In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”

Fast-forward a week and I’m sitting in the back conference room at Merriam-Webster. We’re two hours into my portion of the video shoot. Though we’re using “cool lights,” it’s 100 degrees in the room; my throat is raw; I am wearing enough makeup to cover the surface of the moon; my antiperspirant has long since given up the pH-balanced ghost and I am sweating through my clothes. I know that we are fast approaching the tipping point when I will end up slipping into complete incoherence and blinking idiocy, the point when I will not be able to say my very own name without getting it wrong, which means we need to finish this script quickly, quickly.

It is, of course, the script that features the word “towards.”

My reserves, which are naturally on the scanty side when you put me in front of a camera, were very low as we started. I tried to relax as I came up on “towards,” but I could feel my stomach tighten. “That’s the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I’ve been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right  TWAAAAAAARDS,” I brayed like Balaam’s ass.

The director looked out from behind the monitor. “Um, okay,” she laughed. “Let’s try that again?”

It took five more takes, each sounding slightly less asinine before we moved on to the next script. Even now, I can’t watch the video because there is still a hint of ohmigod, ohmigod in my eyes as I say “towards.”

We finished; I raced back upstairs to the burlap comfort of my cubicle; I pulled up the entry for “towards” in the Online Dictionary.

hee-haw, motherfuckers I put my head down on my desk in relief. “I knew it,” I whispered, prompting my long-suffering cubicle mate to mutter, “I’m sure you did.”

Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated. They’re part of the reason why we have five listed pronunciations of “towards” in the Online Dictionary; they’re the birthplace of words both loved (“kerfuffle”) and despised (“irregardless”); they’re the linguistic air we live and move and have our being in. 

To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic,  tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.

You know what I mean. You’re on the bus, heading home from work. Some people are reading; some people are talking on their phones; some people are having loud, shrieking conversations with each other. (I am leaning against the window, hoping the swaying of the bus will jostle my after-work brain back into place.) Two teenagers are talking:

“Yeah, I aks him, how many tesses you gonna give us? And he’s all, I ain’t tell you that!”

“We better not have no tesses on Wednesday. I workin’ Tuesdays.”

“I hear that.”

At this point, I will close my eyes, because there will be at least one person on the bus (and usually it turns out to be the person sitting next to me) who will crane their neck to verify that the teens in question are black, and then will turn to me and sneer, “God, don’t they teach English anymore?”

I will keep my eyes closed, because I do not want to have this conversation right now. I do not want to open my eyes and stare sweet, smiling death at this person and inform them that what the teenagers are speaking is, in fact, English. I do not want to try to explain to this person–a person who is, no doubt, just as tired and carsick as I am–that the teenagers are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English, that the dialect is actually a rich and complex (albeit controversial) one, and that if the listener doesn’t like listening to AAVE, then they can stop eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn’t involve them.

Languages are made up of dialects. They fit together like jigsaw puzzles: remove one or two pieces and you’ll still be able to see the whole image, but the picture is incomplete nonetheless and you’re definitely not getting more than $0.50 for it at a garage sale. Oh, of course, you nod, dialects GOOD–and yet there are likely dialects you’d be happy to lose between the couch cushions or down the heating vent. It’s easy to decry the banning of a dialect you don’t encounter in a far-away school district; it’s much harder to live with the dialects that ride the bus with you. I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong.

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

My classmates and I came of age before the Great Ebonics Controversy, but what boiled over in Oakland was simmering everywhere else. I watched my African-American friends split over sounding “white” and sounding “black.” One particularly nasty middle-school teacher told students that if he called on them and they spoke “improper English,” they’d receive a failing grade in class participation; more than once he told students to “learn the language we speak here in the U.S.” My friend Stephanie was incensed. We lay on our stomachs in her living room, doing our current events homework and talking about this teacher. She sneered, “I don’t need no old white man tellin’ me to learn English, ‘cuz I already speak it.” Her mother hollered from the kitchen, “I don’t need some, Stephanie. Some old white man.” 

Even my less-reviled dialect of birth proved problematic. When I moved east for college, I had to learn to code-switch again. I said “howdy” so many times that someone worked up the courage to ask if I lived on a ranch (no) and rode a horse to school (are you fucking kidding me?). If I let “well” slip into a polysyllabic smear, I could expect to hear someone respond with a “yeehaw.” I switched from “pop” to “soda,” from “sub” to “grinder.” It was in vain. “Wow,” my college roommate said to me the first time I met her, “you have an accent.”

“So do you,” I responded, and she riposted with exactly what I was thinking. “Nuh-uh,” she said. “No, I talk normal.”

