Labov – The Study of Nonstandard English

Labov, William. “The Study of Nonstandard English.” Language: Introductory Readings. Eds. Virginia

In this article, William Labov argued for the need for linguists and educators to understand non-standard English variations, particularly “Negro” dialect. Like most other scholars who advocated for bi-dialectalism, Labov explained that teaching non-standard English speakers “standard” English would help them to be more upward mobile in society. According to Labov, understanding non-standard English varieties make for more efficient teaching of “standard” English.

Labov argued against considering Negro dialect as a self-contained language system apart from “standard” English. He maintained that through a careful examination of the grammatical processes and rules of both non-standard dialect and “standard” English, one would find they were closely related. According to Labov, the different dialects showed different versions of grammatical rules. For this reason, he advocated for understanding non-standard dialects within the context of “standard” English:

Any analysis of the nonstandard dialect which pretends to ignore other dialects and the general rules of English will fail (1) because the nonstandard dialect is not an isolated system but a part of the sociolinguistic structure of English, and (2) because of the writer’s knowledge of standard English.” (446)


Sledd – On Not Teaching English Usage

Sledd, J. “On Not Teaching English Usage.” The English Journal 54.8 (1965): 698-703. Print.

In this article, James Sledd is precise in his distinctions between grammar, style, and usage and how this relates to students’ use of language. For Sledd, grammar referred to rules, while style referred to the writer’s choices. Usage, then, is about more limited choices. Sledd described it as:

“the study of socially graded synonyms, then tautologically such choices are determined by status only, and only one question is relevant to our choosing: Which form is used, and which form is approved, by those whose status we would like to share?” 698

In other words, usage is the “study of the social climber’s style.” The challenge in this, other than the oppression associated with the hierarchies in American society, Sledd suggested is that social structures and orders had changed.

To adjust to the change in the socio-cultural and political climates and how they were reflected in changing student bodies, Sledd said  that teachers tried to make students change their language by speaking and writing in very specific ways. Sledd argued that effective pedagogy required teachers to raise above the level of being linguistic bully: “We cannot teach them to choose by making their choices for them” (700).

He continued:

“Those among us who pretend we are good enough to set the crooked straight will have to try something much more difficult. We will have to teach the responsible choice of language for purposes broader and better than social
climbing. Social climbing never made much sense, and it makes still less when nobody knows which end is up.” (501)

In order to be responsible teachers Sledd contended that teachers needed to abandon some of the standards they were accustomed to and examine what ends are the standards serving. Sledd suggested that one of stakeholders being served is “Big Brother” where standardized language is supposedly necessary for an industrial society.

He basically called the upward mobility justification for teaching standard English “BS” and against the interests of the teachers themselves. Teachers who Sledd said were no longer “in the race” themselves were helping to sell the “upward mobility” ambition to the so-called “poor and ignorant” (701). According to Sledd, English teachers were no longer serving the students, but the wealth: “English teachers, who are out of the race themselves, must still help the gross national product to get grosser” (701).

Sledd prioritized student’s freedom and agency as human beings over institutional goal of social mobility, and to this end he offered one way English teachers could help students achieve the former: “When more people are shouting about freedom than understand it, we might set one frail example by not shouting but by speaking freely” (701).



Bailey – Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology

Bailey, B. L. “Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology.” American Speech 40.3 (1965): 171-7. Print.

In this article, Beryl Bailey offered a critique of the linguistic theories that portrayed Negro/ Black English as deficient and substandard in comparison to “standard” English.  She asserted that if linguists followed Krapp’s (1924) suggestions for researching the historical backgrounds of the various dialects, the “Negro” dialect would be described in terms of itself and not in comparison to a so-called norm (171). She claimed that only prejudice could explain the oversight: “I therefore maintain that only blind ethnocentrism has prevented them from looking further for the real facts underlying the grammatical structure of this dialect” (172).

Instead of using “standard” English as a measuring stick, Bailey drew on research on pidgin and creole languages for more comparable  grammatical structures to “Negro” English. Bailey argued that southern Negro “dialect” was different than other southern speech because the grammatical structure was different despite the shared English lexicon. Therefore, any apparent “confusions” or inconsistencies in the dialect could only be resolved by looking to the actual dialect. Bailey compared grammatical rules of Jamaican Creole and “Negro dialect” as taken from a literary text to analyze the distinct and consistent rule-based systems of the speech. Bailey admitted that she was not a native southern Negro dialect speaker and that part of the drawback to her study was the reliance on language in a literary text and her limited ability to understand the dialect in ways that native speakers might. Nevertheless, Bailey makes the compelling point that “Negro” English has a structural system of its own apart from the “standard” American English.

