A rilly good blog post

I live in Utah, and in Utah, as in every region of every country on Earth, we have a regional accent. That’s kind of the way languages work: there is a single, overarching language (such as English), and then each area that speaks it will develop, through usage, different ways of pronouncing certain words, different ways of using certain words, and sometimes entirely different words. A native English speaker from Texas will sound different from a native English speaker from New York, or Boston, or Alabama, or Minnesota, or wherever. These smaller groups of linguistic differences are called dialects, and these can be broken down into even smaller groups, all the way down to an ideolect, which is the specific version of a language spoken by a single individual. There are many people who share your dialect, but you are the only person in the world who speaks your ideolect. The technical term for this uniqueness is called “being a precious snowflake.”

Spanish is a great example. Assume that a single, “correct” version of Spanish exists (it doesn’t, but assume it for the sake of this explanation); each country speaks a slightly different subset of this uber-Spanish, and each region of those countries speaks a different version of their nation-Spanish, and each city speaks a different version of their regional-Spanish, and so on. In Spain they pronounce the z as a th, whereas the rest of the Spanish speaking world pronounces it as an s, which is why everyone makes fun of Spaniards for lisping. In Mexico they have a lot of regional dialects: in the south, in Chiapas, they have a lilting, kind of sing-song quality to their sentences, thus changing the tone of the language; in the north, in Chihuahua, they pronounce the ch as sh (as in “Shihuahua”), thus changing the phonemes of the language; in the middle of the country (I forfeit the exact region), they use the word “buscar” to mean both “to look for” and “to find,” thus changing the vocabulary of the language. And those are only a tiny handful of examples.

Each new generation learns to speak their language the same way their parents speak it, while also adding new variations of their own, which both perpetuates the dialectal differences and creates new ones, thus drawing the dialect even further from the hypothetical uber-language it descended from. This can eventually create an all-new language—Spanish descended from Latin via this exact process, as did French, Italian, Portuguese, and others. This is why it’s not only impossible but ridiculous to tell someone from Chihuahua that they’re saying the ch sound wrong because it differs from “real” Spanish—you might just as well say that the entire Spanish-speaking world is wrong because their language differs from “real” Latin. For that matter, you might just as well tell a sparrow his biology is wrong because it differs from the standard dinosaur template his biology is descended from. Things change, and we have to deal with it. That’s why most linguists just look at France’s attempts to legislate their language and laugh.

A great modern example is the word “hopefully,” which used to mean “in a hopeful manner” but now means “I hope.” This modern definition breaks ever grammatical rule we have in English, and yet it is still “correct” because that is how everyone uses it, and usage creates correctness, not the other way around. There’s actually two schools of thought on this, called prescriptive (linguistic rules should prescribe the way people speak) and descriptive (language rules should describe the way people speak). I obviously fall into the latter camp, but there are an astonishing amount of gray areas and exceptions and corner cases in the issue. If I decide that “shnoogenblat” means “blue,” am I wrong? Not within my own ideolect, but no one else will understand me. What if a whole city starts using it? What if a whole nation does it? At what point does it become correct, and is there a point in the middle where it’s still not correct but isn’t really incorrect, either? If everyone in the whole country uses the word “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” is it still wrong? Who decides? How does a proofreader know when to correct them? What does it mean, if anything, that my spellchecker not only accepted the word “ain’t” but actually suggested it when I wrote a-i-n? Even the modern definition of “hopefully,” so commonly used that most people don’t realize it used to mean anything else, is painful to allegedly-descriptive ears. I’ve forced myself to stop correcting people when they use it, but I haven’t yet been able to say it myself.

So anyway, I was talking about the Utah accent. I find this stuff fascinating so I get off on a lot of tangents. Anyway. One of the things we do in Utah is shorten our vowels, for example turning ee into i, and the ay into eh. “I got a rilly good dill on some still-belted tires. They were on sell.” We also drop the Ts from a lot of words, replacing them with glottal stops so that the word “button” turns into “bu’un”, and “mountain” turns into “mou’un.” Most regions of American English drop the Ts from these kinds of words, but it can get really exaggerated here: “I was si’in on the mou’un at Brigh’in, ge’in ready to ski.”

The thing I love about Utah, though, is that people think our accent sounds irredeemably hickish. People in Boston pahk their cahs, dropping their Rs all over the place, but that’s okay because they’re from Boston; people in the south are happy to git somethin done fer ya, but that’s okay because they’re from the south. I knew a guy from New York who named his son Don and his daughter Dawn, and he pronounced them completely differently. I knew another guy from Louisiana who explained that “yall” meant “several of you” and “all yall” meant “all of you.” These are accepted, even “cool” accents and dialects that most people hear without even thinking about, and have no problem understanding or accepting. Tell someone their tell light is out on their car, though, and suddenly you’re a backwoods yokel who doesn’t know how to talk.