Everyone, from the guy with the poshest British accent on record to me in full-on hick mode, thinks that they talk normally. And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture, a context, an era that is peculiar to them, and within that culture, context, and era, their speech is normal. That’s why, when we want to lampoon uncool parents in comedies, we have them either use the slang of their generation (“Groovy, man”) or butcher the slang of their children’s generation (“That plan sounds radical, my home bro.”) The language of their youth is outdated, and they haven’t mastered the language of today’s youth. They are linguistically out of joint, which leads to copious lulz.

People like to belong; the corollary is that we like to set up boundaries between us and them.  And so most of us struggle to accept that different ways of speaking are just that: different, not wrong. We’ve had a lot of correspondents write in recently to complain about Ebonics and how it’s ruining the purity of English &c. Ignoring the fact that “Ebonics” is a skunked and outdated term, used more to disparage than anything else, the complaints have touched on American-English spellings, the pronunciation of “nuclear,” and the existence of “irregardless”–none of which are unique to or markers of AAVE. Furthermore, lots of the constructions used in AAVE are also used in Southern American English. Are you sure it’s all AAVE’s fault?

The impulse to set up divisive boundaries runs deep: even though I’m a dialect lover (so much so that the first time I met a new colleague who grew up in Pittsburgh, I immediately pestered him to do the dialect, do it, do it, and wouldn’t leave him alone until he had), I’m not above sneering myself.

My youngest daughter is a crazy smart, crazy chatty girl who happens to have spent her formative linguistic years outside of Philadelphia. This means she has a terminal case of hoagiemouth: the odd diphthonged Philly O; the pronunciation /wooder/ for “water”; the way that she says the personal pronoun “I” as if she is reciting, in reverse alphabetical order and all at once, all the vowels we have in English.

One day I came home from work to find her playing videogames on the couch. “Have you done your homework?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she responded, “I’m done my homework.”

The cliché record scratch, the loud fart in church. “You’re what?”

“I’m done my homework.”

It’s a common construction in these parts: you hear every local with every level of education say, “I’m done my/the X.” And yet hearing it in the mouth of my daughter drove me–champion of dialect!–out of my goddamned mind, because so Labov help me, someday you are going to be in a job interview and you’re going to tell someone ‘you’re done your college education,’ and they are going to think you are a moron and you will never get a job, and then you will live with me forever.

That I code-switched as a kid–and was called out for not code-switching at home–was lost on me as I pictured this bright young woman, my baby, being called “stupid” because of that dialectal missing preposition. I tried to gently impress this on her.

She was unfazed. “Whatever,” she said, “you say ‘howdy’ and you got a job.”

“You just need to realize,” I fretted, “that people will judge you based on how you talk.”

“Mom,” she said, “I know.” Of course she knows: I’m judging her already.

Standard English (a dialect in and of itself, hey oh!) is the form of English used by the people with power and prestige, but it is a minority dialect. Most English speakers natively speak something besides Standard English. It’s also mutable as different groups with different speech patterns gain power and prestige. “Sunk” for “sank” was once derided as wrong, hickish, and uneducated in the U.S. Now it’s Standard English. “Aks” for “ask” isn’t illiterate: it was the original pronunciation of “ask” and appears in a number of American-English dialects. It’s ludicrous to think that the vast majority of people who use the “aks” pronunciation–people who, unlike lexicographers, go outside on a regular basis and have human interaction with a wide variety of people–don’t know that it’s not the currently accepted pronunciation.

So when you encounter dialect in the wild, instead of getting angry that another English speaker is ruining English, perhaps see it as a sign of acceptance. The speaker feels comfortable enough with you to let down their guard and speak in the most natural way possible. You might consider reciprocating. After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there. 



Filed under general, grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English, Uncategorized

94 responses to “In Defense of Talking Funny

  1. Justice Breyer in a recent interview with Linda Greenhouse referenced a test where you determine what regional dialect you have. I took what appears to be what he referenced and apparently “sneakers” is a major tell.

  2. Please please can you dump everything you know about dialects into my head because they are the coolest thing under the sun. In my next life I’m specializing in dialects and social class, not stupid math and copyediting. (NB: not actually stupid.)

    • Kory Stamper

      Here is a truth thing: I don’t actually know that much about dialects. I’m not a dialectician, so if there are any for-reals dialecticians reading this, feel free to give me the smackdown where necessary.

      But I’m with you: dialects are just the best thing ever.

