Teach your child to speak right

The following is a clip from the documentary “American Tongues”

(beware of the use of a derogatory term, supported neither by myself nor, I imagine, the documentarians)

What’s your language prejudice?

When I was younger I had a lot.  A little bit against ebonics, but most against redneck talk.  I had friends who looked down on rurality and quaintness and so I did the same.

My dad swears up and down I used to correct his grammar a lot.  I don’t remember doing that.  What I did do was critique his pronunciation.  That’s phonetics, not grammar.  It did kill me when I was twelve and he would sit down at a Roanoke restaurant and say “weaww wa wah-er”.  The waitress would ask him to repeat, and he would switch to a slow, punctuated version of the same pronunciation: “We.  aww. wawn.  waher.”  At least, that’s how it sounded to me.

Now I’m much more tolerant of dialectical variation, thought I do recommend pronouncing your words according to your context, Dad.

But one thing I will teach my son is there is no “right English.”  The closest thing to a standard is only standardized because it is used by those in power.  It does not make you smarter.  And even the most notorious “errors”, such as “he be goin’ to the store,” operate based on certain rules.  Double negatives (“don’t have none”) were used by Chaucer, as were consonental metatheses (“Can I axe you a question”).  Is a person dumber or more likely to join a gang because they say “axe”, or are they actually intelligent enough to adapt to the practicality of our English-trained tongues placing the velar stop prior to the post-alveolar sibilant fricative?

So as a teacher I teach my students the same thing I’ll teach my son.  Learn to code switch.  Some people want you to wear a coat and a tie to certain functions.  Oblige them if you want to please them and get what you want from them.  If it insults your sense of self identity, don’t do it.  As a teacher I have to teach students how to writer “proper,” but it’s no more proper than their own tongue.

One of the miraculous gifts given to the apostles was the ability to speak in tongues.  They spoke and everyone understood.  They didn’t demand everyone learn Greek.  or Hebrew.  In fact, the language of the Bible is not the ritzy, “proper” Greek, but street Greek, barnyard Greek, the language of simple merchants and traders.  Then there’s the good book story of the “shibboleth”, where one Palestinian tribe slaughtered the other, using their inability to pronounce a syllable as an excuse.

How do you view people based on how they talk?  Do you judge them by their pronunciations, the grammatical rules to which they adhere, their colloquialisms?  Or do you consider instead the content of their words, whether they be hateful or considerate, wise or foolish, critically incisive or muddling?

What’s your language prejudice, and what does it say about you?  I submit that it tells me more about you than your own dialect does.  Ain’t no buts about it.

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