Dialects Aren’t “Ignorant,” You Are

Edited to clarify that I, too, was an ignorant asshole once.

In case you weren’t paying attention, George Zimmerman is finally having his day in court. The way things are going with Rachel Jeantel, the witness giving testimony today, it seems almost as though Trayvon Martin and his friends are the ones actually on trial. You can show love for Rachel by tweeting using the appropriate hashtags, as she is facing some real hostility based on, among other things, perceptions of her language.

If you think that “Ebonics” isn’t “real English” or that its use signifies ignorance, you’re really just showing off your own linguistic ignorance: African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is a dialect with a rich history, origins, internal grammar, and so on. Period. It is not “broken,” “incorrect,” or “wrong” Standard American English any more than Standard American English is “bad” Queen’s English.

The first time I heard of AAVE, I reacted out of my own linguistic ignorance on the matter. I scoffed at what I saw as a transparently bleeding-heart attempt to make me feel bad for people I thought were inferior — until I realized something about my own linguistic heritage.

I may look super Desi in this pic, but even my Gujarati is actually terrible.
I may look super Desi in this pic, but my Gujarati is actually terrible.

The Indian language I speak with the elders in my family, Gujarati, is a dialect of Hindi. Gujarati and Hindi are close enough that I can understand much of non-poetic/non-literary Hindi in context. At the same time, when I try to speak in Hindi, it comes out as Gujarati. Furthermore, it’s incredibly frustrating for me since they’re so darn close and yet not quite the same as languages. Hindi speakers can generally understand what I’m trying to say, but there’s definitely a gap there both in their and my understanding.

Enter AAVE, a dialect of English.

The same people who offer no argument as I tell them about Hindi and Gujarati will immediately bubble up in pseudo-intellectual frustration at the claim that AAVE is a dialect of English. Furthermore, native speakers of AAVE aren’t exactly afforded any sympathy or help when it comes to the specific challenges of working in a different dialect. Instead, they are labeled “lazy” or some other word that, coincidentally, is all too often used to demonize and stigmatize non-white Americans.

Why the hell is it controversial to say that dialects exist? Again, no one ever argues with me when I, a member of a model minority, relay facts about Indian dialects. What’s the difference between Hindi having dialects and English having dialects? I have a sneaking suspicion that racism, along with classism and linguistic snobbery (it’s not Shakespeare’s English, but Appalachian English is a dialect, too), is at play.


Therefore, when most people hear Rachel’s testimony, all they really hear is their own ignorance. Due to that ignorance, there is a strong stigma attached to using AAVE. As a result, people who speak it usually have to communicate in and/or understand Standard American English as well. This means that they are bi-dialectal. As in more linguistically accomplished than many other Americans.

It shouldn’t have to be said, let alone be a controversial statement, but dialects are real. Even English ones.

Dialects Aren’t “Ignorant,” You Are

44 thoughts on “Dialects Aren’t “Ignorant,” You Are

  1. 1

    Thank you for this. I have been growing increasingly angry about all the ridiculous shade being thrown on this young woman. She’s doing the right thing – testifying at the trial for her friend’s murder – and for that, white Americans have taken the opportunity to shame her, make fun of her, and generally use the occasion to spread and reinforce a lot of negative stereotypes about Black people, Black women in particular.

  2. 2

    Not on dialects but accents, but it tends to apply equally to dialects:
    A Brazilian friend of mine likes to explain, overbearingly, if anybody makes fun of his accent: Having an accent means I speak my language AND yours.

  3. 3

    I like your example. I have the same problem with my Italian. My family is from Calabria, so we technically speak Calabrese. If you were to go to Rome and speak that way, you would generally be considered a backwater hick. Not as bad as Sicilian, mind you, but pretty damn close. A person’s speech should be judged on how effectively it communicates ideas, not how closely it represents a made up ideal.