      • What I think is interesting about your dialect, Kory, is your deliberate mix of urban slang into an intellectual dialect, like you are secretly embarrassed about how smart you are, so you sprinkle in “for-reals” and “smackdown” so that everyone knows you’re just folks. I’m not putting you down — it’s a common practice among educators, librarians, and others who realize that if you come across too “scholarly” you’ll turn people off.

        • Kory Stamper

          It’s the other way around: I talk up to hide the fact that I tend towards doofiness and still, to this very day, cannot spell “achieve” without looking it up.

          (I have many thoughts on intentionally “pitching down” or “pitching up” your vocab, but those thoughts are inextricably tied to other thoughts on gender, class, race, historical views of education and illiteracy, place, personal value, and declared/hidden identities, and good lord & butter, no one wants to hear me go on about any of those.)

          • davidly

            I can understand why you might not want to go on about any of those, but don’t be so sure none of us would fully appreciate your giving it a go.

            In that vein: Instructive for me in teaching students an additional language has been that status concepts taught in theater also play an interesting role in how confidently we are able to express ourselves in any language when faced with someone we’ve unconsciously subordinated ourselves to and, conversely, how we might intimidate others without being aware of it because our competence in expressing ourselves makes them feel insecure, further hindering their ability whenever they speak to us.

          • You don’t realize what a bunch of word nerds your fan base is, do you? Of course we’d like to hear you go on about that stuff!

    • Osmond Naylor

      Howay owwer t the North East of England marra if yer want t knaa aboot dialects. (Come over the the North East of England friend if you want to know about dialects). You will find a great mixture of Scandinavian, old English, some Scots as well as old German and French. The word ‘marra’ actually has three meanings. A friend or workmate, A question about the state of something. A vegetable called a marrow, like a very large courgette. As in this old joke. A chap is watching his friend digging up vegetables in his garden and a very sorry marrow is produced. The chap watching asks. “What’s the marra with yer marra, marra”?

  3. I’ve always used and preferred “toward” in and out of the dictionary.

  4. Nori

    Missed you!
    My favorite dialect story is a bumper sticker you (one) used to see in Vermont: MAD RIVER GLEN. SKI IT IF YOU CAN. It rhymes to homies in the NE Kingdom!

  5. We all speak dialects, as you say. I was intrigued to notice that you said “pop” – for a fizzy drink? British North Welsh dialect speakers, at least from one area, share this with you!

  6. Y

    One really spends a very minute portion of one’s life in job interviews.

  7. Deb_2.0

    Brilliant! That was definitely worth waiting for. I laughed, while learning quite a bit. You’ve given me leads for many future rounds of research.

    I think your post is good enough to be a column or NPR interview! Even if you keep it just for “us” (your fan club, as it were), please do share any future thoughts or observations on dialects.

  8. Hi Kory! So is what your saying that in your field there is no classification of “incorrect” English, only “standard”, “nonstandard” and “substandard”?

    • Kory Stamper

      Hmm. There is such a thing as grammatically incorrect English: “hairball cat floor the a on up barf” is incorrect in that it doesn’t follow the basic grammar rules of just about any English variety, and so is wrong in that sense. But when we’re talking about whether individual words are “wrong,” then the best way to think of them is in the “standard” paradigm. (I wrote a blog post about the labels substandard and nonstandard for the MWU blog that may prove helpful.) That’s generally how lexicographers and most linguists (I assume) think about words, is on a spectrum of standardness.

      Dialects have a consistent internal grammar in the wonky linguistic sense of “grammar”: a rule-governed system for inflection, word order, prefixing, and so on. Arika Okrent wrote a great little piece for Mental Floss about some of the grammatical features of disparaged dialects.

      • I quit linguistics after my MA in the early 1990s, but you’re mostly right about how the linguists I studied under would view “standard” and “non-standard” words. For linguists, there’s no such thing as “correct English”, undifferentiated. You’ve got to specify the standard before they’ll even try to classify a word as standard or non-standard.

        And Arika Okrent is delightful! Anybody who hasn’t read her, “In the Land of Invented Languages,” should, for the sheer good fun of it. (And so are you — I can’t believe that I hadn’t discovered this blog before.) 😉

  9. Fr. Aaron Orear

    As in Eliza Doolittle’s London, dialect in the U.S. can be very local. I grew up in Janesville, WI, where we said “pop”. I moved just over an hour up the road to Milwaukee, WI, and was informed that it was “soda” and that only idiots say “pop”. I then moved to Toronto, ON, where it’s “pop”, only by now I’ve developed a slight twitch, and to be safe I just ask for a carbonated beverage. God help me if I ever move south, where everything’s a “Coke” no matter what flavour.

