You Don’t Say: Dialect Dos & Don’ts

01 February, 2017

Remember that time you were pouring your heart out or in the middle of a great joke and someone cut you off to correct your grammar? We've all been there. There's something disarming about being told that we're misusing the best tool we have to express our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Fear not: linguist Maureen T. Matarese is here to help. Matarese believes the mythical, "proper English" we grew up believing in just doesn’t exist, and that language is ever-evolving, too complex to be reduced to good and bad. In Matarese’s view, there are languages within languages, each with its own dialect, finding new and innovative ways to get to the point quicker and more clearly. Dialect does what formal language can't. A case in point? "She be going to school." To Matarese, it makes more sense than the formal alternative, yet people still shriek at the habitual ‘be’. The same could be said about southern double-negatives, like "I ain't never coming back!” which, to Matarese, affirms the position without beating around the bush. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare used regional speech, so why can’t we? Where do we draw the line that divides sophisticated language from the rest? And does that line rest on socio-economic, or regional prejudice?

“From Aladdin to Star Wars, the antagonists no matter their country of origin will speak in a British English.”

The verbal prejudice that Matarese warns about isn't limited to the B-word, the C-word or any other word for that matter. Like the language it restricts, it’s complex and nuanced, having to do with the connections we make between how a person sounds and who we think they are. It’s why every movie villain from Alladin to Star Wars speaks in a British accent. But it’s also why, during Hurricane Sandy, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter became famous for boisterous hand gestures that turned his disaster warnings into an expressive, entertaining show, later parodied on SNL. To Matarese, it was a prime example of the ways in which language can unite, not divide, us.

Words by David Shargel.

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