Save DARE: Why we need to rally in support of descriptive linguistics

by Diya Chaudhuri

I learned today that the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is in danger of being discontinued, as its funding has been slashed to 20% of its original budget. Unlike the prescriptive dictionaries of early lexicographers like the patriotic Noah Webster, who tied standardization of pronunciation and spelling to American moral superiority, the DARE is a descriptive dictionary. Instead of telling us how we should speak, it explores how we do speak — from the Appalachian foothills to Long Island. 

What follows is a paper I presented at a conference at West Georgia College in 2014 about the importance of teaching descriptive linguistics in rhetorical composition classrooms. While it does not mention the DARE by name, its thesis is a direct result of the DARE’s mission. If you believe that language should celebrate rather than judged, if you believe that language should not be used as a weapon of intolerance to separate the valued from the unvalued, please contribute to the DARE’s fundraising campaign.

Administrators in English departments across the country speak out both sides of their mouths regarding what should be taught in the composition classroom: critical thinking and prescriptive grammar. It seems, at first glance, an impossible task: to teach students to realize that they can’t ever arrive at the best possible solution until they learn to question, to constantly question, to live their lives in search of the right, the best question, while simultaneously forcing them to swallow, unquestioningly, a largely unregulated set of often arbitrary, often outdated grammatical rules. When combined with the reality that students often enter the 101 or 102-level classroom without the grammatical backgrounds we, their instructors, would like them to have, these courses seem to regress into grammar primers rather than explorations of argumentation.

Over the past few years, I have been tweaking a composition course that attempts to satisfy the call for the teaching of both prescriptive grammar and of critical thinking. This paper will follow the structure of this course through its first month, month and a half, before the students turn to their individual research projects.

The first question I ask my students to answer in their in-class writing during the dreaded drop/add period is one I don’t usually share with my department. It seems a dangerous question: “When you graduated from high school, did you examine the trajectory you wanted your life to take, and did that trajectory necessarily include a four-year university education?” It turns out, the answer, most often, is “no.” Students have good reasons for coming to college — they want to get a job, they want to be the first in their family to attend college — but their answers often belie their inability or unwillingness to think critically. I admit, I never questioned whether or not I should go to college. It was for me, as it is for many of our students, the automatic answer, the expected next step. How did American attitudes evolve in this way?

For most of history, as we all know, education was a hoarded commodity. The rich, the white, the masculine — these were the holders of four-year educations. The vast majority of the Western population engaged in apprenticeships or family trades, or, for an enormous swath of Americans, slave labor. Our students know this, and those from backgrounds that don’t fall into those categories of the traditionally-educated are rightfully proud of having gained access to a world for so long denied to them. These early classroom discussions are a wonderful place for students to essentially brag on themselves: I’m engaging in something important, something historic on a larger level. And they’re right. They are. They should be proud.

But has college become an automated response? Students enter this setting with some understanding of its historical context, but do they have a full understanding of the legacy into which they’re stepping? My next question is “what do you think is the difference between the educations attained in those old, wealthy, white universities, and those attained in apprenticeships?” There, our students aren’t as knowledgeable. “What is the purpose of the university education?”

Well, it’s right there in the name: the universe. In universities, we receive a holistic education. Almost meditatively, we reach for moments of insight in which we can see all the various bodies of knowledge working together to create the enduring mesh that has held societies together for centuries, that has endured even the rise and fall of civilizations. Now ask your students if that’s what they came here to do, and for the most part, no. They came here to get a job. They came here because they wanted to be the first in their family to do so. They came here because it felt important. And that’s fine, but now that they’re here, it’s not enough.

I ask again, “Why did you come here? Why do you think college is the automatic answer? How do you think it became the automatic answer?” Crickets. These are not the questions we’re taught to ask. These are the questions we won’t tell the academic retention office about. But they’re important questions. In 1944, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill, which secured, among other things, the right to an education for the young men who served in World War II. For the first time in American history, we saw a massive expansion in the body of applicants who could afford college. In the years after, it seemed as though everyone — not just GIs — needed this education. And what happened? In 1948, a local trade school called the Georgia School of Technology became the Georgia Institute of Technology, a four-year research institution. In 1963, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas rebranded as Texas A&M, like Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. You see this happen in every state across this country: institutions that once taught vocational skills repurposed themselves into universities to meet the challenge of (and to profit off of) a burgeoning demand.

