The Breakfast Table

The Dialectics of Dialects

Dear Dennis,

Judging from the responses to our exchange, we’ve skipped over some of the issues important to most people, so perhaps we should go over dialects before we return to some recent headlines.

The very first question, about speakers of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English, the scholarly term for the dialect popularly referred to as “ebonics”) being unable to do math because their language can’t handle it, is tied into the biggest questions linguists face. The notion is a myth, of course. As you observe, you yourself–the department chair in English at a major university–find it hard to understand the math talk of your colleagues. Does that mean that you are incapable of doing math? Well, it would take some work to develop the tools necessary. But that is true of the jargon of any specialty field. A later respondent asks whether German is better suited for Hegel’s philosophy than other languages, but he answers his own question by observing that languages can evolve to satisfy their own requirements. That is, Hegel could benefit from the German language not because German is intrinsically good for the discussion of philosophy but because after years of such discussion it had developed appropriate words and structures, and German philosophers could understand them.

In other words, when we say that languages or dialects are equal, we do not mean that they are all equally able to concisely express every nuance at every time. We mean that they are equally capable of expressing any thought necessary to the speakers of that language or dialect. Most educated English speakers are unable to understand medical jargon; that does not mean that standard English is incapable of expressing complicated medical concepts. When it is necessary, such concepts can be explained in laymen’s terms, which may not be as concise as medical jargon, but will do for the circumstances. Likewise, the language of Hegelian philosophy is not standard German–it is Hegel’s language, and that language can be so difficult that even German philosophy students sometimes read Hegel in English translation.

To take a very common illustration from English: Though the vocabulary of English is vastly larger even than other Western languages, there are many simple concepts that have no one word to express them. If I am referring to my sister’s husband, what word do I use? There isn’t one. “Brother-in-law” is ambiguous; it could refer to my wife’s brother. And this is a very common concept. Other languages, often regarded as more “primitive” than English, have highly evolved vocabularies for denoting family relationships, so that a single word can denote, say, one’s maternal grandfather’s sister. Does this mean that English is deficient? Well, it means that in the culture of these other languages, the denotation of family relationships is more important than it is in English. But even in English we can always say “my mother’s father’s sister.”

The number of words in a language is irrelevant, contrary to what one respondent suggests. Most speakers, even highly educated ones, use only a relatively small proportion of the words available to them. (The entire Shakespearean corpus contains only 20,000 distinct words.) So even if it were true that AAVE or Brooklynese had fewer words than some other variety, it wouldn’t mean that speakers of AAVE or Brooklynese are incapable of expressing certain thoughts. Indeed, there are structures in nonstandard dialects that are certainly more expressive than what is available in the standard dialect. One respondent mentions “y’all,” an excellent example–English used to make a distinction between singular “thou” and plural “you,” but now only Southern varieties of English are capable of this distinction without resorting to circumlocutions. Likewise, the use of “be” in AAVE is what linguists called an “aspect marker,” indicating that the action is habitual: The sentence “He be workin’ ” means “He habitually works”–i.e. “He has a job”–while “He (is) workin’ ” means simply “At this moment he is working.” This distinction is not easy in standard English.

I’m running long, especially since I haven’t had my coffee yet, but I want to make one last point. We are not saying that minority dialects should be favored, or that speakers of minority dialects should be prevented (or should be discouraged) from learning standard speech. It is often true, as several respondents observe, that in order to succeed in the mainstream world speakers must use a standard variety. But this goal is not necessarily shared by the speakers themselves. Dialects survive because people want to be part of a social group, and this is often more important than other factors. The theory that mass communication will eventually level all dialects ignores the fact that not everyone wants to speak like Peter Jennings or Walter Cronkite.


P.S. The word “floccinaucinihilipilification” means “the estimation of something as worthless.” It’s an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning “nothing.”