    My takeaway from this post, though, is “Yay! More videos are coming!”

  10. I love your column, Kory. I’ve been living in Chicago for about 30 years, but my dialect remains Oregonian. I teach high school English. In the middle of a lesson I’ve had students raise their hands and request, “Just say that again, please,” for amusement, not notes. I’ve listened to my vowels flattening over the years, but that’s not enough of a transformation to make my English “normal.” Oregonian has dipthongs; Chicagoan doesn’t.

  11. Welcome back, Kory! Thanks for the thought-provoking essay as well as the copious lulz. 🙂

  12. I loved your blog today. Waiting to hear about your other
    “Big project” that you can’t tell us about yet.

    Ok, here’s a story, my father grew up in Milwaukee, Wi. Eventually went to Notre Dame, in South Bend Indiana, where he asked where the “Bubblers” were, you know the things in parks with water spouting out of them, aka. drinking fountains. People in Indiana had never heard of such a thing. So Dad told us to never use that word, people wouldn’t know what we were talking about.

    • Fr. Aaron Orear

      Bubblers ARE drinking fountains. People in Indiana have no idea what they’re talking about.

      • Kory Stamper

        I would contend that there are plenty of Hoosiers that look at the rest of us all and wonder why we insist on calling mangoes “bell peppers” like the fools we are.

        • In Australia a mango is a sweet tropical fruit. Bell pepper is a very rarely used term for capsicums. Never heard anyone call a mango a bell pepper, if I did it would totally confuse me.

          • MelissaJane

            Wait, what? I am totally confused by Kory’s post. I am from New England, where a bell pepper is a (commonly) used word for capsicums (which is an extremely uncommon word). And a mango is a tropical fruit. Kory, what on earth is a bell pepper in your world?

            • Kory Stamper

              Well. Where I’m from (the Western US), we call the square-shouldered sweet(ish) capsicums “bell peppers.” Where my Dad grew up (Indiana), they call those square-shouldered sweet(ish) capsicums “mangoes.”

              Maybe it’s “called” at this point, though: my dad left Indiana a while ago. Anyone from IN want to chime in?

        • davidly

          I’m fourth generation Naptown born and bred (a 70s/80s kid), and my family called them bell peppers. Maybe because Indy is just so big city-?

          • Autist

            I’m a hoosier, and I can remember my parents–also hoosiers–calling green peppers “mangoes”, but I haven’t heard it for many years.

  13. davidly

    I just thought of a joke over thirty years too late (eprit d’escalier, I reckon)::
    When my siblings and I would visit with our cousins from Michigan, the conversation would eventually turn towards “how we/they talk”. I should have thought to quip, “If ‘pop’ is the appropriate terminology, why do you pronounce it ‘pap’?”

    As to Naptown, where I’m from, the local variant of AAVE, includes a lovely, almost unspellable word for pencil, as in: “Lemme baw yo pelwnsl.”

    • I’m an Indy native as well, and I don’t think your dialectical “pencil” is accurate. Nobody even uses pencils anymore in Indiana. 🙂

      • davidly

        I’m think I officially qualify for my codger card: it’s just occurred to me that our electro-gadgets are a crappy value compared to the price of a stack of spiral notebooks, a packet of pencils, two oatmeal boxes, and a string;

  14. Lauren Bentley

    Canadians (at least western Canadians) also say “I’m done my x, y, z.” The first time I (a Californian who had recently moved to BC) heard a Canadian friend say she was done her homework, I made fun of her by doing an impression of the sentence in a hick voice. She looked at me like I was completely bonkers. We were deadlocked, neither one realizing why the other person thought the other was linguistically delayed.

    Now, of course, I’ve live in BC for years and being “done my dinner” is a daily occurrence–no prepositions slowing me down.

    I still get weird looks for saying “clicker” (tv remote control) and soda though!

    • I think it’s all Canadians, because I grew up in Ontario, and when I got to that part of the article, I called out to my partner (from Winnipeg), “what on earth do you say instead of ‘I’m done my homework?’ and he said ‘I don’t know, ‘I’m finished my homework’?’ and I said, ‘but she says a preposition is missing!!!'”

      After some serious thought, I figured that it’s probably supposed to be “I’m done with my homework,” (which just sounds so ponderous and weird to me) and that the author’s daughter will probably be able to get a job in Canada no problem.

      • Kory Stamper

        O Canada! Hockey and butter tarts and health care and “I’m done my homework”! I’M SENDING HER RIGHT NOW.

