This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.
Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That’s because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don’t, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.
Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language or languages they speak.
But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.
Before we get into why I think that, let’s get back to our overview of what we talk about when we talk about variation.
How you talk has to do with who you are. And the way you talk is shaped by the people around you and the ways they talk. For most people, their first and most immediate influences are members of their family, the people who take care of them when they are babies and children. Over time, as our spheres widen, so do our linguistic repertoires, the inventory of ways of speaking that each individual speaker has available.
Think about all the different ways of being you have, all the different facets of your personality, the different settings and contexts within which you interact as you move through your days, the various ways you communicate and shift your style depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what the situation is. Think about how skilled you are at drawing on the right way of being and the corresponding way of speaking in most situations. You do it all the time, shifting easily between styles – and some of you shift between languages – and you do it mostly without even thinking about it.
Your linguistic repertoire is like language itself: variable and in a constant state of change. And it expands as it adapts to new situations in which you find yourself and have to figure out how to be, linguistically and otherwise. You build it over a lifetime, from earliest childhood. As you get older, your world widens. Maybe you start hanging out with some cool kids at school. You may begin to share some of their ways of speaking and develop new linguistic norms collaboratively, often without even realizing you’re doing it. And then later on maybe you get a job, let’s say waiting tables in a restaurant. You learn the language of restaurant work and the in-group styles and terminology of the people you work with. And you also develop a game face, your style for interacting with customers. All these experiences add to your linguistic repertoire, which you will continue to build over time.
Everyone has a linguistic repertoire, although not everyone has the same languages, varieties, or linguistic features in their inventories. Linguists call the external (that is, social) factors that affect the way people talk independent variables. Independent variables are characteristics of individual speakers that interact with language and cause variation.
Some independent variables that interact with language:
- socioeconomic status
- educational background
- communities of practice
Communities of practice are cultural/familial/social/professional communities to which speakers belong and contribute, like the cool kids at school or the restaurant workers we were talking about earlier but they also also include your family, your cohort at school, colleagues at work, the WMU marching band if you are a member of that community, your sorority, people in your neighborhood, place of worship, etc.
When independent variables interact with language, we get what a lot of people think of as dialect. I prefer the term language variation to dialect because I think dialect suggests a closed, discrete way of speaking. This person speaks this dialect (and only this dialect); that person speaks that dialect (and only that dialect). I don’t think that is a good way of thinking about variation because variation tends not to distribute itself into neat categories and groups of speakers that we can draw lines around. Unlike some of my colleagues in the profession, I don’t believe there are such things as dialect boundaries. I don’t even find it that helpful to use the idea of dialect boundaries metaphorically. And I think there are more interesting and useful ways of thinking about variation, its patterns, and its distribution.
But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the idea of dialect for a minute. A common understanding of what dialect is seems to be something that other people speak. In other words, a lot of mainstream speakers define dialect in relation to themselves, meaning that they don’t think of themselves as speaking a dialect. As it turns out, they’re wrong about that.
Of course, there are some people who know they speak a dialect. These are almost always speakers who are aware that the way they talk is stigmatized. They’ve been hearing all their lives how wrong they are.
But the reality is that every speaker of a language speaks a dialect. There is no dialect-free version of a language. As the linguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling have put it, “To speak a language is to speak a dialect of that language.”
Remember what we said before about how people do things to language simply by using it? Well, all those independent variables and all those life experiences that add to your linguistic repertoire factor into the processes of doing things to the language. All these things cause variation. They are not the only causes – there are internal, physiological, and other causes – but independent variables are the causes that are among the most interesting to linguists who study language in interaction.
Now, just because everyone speaks a dialect doesn’t mean that all ways of speaking are created equal. Far from it. As everyone in this room well knows, some language varieties and the linguistic features associated with them are valued more highly than others. That is to say some dialects are valued more highly than others.
When we say some varieties of language (or some linguistic features) are valued more highly than others, what we are saying is that there are some ways of speaking that are privileged compared to other ways of speaking. Linguists are likely to explain this by saying there is a prestige dialect that is held as the preferred way of speaking and that other ways of speaking are stigmatized in relation to that prestige variety. Other folks who aren’t linguists might say that there is “correct” speech and then there is everything else: “incorrect speech,” “bad grammar,” “broken English.” There is unfortunately often an explicit value judgment that goes along with these observations.
