where these are threatened by majority languages like English.

The book is a collection of my weekly columns on accent and dialect from the Eastern Daily Press newspaper, revised and annotated for a wider audience. Many of these essays deal with the history of the English language. Others explain the origins of place-names. Some discuss the ways in which languages change while dismissing the loaded notions of deterioration and progress. Several of the columns look at political problems brought about by language issues; and stress the tragedy of language death. The coverage ranges from England to New England and Moldova; from the languages of indigenous Australians and Americans to the Old Norse tongue of the Vikings; and from vocabulary to phonetics and grammar. One of the pieces even boasts what is quite possibly the first ever usage in a regional British newspaper of the word phonotactics.

One of the main purposes of these columns is to broadcast a message of anti-prescriptivism, anti-linguicism, and respect for demotic linguistic practices. Prescriptivism is a form of prejudice which is so widely accepted in the English-speaking world that it is taken by many people to be axiomatic. Prescriptivists believe that there is only one way in which English “ought” to be spoken and written, and that any deviation from this is “ignorant” or “wrong”. If you ask them their justification for claiming that the sentence I done it is wrong, they may well answer that “everybody knows” it is. In this book, I try to show that this is not so. And I oppose negative attitudes like this – which are sadly held even by many highly educated and otherwise thoughtful people – by proposing that we should cultivate a positive stance towards all the different ways in which English is spoken around the world.

By the term “linguicism” I refer to a phenomenon which is, in its way, every bit as pernicious as racism and sexism, and which these days is more publicly and shamelessly displayed than those other evil phenomena. Linguicism involves being negative towards and discriminating against people because of their accent, dialect or native language. The totally false idea that some dialects of English are – in some mysterious and never specified way –“better” than others has many unfortunate consequences, not least the denigration of whole groups of our fellow human beings.

But I also attempt to convey the message that language is a mysterious, fascinating and enjoyable phenomenon which not enough people know enough about. I have attempted to use my columns as an opportunity to show that language is an extraordinarily interesting phenomenon, especially when we do our best to think about it analytically and positively, without preconceptions and prejudice. Nothing is more important to human beings than language; and I hope that in this book I have succeeded in illustrating the degree to which all languages and dialects are not only worthy of respect and preservation but, as complex creations of human societies and of the human mind, are also highly rewarding and pleasing to discover more about.

All the 150 or so columns in the book are about language in some shape or form, and contain linguistic information with insights which will be of interest to university students and teachers of linguistics, as well as to high-school English Language teachers and their classes: indeed they have already been used to stimulate discussion in classrooms from New Zealand and the USA to the British Isles. For the benefit of this type of reader, most of the pieces in this book are accompanied by brief Linguistic Notes of a technical nature which general readers need not bother with unless they want to achieve a more academic understanding of the issues involved. Local background notes are also provided where necessary for readers not familiar with East-of-England background of a number of the columns.



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