On standard English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), dialects, and efficiency

A recent Hacker News thread links to a paper by Arnold Zwicky arguing that African American Vernacular English is not Standard English with mistakes. Its purpose is to explore a large controversy over the possible exploration of AAVE in Oakland schools, and the discussion around the paper on Hacker News heated up when Paul Graham said, “The argument here is in effect that no vernacular variant of any language could possibly embody a mistake. Which is true for some definitions of mistake, and false for others.” In response, “grandalf 9” said, “AAVE is no more “improper” Standard English than Spanish is improper Standard English.” Graham didn’t disagree with that statement, but would rather prefer to change the ideas behind it: whether AAVE is “proper” or not depends on the context, and in another reply grandalf 9 said, “Well, I think the burden of proof is on you to show why language mistakes matter at all.”

I took him up on the challenge. The big challenge with language “mistakes” (or whatever) is that they can inhibit efficient communication among parties. The lesser problem is that they might signal low educational status and/or incompetence: I know there is no such thing as “standard English,” but you can get pretty close to it through guides like Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers or my favorite work, Write Right! The further you get from this thing that’s close to standard English, the more likely you are to sound incompetent or incomprehensible.

If someone comes into a job interview—or Y Combinator interview—speaking AAVE, or some wildly non-standard form of English, they’re probably signaling that they haven’t figured out how to speak, if not “proper” English, then a form of English that will allow them to communicate with high-level technical workers. They’re not likely to get the job or the funding or the lawsuit won or whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish. That’s the problem, rather than some abstract problem about language purity.

There isn’t a central authority language because there doesn’t need to be: as Foucault might argue, there are merely different loci of power or force that tend to create webs of what is acceptable or not in a given situation.

“The fact is, language changes over time like any other fashion. If you don’t like a particular grammar or a particular fashion that is a matter of taste.”

Which is all very interesting until you’re applying for a job or writing a research paper and you can’t write something very close to standard English, at which point you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to. A friend of mine actually wrote a very interesting paper (which is, to my knowledge, still unpublished and shouldn’t be) on the use of AAVE in Walter Mosley’s books, and she argues persuasively that Mosley’s deployment of AAVE is central to his being able to perform his job as a detective and navigate the “white” and “African American” worlds.

“You can make the argument that using Standard English (and wearing a suit) are useful social conventions to adopt when going to a job interview, but I think the usefulness of either judgment ends there.”

I don’t. The fundamental issue is what you signal and how efficiently you communicate. Whether you wear a suit or not has little to do with how you communicate verbally or in writing; whether you can speak something akin to standard English matters enormously. If you speak AAVE at home, it’s vital to be able to speak standard English for most purposes that are generally associated with success in the United States (academic advancement, business contacts, legal and medical contexts, etc.).

Another commenter named “aristus” says: “A standard joke about that: a dialect is an ideolect with a history and body of literature. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Language is an instrument of politics like any other.” He’s right, but I would say “power” instead of politics.

For more on standard (or not) English, see Speaking good from Language Log (“The obvious thing to do was to teach VBE speakers how to add Standard English to their repertoires and to use it in socially appropriate and expected contexts but NOT to wipe out their vernacular…”) and How safer is America today? (“Now some background about the system of standard English…”)

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