      • davidly

        My initial interpretation was that of an old fashion, regional use of the present perfect, employing “be” instead of “have” — as in, “I am done my homework,” instead of “I have done my homework.”

        In German there are times when the be-verb is used because it involves movement: “I am walked down the street,” and times the have-verb is used: “I have finished it,” but I have run across people who use solely the be-verb (and, boy, are they fun).

        “I’m done with my homework” sounds as much like, “I’ll never do homework again,” as it does, “I finished it.”

  15. Reblogged this on Le cul entre les deux chaises and commented:
    This from a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster about different ways of talkin’ American and how many of the ways which are perceived as wrong are actually just different.

  16. Ø

    It may be appropriate to mention the old adage: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

  17. Charles

    I think Cory is confusing the two terms, accent and dialect. They do not mean the same and they should not be used interchangeably.

    The pronunciation of “towards” is not a dialectical issue; it’s an accentual issue, which is defined as the way people speak. Dialect points to a different way of perceiving the dominant language. A person using a different accent only modifies the pronunciation of a word. But can usually be easily understood by those familiar with the dominant language. However, a person using a different dialect might not be easily understood, because vocabulary and grammar might be different from the dominant language.

    The teenagers on the bus might be speaking a dialect, but do we know whether they can alternate from African American English to Standard English. In Italy, specifically Naples, the majority of educated and non-educated Neapolitans speak the Neapolitan dialect. However, the educated Neapolitan can alternate from standard Italian to the Neapolitan dialect, whereas the uneducated usually cannot.

    Are there different ways of speaking? Of course there are; there’s the right way and the wrong way. The right way gets you the job; the wrong way doesn’t. The right way is educated language the wrong way is not. Idealistically there’s no wrong way, realistically there is.

    By the way, in about the sixteenth paragraph, Cory says: “American English
    has eight major dialects (that’s questionable)-or 24, or hundreds, depending on who [sic] you ask…” It should be “whom” the objective case.

    • Kory Stamper

      You’re right: accent and dialect are absolutely not the same. That said, many English dialects also are marked by pronunciation conventions that deviate significantly and systematically from Standard English, and sometimes those pronunciation conventions result in what most folks call “an accent.” My particular accent is definitely a result and a hallmark of my native-born dialect, just as the “Philly O” is a hallmark of the Philly accent. But your point is well-taken.

      As for right and wrong and “who” and “whom,” I reckon you’re new to these parts, so I’ll just point you here and here for some context.

      • Some dialects have a unique accent, probably most of them. Some dialects can be spoken in more than one accent. The dialect we call Standard English can be spoken in any accent.

    • This comment is interesting to me. I have a very unplaceable accent (born & raised in Malaysia of Bangladeshi parents, lived in Australia & US, frequent traveller) and even when I’m speaking Standard English my accent totally confuses people – they assume I’m speaking a whole different *language*, let alone dialect.

      Hell even “Standard English” is different around the world – for instance, the Standard English taught in South Asia can sometimes come off as sounding really formal.

      Everyone who speaks has an accent. It that some accents are more normalized than others. I had a professor that called this Cash
      English – not inherently more right than other forms of English, but because of colonization and racism and privilege ends up being the more accepted sort.)
      (also Kory, with all due respect, if you hounded me for my dialect or accent the same way you did your Pittsburgh friend, I would want to smack you. It’s dehumanizing, and you’re projecting an expectation that we may not be able to fulfill. I’ve dealt with too many cases of people who ignore what I’m saying to pick apart how I sound, and who make a big deal out of me sounding foreign.)

      • Kory Stamper

        Kory, with all due respect, if you hounded me for my dialect or accent the same way you did your Pittsburgh friend, I would want to smack you. It’s dehumanizing, and you’re projecting an expectation that we may not be able to fulfill.

        Tiara: this is absolutely true, and you are right–no one has to “speak the dialect” on command unless they are an actor being paid to do that. I’ve had more than my fair share of patronizing, “Just say ‘drawl’ again!” interactions with people. Just as a person isn’t their hair color, so they are not their dialect.

  18. Absolutely incredible. Thank you for sharing!

  19. Ann

    Well said, Cory! Love this blog.

    • Kory Stamper

      If I consciously think about the words I used growing up, then spot on: Denver (CO), Aurora (CO), and…Overland Park (KS)? Okay, then.

      If I just answer without thinking, it’s Boston (MA), Springfield (MA), and Philadelphia (PA). I’m a serious mimic.

    • That test put me in upstate New York, where I have never set foot.

      Having moved around the country in my childhood, I generally use whichever word makes the most sense to me, from the choices I know of. It puts me all over the map.

