Language Varieties

Links and resources: Bad Grammar, Broken English, and Language Varieties

What’s the difference between languages, dialects and accents?

First, here’s the breakdown according to linguists: Languages are mutually intelligible systems. That means that the speakers can understand each other. A monolingual English speaker from New York can communicate with an English speaker from Texas and an English speaker from London. But a monolingual English speaker can’t communicate with a monolingual Nepali speaker. English and Nepali are different languages – they are mutually unintelligible. Within a single language, there are different varieties. There can be differences in pronunciation (like the difference between English from California, from Boston, and from Florida). These different types of pronunciation are different accents. There can be native accents as well as foreign accents. Actually, we all speak with an accent, you just don’t tend to pay close attention to pronunciation until you’re talking to people who speak differently from. To that person, you probably have an accent. Dialects are mutually intelligible systems with slightly different grammar rules. For example, British English is structurally different from mainstream American English. Compare the following:

-Has John any money? (British) vs. Does John have any money? (American)
-I’ll catch you up. (British) vs. I’ll catch up with you. (American)
-I’ll not have a bath tonight. (British) vs. I won’t take a bath tonight. (American)

It’s important to note that these dialects are structurally different, but that they are systematic and they tend to be considered equally valid. People may think that one sounds better than the other (and speakers of different dialects often do have different accents as well), but it’s widely recognized that that’s just personal preference and not a matter of one being linguistically superior to another.

Another dialect of English is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It has also been called Black English or Ebonics. The name is actually misleading – not all speakers of AAVE are African American, and not all African Americans speak AAVE. But this is what it’s called in the field, so unless we find a better name for it, AAVE it is. As before, compare the following structures:

-He singin. (AAVE) vs. He’s singing. (Mainstream American)
-He be singin. (AAVE) vs. He sings. (Mainstream American)
-He been singin. (AAVE) vs. He’s been singing. (Mainstream American)
-He ain’t never sang like that before. (AAVE). vs. He has never sung like that before. (Mainstream American)

The first sentence is in the present tense in both varieties. The second sentence shows a habitual action, and the third sentence is used to describe a situation that started in the past and continues to the present. Again, these varieties are structurally different, but that they are both systematic and one is not linguistically superior to another. Some people have argued that “double negatives” like “ain’t never” cancel each other out and make a positive. However, in other languages like mainstream Spanish, this is a typical linguistic structure. The technical term for this is negative concord.

Unfortunately, AAVE is NOT consistently recognized as systematic and linguistically valid by many mainstream English speakers. It has been called “ungrammatical”, “incorrect” and “broken English”. But, the difference between the levels of prestige of so-called “Standard English” and AAVE has nothing to do with the validity of linguistic structures. What it comes down to is the prestige of the people who speak it. “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. -Unknown.