There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to “correct” their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.

As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – “[show] what a live issue” it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.

Sacred Heart Primary School, Teesside - list of regional phrases and pronunciations

The teacher’s list of regional phrases and pronunciations calls them “incorrect”, which is unfortunate. They’re not standard, but this does not imply sub-standard (except, here, the your/you’re misspelling). And since standard English is often assumed to be not only “correct” and “proper” but intrinsically better than regional dialects, this attitude can foster prejudice.

Standard English has social prestige and practical utility, so students should learn it if they want to get by in the wider world. But politics aside it’s just another dialect. As Walt Wolfram expressed it in the Atlantic recently, “everyone speaks a dialect. But society doesn’t quite see it that way.”

Regional dialects – the form of language we inherit from families and peers and our early social environment – with their distinct vocabulary, idioms and speech patterns, are part of our identity and need not be displaced by more formal language that serves a particular purpose in certain contexts. We can keep both.

Children naturally pick up multiple forms of a language and learn how to switch appropriately between these “codes”. It’s the same kind of flexibility that’s reflected in our social behaviour more generally as we grow older. When we meet someone, we know when to shake hands and nod, and we know when to hug and smile. People seldom do one when the other is expected (though it does happen), and so it is with language. We tend to adjust instinctively.

school educationIn an excellent article in the UK Independent, sociolinguist Julia Snell explains why the school’s approach is counterproductive. If children are criticised for their usual mode of speech, she writes, they “may simply remain silent in order to avoid the shame of speaking ‘incorrectly’, and miss the interactions crucial to learning.” Children are sensitive to attitudes towards their speech and other behaviour; stigmatising their normal dialect cannot be beneficial.

The Teesside principal said: “We need the children to know there is a difference between dialect, accent and standard English.” True. But her own letter reveals a “worrying conflation” of these categories, as Linguistics @ Canterbury details. Why not educate children about the differences – enjoy them, study them, savour them – without condemning or repressing non-standard forms?

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26 Responses to There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

  1. Irina says:

    How do you hear the difference between “Your late” and “You’re late”? (And in most dialects, between “letta” and “letter”, and probably even between “werk” and “work”?)

  2. korystamper says:

    Irina: In some dialects the vowels in “you’re” can end up a bit higher than the vowels in “your,” but if the principal in question is angry over the use of “nowt,” then I doubt they have the training to hear the difference in the vowel qualities between “you’re” and “your.” Sounds a bit like an afterthought: “And while we’re at it, it’s ‘you’re’ and not ‘your’.”

    Thanks, Stan, for a reasoned defense of dialect. Dialect can provide us with a direct, living link to our linguistic and geographical history, and I wish more people embraced and celebrated that. And excellent point about code-switching: my kids tell their friends, “I’m done my work,” but they tell me and their teachers, “I’ve finished my work.” Calm down, folks! Kids got this.

  3. David L says:

    I like that instead of ‘yous’ the kids are supposed to say ‘you lot.’ Some regionalisms are better than others, I suppose. And shouldn’t it be ‘he were sat there,’ not ‘was’?

    I have to say I’m torn on this issue. Having grown in up a region of rife glottal stoppery, with parents and teachers constantly cajoling us to talk proper, I’m sort of glad they did. Although I daresay I would have grown out of it eventually as I ascended to giddy social heights and moved to another country. Some accents and dialects are charming indeed, but does anyone find glottal stops attractive?

    • John Cowan says:

      Polynesians certainly seem to like them their glottal stops.

      • David L says:

        I guess the childhood indoctrination worked. I can’t hear glottal stops in English as anything but uncouth.

        It would be interested to find out if an extended sojourn in Polynesia would change my mind. I’m willing to do the experiment, if anyone can provide some funding.

