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Rethinking Grammar: How We Talk

How We Speak - extended interview with Dr. Richard Epstein
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How We Speak - extended interview with Dr. Richard Epstein

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We judge people by the way they speak and the grammar they use.

Listen to several Americans from different regions speak. Don’t worry too much about what they are saying, just listen to their different speaking styles. Can you guess where they are from?

Fran Drescher: What’s this about? Why’s there only one woman?”

James Earl Jones: “I feel wonderful to be back on Broadway.”

Sarah Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”

Dolly Parton: “You know I’ll wake up sometimes from a dream and think I’d better get up and write that down or I’ll forget it.”

Surfer: “Dude you got the best barrels ever dude.”

John F. Kennedy: “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Tom Brokaw: “A moment that will live forever. You’re seeing the destruction of the Berlin Wall.”

Wendy Williams: “How is it getting up and being there and getting your hair fried and the eye lashes and all that stuff.”

Rosie Perez: “I’m exhausted.”

Rhett Buetler: “Everybody kind of relates rodeo with kind of a wild energizing experience…something that gets out of control.”

As you listened to these different speakers, you probably started to form ideas about them. The minute you open your mouth, you are giving clues about yourself—where you grew up, with whom you grew up, and where you went to school.

Non-standard dialects

If you study English in the United States, you are probably learning Standard American English – the kind of English used in books, business, government and school. But there are millions of native speakers who have their own vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that is different from Standard American English.

Linguists call these non-standard dialects. Basically, a non-standard dialect is a dialect of a language that is not taught in school.

There are dozens of regional varieties of American English. People disagree about what makes a distinct dialect or accent. But it is clear that a farmer from North Dakota does not sound like a police officer in Boston. And a lawyer from Seattle does not sound like a fisherman from Louisiana.

Some people look down on certain regional accents and dialects. They might describe them as "slang," "ungrammatical" or "broken English." Dr. Richard Epstein is a linguist from Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He says it is a mistake to judge people by the way they speak.

“When we hear someone use grammar that we think of as perhaps not standard, it’s very easy to judge them as uneducated and maybe they’re not too bright. But that’s a stereotype. There are many people who speak non-standardly who are extremely bright.”

African-American Vernacular

One of the largest non-standard dialects in the United States is what linguists call African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE. It is spoken by some African-Americans, especially those living large cities. A small number of white teenagers also speak AAVE, Epstein says.

AAVE follows the grammar rules of Standard American English with a few exceptions. For example, AAVE speakers might drop the “to be” verb in the present tense. Instead of the standard, “The coffee is cold” some speakers say, “The coffee cold.”

Dr. Epstein explains.

“So, of course, white folks who don’t know African-American dialect raise their hands up in despair and say, ‘Oh, this is ungrammatical, it’s illogical, how can you possibly have a sentence with no verb? It doesn’t make sense.’

"But of course it makes perfect sense. The verb ‘be’ in the present tense doesn’t really give you any information of any use at all. So in many languages, not just African-American dialect, they don’t have the verb ‘be.’ Or if they don’t have it, they don’t use it.

“So the most logical language of all in our folklore is Latin, and Latin also frequently also left out the verb ‘be’ in the present tense. … So there’s nothing illogical or ungrammatical about saying, ‘The coffee cold.’”

Presidential Grammar

It is common for people to change dialects for different social situations. Someone who speaks AAVE at home might speak Standard American English at work.

Sometimes even the rich and powerful adopt non-standard grammar. Former president George W. Bush grew up as the son of a senator and went to Harvard and Yale. But when he was campaigning, he spoke like a “regular Joe,” or someone from the working class. Listen to his speaking style at a campaign rally in the southern state of Alabama in 2006.

“For those of you who are stuffin’ the envelopes and puttin’ up the signs and gettin’ on the telephones and turnin’ people out to vote, I wanna thank you in advance for what you gonna do for this excellent governor.”

Notice how the former president dropped the letter “g” at the end of a word. He shortens “going to” to “gonna” and “want to” to “wanna.”

George W. Bush was speaking with a working class Southern accent, even though he grew up in New England. Bush’s critics said that his informal speaking style showed that he was not very smart. Dr. Epstein says President Bush used non-standard grammar to his advantage.

George W. Bush is not alone. Many politicians change their speaking style to try to build a connection with their audience.

Dialect and identity

Dr. Epstein says the way we speak is part of who we are. He says not everyone who speaks a standard dialect is intelligent. And not everyone who speaks a non-standard dialect is uneducated.

“It’s very clear that we speak the way the people we most cherish and love most, the way they speak. . . Our language is a sign of who we are as much as our religion, much more than it’s a sign of our intelligence. There is no link between dialect and intelligence.”

We leave you a song performed by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In the song, a man and woman disagree about how to pronounce the words “potato” and “tomato.” As a joke they decide to cancel their wedding or “call the whole thing off.”

Neither, Neither,
Let's call the whole thing off!
You like potatoes
And you like "potahtoes"
You like tomatoes
And you like "tomahtoes"
Potatoes, "potahtoes"
Let’s call the whole thing off!

I’m Jill Robbins.

I'm John Russell.

Adam Brock wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

To find out about the speakers you heard in the audio for this story, take the quiz. (look to the left on web or below on mobile).


Words in This Story

Standard American Englishn. The variety of the English language that is generally used in professional communication in the United States and taught in American schools.

non-standard dialect n. not conforming in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc., to the usage characteristic of and considered acceptable by most educated native speakers

varietyn. a number or collection of different things or people

dialectn. a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

brightadj. smart, intelligent

African American Vernacular Englishn. a varietyof American English, most commonly spoken by urban working-class African Americans.

folklore – n. traditional customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings

Now it’s your turn. What do you call your own dialect? Is it respected in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

Here’s a nice site created by Ben and David Crystal where you can listen to many different people saying “potato.

AAVE exists in social media, too : Taylor Jones mapped it in Twitter.