  4. 4

    very happy to see you address this. there are still “civilized” countries (France, Spain, Great Britain) along with the US where accent, dialect and even language are subject to both social and legal descrimination. I recently searched Twitter for tweets about “Welsh” and found young people expressing shame over their “Welsh accent” when speaking English. In addition, you can easily find hate speech on Twitter aimed at people who have Scottish accents, or indeed any accent not shared by the elite. In Spain, speakers of Catalonian are routinely descriminated against, and in France, despite a progressive government, only Parisian French is considered a legitimate language for any purpose. it really points out the hypocrisy that underlies exceptionalism. it also is a good reminder that skeptics should not fall into the trap of exceptionalism….

  5. 5

    I would love to just grab some of these jerks, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and whisk them away to another country where they don’t speak a lick of English. There I will tell them to fend for themselves and make a life. I’m sure it’ll be totes easy and fun for them!

    1. 5.1

      Ah yes, pleasant thoughts. I’d like to put ’em in camps. Barbed wire. Sniper towers. Dobermans. Make ’em work 16 hours a day. That’d teach those Ebonics-hating monoglots a thing or two.

  6. 6

    I encounter this often.

    My husband is from the South. He got rid of his accent and colorful expressions in college because he worried that he would not be taken seriously in his field.

    In my case, I get a lot of disdain from European francophones when I tell them I’m from Québec, as if my French was somehow inferior. Though I can actually go from a Québec slang to a “purer” sounding French if I want to (my father was taught by volunteers from France so their accent imprinted on him, and then me), I no longer want to. That’s some classist shit. I’ve had people from France request that I speak English to them instead, even though they’ve never heard my French. It’s not like I would be using my heavy arsenal of religious swearwords with them anyway (the gems of Québec French!).

    On a last note, I’ve always wondered if Thai people were being willfully obtuse towards Lao people. The language is based on almost the same alphabet, but Thai people can’t seem to understand Lao. Lao people however, understand Thai very well for the most part, since they watch Thai lakorn (soap-operas). I should point out that Lao is like an incredibly rustic version of Thai, with a lot less honorific embellishments.

    TL;DR, it’s classist bullshit. /end rant

    1. Dan

      I am anglophone but learned French mainly in Quebec, so when I go to France I occasionally get a cocked head and an “ah, vous êtes canadien?” I’ve never experienced too much rudeness on this account, but likely because I am fairly obviously not a native speaker. I will say that it is harder for many French people to understand a Quebec accent than it is for most Quebeckers to understand metropolitan French, just because of the direction of media exposure. It’s a similar issue to, say, someone with a strong West Country accent in the UK easily understanding an American (due to film and TV), while the American might have a harder time.

    2. 6.2

      I will point out that many Quebecquois look down on the other French groups and dialects of Canada such as Acadian and Metis, as if they are the one and only true French in Canada. Thank Federal politics and the Urban elites for that one.

  7. 7

    I wouldn’t call it “ignorance” exactly. It’s racism, pure and simple.

    Accents (or mutually intelligible dialects) are markers of class, race, or other inherited social divisions. People are dumping on Rachel’s speech because it marks her as a member of a social group that it’s socially acceptable to hate. Other markers are physical appearance (not just skin color), tastes in fashion, music, or cars, names, etc. The accent/dialect is stigmatized because the people who speak it are stigmatized, not the other way around.

    To see this in the USA, think how different a person speaking with a French accent is seen versus an Italian accent (at least in my part of the USA, where there are a lot of working-class Italian immigrants.) A French accent is seen as cultured, an Italian one as uncultured, because French was traditionally what all cultured people were expected to learn to speak, whereas Italian was spoken only by low-class garbage collectors and bricklayers. On the other hand, if you go to northern New Hampshire, where there are still a lot of families that speak French at home, speaking French (even if you can also speak perfect English) marks you as being a back-woods yokel and gets you picked on by the non-francophones. Because _there_, the French-speaking people are the lumberjacks and truck drivers (and garbage collectors.) Like Italian-Americans in the Northeast USA, or blacks in most of the USA.

