Dialects People often think of grammar as rules that tell them how to speak ‘‘correctly.’’ Speaking correctly is often taken to mean speaking in the way educated people do. But this is not really how grammar works. All human beings, barring serious problems, learn a native language as part of their early socialization in life. Each person learns a certain variety-called a ‘‘dialect’’—of their native language, the variety their ancestors have passed down to them. In the United States, they might learn Southern English, African-American Vernacular English, New England English, or some other dialect. Dialects can vary in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation. Of course, any region of the United States has people from other parts of the country in it and so there are different varieties of English in any part of the country. Dialects can vary by region (e.g., Southern English), social class (e.g., various working-class dialects), and by cultural group (e.g., African-American Vernacular English, a dialect, with several varieties of its own, spoken by some, but by no means all African-Americans). In many other countries, the differences between dialects are much more dramatic than in the United States. What people call ‘‘Standard English’’ is a rather ‘‘special’’ dialect. ‘‘Standard English’’ is the variety of English that is held by many to be ‘‘correct’’ both in the sense that it shows no strong regional variation and that it is used widely in mainstream media and by public figures. Standard English has its origins in the power of a fourteenth century merchant class in London, people who spoke an East Midland dialect. Because of their growing economic clout, their dialect spread for public business across the country. It became the basis of so-called ‘‘Received Pronunciation’’ (‘‘RP’’) in England, and eventually gave rise to Standard English in the United States. Because of its prestige, many people in the United States speak Standard English and pass on that variety to their children, even if earlier in their family histories their ancestors spoke other dialects. For example, many Southerners have given up their Southern dialect in favor of Standard English, and speakers of African-American Vernacular English often adopt Standard English for job interviews and interactions within public institutions. Standard English is something of a fiction. We all speak it, if we do, in somewhat different ways, as is true of all dialects. We all bring to it different linguistic influences from other dialects and languages we know or which are connected to our ancestors. Further, when we are speaking informally, we all use language forms that are not used in more formal varieties of Standard English as used in mainstream media and in writing.
Language Acquisition For the most part, oral language acquisition is an entirely unconscious process. It does not require overt teaching or correction of any sort. The process of language acquisition is, at least in large part, under biological control. Humans are creatures of language. They are born ready and able to acquire some variety of a human language. Young children do not need correction. When they say things like ‘‘go-ed’’ instead of ‘‘went,’’ they often do not pay attention to correction even if they get it from adults. They all end up eventually saying ‘‘went’’ as the past tense of ‘‘go.’’ In fact, when children say ‘‘go-ed’’ instead of ‘‘went,’’ they show they are catching on to the general pattern that English forms the past tense by adding ‘‘ed’’ to a verb, but with some exceptions to the rule (as with ‘‘went’’). They are over-extending or over-generalizing the pattern, a common occurrence in language acquisition. This shows that children are actively looking for-making hypotheses about-rules or patterns. They are not just memorizing what they hear. The grammars of all dialects of all languages follow certain patterns that are, partly at least, controlled by a human biological capacity for language. The human brain sets certain constraints on what a human language can look like and all dialects of all languages follow those basic constraints. Thus, no dialect is ‘‘incorrect.’’ Dialects are just different from each other. They do vary, of course, in prestige, thanks to how people think about their speakers and their speakers’ social positions. People often think a structure in a dialect is a mistake or ‘‘wrong’’ because it is different from Standard English. For example, in AfricanAmerican Vernacular English, speakers use a ‘‘naked be’’ form as in ‘‘My puppy, he always be following me’’ or ‘‘We be having leftovers these days.’’ Since Standard English does not use this form, many speakers of Standard English think it is incorrect. They may even say that ‘‘People who speak that way don’t know English.’’ However, the naked be form has a meaning. It is not a mistake. It is what linguists call a ‘‘durative aspect marker,’’ that is, a form that means that an action or event is a regular event, happens over and over, and is characteristic or typical. Lots of languages have a durative aspect marker, even though Standard English does not. This form was added to English by young African-American children acquiring English and looking for a way to express durative aspect. Throughout history, children have changed language as they acquire it; that’s why, for example, Spanish and its mother language Latin are so different from each other. The linguist Noam Chomsky has famously argued that there is a biological capacity for language that sets a basic design for all human