What can we really afford to call poor use of language?

Precisely twenty years ago, in December 1996, California’s Oakland Unified School District school board made a decision which provoked a nationwide storm in the US. The School Council signed a policy which gave Afro-American pupils the right to participate in English as foreign language instruction, while in practice identifying ‘Afro-American’ as a language of instruction separate from standard English.

Black civil rights movement leader Jesse Jackson and, for example, Rush Limbaugh –  an immensely popular conservative radio host and now one of the key supporters of the president-elect Donald Trump – did not hesitate to condemn the policy. For both, their main concern was the same: the decision put ‘poor’ English on a pedestal and from one perspective alienated African Americans even further from the society, while from another it threatened the ‘purity’ of the English language.

Rapid advances in linguistics since the late 1960s lay in the background of this policy. Researchers noted that African American English, AAVE (African American Vernacular English), was not the ‘poor use of language’ it had been regarded as, but was a linguistic variety of its own that significantly differed from standard English. It has remained rather uniform for reasons such as the fact that the major migratory movement of Afro-Americans to the northern states began rather late, only after the American Civil War.

It may even be the case that poorer learning results amongst Afro-American pupils were partly connected with the language of instruction – standard U.S. English – being what was in practice a second language for many pupils.

‘Upon hearing their pupils conversing in Torlak, the teachers had a habit of snapping: “Speak Serbian!”’

Last July, I performed a field study in Southeastern Serbia amongst speakers of the South Slavic Torlak dialect. Torlak is a transitional linguistic variety between the relatively uniform Bulgarian and Macedonian, on the one hand, and Serbian, on the other. As a ‘missing link’ between the Balkan and Slavic language types, Torlak offers a window on how case inflection was lost and the definite article developed, which both are processes characteristic of Bulgarian and Macedonian as well as many other European languages.

The same aspect that makes Torlak highly interesting in the linguistic sense has also posed the most serious threat to its preservation: The character of Torlak as a transitional dialect has enabled its appropriation on both sides. Considerable effort was made to demonstrate the ‘Serbian character’ of Torlak or, alternatively, its ‘Bulgarian character’ during the first half of the last century. This scientific discussion was frequently connected with regional demands directed at the border region in which the Torlaks live.

The sheer instrumental nature of the linguistic arguments could be seen in the attitudes targeted at the language and its speakers. As one of the interviewees, who had grown up in socialist Yugoslavia, noted, When hearing their pupils converse in Torlak, the teachers had a habit of snapping: ‘Speak Serbian!’ In post-World War II Yugoslavia, Torlak was strongly stigmatised and it now has few speakers: in UNESCO’s atlas of endangered languages, Torlak is categorised as being under severe threat.

‘Between the wars in Finland, Karelian speakers were regarded as a cultural problem whose odd speech – also reminiscent of Russian – should be “Fennicised.”’

Those language-based attitudes, which label Torlak ‘impure Serbian’ and AAVE ‘poor English,’ share a few, obvious characteristics which are not limited to Serbia or the United States. What this frequently implies is hidden as well as unconscious racism or classism: it is much more acceptable to link various aesthetic critiques to a language than to its speakers. This question is also pondered in Heini Lehtonen’s article in this blog. Finnish examples of language-based discrimination can also be found from before the period of globalisation.

The Karelian language, a term for the most eastern varieties of the Finnic dialectal, alongside Veps, experienced the same fate as Torlak. The culture of Karelia was regarded as legitimate – in a linguistically Fennicised form – as a building material within the national canon. However, between the World Wars Karelian speakers were considered an educational problem in Finland, whose odd locution, reminiscent of Russian, had to be Fennicised. Within the context of the school system, an attempt was made to replace Karelian with the standard Finnish.

Another common denominator of this sort of linguistic discrimination tends to be the existence of one linguistic variety that is considered more prestigious and to which the other varieties are compared. An unresolved conflict exists, with regard to this question, between the perceptions of professional linguists and laymen. Changes in the norm of the standard language are often regarded as a deterioration and concession to the ‘wrong’ forms introduced as part of the weakening of language skills. (A good example of this would be the following discussion of a recommendation made by the Institute for the Languages of Finland.)

‘The impression of a pure language does not derive from the features of a standardised language itself, but from the cultural prestige assigned to it.’

Standardised languages are frequently based on one dialect or dialect group and its choice depends, for example, on political factors in any given area. This development is also affected by many non-linguistic factors: a blog by Santeri Junttila, Spekulatiivista lingvistiikkaa (Speculative Linguistics) conducts a splendid thought experiment along these lines. By examining factors affecting the development of the two written norms for Norwegian, Junttila outlines what a standard language or languages would look like in Finland, if Finland were Norway.

Standardised language is no ‘purer’ than individual dialects. It is, however, true that there are often attempts in the process of language standardisation to weed out variation typical of the spoken varieties by declaring specific forms to be in keeping with the norm and others not. However, such a delineation can be rather random – the impression of a pure language does not derive from the features of a standardised language itself, but from the cultural prestige assigned to it.

For example, it is true that English does not have an authoritative body similar to the Institute for the Languages of Finland or Académie française, but it nevertheless has a norm or norms. A language norm, in fact, is an emergent phenomenon in the manner of many other manifestations of culture: Respected actors in a society or community set an example through their choices, and in its aspiration to attain the status of these actors the general public begins to imitate them. Standard American English is taught throughout the country with rather few variations, and most published texts are edited to comply with it.

‘The actions performed in the name of national ideals, progress and civilisation were based entirely on an erroneous understanding of language.’

A detrimental concept of language – on the basis of which a person’s mother tongue is labelled invalid and the prerequisite for new learning is considered to be the rejection of the language by which a person is capable of best expressing his/her thoughts – has unfortunately not been consigned to history. However, we should not consider such a waste of human resources ‘affordable.’

Modernisation has succeeded in destroying or weakening innumerable linguistic varieties. These actions, which often occurred in the name of national ideals, progress and civilisation, have been entirely based on an erroneous understanding of language. A human being is capable of mastering several languages, not to mention various registers of a language. If, for example, the much maligned language of youth were the only variety understood by a certain age group, languages would change much faster than they actually do.

But what happened when AAVE was used as a teaching language? Although too little quantitative research is being performed on this subject, all of the published studies point in one direction: the mere fact that teachers no longer relate to AAVE as faulty English but as its own linguistic variety seems to be improving the learning results achieved in standard English. However, ignorance and prejudice have ensured that the status of AAVE remains largely unestablished in schools.


Max Wahlström

Ph.D, Kone Foundation post doc researcher, University of Helsinki / Universität Zürich Photo: Thomas Bürgisser