But languages, language varieties, and linguistic features themselves have no intrinsic status. They do not have greater or lesser linguistic value or validity in relation to other features or varieties. in reality, though, it is hard to separate a linguistic feature, set of features, or language variety from the social status of the speakers who use it. And that is really the issue here: The status of the speakers determines the status of the speech. When speakers are not valued by the wider mainstream culture, the way they speak is often stigmatized as a result. And so judgments about “correctness” are often more about the social value of the speakers than about the linguistic qualities of the speech, even though the judgments profess to be about language and even though those making the judgments often believe that to be so. In other words, the relative value of language varieties – and by extension, of their speakers – is socially imposed.
Conversely, linguists are interested in observing and documenting the ways languages and language varieties actually work. Languages, varieties, and linguistic features that don’t meet the communicative needs of their users don’t survive for very long. This is one way in which the language bends to the will of its users, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. A feature either does what its users need it to do – say, mark past tense or possession, for example – or the feature will not stay in use. The survival of ways of speaking, whether we’re talking about individual features or language varieties, is itself, in the view of linguistic researchers, evidence of their effectiveness.
Linguists understand all human languages and varieties as rule-governed, which is to say that a given language functions according to a system. Not all systems are the same. What may look ungrammatical about one system to users of another system may be working smashingly for its own users. One system is not more or less “correct” than other systems. Linguistically, that kind of value judgment doesn’t make any sense. In other words, there is no correctness continuum; there is a value continuum that is created perceptually; that is, by way of people’s perceptions and attitudes about features, varieties, and speakers. And the attitudes about the features and varieties derive from attitudes toward the speakers. It really is that simple.
In other words, we humans have a bad habit of interpreting things and assigning value in relation to what we’re used to, and that includes what we’re used to hearing and saying. And mainstream cultures in many societies – including this one – have institutionalized these interpretations into widely acceptable and highly powerful ideologies. One of these is the ideology of standardness.
A good definition of standardization is institutionalization of prestige variety of a language (‘institutionalization’ meaning to establish as norm or convention).
Standardization is often supported by authorities like dictionaries, grammar and usage manuals, English teachers, curmudgeonly newspaper columnists, and other commentators who claim the language is deteriorating at the hands of (some of) its users. More recently, a genre of Facebook memes about language use, some of them incredibly hostile toward certain groups of speakers, have joined in on the unhealthy fun of self-proclaimed language authoritarianism.
For example, there is this:
In the U.S., we have an interesting situation, which is that in American English, the prestige varieties have a negative definition. That is, Standard(ized) American English (SAE) is identifiable by what is missing from it rather than than by any specific identifying features it contains. In other words, for American English, the prestige variety is one in which there are no (or few) features that are socially branded as nonstandard: SAE is a variety with no stigmatized features. At least theoretically. I say “theoretically” because no one speaks SAE without ever producing any stigmatized features. No one.
Lots of Americans speak what mainstream speakers (that is, speakers of what is perceived as SAE) would consider nonstandard varieties. For example, think about how the speech of the Southern U.S. tends to be perceived and represented by the wider American culture. When the linguist Dennis Preston asked research participants to illustrate on maps where they imagined dialect areas to exist in the U.S., many singled out the southeastern U.S. as not only a salient dialect area but as one they perceived negatively.
This may suggest that the attitudes at issue have to do with regional variation, but there is more to it than geography. Similarly, New York City speech tends to score low in measures of language attitudes, but again, there is something more going on here. As we’ve noted, the attitudes aren’t really about language at all but about speakers. Attitudes about Southern speech may be more about judgments about rural speakers, perceived lack of education of these speakers, and perceived low social status. For New York City speech, perceptions about ethnicity and class are clearly implicated. For example, negative attitudes about New York City speech tend to focus on features produced by working-class speakers and by those perceived as “ethnic,” such as Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, etc.