Which is not to say that I’m any more accepting of dialectal differences than anyone else. My wife is from Wyoming, where “to be” is a fully optional verb (“The car needs moved”), and I make fun of her and her family all the time. And it still gives me a jarring, ear-gouging headache when people itch something instead of scratching it, or ask me to borrow them some money. I’m a descriptivist, but I also have a degree in editing, and so help me if you say something “wrong” I will love the opportunity to get all up in your face over it. I appreciate, support, and vehemently the defend the concept of linguistic change, but I still love telling people they’re wrong. I guess in the end it’s like freedom of speech: “I do not agree with what you say, sir, but I will defend to the death your right to say it incorrectly.”

22 Responses to “A rilly good blog post”

  1. Alex B. says:

    I’m taking Modern Grammar now, and we’ve talked about this a great deal. I was under the impression that descriptivist and prescriptivist were mainly dealing with written language. I can understand taking a descriptivist approach for colloquial speech, but you have to have a baseline for professional writing-hence Standard American English and the rules of grammar. Some people have been using “ain’t” for what, 200 years? Not everybody does because they think it’s improper, so it’s never managed to crack into the prescribed grammar rules. Most of these changes are pretty temporal, though, because colloquial speech changes over time. You need some sort of guideline to keep it comprehensible, otherwise words like “shnoogenblat” would come and go, muddying up the waters. We add neologisms all the time to the accepted list (for example “computer” didn’t exist as a word 100 years ago) but if we started considering every regional dialect “proper” people in other locales wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. I can read something written by somebody in New York or Los Angeles (or watch a news broadcast from those areas) and still understand because of Standardized Grammar (or Network Standard), so it seems pretty essential to me that we have rules to keep it in line. Pedants must allow it so subtly change as the collective consciousness of the entire language changes-not because somebody in Montana likes to talk differently.

  2. admin says:

    That’s more or less my point, but when and where do you draw the line? One guy in Montana is not going to change the language, but what about 100,000 people in Montana? Or 100,000 people in Los Angeles, which has a much higher cultural impact?

  3. SaintEhlers says:

    to be fair, the guy who is happy to git somethin done fer ya also sounds like a hick. I love my Southern heritage, and the way it sounds, but it’s still hickish when it’s not just the accent but the horrible enunciation as well.

    And no matter how many people say it that way, “Montecello” pronounced with a central “s” sound will always be horribly, offensively, and irrevocably WRONG. Nothing about Utah irritates me so much as that creative little bit of oral stupidity.

  4. SaintEhlers says:

    Oh, and that Bostoner? He isn’t exactly looked at as a triumph of intellectualism. I mean, I love the guys on Car Talk, but they definitely sound “of the people.”

  5. Gina says:

    Pennsylvanians drop the “to be,” also. And Central PA is just as hickish as the South, but the accent doesn’t have quite the twang the South gets.

    One of my friends was born in Germany but moved to Texas in his teens, and he says yall like it’s his business but otherwise has no hint of a Southern accent (or a German one, for that matter). I think it’s really interesting to see how a person’s accent changes when they move to a new place.

  6. Matthew Watkins says:

    One of my favorite questions to ask my classes is “What kind of spider climbs up the water spout?” On average, the classes tend to split down the middle with slight variance that seems to correlate with where their parents come from, but I still find it fascinating.

    ps. Itsy Bitsy.

  7. Katya says:

    My wife is from Wyoming, where “to be” is a fully optional verb . . .

    To be fair to Dawn, I’m betting she doesn’t ever say “I happy” instead of “I am happy” or “You talking” for “You were talking.” In fact, it probably just occurs with “needs” + a past participle. I know people with the same dialectical quirk from Idaho and Utah, and one of my linguistics books says that the isogloss for that feature extends as far east as Pennsylvania.

  8. Allison Hill says:

    This made me laugh so hard. Here in Ohio they tell me I have an accent and all the while I laugh at theirs. I try to drop the Utah so people here don’t make fun of me, but when we got back home after 2 weeks in Utah for Christmas, the first thing I did when we got in the house was tell Chris to go to the store because we needed “melk”. Just like riding a bicycle.
    I don’t really care how people pronounce words like ‘sale’, but if they actually SPELL it ‘sell’ it drives me nuts.
    Chris, by the way, also insists that ‘to be’ is optional and uses Dawn as his defense.

