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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 395-397
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Widening the Lens of Observation
Dialects Are Equally Valid
Michael D. Linn, University Of Minnesota, Duluth
Two corollaries are related to the central proposition that all dialects are equally valid. The first corollary is that every dialect carries some type of prestige for its speakers and that its speakers consider it prestigious. The second corollary is that dialects themselves do not cause educational problems; other, more important factors are involved.
Among most teachers, as among college-educated people in general, there is a tendency to value the speech of the college-educated and to devalue the speech of the less well-educated. Much of this tendency is the result of thinking that everyone shares our set of values. In reality, we like being professors and construction workers like being construction workers, [End Page 395] so we talk like professors and constructions workers talk like construction workers. Thus, if we want to evaluate attitudes toward dialects, we need to find out what the speakers themselves feel and not just select a set of features that are of interest to us. In examining the different attitudes of white and black, adolescent and preadolescent, males and females toward white male middle-class speech and inner-city black male speech, my collaborators and I found that white middle-class speech is judged the educated speech, the speech of the affluent, "good English." This is to be expected in a school setting. However, the inner-city speech also had prestige. It was viewed as positive by both male and female, adolescent and preadolescent, whites and blacks, in that it was viewed as the speech of the athlete, the brave, and the "good fighter." These roles are all highly valued by both white and African American adolescent and preadolescent males and females. In addition, African Americans considered inner-city speech the speech appropriate for social interaction among friends. This attitude certainly reflects the general attitude in society that male athletes are brave and tough but are not good students. It is even reflected on Sunday afternoon after football games. Generally, the quarterback, who is viewed as the team leader, speaks a standard or more nearly standard English than the interior linemen, who are viewed as the rough-and-tough fighters who need the courage "to stick it to the opponents." In addition, high-school athletes speak a variety of nonstandard dialect to show their masculine prowess, while the bright male student with standard English is often treated as and considered less masculine and brave. While all of this might seem self-evident to the dialectologist, if we are to work toward a more tolerant society, we need to make the public more conscious that all dialects have prestige and value for the speakers who use them.
The second issue is the misconception that nonstandard dialects are the cause of school problems and thus have to be eliminated. Certainly, the dialect research on the Iron Range of Minnesota disproves this idea.
The Iron Range has a noticeable nonstandard variety of English in both phonology and syntax and, in addition, has its own special vocabulary. It has been consistently viewed as a highly stigmatized dialect by the rest of Minnesota, with teachers ruthlessly, but unsuccessfully, trying to eradicate it. Until the mid-1970s, students from the Iron Range had to pass a speech clinician's test or take speech correction before they could become certified as teachers. Yet the region has consistently led the state of Minnesota in academic achievement. Not only has the Iron Range produced high test scores, but students from there have achieved economically successful careers. The town where I have done most of my research has never had more than 200 students in its high school, but it has had a medical doctor [End Page 396] in every class since 1912. In addition, graduates have included several professors and lawyers and a great many business leaders, including a vice president of Pepsi-Cola.
The development of the dialect on the Iron Range had much in common with that of other nonstandard...