  20. Cat

    You should try being from Birmingham England and moving away, to anywhere. And then moving to the states. I get comments on my accent all the time.

  21. Great read! And cathartic! After more than a dozen moves, I’ve taken the code-switching I do for granted. My wife (who fights her southern twang, at times) has fun with it out, though. Not long ago, she pointed out something that I hadn’t noticed, and still can’t explain — somewhere along the line, I started pronouncing words ending in “-old” as “-olt” — not a part of the dialect of any place I’ve lived. Maybe all the codes in my head are squishing into something new? I’ve traded out some terms from my formative years in Ohio for good, but can’t shake calling a devil’s strip a devil’s strip, or saying that something is “acrosst” the street. Many years ago a linguistics professor (I am NOT a linguist, for the record) made an elegant statement about his field that bolstered my love of dialects/accents: “linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive.” We all have accents!

  22. Hi Kory:
    Great blog.Serendipity is real. I just finished a poem about this very subject, “How do you say it, how does it sound?” and posted it on “Marc Leavitt’s Blog,” at
    Take a look, if you care to.

  23. Pingback: People sure talk funny | Baltimore News

  24. astraya

    The existence of dialects leads to the possibility – and actuality – of some people judging other people on the basis of their dialect. If everyone spoke the same dialect, I’m sure that they’d find other ways to judge other people.
    While the existence of a standard/prestige dialect can be and is and will continue to be used by native speakers of that dialect to identify, judge and exclude the riff-raff, the big value of a standard/prestige dialect is that it (theoretically at least) allows the most people to communicate most quickly and clearly with the most other people, without judgment on either side.

    • Kory Stamper

      In theory, yes; in practice, no. Standard English stems from the dialect spoken by the educated upper-class, but it wasn’t imposed from the top-down. Rather, SE was parroted by the roughly educated up-and-coming middle class* as a way to fit in with the gentlefolk. Because of this, there was, from the get-go, plenty of top-down sneering at the nouveaux riches trying to talk properly: Jane Austen skewers a few such characters in her books.

      * Ten points off for the “rising middle class” trope: C-.

      • Osmond Naylor

        The older English upper classes speak a dialect all of their own. Listen to Prince Charles. He speaks a more intelligible version but still lives in a HICE (house).

  25. thehandsomecamel

    Hi Kory — sorry I’m commenting a couple weeks late on this, but I just came across it. I have a question about “I’m done my homework.” In terms of the way it varies from standard English, you describe it as missing a preposition. (“With,” presumably.) But couldn’t it just as easily be thought of as using a different auxiliary verb? That is, the change is from “I’ve done” to “I’m done,” rather than from “done with” to “done.” So I guess my question is, how would linguists go about determining in which of the two possible ways this construction varied from the standard English construction? (Or, I suppose, which way standard English varied from it, depending on the history.)

    • Kory Stamper

      My best guess (since I’m really a half-assed linguist) is that they’d compare the construction to similar constructions in their corpus. That way, they’d catch both “I’m done (with) my homework” and “I(‘ve) done my homework.” There are various tools–usually proprietary–that you can use to look for collocations in a corpus, and that’s one way we track how dialectal words and constructions move around the language.

      In this particular case, a few snap judgments went into my saying there was a missing preposition:
      1. “I’ve done my homework” is a bit formal in tone;
      2. My youngest is many wonderful things, but formal, she ain’t;
      3. She and her older sister used to say “I’m done with my homework” before we moved down here. Her older sister still says it, in fact.

  26. oh, my goodness gracious. i just learned you exist. i totally love you in a completely non-stalkery way.

    so this one time i was in a job interview and one of the interviewers told me that the job was in a working class agricultural community and asked if i could get along with the physical plant staff.

    “i might could,” i told him. “i used to work over to the university as a housekeeper.”

    slam dunk.

    code switching is also useful to me because although i was born in new jersey, i live in a rural town in vermont, where they make a distinction between people who live here and people who are from here. using the term “from away” to describe myself even though i have lived here since the nixon administration signals respect for traditional culture.

    • Nori

      dear flaskehrlenmeyer

      welcome to the club!

      when I (Mass native) lived in VT i described myself as a flatlander, which seemed to be well accepted by the natives.

      one of the litmus tests for a true NEnglander in my youth was whether one said UVM or something different.

      BTW, the flask is Erlenmeyer, without ‘h,’ if that’s what your moniker alludes to. E was a prof at the technical university of munich, and his mentor was Bunsen of burner fame!