  9. Alex B. says:

    Dan: I see what you’re saying. I would argue that it becomes proper once it becomes ingrained in the collective culture of the American English language. By that, I mean that the difference is acknowledged and accepted across the country-to the point where people stop thinking about it. Even if everybody in California decided something was proper, if those millions in New York decided something else was proper, it would be chaos. Do you accept both variations just because a lot of people do? Or do you let it be unless it becomes overwhelmingly universal? I would argue the latter. Everybody has to more or less reach a consensus before you can start changing the guidelines for everybody. This has happened (“Thou” and “art” are now considered “improper” by most grammarians), it just takes a long time. In Biology you talk about divergent evolution, where a group splits off and evolves into something totally different (also called speciation). Standard American English keeps this from happening, tying the groups together and forcing them to co-evolve rather than splinter. The same applies to grammar, and I would say changes don’t mean anything until they are accepted across the board.

  10. Christoph says:

    I can´t say anything about English dialects. If I were to talk to any of you, I am sure you would all say I have a German dialect.
    But I am fully with you in the love of telling people they said something wrong. That may or may not have anything to do with me studying computer science and german linguistics, but I love correcting others. Especially I love correcting what others wrote… I´m a real devil in spellchecking, I just can´t help it. And this is something that I may very well do with English – things like u, ur, man that creeps me out!

  11. Dan I would appreciate it if you didn’t lump all Utahans together. In southern Utah we don’t drop t’s like you people up north. In fact we mock those you say words like that. That being said it’s crick instead of creek. We also draw out our words. Though when I lived in West Virginia I learned to speak without moving my lower job and how to properly say y’all and ustedcould.

  12. Brinestone says:

    This topic is one that my husband, an editor and linguistics masters student, is planning on writing his thesis about (not sure exactly what specifically). He believes that descriptivists and prescriptivists are unnecessarily at odds with each other, that prescriptivism is a natural force in language, as worthy of being left alone as any other natural force, and he believes it’s a shame that no real linguists are talking about prescriptivism with the goal of finding out what exactly it’s doing and why (in specific cases). Rather, pro linguists are universally descriptivists and, further, prescriptivist haters. I think it’s really interesting stuff, which I guess is one of the reasons I enjoy being married to him.

  13. Steve D says:

    You know, I had a teacher at BYU tell me my Spanish was wrong. What a moron. And she wasn’t even a native Spanish speaker.

    According to her, Chilean Spanish > Mexican Spanish. Of course, she was also not smart enough to understand what I was actually telling her she could do with herself with the verb coher.

  14. admin says:

    I actually dropped out of a Spanish minor because of all the dialectal differences. The third or fourth time your Argentine professor tells you the entire nation of Mexico uses the wrong vocabulary, you’re pretty much done with the program.

  15. Andrea says:

    Ah, it drove me nuts when I first moved to Albuquerque and, even here in NEW Mexico, the accepted pronunciation of some Spanish place names is the English, not Spanish pronunciation. Someone told me something was on the street “Wantabow”, and it took me a very long time to figure out they were talking about “Juan Tabo”!

  16. Fantastic post. Thanks for this thoughtful and detailed analysis. Personally, I would rather that people learn how to speak correctly, than to have the rules change to fit the people. Am I weird that way? Well, I’m weird in a whole lot of other ways, so I might as well be weird in that way, too …

  17. Kimberly says:

    I’m from Vancouver, Canada where, of course, we haven’t got any sort of accent at all. That’s why we’re generally such pleasant and friendly people, you see. We’re so vastly amused by the rest of North America and live in a constant state of entertainment.

    Fascinating post. Very thought provokin’ an’ all.

  18. C12VT says:

    One of the neat things about this when writing is that you can subtly signal where someone came from by their word choice – do they drink soda or pop? Do they live on a creek, a stream or a brook?

    Of course, getting it wrong can really irritate readers who are familiar with the regional dialect. I’ve had several instances of reading an American character written by a British author and being irked when that character says something an American just wouldn’t say. I’m sure this happens even more frequently in reverse.

    My husband also says the “needs moved” type construction. He’s from Western Pennsylvania. I heard (I think on the NPR podcast “A Way with Words”, which is a really fun show about language) that this may be an adaptation from Scots-Irish or German constructions.

  19. Liz says:

    As a Texan who moved to Utah for college, I can’t go anywhere without getting made fun of. I managed to pick up the “sell” and “fill” (for sale and feel) habit while keeping my penchant for three-syllable-long vowels, such as the word “bye.” In spite of that, I’m a stickler for correct usage in writing!

