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.
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.
In 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?