Category Archives: Language


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.

Language Contact

Links and resources: Language Contact

Loan Words

Loan words are words from one language that are incorporated into the vocabulary of another language. Some examples in English are sushi from Japanese, astrology from Greek, and justice from French. English is known for having lots of words from various backgrounds. These days, other languages are English words like computer.

For some examples of words that English got from other languages, check out the extensive Wikipedia collection here:
English isn’t the only language with loan words! For some examples of Spanish words originally from Arabic:

Do borrowed words degrade a language?

No! Languages change over time. Words are lost, words are gained, and sometimes words change their meanings. None of the world’s languages today are spoken the way they were 100 years ago. In fact, the romance languages, (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and more) were once considered “degraded” forms of Latin. Some people have a tendency to call language change “degradation” as it happens around them. But historically, language change is rather referred to as “evolution”.

Code Switching

When two bilinguals who speak the same languages talk to each other, it’s possible for code switching to occur. Code switching is the use of two languages in one conversation. Although code switching has a reputation among some people as coming from the random mixing and imperfect use of two languages, there is a structure to code switching. Switches have to adhere to the structural rules of both languages. Therefore, bilinguals who use a lot of code switching are very highly proficient in both of their languages – they’re following the rules of both systems at once!

People code switch for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there’s a word or phrase that is hard to translate to another language. Other times, speakers may change languages according to the topic they’re talking about. (For example, two Russian-English bilingual teenagers talking in English about school topics, and in Russian about family topics.) Code switching can also be used to emphasize a shared culture and identity.

What is “Spanglish”, and why do people speak it?

“Spanglish” refers to the dual use of English and Spanish in a single conversation. Due to the widespread use of Spanish-English code switching, and the resulting recurrent patterns, some have argued that Spanglish is its own “intertwined language“.  Spanglish is not “degraded Spanish”, nor is it “broken English”. Rather, Spanglish is a language variety that some people use to represent the culture and identity of Spanish-English bilinguals.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins develop as a form of communication between speakers who do not share a common language. (This is different from code switching, which includes bilinguals who speak both of each other’s languages). Historically, pidgin varieties are developed in situations such as trade, or as a result of the oppression of one group by another, such as colonization.

In cases where pidgin varieties are spoken for an extended period of time, and are spoken by a second generation as a native language, they become Creoles. Creoles are fully systematic, structured, legitimate languages. Historically, creoles have been devalued because people thought they sounded like “broken English” or “corrupted French”. However, with increased awareness about the grammatical systems of creoles, these varieties have gained more legitimacy in the minds of their speakers and surrounding communities.

Watch a video about Jamaican Patois (Patwa) here: (2mins 20sec).

Further Reading: 

One introductory textbook that covers topics related to language contact and language attitudes in great detail is Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism, by Carol Myers-Scotton. (Blackwell, 2006).

What is language?

Links and resources: What is language?

How many languages are there in the world?

Ethnologue number of languges

From July, 2015: click the image to go to the original website

A great resource to find out about the world’s languages, where they are spoken, and how many speakers there are is Currently, Ethnologue estimates there are 7,102 living languages.

Which 5 languages are the most widely spoken?

According to Ethnologue, the languages with the most native speakers, at over 100 million each, are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English Hindi-Urdu, and Arabic. In May 2015, the South China Morning Post (international edition) made this fun infographic! Click to see it in high resolution on the original website.

A world of languages

From South China Morning Post: click the image to see original website

What are the parts of language?

General Resources
The following books provide a nice overview of linguistics (the scientific study of language), including all the parts outlined below. The first two are the textbooks I’ve used in my Introduction to Linguistics class. The third is a fun introduction to linguistics by analyzing jokes.

Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Published by the Ohio State University Linguistics Department.
An Introduction to Langauge. Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. Published by Cengage Learning.
Understanding Language Through Humor. Stanley Dubinsky and Chris Holcomb. Published by Cambridge.

Languages can be broken down into the following subparts:

Phonetics: the study of the physical  properties of speech sounds.

Phonology: the study of the sound system in a spoken language, including which sounds are present in a language, and the rules for their combination. In signed languages, phonology consists of the combination of handshapes, movements, and locations.

Morphology: the study of the way words are constructed.

Syntax: the study of phrase and sentence formation.

Semantics: the study of the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

Pragmatics: the study of the rules governing the use of language. For example, how context and situation affect meaning.

Internet compilations of interesting words in other languages