    • Skelly says:

      Actually, it’s highly unlikely that you don’t use glottal stops, even though you’re probably not hearing them. The idea that glottal stops are only used to replace the letter “t” is false. I’m from London and, thanks to my mum’s efforts, I never say “bu’er” for “butter”, but I regularly end words like “that”, “right”, etc. with a glottal stop (and, hey, I think it sounds just fine). Think about the word “lamppost”. I would suggest that the number of people who use a glottal stop instead of the first “p” far exceeds the number of people who don’t. But who notices? Try pronouncing the word with 2 “p”s. It’s difficult… and sounds rather awkward and extremely pedantic. Now try pronouncing it with just 1 “p”… sounds like “lamb-post” – something I’ve never heard anyone say. Now say it the way you normally do and listen very closely (while concentrating on what you’re actually doing in your mouth and throat) – isn’t there a glottal stop there?

    • I would wager a large sum of money that your own speech has many, many glottal stops in it that you’re not aware of.

      And I would imagine there are indeed linguistic purists who decry “the glottal stop” when it’s intervocalic (“bu’er”) but actively approve of the very same phenomenon in other contexts, for example as a means of avoiding what they’d call “intrusive r” in cases like “Africa(r) and Asia” (I’m talking of non-rhotic purists of course). Just try listening actively to, say, Radio 4 announcers, which I’m sure the idiot on Teeside who wrote the nonsense that started this debate would consider the epitome of “correct pronunciation” and see how many glottal stops they use on words beginning with a vowel.

      I’m amazed how common the glottal stop is getting in British English now; it can almost sound like the English spoken by Germans. To me it makes English sound bumpy and disjointed.

      As an example, the decline of the “strong” forms of the words “the” (pronounced “thee”) and “a” (=an), which used to be universal before a vowel, depends on this. In the pronunciations “a old car” and “thuh old car”, which are quite common now, you will inevitably find a glottal stop at the beginning of the following word. For some reason the purists don’t seem to be ranting about this one. Yet.

      • David L says:

        OK, I concede that not all glottal stops are equal. But I’m not convinced by these examples, at least in my own speech, which these days is a mildly Americanized form of fairly standard southern Br E.

        If I said “a old car,” there would be a glottal stop, but of course I don’t say that. In “the old car,” I put a ‘y’ sound in the middle: thee-yold car.

        As to ‘lamppost,’ from the previous comment, there is a certainly a pause on the ‘p’ sound in the middle, but I make that by keeping my lips together longer than if I were saying ‘lamprey.’ Isn’t this an example of gemination? I don’t detect anything being stopped in the back of my mouth.

        Stan: sorry to go wildly OT.

  4. Stan says:

    Irina: They’re virtually indistinguishable most of the time. My guess is that it’s a spelling issue the school principal lumped in with the speech-related items. But I could be wrong about that.

    Kory: Well said, and thank you. Political attitudes to language strike me as quite backward sometimes. It shouldn’t require specialist training to conclude that people’s dialects are part of who they are and where they come from, and that many if not most people are at least bi-dialectal.

    David: Yes, I found “you lot” a strange alternative — it doesn’t seem very polite somehow. I don’t know that it should be “he were sat there”, but neither “he was sat” nor “he were sat” is part of my idiolect.

  5. Home dialect persecution has an unfortunately long and cherished tradition in English. At least we’ve mostly moved on from outlawing Celtic and Native American languages.

  6. limr says:

    Stan, it’s just not possible for me to agree with you more. This post is a total “Get out of my brain!” moment for me.

    Interesting note about the construction “He was sat there.” I know that in this context, it should be past progressive, but in the restaurant business (at least the American one), that sentence wouldn’t make anyone bat an eye. “To be sat” is waitstaff jargon for seating a customer at a table. It can also be used to say when a customer was seated in your section.

    “He complained about the booth, so he was sat (by an employee) at a window table.”

    or “What’s wrong with the host today? She (a co-worker) was sat four times in a row and I haven’t even gotten a single table yet.”

  7. Shaun Downey says:

    Ach utterly silly on the school’s part

  8. This principal would not be the first person to conflate oral and written language.

  9. BoiseNoise says:

    I think “naught” or “nought” is still considered perfectly acceptable, if a bit archaic. Isn’t this the word these students are saying (even if the principal spells it “nowt”? http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naught

    • Michael says:

      In England naught and nought are usually homophones, but nowt isn’t, hence the spelling difference.

