Sitting down for dinner with my friend, a fellow anthropology major, we began discussing the topic of human evolution. All was amicable until we reached an impasse. The discussion of Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) brought us into conflict over the correct pronunciation of the species name. My pronunciation was “Nee-and-er-TAL” while his was “Nee-and-er-THAL.” I pushed back, explaining how my pronunciation was correct given that it is how the scientific community refers to the hominin, but then realized my rebuttal was not based on the intent to educate. Correcting his pronunciation was more about pedantry and was plain rude.
Overcorrecting a person’s speech not only neglects dialectical variation and those with solely written rather than oratorical knowledge, but it also goes against the purpose of linguistic interactions. The primary goal in social interaction is to be understood by fellow conversation participants. If that is accomplished, it should not matter what the exact phonetics and syntax of the speech are.
The syntax and lexicon used by an individual are often out of their control and due to upbringing and early socialization. An individual’s grammar develops quite young — with children learning a variety of complex sentence types at 2 — and is mostly fleshed out by the age of 7. With this in mind, it makes little sense to shame a person for utilizing certain grammatical constructions. It is quite literally out of their control most of the time. Yes, people may learn other forms of syntax and alter their speech accordingly. But that does not take away from the fact that no one should be shamed from speaking with a syntax they were raised to speak. Much of our linguistic style is out of our control. Rather than an assertion of intelligence, correcting minuscule aspects of someone’s style of speech is insolent.
An issue of centering whiteness exists within the American English education system that imbues negative bias toward speakers of non-white English dialects. Dialectal variation within a language is a common phenomenon among the languages of the world. One estimate claims English to have as many as 160 dialects. Still, the U.S. education system privileges the dialect of white people and casts all other dialects as incorrect forms of speech. African American Vernacular English is the dialect of English used by many African-American communities and is often the target of linguistic stigmatization. Word constructions like “ain’t” and uses of the habitual “be,” as in “she be runnin’,” are trademarks of this dialect. Unfortunately, AAVE is often delegitimized as a proper form of English and dismissed as simply grammatically incorrect by language ideologues. AAVE has become associated with ignorance and illiteracy, both of which are faulty claims that don’t stand up against linguistic science. AAVE syntax and phonology are a valid form of language. Yet, these speakers are hyper-corrected and shamed. Claims that these speakers speak incorrectly have no scientific basis and are outright disrespectful. A difference in dialect is not a basis for linguistic pedantry.
Another point to be made is that many people learn new words from reading rather than conversation and therefore have not heard the correct pronunciation. If one is not acquainted with the complex patterns of English phonology, knowledgeable of the International Phonetic Alphabet or have a person to consult, how can one accurately know a word’s pronunciation solely from print? Scrutinizing another person’s pronunciation delegitimizes those whose access to language and novel vocabulary remains sequestered to the literary. English orthography is notoriously convoluted. Without the help of sound, there is no way I personally would have discerned that words such as “wait” and “weight” are phonetically equivalent. Biting criticism of another’s diction is rude and disparages those who choose to increase their vocabulary through print sources.
The point of language, when taking an anthropological viewpoint, is to be understood by others. If that goal is achieved, why does it matter what syntax or phonetics someone uses? Any attempt at imposing rigid linguistic prescriptivism on others has faulty scientific foundations and does not correlate with sociolinguistic data. It is illogical to assert that a pronunciation or grammar construction is the only valid language form that exists. Dialectal variation is an integral part of linguistic diversity and should be celebrated instead of shunned. Whether a person is a speaker of AAVE, “Standard English” or another dialect, all of those Englishes are worthy of respect. You’re not smarter for correcting someone’s speech. You’re just rude.
Ben Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.