There’s no such thing as proper English: Stigmatised varieties of English
By Peter Miljak
In 1945, Yiddish sociolinguist Max Weinreich remarked in his native language; “a shprakh iz a dyalekt mit an armey un flot” – “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. The difference between a language and a dialect has always been a fraught and contentious issue, and this is mainly because making a distinction between language and dialect creates an inherent hierarchy. That is, if you speak a ‘dialect’ of a language, you speak in a non-standard way, a markedly different way to the expected norm. When this aspect of difference is combined with cultural stereotyping, the use of a particular dialect becomes a way to discriminate against individuals from minority groups.
From the perspective of sociolinguistics however, (as Weinreich was implying), dialects are not lesser offshoots of a particular language. Rather, any one language has various varieties which, in a linguistic sense at least, are equally rich and complex. For example, Weinreich’s Yiddish, is not a dialect of standard German, in reality standard German and Yiddish could either be considered two equally rich and complex languages. The point is that negative attitudes of standard German speakers towards Yiddish, and efforts by governments to supress Yiddish throughout the 20th century were simply rooted in antisemitism, not any linguistic evidence.
The way we inaccurately create a hierarchy of language has major implications in the English-speaking world (which is a rapidly increasing part of the whole world!). In the case of the English language, the standard variety has changed a lot throughout history, reflecting the speech of those who possessed the most power and influence in society.
These days, General American English takes the place as the de facto standard variety of English internationally; it is considered ‘default’ and is the language of mass media. Clearly, most people don’t use General American English in Australia, you can get by perfectly adequately speaking with a General Aussie accent in any English-speaking country. Therefore, in the English-speaking world, we see an inner circle of ‘standard varieties’ which are considered acceptable for use in public life, including education and academia, the judicial system, healthcare, business… the list goes on. Unfortunately, advancing through life is much more complicated if your variety of English is not deemed ‘standard’.
Probably the most well-known stigmatised variety of English today is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is a group of varieties of English that developed among African American communities in the US. AAVE developed from contact between slaves-speakers of West African languages and their English-speaking slave ‘masters’ as well as indentured servants from Ireland and Britain. The Black Lives Matter movement has contributed to a growing mainstream understanding that AAVE is not “broken English” but a variety just like any other with its own grammatical and phonological rules. However, in the case of AAVE, a double standard still persists in that when non-AAVE English speakers take elements of AAVE to create slang terms, it is often viewed as ‘cool’ or ‘innovative’, whereas Black Americans are viewed as less intelligent when they speak in their own variety and are expected to code-switch into a standard variety in most public settings.
In recent years there has been an increasing use of “imagined black English '' on the internet, in which non-AAVE speakers anonymously use AAVE (often incorrectly) as it is considered cool slang (think twitter stan language). While people who use AAVE incorrectly may not intend to mock or stereotype AAVE, it is a potentially problematic activity, as there is a long history of AAVE being mocked in black-face minstrel shows. This has led to some commentators using the term “digital blackface” to describe incorrect and anonymous use of AAVE online. An element of AAVE which has recently been taken by non-AAVE speakers and used inauthentically in internet slang is the word “be”.
Did you know that “be” can actually be used as a grammatical particle in AAVE to indicate a habitual action? For example:
We be workin 24/7 = We (habitually) work 24/7
We workin = We are working (right now)
Whether or not taking words and grammar from AAVE is problematic, AAVE continues to have a major influence on standard varieties. Many words from AAVE, have now been de-contextualized from their origin by non-AAVE speakers and are now considered regular slang terms in standard varieties:
Diss = short for disrespect
Beef = conflict
Squash=to resolve or put an end to a situation
Give props = to give praise
So, what about closer to home then? A very important variety of English which is still poorly understood in mainstream Australia is Aboriginal English (AbE). According to the 2021 census, there are 812,728 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander People, with 84% speaking English at home. Unfortunately, the proportion of these people who speak Aboriginal English is not known. The principal reason for this is that Aboriginal English is often not seen as its own variety of English by both Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians or regarded as ‘broken English’. On top of this, it is hard to classify what Aboriginal English is from a linguistic perspective, as it can be used along a spectrum with standard English. That is, speakers of Aboriginal English may only use AbE at home but must code switch to Standard Australian English is public settings to avoid discrimination.
The fact that AbE is not recognized as a variety of English with equal richness and complexity to standard Australian English has clear implications, especially in education. While Standard Australian English is the language of education in Australia, teachers who consider AbE to be ‘broken English’ may overcorrect Indigenous students when they speak, leading to the student having a negative self-perception of their own variety of English, followed by a loss of connection to culture.
While AbE varies a lot in its structure and vocabulary depending on the person or region, there are many cool features from the perspective of a linguistics nerd that are worth researching. For example, did you know that for some speakers of Aboriginal English, the pronoun E or im can be used to mean any of He, She, him, her or It? Or that for some speakers, kinship terms are reciprocal, meaning granny can be used by grandchildren to refer to their grandmother or vice versa.
Regardless of what variety of English someone speaks, I like to live by a general rule: If you can understand someone well enough to correct them, then why correct them?
Bolger, R. (2020) “While many Indigenous languages are disappearing, one has more speakers than ever,” SBS, 16 November 2020
Census of Population and Housing: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population summary. (2022) Canberra , ACT.
Davis , S. (2022) “Aboriginal English – what isn’t it?,” IndigenousX, 13 January. Available at: https://indigenousx.com.au/aboriginal-english-what-isnt-it/.
Future Englishes - Is Standard English the Only Educational Standard? (2017) TedxStoke. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvsSF2BLcVY&list=PLl8pjvqZvptML3RSmZDZ-_1ESeGsuGHau&index=11
Koch, H, & Nordlinger, R (eds) 2014, The Languages and Linguistics of Australia : A Comprehensive Guide, De Gruyter, Inc., Berlin/Boston