      Interestingly I was taught the naught spelling for the meaning ‘nothing’ and the nought spelling for the meaning ‘zero’. No nowt in my idiolect though, sadly.

  10. Simon says:

    There remain certain circles within which the use of slang is appropriate. School is not one of them. nowt (OG) nuft/neft as in enough, scornfully or sarcastically.

  11. How sad! But good luck to the teacher in her mission to fight the oncoming tide of regional accents and dialects! ;o)

  12. Hello! Wonderful blog you have here. :)

    I remember hearing about this on the news. While I think the importance of code-switching should continue to be stressed, and impenetrable accents and regional slang get in the way of communication, I agree that slagging off dialects is an overreaction. The only part of that list (at least, the list shown in the picture) which has merit in all contexts is the ‘You/You’re’ one, which is endemic everywhere, separate from dialect. I suspect the headteacher was simply sick of seeing it and lumped it in with the others: far easier than sending out a separate newsletter, not that I’d blame her for doing so.

    Thank you for the links. Particularly interesting is Julia Snell’s article. One thing I can’t recall having seen mentioned (though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been, of course) is the important part dialect can play in literature, especially poetry.

    This is perhaps my favourite point in this article:

    “The teacher’s list of regional phrases and pronunciations calls them “incorrect”, which is unfortunate. They’re not standard, but this does not imply sub-standard (except, here, the your/you’re misspelling). And since standard English is often assumed to be not only “correct” and “proper” but intrinsically better than regional dialects, this attitude can foster prejudice.”

    I love the idea of non-standard not always meaning sub-standard and agree that these subtle implications can have unpleasant consequences.

    Then again, as a filthy Estuary English sewer rat who has succumbed to the horrific glottal stop, the nightmarish ‘f’ instead of ‘th’ and committed some truly terrible misuses of the verb ‘to do’, I probably would say that. ;) My poor mother. She tried.

  13. Stan says:

    David: Not a problem.

    Jonathon: Sadly, it does – just one of many forms of outgroup prejudice.

    Leonore: Sorry for hijacking your brain! Thanks for the note on sat; I don’t know if it’s the same on this side of the Atlantic, or if was seated or something else is used.

    Shaun: It is, a bit.

    linguisteducatorexchange: Indeed. It’s often and easily done.

    BoiseNoise: Not quite – it’s a different word, as Michael says; an informal or northern English dialect word for naught.

    Simon: This isn’t about slang, though. Also, the school asked parents to “correct” their children when they weren’t on school grounds.

    Katie: An impossible and pointless task, I think! Though it would make some sense to teach them about the possible drawbacks of regional usages in formal contexts.

    scherrystreamssilver: Thanks very much, and welcome. I agree about your/you’re: it doesn’t belong on the list, but it is definitely worth addressing in its own right. You make a good point about “the important part dialect can play in literature”. This is something I wrote about briefly at Macmillan Dictionary Blog last year. (You might also enjoy this guddle through the dialectal wordbank.)

  14. Eugene says:

    I’ve known people who use “I seen it” and “I done it,” but I wasn’t observant enough at the time to notice whether it they were referring to a past or a perfect situation. (Or both, as the post implies).
    My hunch is that “I seen it” is past, and that the speakers use “I’ve seen it” as present perfect. Any hypotheses?

  15. [...] dialect by urging parents to correct their children’ speech. The letter prompted outcry, for reasons well-summarized by Stan Carey of Sentence First. This photo of the note in question has circulated the [...]

  16. I think it’s something natural. All languages evolve and it’s the newest generations who trigger that kind of changes.

  17. Stan says:

    Eugene: Seen and done are fairly common past tense forms in colloquial Hiberno-English. But I didn’t want to generalise to the Teesside dialect.

    medicivalencia: That’s true, but many of the usages mentioned here are traditional forms that have been preserved for generations.

  18. Liz says:

    I’m a bit late to the party, but the Guardian published a lovely piece on this topic by the noted children’s author David Almond: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/08/taalk-proper

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for the link, Liz. (I never mind late comments.) I enjoyed Almond’s article too, having found it through Dan Clayton’s blog. As he said, it takes a minute to tune in but is a very worthwhile read once that happens.

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