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Language dialects influence biases

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Sociolinguist and Professor Dennis Preston of Oklahoma State University spoke at St. Olaf College on March 7 on language diversity. Preston’s presentation was entitled “Language Variation: Why Can’t Language Just Sit Still?”

While some wouldn’t consider language to be a factor in diversity, Preston argues that diversity does in fact play a large role in people’s perceptions of others. How a person speaks and the language that person uses is one way that people unconsciously place stereotypes on others.

There are hundreds of languages across the globe, and often variations of the same language. English, for example, can be broken down into many different dialects depending on the area in which it is spoken. The English spoken in England is different from the English spoken in Scotland, or America. To bring this idea closer to home, Midwest English is different from Southern English, which is different from New England English.

English includes a variety of different dialects with each one depending on geographical location. Different dialects even exist within different English dialects. None of them are incorrect; they merely deviate slightly from one another.

Professor Preston explained this concept further. “Different Englishes have different grammar,” Preston said. Again, a person might think that English should have one set of grammar rules but that is not the case. In order to explain these differences, Professor Preston focused his lecture on two types of English: Appalachian English and African American English.

Starting with African American English, Preston started by explaining one of the most noticeable differences between African American English and Standard English. African American English often includes “be” within its sentences. However, this “be” cannot be inserted anywhere within a sentence; there are strict grammatical rules as to where this “be” can fit. Since the “be” only fits within certain spots of the language and has its own grammar, it is a language.

However, people are often unsettled by African American English, and deem it less civilized. Preston combatted these stereotypes by explaining the grammatical structure of the “be.”

“If you think it’s bad language, you just don’t know the grammar,” Preston said.

Preston claims that this is the issue of diversity in language. People neglect to learn the grammatical structure of different English dialects and instead assume the language is wrong and the people who speak it are less intelligent.

“People get upset when people speak different English from what they say,” Preston said. When people say a language has bad grammar, what they often mean is that the language has a different grammatical structure than what the person is used to hearing.

Preston then moved on to a language close to his heart: Appalachian English. Preston is originally from Kentucky which makes Appalachian English the dialect he grew up speaking. Similar to the “be” used in African American English, Appalachian English inserts an “a” into their version of the English language. Again, the “a” can only be used under certain grammatical rules.

The common stereotype associated with Appalachian English is that the people who speak it are “hicks,” which Preston was quick to assure us is not the case for all the people speaking this variation of the English language.

Grammar is the real decision maker in language determinacy. Languages with different grammatical structures are correct, true languages. Language depends on region, source, formality, change and process.

The first step towards acceptance of others is understanding their language, which includes their grammar rules.

Preston ended his lecture with a quote from John Locke: “Men, speaking language according to the grammar rule of that language, do yet speak improperly of things.”

bade1@stolaf.edu