Attitudes Toward the Speech of Others

By Michael Gasser

You overhear the following conversation.
A: Did you hear those two girls talking? “He don’t mean nothin’.” “I seen it.” “Me and him fought.” Can’t they learn to speak English?
B: I know what you mean. They’re just lazy, if you ask me.
What do you think of comments like this? Do speakers from some regions or speakers belonging to some social or ethnic groups tend to be lazier than others in their speech?

As you certainly know, people are quite conscious of how they differ from people from other regions, social groups, or ethnic groups. They notice differences in dress, in food, in patterns of social interaction, in which qualities are valued or attract attention. And it is natural to evaluate these features of other groups, to think of their dress as fashionable or weird, to think of their food as tasteless or gross, to think of their social behaviors as friendly or offensive. The same is true for language. People hear speech that differs from their own and they may find it sloppy, elegant, or monotonous. These impressions may also be associated with the languages of particular groups rather than, or in addition to the people themselves: we may find a certain language more expressive, more logical, even more masculine. What’s the source of these impressions? Are they accurate?

Differences Between Languages

Undeniably communities of people do tend to differ. To take an obvious example, food preparation is more important in some cultures than others; some cultures are famous the world over for their cuisine. For language, the differences are again obvious to anyone. It’s not just that languages sound different. Some languages make distinctions — in sounds, in words, in grammar — that others don’t. And people learning a second language often have trouble making the distinctions that aren’t part of their first language. What we naturally notice, as speakers of a particular language, is what is “missing” in other languages and what kinds of mistakes second-language learners make in trying to speak our language. This may lead us, consciously or unconsciously, to think there is something deficient about the other language or even about the speakers of the other language. It is very difficult for us to see it from the other perspective, to see that we also fail to make distinctions that matter in the other language and have trouble making them when we try to learn that language.

For example, as speakers of English, we may be surprised to find that Japanese has no words corresponding to English a and the – words that are so basic to English we may almost take them for granted. And we may be struck by the errors that Japanese learners of English make in trying to master these words. Similarly, we are struck by the confusions Japanese learners may have in pronouncing English words with the sounds that we write with l and r, a distinction not made in Japanese. But these same Japanese speakers may be surprised when they first learn that English has only one word for ‘you’ (Japanese has at least six possibilities) and struck by the tendency of English-speaking learners of Japanese to always use the same word for ‘you’. And they are similarly struck by the difficulty English-speaking learners of Japanese have with distinctions in vowel length and pitch change, distinctions that don’t exist in English.

In fact there is no evidence that people in some cultures speak in sloppier or more elegant or more monotonous ways than people in other cultures. And while languages do differ in striking ways, these different features seem to balance each other out. As far as we know, all languages are equally expressive, equally logical.

But the example in the box above doesn’t concern two different languages; it concerns a single language, English, and its speakers. The fact is that there is also considerable variation within English (or any other major language); that is, English has dialects. The main point to be made is that what linguists have learned about the essential equality of languages applies to dialects as well. Though it is often even harder for people to accept this fact for dialects than for languages, as far as anyone knows, there is nothing inherently inferior or superior about any dialect of any language.

Linguistic Chauvinism and Intolerance

So if impressions like those of the speakers in the box above have no basis in fact, where do they come from? There are three possibilities. First, these people may have been told by an authority, for example, an English teacher, that certain usages are just plain wrong. Clearly, the reasoning would go, anyone who knows this should not be using those forms. The fact is that what is “wrong” is all relative. The girls quoted in the conversation in the box would almost certainly find it wrong to say it doesn’t mean anything when speaking to each other. If they wrote it don’t mean nothin’ in a school essay, on the other hand, that would be another matter (though it would still not be reason to call them lazy; it would just be evidence that they had not learned the rules of the variety of English that is appropriate in school. Second, these people may have a stereotype concerning the group in question, and they may be transferring that stereotype to the speech of that group. Third, what they hear differs from the English they speak, and people may be quite intolerant when it comes to speech. Especially if they belong (or believe they belong) to a political, economic, or intellectual elite, their view may be something like the following: “the way I speak the language is the right way; any other way is wrong”.

Whatever the reason for the impressions of A and B in the box, a linguist would respond to them by saying that the two girls were simply speaking a different dialect of English, a dialect with its own grammar.

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