Looking into language attitudes goes beyond simply observing and describing linguistic differences. It focuses attention on the social dimensions of variation, including what social and ethnic variation can reflect about differential access to resources, power, and status and about the role of language in maintaining social, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. These emphases are particularly important for variationists working in education, and it is important for teachers – and education majors, future teachers – to learn about them so that they will be well equipped to meet the needs of all the students who populate the diverse classrooms that await them. Teachers are on the front lines of this issue.
Our lyceum topic this semester is Race Matters, so let’s talk now specifically about the ways in which race does matter when it comes to attitudes about language in American culture. Let’s talk about language in the African American community.
First, some definitions of what I am going to refer to as African American English (AAE). 
Here’s one definition I like a lot:
African American English is “a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (but not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups.”
“Characterizing features of the variety are uniquely related to the history, culture, and experiences of [African Americans] although the variety shares many features with other varieties of English.”
Here’s another good one:
African American English is “the linguistic legacy of the slave trade.” Speakers are descendants of those “historically deprived of access to schools and to equal justice under law.”
These definitions engage the question of whether African American English is characterized by the linguistic features used by its speakers or by the identities of the speakers themselves. In these definitions, Green and Baugh suggest that it is about both: AAE is characterized by features, or more precisely clusters of features, as well as by independent variables that for many speakers cluster as well, resulting in shared — although not identical — experiences. We’re still talking about individual speakers.
AAE has a grammar and it has rules that govern it. As we have discussed, all productive varieties of all languages are rule-governed and systematic. If they didn’t, speakers would not be able to understand one another and the variety would therefore cease to exist. These rules apply to phonology (pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. Speakers have to adhere to these generative rules to communicate effectively. The rules that govern AAE and other stigmatized varieties are differentially valued externally — socially and politically — but there is nothing linguistically “wrong” or “ungrammatical” about these varieties. The system is just different. Different doesn’t mean wrong.
AAE is probably the most stigmatized variety of American English, and you better believe its speakers know it. Yet AAE persists and in fact thrives, with tens of millions of speakers nationwide, despite the overt stigmatization its speakers are subjected to and despite decades of eradication attempts through misguided educational policies that are themselves the results of misconceptions about language diversity that unfortunately persist today.
Since the 1960s, when researchers first began to turn their attention to it, AAE has become the most studied variety of American English.
AAE also continues to be linguistically healthy, adaptable, and fully capable of meeting the communicative needs of its speakers. When it doesn’t meet their needs, speakers adapt it so that it does. That is how language works. Its continuing success as a long-thriving language variety suggests that speakers clearly value it for reasons that its critics can’t understand or don’t respect. It suggests that AAE is culturally valuable and helps to build and maintain community and solidarity. It may also appeal to speakers who are not interested in trying to talk like people who seem not to like or value them very much. Linguistically, AAE is a resounding success. Politically, on the other hand, it is a target.
A widely held attitude about AAE views its use as a linguistic deficit. This view assumes that AAE reflects lack of linguistic competence or even intelligence on the part of its speakers. This view is simply not linguistically valid. For one thing, AAE speakers, like speakers of all other varieties of language, are a highly diverse community of individuals. For another, there is no correlation between the language variety (or varieties) spoken and intelligence.
To believe otherwise is a prejudice.
Attitudes about AAE and the value of its speakers have real-life consequences. When you have schoolchildren who are written off by their teachers who assume that students are uneducable because of the way they talk, educational outcomes are going to be severely compromised, which means that economic well-being is likely to be significantly compromised as well. Beyond the educational experience, speakers of stigmatized varieties also experience job discrimination, and their testimony in legal cases is even sometimes seen as less credible, including in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
John Rickford and others have commented on the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him until shortly before he died and who testified for the prosecution in Zimmerman’s trial. As Rickford notes, “a torrent of invidious commentary” dominated the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, and much of it was “grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing.”
Rickford also points out that in her post-trial interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B-37 said she thought that “because of her education and communication skills,” Ms. Jeantel “just wasn’t a good witness.” As Rickford observes, “it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.”
“She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them,” Rickford writes.
