Chapter 1: Human Language and Language Science
1.4 Thinking about standards and “proper” grammar
In previous sections we learned that one of the goals of doing linguistics is to describe languages and dialects accurately without ranking any dialect as better than any other. This is actually a pretty radical goal, because of course language is a deeply human behaviour, and therefore is deeply intertwined with human relationships and social categories. Relationships like teacher-student, doctor-patient, or customer-server, for example, all involve power relations that play a role in people’s expectations about language. Likewise, the communities that we belong to, whether they’re based on ethnicity, religion, profession, fandom, or any other social category, shape how we use language and how we expect others to use language. So when we’re studying language scientifically, we can’t separate the grammar from all the other social pieces.
So we’re striving for this radical goal of considering all languages and dialects as equally valid from a linguistic point of view, but we also have to acknowledge that people have attitudes and expectations that arise from social power dynamics, and these attitudes – whether positive and negative – lead to linguistic bias. Everyone, including linguists, has linguistic biases. We can’t help making judgments about people based on how they use language. But by learning to think about the relationship between language and power, we can gain metalinguistic awareness of our own linguistic biases, at the same time as we’re developing metalinguistic awareness of our grammars.
Here’s an example of a linguistic bias that’s really prevalent in Canada and the US. North Americans tend to perceive all the varieties of British English as having high prestige. They tend to assume that speakers of UK English are better educated and more intelligent than speakers of North American varieties of English — even for varieties that have low prestige in the United Kingdom. Someone who speaks a variety that’s stigmatized in the UK might arrive in Canada to find that everyone thinks their English is very fancy. Their English hasn’t changed, but people’s attitudes towards it have!
Language Standards and “Standard” Languages
Some ways of using language are associated with higher prestige. Because of colonialism, these are often the forms of language used by white people, by wealthier people, or by people who have received more formal education.
When people talk about the “standard” variety of a language, they usually mean the form that has been standardized, that is, the form that most closely matches the language used in dictionaries, textbooks, and high-status media. This standardization happens via social mechanisms of power. In France, for example, there’s an official government body, the Académie Française, that decides what counts as correct, standard French. In 2017, when they noticed more and more French writers including feminine nouns and adjectives alongside the standard masculine forms, they published a declaration that this kind of inclusive writing was a mortal danger (“un péril mortel”) for French! It’s their literal job to tell people they’re languaging wrong.
Unlike French, English does not have an official language police to enforce prescriptive language rules, but that doesn’t mean the standardized varieties of English are any less connected to power and privilege. Instead, standardized English is enforced through social norms, through dictionaries and style guides, textbooks and grammar-checking software. There’s no official Boss of Canadian English warning about the dangers of gender-inclusive language, but it was still a big deal when the in-house style guide of the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada, decided in 2017 that it was okay to use specific singular they. And in the UK, the shorthand term for the highest-prestige variety is “the Queen’s English” — who has more power and privilege than a monarch?
To be clear, the “standard” that these authorities enforce isn’t chosen out of nowhere, and is not somehow objectively determined to be the best or clearest variety. (Remember there’s no linguistic way to determine “best” when it comes to language.) The standard is usually just the variety that’s associated with economic, social, or political power. For many languages, the “standard” is whatever variety is spoken in the capital city, or by a dominant political class. For English and for other European languages, the variety that people categorize as “standard” tends to be the variety that white people with a certain amount of formal education use.
In North America, we can observe how assumptions about standard languages intersect with our ideas of race by considering the variety of English associated with Black speakers. You’ll see this variety called African American Language (AAL), African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black English, or Ebonics, depending on who’s talking about it and when. I’ll use the term Black English here, following Calhoun et al. (2021), to include people who use this variety and who are part of the African diaspora but not necessarily African-American. One important thing to note is that not all Black folks in the United States speak Black English, and not all speakers of Black English are Black, but using this variety of English is a strong indicator of Black American identity. Even though Black English is characteristically American, and has many speakers across many different regions of the USA, it’s somehow not what anyone means when they refer to Standard American English. That reveals the common linguistic bias: when people say “standard language” they usually think “the language that white people use”.
Isn’t it good to have standards?
You might think of having a standardized variety of a language as a good thing, or at least as a neutral thing. We’re used to having a single variety of English appear in most written sources, for example. It’s easy to view standardization as positive if the variety that you and your family used when you were growing up was relatively close to the standardized variety used in schools. But if we assume that the standardized form is the only correct or proper form, we end up discriminating against users of different varieties. Here are some examples:
More than 90% of people Haiti speak Kreyòl, a language with its own consistent grammar and spelling. But public education in Haiti is offered in standardized French. So when kids start school, they get told by their teachers that their language is wrong (Degraff & Stump, 2018). The same pattern holds true for kids who speak Black English in most US schools. It’s harder for them to learn!
- A judge in Alberta disregarded the medical evidence provided by an expert witness, a doctor who spoken Nigerian English. In his ruling, the judge made it clear that he distrusted the doctor’s medical opinion because his accent was not Canadian. (Grant, 2019)
- A Black deaf man who signed in Black ASL was imprisoned in an institution for decades because the signers who assessed him categorized his variety of ASL as incoherent, so they labelled him as languageless and incompetent. (Burch & Joyner, 2007)
We’ll learn about more examples in Chapter 2.
Because elementary and high schools usually teach language in a prescriptive way, you’ve probably internalized the assumption that the standardized variety of your language is the best or most correct variety, and maybe even the assumption that languages have to have standards. Using your growing metalinguistic awareness, you can start to question why some varieties are considered standard and others aren’t. It’s likely that the answers to those questions have more to do with social status than with grammar.
Check your understanding
Aneesh, A. (2015). Neutral accent: How language, labor, and life become global. Duke University Press.
Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. University of North Carolina Press.
Calhoun, K., Hudley, A. H. C., Bucholtz, M., Exford, J., & Johnson, B. (2021). Attracting Black students to linguistics through a Black-centered Introduction to Linguistics course. Language, 97(1), e12–e38.
Grant, M. (2019, September 26). Racism investigation urged for Alberta judge who ruled parents not guilty in son’s death | CBC News. CBC.
DeGraff, M., & Stump, G. S. (2018). Kreyòl, pedagogy, and technology for opening up quality education in Haiti: Changes in teachers’ metalinguistic attitudes as first steps in a paradigm shift. Language, 94(2), e127–e157.
Ramjattan, V. A. (2020). Engineered accents: International teaching assistants and their microaggression learning in engineering departments. Teaching in Higher Education, 1–16.
Subtirelu, N. C. (2015). “She does have an accent but…”: Race and language ideology in students’ evaluations of mathematics instructors on RateMyProfessors.com. Language in Society, 44(1), 35–62.