More language myths

This is a post in the Language in the news series. See more.

More language myths in the media today, this time in northern England, related to a letter reportedly sent out to parents by a primary school in Middlesbrough. You can read the article from the Daily Mail here.

In the article, the head teacher of the school is quoted as saying:

We would like to equip our children to go into the world of work and not be disadvantaged.

We need the children to know there is a difference between dialect, accent and standard English.

The literacy framework asks children to write in standard English.

I am not asking the children to change their dialect or accent but I don’t want them to enter the world of work without knowing about standard English.

This sounds reasonable to me. There is indeed a difference between accent, dialect and standard English. But, when we see what is reported to be a snapshot of the actual letter which was sent home to parents, we see that the differences are confused:

 

Snapshot of a letter reportedly sent home to parents of children at a primary school in Middlesbrough

 

The top of the letter says “If you hear your child saying the following phrases or words in the left hand column, please correct…the phrase or word in the right hand column”.

This seems odd, given the head teacher made a distinction between accent, dialect and standard English. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Let’s start with everybody’s favourite: ‘yous’. The all important right hand column says “The word you is NEVER plural e.g. we should say ‘You lot come here!”. Really? In actual fact, ‘you’ has both singular and plural uses in standard English, so it is wrong to say it is never used for a plural. But, remember, the use of ‘yous’ is rule-governed and systematic, so we should not think that it is somehow ‘sloppy English’. Children should be taught the difference between ‘you’ and ‘yous’, so that when writing in standard English they know to write ‘you’ for both singular and plural uses. But this is just because this is the convention in standard English, not because using ‘yous’ is simply inherently incorrect.
  • The next one is called ‘dropping the ‘th’’, with the example of ‘three’ becoming ‘free’. This is not ‘dropping’ the ‘th’ at all, since if you did drop it ‘three’ would become ‘ree’. Nobody says this. Instead, what’s going on is the change from a dental fricative to a labiodental fricative. This change has spread rapidly across the UK, and is now found just about everywhere, although it’s been around in e.g. London for longer than it’s been around in Middlesbrough. It’s been around so long in London, in fact, that I’d predict that now even teachers would do it, not just young students.  Since it’s a newer feature of Middlesbrough English, it’s still seen as something only “the youth” do, and so that’s probably a contributing factor which makes people object strongly to it. It’s a feature of pronunciation, though, and has nothing to do with grammar or standard English.
  • Another nice example to do with pronunciation and not grammar or standard English is ‘I dunno’, which the right hand column says should be ‘I don’t know’. This sort of reduction happens in probably all varieties of English. It happens most often when we speak quickly and informally, and that’s a reason why people don’t like it, because informality is (wrongly) associated with sloppiness. But saying that everyone should say ‘I don’t know’ instead is a problem. Should you try to make everyone pronounce the [t] sound in ‘I don’t know’, for example? I bet even if you try to say this phrase quite carefully you often miss out the [t] sound, saying something like ‘I don know’. People generally don’t notice when speakers do this, and so it doesn’t irritate them. “But the ‘t’ is there in writing”, I hear you say, “so it should be there in speech”. Why? Speech and writing are very different things. We should not expect them to always be the same.
  • There are plenty more examples which are clearly related to pronunciation. A nice one says that ‘letta, butta’ should instead be ‘letter, butter’. Of course they should, if a writer is following the conventions of standard English spelling. But remember the instruction at the top of the letter: “If you hear your child saying the following phrases or words in the left hand column, please correct…the phrase or word in the right hand column”. Wait. If you hear your child saying ‘letta’ you should tell him or her to say ‘letter’ instead? This will seem clear to anyone who has a rhotic accent, in which the /r/ sound is pronounced e.g. at the end of words (like in accents of Ireland, Scotland, and most of the USA). In rhotic accents ‘letter’ would have /r/ pronounced and the end but ‘letta’ would not. But Middlesbrough, like most of the rest of England, is a non-rhotic accent, which means people do not pronounce the /r/ in this position in words. So if it’s not to do with /r/, what is it to do with? It’s probably a comment on the typical pronunciation of the final unstressed vowel in the north-east of England, which sounds a bit more like an [a] sound than it does in some other varieties of English. This has absolutely nothing to do with standard English grammar, but is just a comment on Middlesbrough pronunciation. The head teacher may say “We need the children to know there is a difference between dialect, accent and standard English”, but this sort of strange example does not help with that distinction at all.
  • There is no clearer example of the incorrect conflation of grammar and pronunciation than with the point that ‘your’ should be corrected along these lines: “your late should be you’re late (you’re is the shortened version of you are)’. So far so good. In standard English writing, ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ are different, and they should be distinguished when you write in standard English. But is there a difference in pronunciation between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’? Certainly not in my variety of northern English English, and probably not in Middlesbrough either. So if, in speech, there is no difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, how are parents supposed to “correct” their child when he or she says either of them?

The examples here are a worrying conflation of accent, dialect and standard English, but what is more worrying is that certain dialect forms are explicitly labelled, in the column heading, as “Incorrect”. As I’ve said before, just because a particular linguistic feature is not part of standard English, does not mean it is wrong.

Media reports like these always generate lots of responses from readers. I’ve selected a few and pasted them below, because they demonstrate some of the language myths I wrote about in a previous post (the myths are highlighted in red below each quotation).

You’d better ban the mobile phone then because texting has already altered the english (sic) language.

It’s all the fault of mobile phones and text language!

No-one wants to get rid of English dialects yes we should be proud of them but at least try and be a little more grammatically correct.

Dialects are not grammatically correct!

‘I done that’, ‘I seen that’, and ‘he was sat there’ are not examples of dialect or accent as some of you claim. They are completely incorrect sentence structure or ‘English’ As is saying ‘youse’. It’s plain laziness.

Dialects are grammatically incorrect and lazy!

OMG I never thought I’d live to see that – a headteacher who understands the impotance (sic) of talking properly, understanding the words in writing and hopefully leading to a new generation of children who can do more than grunt.

Kids today can’t talk properly any more – it was better in the golden age!

I just don’t know which farm they get the TV announcers from on Sky TV. None of them sound as if they ever went to school. Which is rather fitting in with dumbed down Britain.

It’s all the fault of the media!

And, to end on a positive note, one commentator writes:

Looking at the list, I am wondering what the difference in pronunciation is between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. The letter clearly states ‘If you hear your child saying the following phrases or words…’ It’s not about written language.

This is exactly right. However, this comment gets ‘red arrowed’ by other readers, suggesting they disagree with it!

It seems linguists have some way to go before they successfully convince people to think carefully, critically and logically about these issues.

But, if nothing else, this discussion is a nice example of how an understanding of linguistics is important, not least for people who want to go into teaching. Teachers are often looked upon to adjudicate on what is linguistically ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, so it is important they recognise language myths are very different from linguistic facts.

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Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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One Response to More language myths

  1. Pingback: There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects « Sentence first

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