He also asks whether “jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades” and suggests that if juror B-37 (and possibly other members of the jury as well) had found Ms. Jeantel “incomprehensible and not credible,” it was possible that “race, credibility, communication and misperceived ‘evidence’ perhaps influenced the verdict.”
If you have a strong stomach, check out Sherri Williams’s compilation of “good, bad, and ugly tweets about Rachel Jeantel,” including quite a few that focused on the way she talks. As Williams notes, “Instead of focusing on her testimony social media erupted w/criticism about her speech, looks, mannerisms, race & education.”
I said earlier that I think that ideological orientations that position some speakers as owners of the language and others as answerable to those self-appointed owners are illegitimate. Here is why I think that: It is because language ideologies based on unequal ownership of the language and a hierarchy based on an arbitrary notion of “correctness” are inherently racist and classist. Look at the speakers whose speech is stigmatized: Is it wealthy white folks? Of course not. It is people of color, poor and working-class people, “ethnic” people. Coincidence? Please.
Another ideological problem is that a lot of people seem to think that there are only two possible options: inflexible policing of standard-language ideology (although that’s not what they call it, of course) or total linguistic anarchy, which is what some of my English-professor colleagues sometimes accuse me of advocating. (And they say it like it’s a bad thing.)
But this is a false dichotomy. Racism and classism, including the linguistic kind, aren’t just going to go away by themselves. This means that not only do students from nonstandard-speaking backgrounds need serious language and literacy instruction in the privileged ways of speaking and writing but also that all speakers, including standard speakers, need equally serious instruction in the understanding that the privileged ways of speaking and writing are just that — privileged — as well as in the understanding of language variation and change and of the existence and functions of linguistic attitudes and ideologies.
Focusing on this is a way for those of us who are educators – and those of you who are future educators – to start doing some of the hard work of shifting cultural discourses and practices so that more of the burden of confronting discriminatory language ideologies might someday begin to fall on those doing the oppressing (whether unwittingly or not) rather than keeping that burden solely and squarely on the oppressed.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never actually get this kind of instruction (correction is not instruction, by the way), in considerable part because many elementary and secondary English teachers simply don’t ever get any rigorous instruction in linguistics as part of their coursework or training. This means that teachers are without the tools they need for understanding and responding to language variation in their classrooms, which is a serious barrier to teaching language and literacy effectively to diverse student populations.
The teachers and education majors I know care passionately about students and are highly motivated to act in their best interests. That is what drives them to pursue the work of teaching in the first place. But without an understanding of language and how it works, along with an understanding of variation and what it means, they not only can’t fix any of this but they – often unwittingly – exacerbate it. And while we dither, serious harm comes to generation upon generation of children who come to school speaking something other than a preferred variety (like standard English) as their language of nurture. They don’t get the instruction they need and have a right to because the teachers not only often don’t know how to do it but they also often harbor negative attitudes developed over a lifetime of exposure to the pervasive ideology of standardness. And their standard-speaking classmates never learn how unjust and damaging the language attitudes that dominate educational institutions as well as the wider culture really are. And so the cycle continues.
Some of you may already know that much of my teaching involves the training of undergraduate education majors. Students in my classes are called upon to do considerable work in the critical analysis of language ideologies. This work begins with the assumption that all students are entitled to be treated with respect, including linguistically, regardless of the relative esteem in which their languages and varieties of nurture are held. As many of our graduates go on to discover as teachers in their own classrooms, not stigmatizing nonstandard speakers in the process of privileging the way some but not all of the kids speak is a lot more effective than sending nonstandard speakers the message, from day one and in a million different ways, both overt and subtle, that the way they talk is bad and wrong and they just need to start talking right already. Because believe me, that is what a lot of kids are still hearing in their K-12 classrooms, even in 2013. Sadly, they are sometimes still hearing it in their college classrooms as well.
And while we’re on the subject of reality, here is another one: Those who come to school speaking standard English as their language of nurture are in fact really nothing more than lucky. They are the possessors of a privilege that is just as insidious and just as invisible to most of them as the advantage of their own whiteness is to many white students and the advantage of their social status is to many middle- and upper-class students. And it is in just as desperate need of critical inquiry.