    My husband does the “needs moved” construction, which used to drive me crazy, but it doesn’t anymore. I won’t let my kids say it, though.

  20. Lily says:

    Interesting post!

    In many ways, I think of the spoken and written forms of a language as being like conjoined twins — intimately connected, but far from uniform in character. Grammar and vocabulary are essential to all levels of communication, but the speed and informal nature of conversation (as well as regional differences allowing for different interpretations of a word’s pronunciation) allow it to evolve far more drastically.

    I think that’s good. If everyone wrote as he spoke, then any time he wanted to read a book from a different region — or, Heaven help him, a different country — he would have to learn his language all over again. Picking up a few differences in vocabulary (flat, tyre, kerb) is much easier than learning a new version of your language every time. Even dialect-heavy books generally have some differentiation between the spoken dialogue and the more normal text of the narration to help you adjust.

    I do think that proper spelling and grammar are imperative in printed material. Books, especially, are seen as authorities, because the mighty editor, having proof-read the work several times, has given it his solemn seal of approval and sent it to the press. Time and time again, though, I come across authors who never use the word “whom” and blithely scatter sentence fragments across the page. I shudder to think of people looking to those books as a linguistic authority — I don’t want words to die because of ignorance perpetuating itself!

    Er, back to the topic of spoken language. I find it amazing not that there *are* a myriad of dialects for each language, but how different they make the language — and with it, the person’s voice, and the connotations of the words and tone he uses — sound. Anna Friel (co-star of the TV show “Pushing Daisies”) is a great example. There’s an interview on YouTube of her switching between her native English (sorry, not sure which part of England) accent and the American accent she uses on the show. The change in pitch and inflection make her sound like a different person.

    I wonder if you could have a language without dialects. You’d need either a lot of magic or a world even more connected than our own. Since every region develops its own culture based on shared experiences and traditions, words and phrases specific to that culture would have to become commonplace across the country. I don’t think you could eliminate phrases — the language would have to be so inclusive that everyone would use “ain’t” interchangeably with “isn’t,” and exclaim “Blimey!” as often as they did “Whoa!” Pronunciation and phrasing would have to be standardized, so that every lilt and lullaby would be familiar and carry the same connotations.

    Even then, I think connotations would arise. Someone who listens to Strauss all the long, hot summer will not identify with a person who associates Strauss with the grey skies and drizzle of a miserable autumn. Words, like music, are so intricately tied to memories that the feelings they evoke would vary even if all the words and pronunciations were the same. If the feelings were similar across a community due to shared experiences, you’d have a mental dialect instead of a spoken one.

    So, since dialects are a natural part of the language, when do the grammatical imperfections of a dialect (e.g. “ain’t”) become the correct forms? I’m not sure that they ever do. Just because everyone makes the same mistake doesn’t mean they were secretly doing the right thing. Everyone in the whole country could put bubblegum into their cars instead of gas and it wouldn’t mean that their cars suddenly ran on bubblegum.

    A widely-used dialect *can* become a language, though. Spanish, as you pointed out, can’t be judged by its Latin predecessor. If a large number of people were to discard or change a good chunk of English’s grammar and vocabulary, they wouldn’t be speaking English any more — or at least not the current version of it. I suppose you could divide it from English in the same way that Old, Middle, and Modern English are divided. That new language would have its own rules and, consequently, new dialects.

    Oh! I did want to say that people do still use “hopefully” in the correct fashion. Consider the following:

    They had left the chicken unguarded. Spot crept out from under the table and peered hopefully at a drumstick poking over the rim of the platter. Was it close enough to grab?

    It was.

    P.S. Sorry for the lengthy and meandering comment; I just wanted to write out the thoughts your post provoked.

  21. Chris says:

    Wow! Look at all the comments. This *was* a rilly good blog post. I completely love love love it. Sometimes I feel like such a nerd, and elitest, for even knowing prescriptive from descriptive. Under the directive of descriptive language, I don’t usually correct people outloud, but you can bet I’m doing it in my head. I think it’s funny to use phrases like “borrow me some money” and “I done did it,” knowing that they are incorrect. The sad part is that the fun is wearing off since too many people don’t get the joke.

  22. LHardy says:

    And, and, and! Don’t forget the Northern Utah “ar”! As in “Lard, Darthy. Wear the arange farmal to the ward party.” (For those uninitiated, that’s “Lord, Dorothy. Wear the orange formal to the ward party.”)

    Fun post, makes me a little homesick for some rilly cold melk and cookies.

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