  27. Pingback: Off topic: Speaking talk, struck by lightning, insectivores, Mars crater monikers | SiliconBeat

  28. Reblogged this on An Sionnach Fionn and commented:
    Vive la différence…

  29. I came to your post from An Sionnach Fionn and was fascinated, having but little acquaintance with North American English until moving to Costa Rica and meeting North American expats here.

    I have difficulty understanding some of them some of the time, but no more so, I suppose, than people from southern England encountering someone from Glasgow.

    I used standard English at school, university and when working – it is a lingua franca accessible to all – but have no problem with people using their own dialect outside professional life where I consider it a courtesy to use the lingua franca.

    I hear the difference between the Spanish used by professionals and the Spanish used by my neighbours….and it seems that the same principle applies here – use the clearest possible language for professional life and speak as you please outside it.

  30. Nothing could send we kids (my sister and I) into fits of howling laughter like my mom pronouncing the word “sheriff.” It came out “shuruf.” We, all of us, had pretty standard Southern American accents, but hers was spiced with some odd Appalachian-isms that struck us as mighty funny. great post.

    • Kory Stamper

      We used to tease my dad for the way he said “no” (it had a diphthong, was three times longer than it should have been, and had this amazing cadence, like a car revving at a stop light) until I told one of the kids “no” and heard my dad’s voice come out of my mouth. Guess who was laughing then?

      What I’m trying to say is, you’ve done set yourself up for a hard fall, Mister. 🙂

  31. Andrew

    Wait. Everybody’s all “I’m done my homework” nowadays? That’s a new one on me. Dang, I sure feel old I do.

  32. Pingback: Tesettur Giyim Trend | Volokh Conspiracy: In defense of talking funny

  33. Reblogged this on You are Creative and commented:
    Hilarious, fascinating piece on dialects in English.

  34. jdgalt

    You’re both wrong, it’s “TORDS”.

  35. Pingback: In Defense of Talking Funny | Robs MSN Site

  36. Reblogged this on Slouching Towards Extimacy and commented:
    For future reference, as I work on incorporating more HEL elements into my lit survey class

  37. I have to say I enjoyed your post immensely and am very glad the Volokh Conspiracy linked to it. It got me to thinking and that’s never bad. Thanks. With that said, here are some of my thoughts, which tend to wander all over the place.

    I have one word for you, chillax. Admittedly it is a new word for me but one that serves a useful purpose better than the alternatives, so I adopted it as my own. You’re all het up over something that is innate to humans everywhere, and one that is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.

    Besides, as you pointed out slipping between different flavors of English is commonplace. I notice myself doing it fairly frequently. For instance, I write very differently than I speak and I speak differently depending on where I am and who I am with. I can’t recall ever using the word brethren outside of a church setting but have used it when talking to someone about or in church.

    I speak more formally when I’m in a business setting but very informally when I’m ‘at coffee’. I get together with a group of friends in the morning over coffee, a group that contains judges, lawyers, bankers and other business people, and the language can get pretty loose. It’s strange to walk into the courtroom (our town is the county seat and contains only two courtrooms in the courthouse) and hear the judge speak very formally from the bench when that morning at coffee he was complaining that one of his cows “lifted her damn tail just as I was walkin’ behind her and let loose stream of crap that splattered clear to my waist.”

    I speak slightly more formally when among strangers than among friends, something older folk like me grew up with. Now days people have not just become more casual about speech but, frankly, lazy about it. I believe that is probably what your fellow bus passenger was referring to, not simply the dialect. There used to be an expectation that however you spoke at home or privately among friends, in public you ‘upped your game’ and spoke a more formal English.

    I think that is a good thing, it shows courtesy to those around you and doesn’t cost you a penny. Not that I am free of guilt when out in public but I strive to be less lazy in the speech I use. I do think it would be a good thing if more people would try as well. Not that I think civilization hangs in the balance but a little less thinking of self and a little more thinking of others couldn’t hurt, even in matters as inconsequential as speech patterns.

  38. Pingback: | Don’t People Speak English Anymore?

  39. YES! I studied anthropology for a while in college, and the language mavens I know explode when I bring up the idea that dialectical differences are equally valid. They hate the argument that a dictionary isn’t supposed to represent a guide for which words do or do not belong in a language – it’s meant to represent the language that exists, as it exists.

    “Well, I will not be saying ‘bromance’ any time soon!”

    Their loss. It’s a fun word. So is ya’ll. And crick. Language is organic, and that’s what makes it beautiful. From an anthropological perspective, you can’t say a word “doesn’t exist” if a collective group makes use of it.