The suggestion that a linguistic variant that functions effectively in a speech community but is considered nonstandard by mainstream speakers is a “linguistic error committed out of ignorance,” as a colleague who teaches literature at another university recently wrote on a Facebook thread on this topic is itself an error committed out of ignorance. It suggests ignorance of the way languages actually work; ignorance of the history of the English language, including its ideological history but also its lexical, grammatical, and phonological development; ignorance of the role of prescriptive grammar and the ideology of standardness in maintaining and reinforcing social and racial stratification. Saddest of all, it suggests ignorance of the unspeakable and incalculable damage the attitudes it springs from do to real people who start to learn beginning on their first day of kindergarten that not only do the people with power and authority over them think that they themselves are “wrong” and “incorrect” and “ignorant” but that so is everyone they love.
Imagine having to sit there and listen to that every day of your life. Now think about the millions of kids who experience that as their reality. Maybe you were one of them. Maybe your child is now. Now think about the parents, many of whom endured the same thing. And the grandparents. When you consider how many lives this kind of thinking has had the power to define and to thwart, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is an intellectual crime against humanity.
Linguistically, nonstandard variants are only “incorrect” from the perspective of speakers of privileged varieties. It is an inherently biased perspective that deserves to be challenged, but it is often defended by the very people — teachers, professors – who have the best shot at shifting the paradigm and helping the rest of us to move beyond this persistent prejudice. Because that is what it is: a prejudice. Language varieties work according to their internal structures and they respond to the communicative needs of their users. The structures and systems don’t all work the same way. A variety that works differently from how yours works or how mine works is just different. That’s all. The so-called “standard” isn’t better or purer or more correct or more of any of the other ideologically driven characterizations that so many standard speakers believe and have been so successful at convincing nonstandard speakers to go along with. It’s just the variety with the most power and status. That’s all.
So instead of being high-handed about it and thinking that there is something inherently superior about the standard and inferior about everything else, and therefore that standard-speakers are somehow ordained with the right to pass judgment upon those who didn’t get to be born as lucky, I think the more humane and just thing to do, for those of us who got lucky by being born into standard-speaking families or who have subsequently learned and acquired the prestige variety, is to try working a little harder — make that a lot harder — to think about the effects of our language beliefs and attitudes on the lives of the real live human beings who are hurt by them and to try to stop it already.
There is so little at stake for people like us when standard ideologies are challenged in serious and systematic ways, and there is so much at stake for many, many people who aren’t nearly as lucky as the people in this room. I am talking especially to my faculty colleagues who are hearing this today and to the future teachers. Rather than perpetuating the generations of inequity to which these stubborn, irrational, and incredibly damaging language attitudes have contributed, let’s use the power that comes with our great good fortune to work for justice, acceptance, fairness, and empathy.
 Linguists generally use the terms African American English, African American Language, and African American Vernacular English for the large group of related varieties of language used in African American communities. The term ‘Ebonics’ is still used in some contexts, but it has been so politicized and stigmatized, especially after the controversy surrounding the school board Ebonics resolution in Oakland, California (which the linguist John Rockford has written about extensively), in 1996 that many linguists have now abandoned it.
- African American English: A Linguistic Introduction, by Lisa J. Green
- African American English (PBS: Do You Speak American?)
- Anything by Geneva Smitherman, Michigan State University
- Bibliography of Research and Scholarship on African American English (Center for Applied Linguistics)
- “Changing Misconceptions About Dialect Diversity: The Role of Public Education,” by Walt Wolfram
- English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, by Rosina Lippi-Green
- “How the Linguistic Repertoire of Students Can Color Teacher Perceptions,” by H. Samy Alim (National Writing Project)
- “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” by James Baldwin
- Jack Sidnell’s AAE pages (University of Hawaii)
- “Race, Credibility, Communication and Evidence in the Zimmerman Trial,” by John Rickford
- “Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel,” by Kevin A. Browne.
- “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” by Anne Curzan
- Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, by John R. and Russell J. Rickford
- “Teaching about Dialects,” by Kirk Hazen
- “What Is Ebonics (African American English)?” by John Rickford (Linguistic Society of America)
- Understanding Language Variation in U.S. Schools and We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom, both by Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson