Spoken language: Dialect and slang

[Amended from Dan Clayton's Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog]

The history of grammar teaching has often been associated with prescriptive models in which the "correction" of perceived faults in language has been paramount. While linguists are careful these days to talk about what is 'grammatical' or 'ungrammatical' and 'standard' or 'non-standard', rather than what is 'right' or 'wrong', there is still a tension at the heart of the teaching of English.

The British actress Emma Thompson hinted at this when she was widely reported in the media as having criticised the language of young people at her old school (the Camden School For Girls) for its supposed reliance on likes, innits and off ofs. While she was fairly careful to couch her criticisms in a liberal language of acceptance of slang in its context and awareness of the need for two languages, at the heart of her attack lies a prescriptive view that some forms of language are just bad and that they make the user of them look bad too.

The grammatical arguments about the terms she chose to pick up on are quite interesting. Innit has been studied in the last few years, and has been identified as an invariant tag question (a tag that doesn't change to agree with the subject of the statement it follows: so it's innit at the end of she’s nice, I am pleased, we are going there and they are bad, etc.). Grammatically, it has become something new. Like Emma Thompson you may dislike it, but it's got its uses and it is quite a powerful device. Another use, and probably a more recent one, is as a response to its tag question form. So, younger speakers often employ it in a conversation to show agreement to it being used as an affective tag.

Also, with like we have a word that has often been used as a filler, but that has now become something else as well. In its quotative usage, we can see that it is used to perhaps dramatise and emphasise elements of reported/direct speech in storytelling. For example:

  • I’m like, "You’re not getting in. You weren’t invited".
  • And she’s like, "What you gonna do about it?".

Again, whether you like it or not, it's now got a new way of being used, reflecting the flexibility of our evolving language.

But it's not just slang that causes upset to a prescriptivist mindset: dialect is a threat too. In the Daily Mail, a short report told us that teaching assistants in Portsmouth (two of them - close to a national scandal) had been criticised by OFSTED for their use of local dialect. The example quoted in the story, "I likes football", sounds like a fairly typical example of south coast dialect to my ears.

Why is it a problem? Well, if you read the comments that follow the article (never a good idea if you're trying to stay balanced and the right side of happy on a dreary Monday morning) you'll see a splenetic outpouring of disgust. Teachers are illiterate! Education, education, schmeducation! Country bumpkins shouldn't be allowed near our kids!

That's fairly typical for the Daily Mail's message boards, and among the vitriol and badly spelled attacks on immigrants and left-wing teachers who use street slang is an undercurrent of dismay that the grammar of Standard English is at risk. And here is the tension referred to earlier.

The common perception of regional dialects among many English speakers is that they belong to the lower social orders, that they are inferior forms, but the reality is that many of us use regional forms without being particularly conscious of them. Whether it's the Cockney we was or the Reading he done it, regional dialect is still alive and well, and it has a grammar of its own. The tension comes in establishing its place in relation the grammar of Standard English in the education system.

If one of the key aims of teaching Standard English is to establish a shared, mutually intelligible form of the language for everyone educated in the UK then does having a teaching assistant who uses a local dialect damage the educational opportunities of young people? Probably not. I think an argument that might be effective here is that if we properly study the grammar of both Standard English and regional varieties (and sociolects like slang varieties too) we will learn a great deal more about not just grammar as a system, but also about the history of the language, feelings we have for our own varieties of language and the connections we have to our own communities of practice and social backgrounds.

So, I think it should be argued that neither slang nor dialect should be seen as a threat to the education of young people, but as legitimate and rewarding areas of language study, both of which can help students enrich their understanding of language in all its varieties.

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