On SAE and Language Standardization

I will devote this post to the question of Standard English in light of John Simon’s claim that “language can always disintegrate further” and that “there is no bottom to language degeneration.”

As someone who is not a native speaker of Standard American English (SAE), I am acutely aware of the potential social consequences of failing to meet the linguistic standards imposed by the majority (or at least the elite) of society. I was born and raised in rural and poor southern West Virginia, about 50 miles from the border with southwestern Virginia and about 100 miles from the border with southeastern Kentucky. Although the form of speech that I acquired as my native language (a variety of central Appalachian English) differs notably from Standard English in grammar (e.g., many so-called “irregular” or strong verbs have been regularized, such that we say throwed for SE threwknowed for knew and so forth, although we may also say brung for brought) and lexicon (I always thought that a “toboggan” was a type of hat until my first year in college), I believe that the most salient, and stereotyped, differences involve phonology. I struggle mightily to repress my native vowel system, attempting to replace it with that of Standard English, when speaking in most contexts, especially since I no longer live in Appalachia. I occasionally slip, especially with the pin-pen merger, and I sometimes hypercorrect, blurting out sense when I mean since. I have also pretty much abandoned my attempts at standard pronunciation for less stereotyped or stigmatized features, such as the persistence of velar [x] (very similar to the hard h-like sound in German nacht) as an allophone of /l/ in certain environments and the presence of the voiceless labial-velar fricative /ʍ/ as a distinct phoneme in words like which and where, which contrast with witch and wear in my native dialect. In fact, I was reminded of the social awareness of this particular feature in a “Wheat Thins” commercial I happened to see on television just last night–the commercial was essentially making fun of those who “pronounce the h” in such words. I did not begin to acquire Standard English pronunciation until I was well into junior high school, and so the phonology of SE will always be a bit “foreign” to me, in the sense that I am not a native speaker. Perceptive listeners can detect some lack of comfort on my part when I am attempting Standard English pronunciation, particularly my overly careful pronunciation (or over-enunciation) of certain sounds and the hypercorrection that is inevitable when paying so much more attention to form than content.

So the question is: why do I make such great efforts at linguistic accommodation, even though as a linguist I am fully aware that my native form of speech is fully equal to Standard English as a communicative system? Of course, the answer is that most of American society does not deem my native form of speech equal to Standard English. I have been conditioned since birth to view Appalachian English as uneducated and improper, as have most other Americans, including many speakers of Appalachian English themselves, who will eagerly concede that they speak English badly! In one of the video clips from the PBS series Do You Speak American? almost everyone on the train was quick to circle areas where Appalachian English is spoken as a part of the United States where people do not speak “proper English.” Simply put, there are strong negative social consequences to speaking stigmatized dialects, and Appalachian English is among the most stigmatized of all non-standard (or as some would put it, sub-standard) American English varieties. Failure to accommodate to the linguistic majority on my part would have disastrous consequences for my professional life. I certainly would not have my current job as a language school administrator, which began as a part-time ESL instructor, if I had walked into the initial interview speaking with my fully native pronunciation and grammar. So, due to the collective pressures of the majority and the socially-constructed narrative that perpetuates the myth of the inherent superiority of “Standard English,” I am left with little choice but to attempt to sound like those blessed souls who had the great fortune to be born in the parts of the nation highlighted in gold, including an area just a few hundred miles to the northwest of my hometown in the “right” part of Ohio, on those dialect maps from the episode. Oh, what a difference two hundred miles can make!

As for John Simon’s claim about language degeneration and disintegration, in the modern era there have always been certain language wonks who lament that, with each passing generation, the language (whether it be English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese or any other language that has a literary, national or regional standard) falls into further ruin. The irony is that Mr. Simon’s great-grandparents might very well have found his own speech “degenerate” had they had the chance to hear it. For both biological and sociological reasons, language change is an inevitable part of the human condition, even if language standardization is not. Language standardization and the fossilization of a certain grammar and lexicon as the spoken and/or literary standard are not inevitable, although standardization is more likely to take place in societies with a strong social hierarchy and a written language. Many languages, especially those that are spoken by people who live in a society with a low degree of social hierarchy and that lack a written form (or that simply have few speakers) have no “standard” form in that speakers tend to accept any variety as acceptable, even though they may find certain dialects “odd” or difficult to understand, which proves that language standardization is the product of specific socio-cultural conditions and is not a universal feature of human culture. I have found that the adoration of all things past, including language, is a trait sometimes exhibited by social elites who find themselves threatened by a changing world and who attempt to convince the rest of society–often quite successfully–that only by preserving our cherished traditions–including language–can we hope to stem the tide of change, which they inevitably view as degeneration rather than evolution. However, no matter how stridently such “language authorities” (as they often proclaim themselves to be) curse the corruption that the present generation has brought upon the language, in the end their warnings of the dire consequences of language “disintegration” can do little to slow the pace of a change that is inevitable. And yet we still cannot resist looking up at Standard English, towering over us like a colossus, to respect its power and authority. I suppose that this is a great contradiction, and one that cannot yet be resolved. It demonstrates the great power of the social contract and that, somehow, what society believes to be true must be true, even if it is not.

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