Lexicon Valley

Documenting the Diversity of American English

Celebrate diversity!

“Gas is really expensive anymore.”

“He’s goes to school in Boston—so don’t I.”

“I need me a salad.”

To a high school English teacher or self-styled grammarian, the above sentences are likely cringe-worthy. To most native speakers of English, in fact, they would sound either inelegant or incorrect. Why then, depending on where in North America you live, are they a part of normal, everyday speech?

There’s plenty of research, popular essays, and academic articles about phonological and lexical differences across America. The Dictionary of American Regional English, for instance, has been tracking the “full panoply of American regional words, phrases, and pronunciations” for decades. Whether you call those little garden pests roly polies, pill bugs, or doodle bugs, or refer to fountain drinks as soda, pop, or cola, will reveal approximately where you grew up. As will your articulation of a non-rhotic, or r-less, car. The most popular New York Times article of 2013, in fact, highlighted precisely this diversity in vocabulary and accent.

Diversity in syntax, on the other hand, in the way speakers across the country build sentences, is a far less chronicled phenomenon in North American English. The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project hopes to change that. The project, founded in 2010 by linguists Raffaella Zanuttini and Laurence Horn, studies “micro-comparative syntax”—small differences in the syntax of closely related language varieties, like African American English and Southern English—with the goal of understanding how they may have evolved and spread.

Researchers at the Project have found far more subtle differences in spoken American English than they expected, including the Positive Anymore, (“Gas is really expensive anymore”), the Drama So, (“She’s so gonna be late”), the construction “so don’t I” (meaning “I do too”), and the Personal Dative (“I need me …”). They’ve organized these grammatical structures in an interactive map on their website.

As part of the project, arguably more important than simply examining and organizing syntactic variation, Zanuttini and her colleagues hope to correct the misconception that American English has a single uniform grammatical system. While grade schools may hammer away at textbook rules of usage, linguists think of “grammar” more as the mental rules that speakers abide by when constructing sentences. It is these rules that vary across the country and across demographics, resulting in the grammaticality of phrases like “I don’t need no help” for many speakers.

According to Zanuttini and Horn, the negative reactions many people have to, say, Appalachian varieties of English are not inherent reactions to grammar or word order but rather “personal judgments about the speakers who use them.” Often, such judgments are the result of recency or incorrectness illusions, the assumption that a nonstandard expression is nascent, when in fact it has been around for decades, or just wrong.

But are they really “wrong”?

In discussing the use of participles occurring immediately after verbs like “need” or “want” (a construction typically associated with Pittsburgh and nearby areas of Ohio and West Virginia), Jim Wood, another linguist working on the project, emphasized over email that these phrases abide by grammatical rules, only rules that have been decided on regionally: “Speakers who say ‘The car needs washed’ aren’t just carelessly leaving out ‘to be’. Rather, they are employing a set of grammar rules that generates these sentences without the presence of ‘to be’. Similarly, other speakers—including many Canadians—who say ‘I’m done my homework’, aren’t merely forgetting ‘with’.”

For the really ambitious, Oxford University Press compiled much of the research to date in Micro-Syntactic Variation in North American English (Chapter 8 is cheekily titled: This Syntax Needs Studied). Ultimately, the project will allow researchers to better understand how language and linguistic “rules” work and foster informed conversations about language diversity, conversations we are so ready to have.