Bowl of cherries posterWhat constitutes correct language in not necessarily an adherence to prescriptive norms. Within the english-speaking world alone today there are around 80 different official forms, each with their own distinct lexis, written and spoken grammars and variant dialects.

It could be said that many of the intra and cross-cultural differences and divisions amongst speakers of english in particular are in part attributable to linguistic variations. Variations that delineate cultural identity.

Perhaps the most problematic area of social integration and conformity occurs in the academic sphere where intelligence and mental acuity are still measured by the correctness of your speech, and your ability to conform to the use of Standard English, where strict grammatical structures are adhered to, outlined by a now very outdated and stilted view of the class society that was perhaps still relevant up until the 1950’s. BBC English is one of the last bastions of so called linguistic correctness, though it too has given way to the very natural and inevitable process of dialect levelling that occurs in all languages with every successive generation who by default will reinvent and simplify language in order to stamp their identity on the world, and also to keep up with modernity.

How many of you who read the above poster either misread it, or simply didn’t understand it?

Can the popular quote “Life is a bowl of cherries” as it is presented above be considered as incorrect, when uttered in the correct cultural context along with the modifier “init?” which is a contraction of the phrase “isn’t it”, and the added modifying clause posed as a rhetorical question “Is it dough?” [the ‘th’ being replaced by a much harder pronunciation sounding more like ‘d’], both phrases that feature heavily in the street dialects of south and south-east London? A dialect incidentally that I am deeply acquainted with as it forms a part of my cultural heritage.

It is now being understood through academic research  in the field of language studies conducted over the last 30 years or so that language in all its variant forms is composed of highly complex patterns and forms that conform in great part to cultural variations and norms, as well as cognitive and neurological impulses, that predispose us to use the language that we do in order to communicate our ideas and emotions. The variations of language that we use from the private familial level to the wider social level is broad indeed, and in many ways Standard English pales into insignificance given the prevalence of much older forms of english that have survived and are still spoken as regional dialects, and the way in which they have developed almost independently from the accepted norm.

All forms of english, in fact of any language are valid in that they are highly evolved forms of verbal expression that are understood perfectly well by members of the community and sociocultural setting to which they conform.

Standard English then is just another form of english that is used in particular contexts, though it is by no means prescriptive any longer. The type of language that you and I speak is reflective of who we choose to communicate with at any given moment and the social and cultural context within which the communication is set, and it is about as correct as it needs to be. If the purpose is to be understood, then all language usage is correct because it takes an incredible amount of mental acuity and cleverness to formulate. It takes years to learn well.

Being understood and accepted socially are perhaps the most important motivations behind the types of language that we adopt, utilise and reformulate both verbally and non-verbally. Isn’t it about time we stopped talking about correctness, and started embracing not only the art of English but indeed all forms of language?

Language is a beautiful thing…

15 thoughts on “Wot you lookin a’?

  1. It’s interesting, here in the U.S., I’ve seen, by virtue of being old, a trend away from dialectal English to a standard “American” English. Not only is word usage beginning to converge, all the wonderful regional accents I grew up listening to have begun to disappear. Southern English, which is my native tongue, is a relic. Even country music stars sing in feigned accents that the old folks expect to hear. If you hear a Millennial from any part of the country, they sound the same. It’s in part because of TV, and the ease of merging accents. Regional accents have become a sign of “ignorance” rather than what they really are. Even former President George Bush was ridiculed for speaking “Amurikin” which is what people speak in Texas.

    I think the only saving influences are “urban” English, which used to be black English, and the large numbers of people of Hispanic descent. I still have hopes that in 50 years, American English will be an urban English / Spanglish derivative that keeps the language vital. Here in the part of the country I live in, 1 in 6 are black, 1 in 6 hispanic, 1 in 7 Asian, and 1 in 9 “other races,” even though I didn’t know there were other races. I’m guessing it’ll be hard to converge on “standard English” when there aren’t any standard people.

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    1. Where I grew up in South-east London the population was predominantly black of afro-caribbean stock. Then you had a very large contingent of Vietnamese and Chinese, some Indian and Pakistani, and then the white percentage which was a real cosmopolitan mix of Irish, Spanish (that’s me, one half anyway), Greek, Italian and the rest of Europe, except French or German.
      As a white person, I was part of the minority when I was at school. So naturally everyone adopted the local anglo-carribbean patois, long before it became fashionable through media influences.
      The way language evolves is fascinating, especially colloquial dialects, or as you say urban dialects. As much as they seem to change and converge with time, there is still a very strong thread, say in the type of english spoken in that area that has existed since Elizabethan times, and probably before that. So that any dialect becomes a repository of urban history that spans centuries. Like a christmas tree that has a mix of old cherished decorations and the new modern ones. What seems to stick however are the words and linguistic forms that are the simplest to remember and to communicate, despite all the evident losses.

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      1. Wait, you’re white?? Haha. Sorry, couldn’t resist. The Spanish heritage explains why I thought you were from Spain when I first saw your photo. It’s all been interesting to me, since I grew up thinking I was one thing, and finding out recently I’m another. We were always “black,” descended from slaves. Then, through reading of history, and comparing my grandmother’s speech patterns and accent, I discovered we were also French Creole. This year, I took a dna test and found that I have 31% French dna, and 8% from the British Isles somewhere. This is despite having no mixed heritage in at least 200 years. I think language is the same way. As you state, it’s a repository of history. We hear it, and believe we know its contemporary origins, but they run much deeper.

        That’s it. I’m getting on a bloody plane. Your brain is making me crazy.

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        1. You can always e-mail me if you like. You can find my public e-mail on my gravatar profile. Although talking to here works equally well. Just know that you have my ear, and that you can bend it any time you like.

          You know, you joke about me being white, but when I was growing up much of the racist remarks thrown at me just bounced off because I only saw myself as white. It wasn’t until I lived in Germany and I experienced full-on racism that it suddenly dawned on me how ‘foreign’ I must have looked to everyone back in London. Which is a ridiculous notion as there is no such thing as a pure white/english Londoner. There probably never has been either.
          On my father’s side alone there are Russian, Polish, German, Spanish and French Jews. Also Norman French from his mother’s side. On the Spanish side, there is yet again a complex mix or spanish Moor, Indian, Irish/Scots Celt, and god knows what else.

          How fascinating that you have had a DNA test, I would love to have one done just to see how diverse my heritage actually is.
          So you are part French too?

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          1. Yes, in fact I met some of my (wealthy) French relatives. We are all descended from French Huguenots, who fled France to the UK, and then here. I had relatives who would pass for white, and there’s a family rumor of one who was lynched when they discovered he was “black.”

            Having been a student of history, from Africa, through the Moors, and now through U.S. history, I’ve long been a believer that the idea of race is a myth. Now, I’m sure it is. DNA isn’t transferred the way people think. You can get a simple dna test for $99 US from places like ancesty.com. I think that will open a lot of eyes.

            It was odd growing up, because everyone looked what is now biracial, but none of us realized that, because we just thought we were a normal family. My mother has been mistaken for every race except east Asian.

            I think you look like a mixture of things, which in my mind, is beautiful.

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            1. I think you’re right, race is a myth. But as humans we do have a penchant for pigeonholing, over-simplifying what doesn’t need simplifying, but accepting. I know, you get used to your surrounds when you’re a kid, you become part of the cultural fabric, the social-furniture of the area, so to speak, and any discrepancies just get ignored or stay unresolved until you have the filters lifted.

              Thank you for your lovely compliment. Not too often I hear that. I like being a mix, I think it suits me well.

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