What is “Proper English?”

A performance of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones,” a recasting of “Carmen” in African-American Vernacular English (1943)

In 1996, the school board of the diverse city of Oakland, California passed a resolution mandating the use of Ebonics (i.e., English as spoken by African-Americans) as a language of instruction. The anodyne headline goal was to “maintain the legitimacy and richness of such language… and facilitate [students’] acquisition and mastery of English language skills.” But the move ignited a nationwide firestorm.

Many Americans think of African-American Vernacular English as lazy or degraded English. Others call that attitude racist, and often go on to assert some variation on the theme that all language rules are arbitrarily imposed by stodgy white men and are thus illegitimate. These impassioned takes on a Californian educational policy reify a core issue in linguistics: are language rules prescriptive, or simply descriptive?

The Oakland resolution ultimately broke on the rocks. Its more reasonable ideas were undermined by its outlandish claims that Ebonics is actually a West African language, and that black people are genetically hardwired to speak differently, which made the whole resolution look ridiculous. Its proponents overplayed their hand. But neither were opponents right that AAVE is just lazy, badly-spoken standard English.

It is surprising how controversial messages like this are around the world.

Whatever some people may say, it is true that AAVE is grammatically (and sometimes phonologically) simpler than standard English. This is normal for a dialect learnt by large number of adults (i.e., the original Africans brought as slaves to the US), and allowed to develop organically as its speakers often lacked access to education. But it does have its own rules, including some features that add a layer of richness absent from standard English.

One of the best-known supposed errors in the way black Americans speak English is the omission of the verb “to be.” This is indeed a simplification, albeit one that is fairly common in other languages, including Russian and Mandarin. But it does abide by a rule: one drops it only in contexts in which others would use a contraction. For example, one could say “We cool,” instead of “We’re cool,” but it would not make sense to drop the last word in “He’s cooler than we are.”

The construction, “I been doing X” is also grammatically incorrect, but it fulfills a unique role. It emphasises that the action has occurred over a lengthy duration- this feature, called aspect in technical parlance, does not exist in standard English.

Another common irregularity is the inversion of the consonants in the word “ask.” To most Americans, “Let me ax you a question” is an archetypal black expression. But like much else in black English, it actually originated in the dialects of Northern England. Early in America’s colonial history, black slaves generally acquired English from indentured labourers from impoverished rural areas of Britain and Ireland, so their accents imparted a formative influence on nascent black English.

Most slave overseers and white plantation labourers in colonial America came from Northern England, Scotland, or Ireland.

For reasons that would not be unfamiliar to black Americans, Northern accents occupy an embattled position in England. It is difficult to express to Americans what a big deal accent is in the UK. It is not quite on the same level as race in the US, but as a proxy for class, it is relevant in most of the same contexts as a marker of economic disadvantage, social discrimination, and political identity. Thus, while correcting non-standard pronunciation is generally pretty uncontroversial (though maybe annoying) in America, in Britain calling out a Liverpudlian for not speaking like a Londoner would be a far touchier issue.

Nonetheless, British students at universities like Oxford who do not sound like they come from the well-heeled Southeast complain bitterly of pressure to conform. Accent discrimination is an unending scandal in corporate Britain, where most companies are headquartered in London and dominated by people of a certain background. The BBC has repeatedly committed to presenting the news not just in Received Pronunciation, but for the company that has done more than any other in making the posh London accent the national (and international) standard, it is hard to imagine them as champions of dialect diversity.

Even half a century ago, English English was a lot more diverse.

In the past half-century, the UK and the US have led the charge in embracing diversity and inclusion of historically marginalised groups. Perhaps paradoxically, at the same time, mass media and technology have driven a wave of linguistic homogenisation unprecedented in the history of our language.

In England, features that had long been typical of upper-class accents, most prominently dropping Rs, spread across the country. That the London accent would win out was predictable; more unusual was the course of history across the Pond. American news networks gave preference to Midwestern accents, which they saw as neutral, over the accents of the great Northeastern cities. Before World War II, Ivy League students cultivated a Mid-Atlantic accent that was partway between American and English (good examples are President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the infamously sesquipedalian commentator William F. Buckley, Jr.). But by the end of the century, thanks to cable TV and a high degree of geographical mobility, Americans coast to coast spoke like Iowans.

“The only thing we have to feah…”

All this has not gone without pushback. Many people in the English North, the American South, and major cities like Boston have no interest in assimilating. There is a popular joke in linguistics that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Well, as Commonwealth nations from Australia to India to Singapore have demonstrated in the past few decades, an army and navy can also make a regional accent a separate standard version of English. The BBC, perhaps the ultimate arbiter of legitimate English, even recently launched an African Pidgin service.

Is that a good thing? Should the Oakland Unified School District re-reverse itself, and teach students in the language that feels most natural to them? Many people, including linguists I admire, emphatically answer yes. Speaking, to use our original example, in African-American Vernacular English does not impede communication. Indeed, for those within the community, it can enhance it. Rules of grammar and pronunciation are theoretically arbitrary, and in a tolerant society, perhaps there are more important things to learn.

The most recent season of the drama Peaky Blinders features an uneasy political alliance between Birmingham mob boss-turned respectable MP Tommy Shelby and Saville Row fascist Oswald Mosley. They look similar, but to English people, their accents reveal very different social backgrounds.

But language differences are among the most bitterly divisive things for any society. Speaking a non-standard register almost inevitably invites discrimination, even from people who think of themselves as tolerant and enlightened. American liberals who are zealots for racial and socioeconomic equality love to mock their political opponents in “redneck” accents; making fun of black English is dodgier, but still widely done.

There is thus a pragmatic argument to be made that considerations of linguistic comprehension are kind of beside the point. Perhaps society can get over accent prejudice, but flubbing grammar rules sounds definitively uneducated. This is a particular danger since those who come from the South Bronx or other such left-behind places on either side of the Pond already face an uphill battle against social prejudice. Reimagining English classes would probably have the effect of further disadvantaging the most marginalised members of society. Overwrought snobbery belongs in the past, but an empathetic insistence on standard English is a key to a brighter future.

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Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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