'Ain't' -- it don't make no difference

That is to say, a West Virginia linguistics professor says, don't disrespect dialects.

February 20, 2000|By Robin T. Reid | Robin T. Reid,Special to the Sun

To say Kirk Hazen is surprised by how some folks are reacting to his theory that there is no incorrect way of speaking is an understatement.

Hazen, a 30-year-old linguistics professor at West Virginia University, stumbled into the limelight last fall after writing an article on the university's West Virginia Dialects Project for the school's alumni magazine. Essentially, Hazen maintains that one cannot equate dialect with intelligence.

His theory hit the news wires, and within a few weeks, he was fielding calls from reporters, and his supervisors were fielding complaints from people -- including some alumni -- demanding the professor's resignation. One went as far as threatening to tell his company's human resources department never to hire a West Virginia University graduate again.

Hazen has been amazed at the reaction. After all, he explains, linguists have been saying pretty much the same thing for years. And what his critics either are ignoring or failing to understand is his belief that language and writing are two very different creatures. Apparently, he says, they can't see past the notion that "ain't" ain't necessarily a bad thing.

In between teaching and caring for his 8-week-old son, Hazen discussed dialects and language during interviews from his home in Morgantown.

What exactly is dialect?

A dialect is a neutral label for a variety of language spoken by a social group. The reasons humans have language is natural development. No human being invented language, and we [linguists] don't mean writing, and we don't mean rhetoric. Language is autonomous from cognition, the same way I don't have to think about breathing. Writing, however, is an invention and has to be formally taught.

If there should be no standard for spoken English, why do we study grammar?

Grammar started off as one of the seven liberal arts. In medieval universities it was the primary one because you needed it before you went on to study the rest. In the early part of the 20th century, the belief was that if you have something tedious, it's good for you. Like diagramming sentences. We've found out that it doesn't work, but it's still in use. Because it's tedious and difficult, it must build some kind of mental callus.

Why do we have different dialects?

All living languages are continuously changing, and that results in different dialects. You can go back to Biblical texts and see that dialects have always been used to pick out someone from a different culture. Written language ... is a vastly different thing. We use language for writing the same way we use vision for driving. Do I think that people should learn standard spelling? Sure. I also want my students to learn rhetoric and to learn public speaking, which is different from changing your dialect.

Some dialects will break off and become different languages. Language change is inevitable. It's like trying to stop evolution; it's neither resulting in things that are good or bad. Not that many people object to language change. What they object to is dialect variations, such as Northerners thinking that all Southerners are stupid. Essentially, certain dialect features are seen as bad because certain people are seen as bad.

Is there a difference between accent and dialect?

Accent is part of a dialect, the actual pronunciation of it. Other parts of dialects are words. There's the great pop vs. soda debate. In the South, everything is a Coke. When I first went South, I ordered a Sprite and they'd say, "OK, one Coke," and I'd say, "No, a Sprite." I was so confused. The rest of [a dialect] is how you put words together, which we call morphology, and how you put phrases together, which we call syntax.

Do you have some favorite dialects and expressions?

Appalachian Southern, the Outer Banks [of North Carolina] and black English. One of my favorites is "y'all." About 300 years ago, we lost part of our pronoun system, clearly the second-person singular. What a lot of dialects have done is try to repair that hole so "you" is singular and "y'all" is plural. But it gets picked on terribly. Another is "miserable in the wind," from Ocracoke Island [N.C.], which is a fishing village. The expression was a reference to getting caught out in a gale. It means agitated, uneasy, feeling bad. My favorite Southern verb is "fixing to." It's much better than "I'm about to."

So, double negatives are OK, too? When did they become taboo?

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