  40. In Uganda, there are many dialects due to diverse ethnic groups. In the Baganda culture (mine), I notice that many people add an -i or -u sound at the end of most words ending in a consonant. So ‘stop’ would be ‘stopu’ or going would be ‘going-i’ with the i being phonetic here. It used to drive me crazy until I read about the differences between prescriptive and descriptive linguists. The former are essentially bent on standard usage of language but the latter only care about what is actually said. Your blog has emphasized the need for a descriptive’s stance Thank you.

  41. dennis mckay

    Dear Miss Stamper,I have been spending my coffee time visiting the MW site and taking the quizzes and thus ran across your delightful web page (Drudgery now instead of Drudge) and since you mentioned Balaams’s ass, I feel I can now interject with what many find to be pettiest of all my peeves.

    This has been bothering me for years. So long in fact, that I even wrote Wm F. Buckley about it, but he never got around to it and you are he and Safire’s replacement English-wise (I know. Jeez, writing to you is like marrying a gynecologist) so here goes.

    It’s about the currently universal misuse of the “carrot and stick” idiom. When I grew up in the 1950’s Midwest, this phrase was in common usage and I don’t recall ever hearing carrot or stick and I understood the former meant setting a false reward before someone. Now it has assumed this violent and coercive aspect and I find it both disturbingly emblematic of our culture. I think it represents a way our culture taking on these more brutal traits and it naturally expresses itself through our language.

    I recall a lecture about how language changes and the professor explained that these changes are transmitted through children who implement or discard the wheat and chaff. I don’t know if this is really true, but it sounds reasonable and if that is what happened here; well I’ll just take a big stick and go over to the telescreen and carry out my decades old threat and move on.

    What troubles me is that it sounds so unnatural and even forced. Carrot and stick seems to have it’s first usage in the 19th Century which makes sense given the transportation arrangements of the time and appeared in a 1930’s Our Gang short with Stymie trying to get the donkey moving with a dangling carrot. Our current and more belligerent image seems to date from 1948 (Orwell probably felt somehow vindicated) in the Economist (Orwell gleeful!) and now we have talking airheads using it every chance they get. One night in 1999 it was on every channels “news” program editorials, like a memo had gone out. All of them braying exactly the same thing is the norm, but on this? Very peculiar.

    When you have time, I hope you will look into this. I promise to send you a karat if you do. Or, if you prefer, a nice stick.


  42. Five minutes later and I’m still helpless-giggling over the video shoot description. (Sorry about the Schadenfreude.) Wonderful post.

  43. Having done a few peevish language posts of my own, I’ve learned not to use “right”, “correct”, “standard”, or any such words except in a tongue-in-cheek, self-parodying manner. What is really meant by such words, to a prscriptivist with a clue, is “effective to a broad audience, in the greatest variety of settings”. Only as shorthand is anything called “correct” or “incorrect”. Understanding that is the first step toward (pronounced “tord”) englightenment.

  44. Reblogged this on Academic Glutton and commented:
    For the most part, I will only post original material on this blog. However, in this case, I ran across a post that I wish I had read 4 years ago. As an instructor of a general communication course, one of the required assignments was a public speech. In the standardized rubric we were told to use, “pronunciation” was a category in which we were to evaluate our students. After reading this, I will no longer be grading based on pronunciation. Thoughts?

  45. thesitrep

    I reckon if there is a prefered dialect of American English, it ain’t the one used where I’m from. Anywho, what fascinates me about the AA dialect and it’s geographical variations is that it is overlayed like the old grease pencil acetate sheets we used to use on maps. I mean, I’m thinking it is a result more of socio/politico/econo/anthro/physio-reasons than solely geo-reasons.
    And as valid as it is, it will not help a young job seeker to find work in many fields. I live in Hawaii now and many folks around here will speak both the pidgin Hawaiian dialect and one that is more US mainland like, depending on the situation.

    I imagine that any dialect could grow up and become it’s own language given a little time and isolation.

    Oh, and by the way, y’are both off base, everyone knows it is pronounced “two-ward”. 🙂

  46. With regard to standard American pronunciations of “toward(s)”, this link dates from 1996 ( and recognizes /tordz/, /tord/, /twordz/, /twordz/ as normal variants. Ordinary dialectal (or idiolectal) epenthesis rules could and often would insert a shwa somewhere in one of those, resulting in either /tə’wordz/ or /’towərdz/, depending on locally preferred stress patterns. These are all standard American variants, — so standard that objecting to any of them should count as peeving, in my opinion.

  47. Pingback: A Lexicographer’s Guide to Real Words | harm·less drudg·ery

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