Why “bad” English isn’t

Yale’s grammar non-discrimination team wants you to let go of your prejudices.

Peggy Edersheim Kalb ’86, acting senior editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine, has written for the Wall Street Journal and New York magazine.

In much of the midwest, “anymore” can mean “these days”—in an affirmative sentence, as in “Those are worthless anymore.”

“Are you done your ice?” generally sounds fine in Canada, but it’s unusual across the border in the United States.

“Here’s you a spoon” can be heard in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Utah, but in other states, it sounds truly strange.

These sentences are among hundreds being catalogued by the linguists involved in Yale’s Grammatical Diversity Project. The group of 12-plus graduate and undergraduate students, led by linguistics professor Raffaella Zanuttini, is compiling existing data on the grammar of many varieties of American English, along with a complete database of their studies. They’re also putting together a map for every piece of data that belongs to a particular geographical region (as opposed to, for instance, the syntax of youth, which is found all over the country). Their goal: to create a repository for all the research done to date on the varieties of English they’re investigating. Much of that research has been in hard-to-find master’s theses or working papers, or limited-circulation journals. Unlike the Dictionary of American Regional English, their focus is on syntax, not vocabulary.

Ultimately, Zanuttini hopes the work will further our understanding of how varieties of English differ from each other. At the same time, she wants to show that sentences that may sound funny or strange to some English speakers “have a grammatical system that is as complex and systematic” as that of the standard variety of English. Variation in our language, she argues, is a natural and very human process, whether it happens across geographic areas or generations, socioeconomic lines or ethnic groups. After all, “we don’t now wear our hair the way our grandparents did.”

One might think that between video, radio, and the blogosphere, regional differences are on their way out. But the linguists say that just isn’t happening. “Certain people want to get rid of features that are stigmatized, but that’s certain people,” says Zanuttini. “Some people want to get rid of any linguistic feature that marks them as coming from the South. Other people like to have their own identity”—and those who are proud of being recognized as Southern don’t want to homogenize their language to match other parts of the country.

In her ideal world, people would master both their own local dialect and the dialect of the elite—which can be useful, even necessary, in certain situations. “A ‘language,’” she says, “is a dialect associated with a political entity.” She points to Spain and Italy as just two examples of countries where one regional dialect prevailed over others: because Castile and Florence became politically powerful, Castilian and Florentine eventually became the national languages of Spain and Italy. We may call those successful varieties “languages” and the other varieties “dialects,” Zanuttini notes, but “from the linguistic point of view, they are equivalent.”

Do the examples on these pages still sound dead wrong? If you’ve never said that something “needs washed,” and if you’re not from a family that uses “Here’s you a spoon,” the answer is probably yes. But by showing that different kinds of English are used almost everywhere in the United States, Zanuttini and her team are determined to teach us that variation is the rule, not the exception. And grammatical differences should be celebrated, she says. “You don’t have to be ashamed of a local language.”