And here we are in 2014, with students who are very much still in the mindset of the vocational education — I’m here to get a job — entering into a system taught by scholars who see the university as something much more than a professionalization seminar. But because we rarely engage our students in a real discussion of course objectives — beyond “proficiency in grammar, argumentative structures, and logical fallacies” — we fall into a cycle of miscommunication and frustration that renews itself semester after semester. Why not have that conversation? Why not take the opportunity in the composition classroom, through which every student in the school must pass, to structure our entire course around that conversation?

So far, this may seem unrelated to the topic of “teaching dialect in the classroom,” but I believe we cannot have a meaningful discussion of dialect with our students until we’ve set a tone of universal education, until we’ve laid a foundation for the course in which we encourage the questioning of ostensibly fundamental truths such as “you should go to college.” To get students to take prescriptive grammar seriously, we must make them understand that grammar is just one small body in that enduring mesh of knowledge we study in the university, that we can study grammar as a social artifact, as a historical artifact, as a political artifact.

During the second week of the course, I provide students with a crash course through the development of the language we’re studying together — English. We trace its development from its Germanic origins to its modern iteration — Latin contact through Christian missionaries, French contact through the Norman occupation, more Latin, and now Greek through the nostalgic lexical inventions of the Enlightenment. We talk about how English has a vocabulary roughly three times the size of most other major languages because of its willingness to take on new words — dog, hound, canine, cur; house, abode, domicile, residence. We talk about how it’s hard. It’s harder than most other languages, because unlike Spanish, we have no Academy, no regulatory institution to weed out inconsistencies and archaisms. We talk about why, as the joke goes, there are more exceptions than there are rules in the grammar of this language. And why, as a result, it’s okay to not have mastered it by the ripe age of 18. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. And that’s also what makes it beautiful.

At the same time, we ask why the original languages from the British Isles — Irish, Welsh, etc. — have so little resemblance to any form of English — Old through contemporary. Why Latin didn’t take hold in English during the Roman occupation, but began asserting its presence through the language of the Church. We discuss why English disappeared from the written record to such a large degree during the Norman occupation, why it reappeared toward the end of the Hundred Years’ War. In short, we discuss the politics of language — identity politics. The language we speak, what we accept, what we reject — all of it says something about how we view ourselves in the world, who we choose to be. This discussion lies at the core of any exploration of dialect awareness in the composition setting, which in turn translates into sociology, political science, history, social work, education, and any number of other fields students may feel more drawn to than rhetorical composition.

Regardless of the documents assigned in a composition class, I’ve found that students actively respond to material when it speaks to something personal in their lives, and what is more personal than the language they speak? Not the language we want them to write, but the language they speak. So I ask them to write about the language they speak in the language I need them to write. But first, we talk about the difference.

I’ve always believed that students don’t want to be taught anything. Lecture at them for more than five minutes, and half of them are on their phones, smiling at their crotches like they think we can’t tell. But to let them arrive at complex conclusions on their own by writing about it, then fighting it out in classroom debates — those are the lessons that stick with them. And so, I try to make our discussions of dialect as personal as possible.

In any class of composition students, a handful will admit, when polled, that they have been led to believe that they speak and write incorrectly, that they are just “bad at English,” their own native tongue. What a terrible way to go through life. As a teacher in Atlanta, the majority of my students are usually of African American descent, so I ask them — what are the ways in which you speak that you think are incorrect? “I say aks instead of ask.” Why? You can physically say ask. You don’t say taks for task. So why aks for ask? The answer, usually, is something along the lines of “that’s how my family and friends speak, so I just prefer to say it that way.” If I end the conversation right there and say “write about how you think your choice fits into the history of your language, the one we’ve been discussing the past few days,” I usually find the most remarkable insights. These very young people who have been convinced they don’t understand their own language suddenly come alive to their place in history, their role in the communal process of language. They see themselves in the light of the Hundred Years War! Them, 18 year olds in Atlanta, likening themselves to Henry IV, the first English king since the Norman invasion to take his oath in English, or to his son Henry V, the first to write in English. They see for themselves that it’s not that they can’t speak in the way schools ask them to, but that they choose not to. They choose to align their language with their identity. To say “aks” instead of “ask” is to take the oath in English.