Hence, regardless of the surface resemblances to other dialects of English-and this must be expected, since the lexicon is English and the speakers are necessarily bi-dialectal-we must look into the system itself for an explanation of seeming confusion of persons and tenses. (172)

Lin – An English Program for students Handicapped by a Local Dialect

Lin, San‐su C. “An English Program for Students Handicapped by a Local Dialect,”.” College Language Association Journal (1963) Print.

In this article, San-su Lin, described her experience as a professor at Claflin University, a historically Black university, teaching college English to students with “local dialects.”  From the beginning, Lin described the Black students’ dialect  as a “handicap” and impediment to them having group membership in the larger society and achieving upward social mobility. Even though Lin is clear that the lowered status of Black dialects are socially constructed in the United States because of the lowered social status of Blacks in the U.S., she nonetheless advocated for Blacks to adopt the language of wider communication in order to be successful, similarly to the way Green (1963) does. The difference between Lin and Green’s (1963) stance on local dialects is that while Lin described that the dialect is a social barrier, she recognized that the dialect itself is not deficient, but another form of usage:

“In a democratic society like ours… linguistic scientists who have done distinguished work in linguistic history and geography should have convinced us that the only sensible viewpoint we could adopt is a liberal viewpoint, allowing for a variability and flexibility in the matter of English usage. According to this viewpoint, the many so-called incorrect usages condemned by the purists are colloquially acceptable, and the usages that are definitely substandard are actually fewer than we once thought” (145).

Despite this acknowledgement, societal and institutional goals prevail. Lin described a program instituted by Claflin University with support from Teachers’ College faculty and the U.S. Department of Education called the “Pattern Practice in the Teaching of Standard English to Students with a Nonstandard Dialect” (142).  The program started in 1961 and sought to identify the extent to which pattern practice could help “nonstandard” English speakers learn “standard” English as well as develop materials to implement pattern practice with students.

The program included mandatory classes and language labs, but Lin found that American speakers of local dialect had a more difficult time picking up “standard” English because they did not have the same motivations to assimilate as foreign students. To this end, Lin said one of the programs most important goals was to show the students in the Claflin program the extend to their “language problem” which was mainly social (144). Secondly, the program  sought to teach the students the best ways to overcome their “handicap” (146). In addition to in class lessons, students were provided mastertape recordings for more practice.

At the time that the article was written, Claflin was in their third academic year of the program and the final assessment had note been conducted. However, Lin suspected that the success of the program would be seen on a more personal level for the students with increases in confidence and  improvements in attitudes toward English language use. Lin concluded that although she presumed this program to be successful, that “special” English classes for “minority” students with local dialects should not mean remedial English classes. Instead, Lin argued that English programs and teacher training should be re-evaluated and answers to the following questions should be pursued:

“How can we adequately prepare our English majors to teach English as a language as well as literature? How can we alert prospective English teachers not only to the dynamic nature of language but also to the psychological needs of the students? How can we encourage our English majors, even if they do not intend to teach, to cultivate a humanistic interest in our language as an integral part of the humanities, and not merely as a set of mechanical rules and abstract definitions? How can we infuse in our students a sense of urgency in learning, or teaching English which has a great impact not only on a child’s sense of security but on national security as well?” (147)

Ives – Grammatical Assumptions

Ives, S. “Grammatical Assumptions.” College Composition and Communication 5.4 (1954): 149-55. Print. 

In this article, Sumner Ives attempted to clear up the assumptions concerning grammar in English education. Ives began by making the distinction between the what he outlined as two major types of meaning in language 1) grammatical meaning and 2) lexical meaning. Grammatical meaning, according to Ives, refers to structural meanings expressed through words like “the” and “did,” and by tone, pause, pitch, and stress. This, Ives said, falls into the realm of the linguist. As the study and description of devices that convey structural meaning, Ives argued that there are different grammar rules for different languages (152).

Ives also worked to clarify the distinctions between grammar and rhetoric. While he stated grammar  is based on “public observance of certain conventions,” rhetoric on the other hand, is based on “private activity within the limits set by these conventions” (152). Ives asserted that the two influence each other reciprocally and are both necessary for English pedagogy for native English speakers.

