"Good" language?: A Q&A with professor James Stanford

by Marie-Capucine Pineau-Valencienne | 4/5/17 1:50am

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We’ve all heard this. From a young age we are taught not to judge something or someone based simply of what we see. We are taught that things are not always as they seem and that sometimes the most boring and inconspicuous “covers” are doors into the very best books. But does this same rule apply to what we hear? Our use of language plays an important role in how we are perceived. It can indicate our education level or social class and give insight to where we’re from. Empty judgments may not be limited to physical appearance alone. Our use of what is considered “good” or “proper” language largely impacts not only how we are viewed, but may also be a determining factor in where we stand in society as a whole. Could it be that our modes of communication may actually be driving us apart? In order to better understand the social implications of language I looked to professor James Stanford, who studies sociolinguistics.

What is “good” language?

JS: What we find in linguistics is that there is no objective linguistic definition for that. These things are all socially constructed. It comes about through a variety of social and political and historical reasons.

On linguistic subordination:

There’s a principle called the principle of linguistic subordination which gets across the point that if a group is socially subordinate or socially disfavoured then the way they speak often comes to be viewed as socially subordinate or socially disfavoured.

What’s interesting is that can happen for both groups ­— the socially dominant and the socially subordinate group can both view the subordinate’s group’s way of speaking as somehow less preferable. Often in disadvantaged minority groups — in the U.S. that’s often the case — one group views their way of speaking as better, and the group whose way of speaking is seen as not as good also comes to view their own speech as not correct somehow.

On dialects:

We all speak some kind of dialect. Every kind of way of speaking is a “variety” or dialect. Everybody has some way of speaking, and society views one or more ways maybe as better, but it’s not for an objective linguistic reason.

What we find when we look at language as a system, at English grammar or pronunciation as a system, is that any dialect that’s learned as a child anywhere, any neighborhood in the world — if you learn that as a child it is a regular rule-based orderly linguistic system. As a child grows up, he or she might find that their way of speaking as better or worse, but that’s just a social distinction. In terms of the linguistics, when we look at the structure, the grammar, there’s order and patterns. This was most famously analyzed by William Labov, a famous sociolinguist at [The University of Pennsylvania], and he showed in the ’60s, he looked at African American varieties of English and found these grammatical structures and patterns that were orderly and rule-based just as much as, say, the standard English taught in the school system. He testified before Congress and made a lot of significant improvement in the way people treat or respect different dialects of English.

On the “standard” form:

I often use the word “standard” in quotes, because it’s a social construct, but it matters. It’s not based on any linguistic reason but, socially, it matters. What we often find is that the version that’s viewed as the “standard” is one where the regionalisms or particular features that are particular to social groups (region, ethnicity or social class), when those things are leveled away and taken off, what’s left [is the standard]. It’s sort of a negative definition [of the Standard form].

The standard is a spectrum, all the way from non-standard to standard, but what we find is that the varieties viewed most standard are typically ones that don’t have these stigmatized regionalisms or features that are particular to less preferred social groups.

One way I think of the standard too is to say: “How would I want to talk in a job interview?” Whatever forms I would try to suppress would be the non-standard forms and what’s left is standard. That’s one way to think about it, but it’s socially defined. How I would want to speak in a job interview is different now than it was 100 years ago.

On the “non-standard” form:

It turns out that the non-standard varieties are actually often more systematic and regular than the standard.

[Insert diagram here]

If you look at what’s happened though, it’s actually more regular and systematic than the standard variety.

[Switching to “doesn’t” for he or she] is actually quite idiosyncratic. The “doesn’t” is an idiosyncratic rule based on earlier forms of English that had a more complex paradigm where each of these (I, we, they, he, she) had its own form. The only one that survived in modern day is the one for third person singular.

We find that groups that use more non-standard forms — we call it leveling — level it off in a very similar way, even when they don’t have social contact. For example, you could have some form of urban London English with no contact at all with rural Alabama and they would have similar leveling patterns happening. So it’s not a matter of social contact, it’s something deeper having to do with cognition and also the way language tends to regularize itself.

If a kid goes to school at 5 years old and says, “She don’t like this movie,” the teacher is likely to correct the person, but what’s important in my field, sociolinguistics, is that there are certainly situations where it’s valuable to use standard. Imagine you’re in a job interview in Manhattan and you said, “She don’t like this movie.” They’re going to look down on you and they’re going to think, “This person went to Dartmouth College and they said ‘She don’t like this movie,’ what is this?” but even in your own mind you know there’s no objective linguistic reason. In fact, this is a more regular and organized way of speaking, but they’re still going to perceive it was uneducated or lower class.

Can language act as a social divider?

JS: Absolutely. Yes, I think you could see it as a parallel to manners — it’s definitely a parallel to a lot of other social markers. You could say the people that are aware of the clothing styles changing and who can afford them are then able to dress in that way, in the same way that people that are aware of the idiosyncratic rules of standard English and who have the educational background can then access it. That’s an issue that comes up a lot, people talk about access to these forms. It is an advantage in the U.S. to grow up in a community that uses the standard form, even though there are actually a lot of idiosyncratic rules, but it gives you a social advantage because you don’t have to relearn it later in life or in school. It definitely can be an advantage for young kids if teachers are praising the way they speak rather than criticizing them, especially if the teachers aren’t aware of this issue with the idiosyncratic rules and they portray it as a matter of intelligence or incorrect speaking. That can be a problem for the child’s self-image at a young age, because the child grew up and is actually using a more logical system.

On how a form becomes subordinate:

Languages are constantly changing and so you have certain forms that come to be codified by the school system and by books and by teachers. Or nowadays you think of broadcast news or influential Internet sites where the news anchors are being very careful to avoid stigmatized forms. So suppose a news anchor grew up in Texas and have certain forms that sound Southern, that person is going to probably make sure that they adjust their vowels and their grammar so they don’t have those regionalized features. Those things get standardized across the country.

So what happens is, because language is constantly changing, forms that are far on the standard side get codified in the school system, and the language continues to change naturally but those changes are constantly being resisted. It’s partly due to the fact that the written form of English changes more slowly and then eventually there’s enough momentum that an actual change happens and moves into the written form.

On how language changes:

One example of this is using the word “they” as a generic pronoun. We have this issue in English because of social changes. You don’t want to say, “If anyone has a question he should raise his hand,” because that sounds very bad nowadays because it’s sexist.

What you should say is, “If anyone has a question he or she should raise his hand.”

What we actually say is, “If anyone has a question they should raise their hand.”

We put in the world “they” quite frequently in spoken English. Even though it’s a plural, it’s come to be used as a generic form that can be used as singular also because it solves this gender issue. What’s happening with “they” is we’re all saying this all day long without really noticing ourselves, but then when you go to put it in writing and it’s like, “Wait a minute that’s plural, I can’t say that!” But recently some textbooks and English teachers are starting to say that it would actually be good to let “they” become singular, because it solves these issues with gender and sexism.

The takeaway:

All dialects or varieties of language are orderly logical systems. Anything that a child learns as a native speaker growing up is going to be logical — it’s just part of cognition and social psychology of human beings — but some forms are viewed as “better” than others, and it’s based on social, historical and political reasons, not linguistic reasons.