So that’s critical thinking — but how do we get to grammar? By convincing them of something I believe to be a fundamental truth: that they are experts, absolute experts in their own dialect, but that I will ask them, in my class, to become bilingual. I will ask them to learn not “the correct” way to write, but a simply different way to write. We will not master it in one semester, but we will continue a lifelong process of becoming fluent in the lingua franca of the academy, of the job market, of wider society.

I talk to my students about code switching — how they wouldn’t dare speak to their parents the way they speak to their friends. It’s not that one code or the other is incorrect — they’re just inappropriate for the context. I tell them to never be ashamed of the way they speak. It is a political choice, an affiliation of identity. I am African American. I am Mexican American. I am from Boston, or Carrolton, or Las Feelez, not Los Feliz.

But we are, unfortunately, judged by the way we speak and write. It’s an injustice, but a reality, so our students need to be engaged in a serious conversation about how the best of ideas will go unattended so long as they’re not presented in a way that is socially valued. We watch videos of Dr. King delivering a speech and ask — would this country be the way it is today if he couldn’t kill a speech? If he couldn’t manipulate an audience? Draw on a shared Christian background, a shared patriotism, a shared dread, a shared optimism? Great ideas, but almost more importantly — a great rhetorician.

I ask my students to read an interview with Dr. Robert L. Williams, the linguist who coined the phrase Ebonics in the 1970s. In it, he makes the argument I’ve outright stolen for this paper. Though I’m speaking of all dialect variation — from country to Long Island — he speaks specifically of African American code switching when he says:

I think that awareness helps people to understand the reality of what they’re doing. If no one ever tells a person that there is, let’s say, home-talk and school-talk, or street-talk and school-talk, or street-talk and talk of the broader commerce, then they don’t have this contrast in mind, and what they’re doing is simply communicating the way that their peers are communicating or that their families are communicating. So, I think it brings about a certain recognition so that they can now identify language A versus language B and develop this code-switching more aptly than before.

He also speaks about Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” and argues that, unfortunate as it is, African American speakers (and of course, this applies to all dialects, though AAVE is the most researched, most accessible dialect for a 101 class) African American speakers must embrace it for practical means. He says “I am an African American who may speak Ebonics, but I’m also a person who needs to acquire certain tools in order to make it in the wider commerce.”

This is how I’ve been trying to convince my students, regardless of the dialect they speak, that they should pay attention to my prescriptive grammar lessons. Not because it’s correct, or the only way — but because it’s the way that will be most favorably viewed by those with social capital, those who need to hear the voices that call from outside the power structures in our society. And it’s important, I think, to point out, alongside our prescriptive grammar lessons, descriptive grammar lessons. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes have a wonderful exercise that demonstrates how there are rules for southern a-prefixing — rules that we can’t name because we’re never taught the southern dialect in a classroom setting, but rules we’ve nonetheless internalized because they are patterned and systemic. “He was a-livin with his mama” is fine, but his mama doesn’t have “three a-livin children,” because the a-prefix can be assigned only to verbs, not modifiers. And so on.

All this, it’s not a perfect pedagogy, and some students remain unresponsive — but I’ve never had student engagement at these levels, never seen improvement paired with an earnest desire to learn grammar outside of courses where I’ve taught dialect. At every turn, it’s important to validate dialect, even as we ask them to embrace the prescriptive grammar of the academy. At every turn, we must ask them to labor in the spirit of the university rather than the trade school, to examine grammar as both language and artifact, as both “way to get job” and “way to understand.” Only then can we accomplish that seemingly impossible task: to teach students to question, to engage in subversive inquiry, to push boundaries, to poke at structures of authority, to stand up for themselves and stake out their place in the world, all while following the rules they’ve never wanted to follow.

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