One area that is of particular interest to me is Ives explication of this then new understanding of linguistic grammar as opposed to “traditional” grammar. He referred to traditional grammar as being the “retention of earlier methods of authority and reason” and as “rationalistic” (152). Linguistics, however, he described as “the application of modern methods of science and logic” (152). Traditional grammar, Ives pointed out, erroneously relied on one standard of grammar based in Latin. This type of assumption impeded “our” progress in understanding language (153). This seemed very promising in terms of a pedagogy that allowed for multiple understandings of language and communication, especially when Ives explained his view of usage.

Usage refers to the fact that not all people use the same structural or grammatical forms in making equivalent statements. Ives acknowledged that there can be differences of dialects within the same language and asserted it was pointless to discount different usages within English as not being English (154). However, he recognized that different dialects were associated with different social status, such as education level. Ives challenged the oversimplification of usage by education or class level in light of the notion of “universe of discourses” where (154). For example, speech and writing are different universes of discourse. Different usage can be considered correct, accepted, appropriate and characteristic only in terms of the universe of discourse (154).

Ives concluded that in terms of pedagogy “the student should be taught the usages proper to universes of discourse which he is not likely to learn about outside the school” (154). This sounds similar to helping students respond to particular rhetorical situations. Another rhetorical factor Ives alluded to is ethos: “If a new doctor or minister says “you was,” [instead of “you were”] confidence in him is lowered. Educated people should talk like educated people, no matter who is listening or what the occasion may be” (154). Inherent in these statements is a particular understanding of what it means to be educated, as well as a particular understanding of what “proper” grammar is, which by Ives’ own definition of grammar and usage is problematic. For example, if my response to this logic was “who the fuck says?” in stead of “we need to interrogate who gets to determine these rules?” would that be an indication that I was less intelligent? Or, is this just another example of the biases that our society has against dialects that do not come from white people of privileged social status, and the people that use them?

In the end, Ives advocated for a link between linguistics and literature stating that grammar is the foundation for rhetoric. Although he speaks about mastering “native language” it is clear that here he is referring to a standard form of English. Even so, his theories could also be applied to language policies, such as Students’ Rights to Their Own Language.

“Reading enables people to extend their experience, to see the world through other eyes and know it in terms of other concepts and attitudes, for these are implicit in language. In fact, one can argue convincingly that a man has not fully mastered his native language until he has read widely in it, particularly those writings which we call imaginative or creative. It follows, too, that increase in experience, in breadth and depth of experience, results in knowledge of more words and greater facility in the use of language. I regret, as you see, the tendency to regard linguistics and literature as separate fields with little to say to each other and in the position of rivals as teachers of composition” (154).


Lloyd – An English Composition Course Built Around Linguistics

Lloyd, Donald J. “An English Composition Course Built Around Linguistics.” College Composition and Communication 4.2 (1953): 40-3. Print. 

In this article, Donald Lloyd argued for a linguistic approach to the Composition course; one in which both the English language and the students themselves were central. He pointed out that linguistics while respected as a science and put to use in language pedagogy, it was typically used to teach English to non-native speakers and teaching and understanding foreign languages. Lloyd also discussed the disconnect between linguists and English teachers; linguists, he described as, not knowing the concerns of English teachers and not speaking in terms they could understand. At the same time, Lloyd explicated the benefits of English teachers drawing on linguistics in their pedagogy. For example, according to Lloyd, linguistics could help teachers examine their own practices. Teachers could learn to see students as “walking funds of knowledge” from whom they could learn as they teach. He continued:

“Taking (the student) as possessing a matured set of habits-a system of habits-we approach him on the basis of what is now known about habit formation-especially the formation of language habits among people who form a community and meet face to face. If we find anything we have to change in the language of the student-and we do-we know that we are touching something that goes deep into his past and spreads wide in his personal life. We will seek not to dislodge one habit in favor of another but to provide alternative choices for freer social mobility” (42).

Lloyds end goal, similar to Green’s (1963) was to increase the social mobility of a greater number of students. However, contrary to Green’s (1963) approach Lloyd advocated for English teachers to “enrich” and not “correct” their students language habits (42). Lloyd asserted that linguistics would prompt English teachers to be more engaged and proactive – unable “to hide behind other men’s workbooks” (42). His approach also set the precedent for the need for teachers to learn who students are outside of the classroom; working “with”  students, not “on” them (42).