    The same, I suspect, goes for Welsh- or Scottish-sounding people in the UK. And I remember when I lived in Germany, people who spoke German with a Bavarian accent were simply presumed to be uneducated, uncultured boors. (Well, in the case of CSU members, they might have had a point 🙂 )

      1. It sounds like both you and the people you are criticizing are using the word “ignorant” to mean something more like “stupid” or “contemptible.” My mother used to do that: anybody who said things or behaved in ways she disapproved of she called “ignorant.”

        “Ignorant,” to me, means you do or believe something because you haven’t learned enough about it, and that the cure for that is education.

        People who hate on people who speak like Rachel _have_ been educated — they’ve learned that you’re supposed to look down on people who speak like that. And they live in a society where displaying those attitudes is rewarded and displaying a different attitude is punished (similar to the way guys who don’t go along with sexism get punished by their “bros”.) Changing their views is a lot harder than simply providing better information.

        The distinction affects how you respond to people like that. If it’s a lack of information, you inform them. But if it’s an ingrained learned attitude (e.g., racism), you have to somehow find a wedge to get them to consider rooting it out of themselves.

        1. In my view, people who judge AAVE speakers are ignorant on the basics of linguistics, i.e. how languages work. At least, that was the case for me. A lot of people don’t know that AAVE is a legit dialect.

  8. Tim

    1. “If you think that ”Ebonics” isn’t “real English” or that its use signifies ignorance, you’re really just showing off your own linguistic ignorance: African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, is a dialect with a rich history, origins, internal grammar, and so on. Period.”
    2. “The first time I heard of AAVE, I scoffed at what I saw as a transparently bleeding-heart attempt to make me feel bad for people I was taught were inferior — until I realized something about my own linguistic heritage.”

    I’m curious: how do you reconcile those 2 sentences? “Linguistic ignorance” and a huffy “Period.” for others vs mere and presumably excusable ‘delayed realization’ for yourself! I have to ask because it gives an impression of breathtaking hypocrisy!

    1. 8.1

      I was ignorant. Period. There was no excuse for me. I learned, sure, but I’m incredibly embarrassed about how bad a person I was back then. I will change the wording to reflect that. Thank you for pointing it out.

      1. Tim

        Oh stop it. You were NOT a bad person ‘back then’ – certainly not for not knowing something. It’s fine to be hard on one’s self for genuine failings, but being explicitly hard on one’s self for things everyone does quite innocently but somewhat unfortunately, CAN seem a bit like extra-subtle passive aggression. Frankly, the only reason I myself have the ‘enlightenment’ (kidding) that Ebonics should be considered a bona fide dialect is because I saw the movie Airplane!, in which there’s a very funny but elucidating scene. That made me think just long enough to recognize that ‘jive’ or ‘Ebonics’ is a dialect in its own right. Otherwise I’d quite possibly still be as ignorant. But hopefully forgiven for it!

        1. It was not at all my intention to be passive-aggressive. I really do feel that I was a bad person for feeling so smugly superior to others.

  9. 9


    I think a lot of the problem is that people associate the dialect with the ghetto, so when they hear someone speak it, they assume they’re uneducated, regardless of what race they maybe. I’m not sure most people would tell you that English doesn’t have different dialects, but a lot of people just assume that when they hear someone talk a certain way, they’re uneducated. The same is also kind of true for some people in the North when they hear someone speak with a deep southern accent.

  10. Dan

    In a lot of places and in many contexts the word “dialect” itself has taken on a negative subtext, usually because “dialects” are defined by their departure from the high-status literary standard. I usually use the term “variety” to avoid negative connotations, especially when talking about specific instances rather than dialects in general. This is the tack I take in my dissertation, where I am specifically examining the cultural significance of dialect music in Renaissance Venice.

    Perhaps the biggest problem with the dialect/standard divide is that the way people come to perceive language varieties spoken by less prestigious social groups is shaped mainly by their educational experience: prescriptive grammar taught in primary school and onward ingrains a sense that there is a “right” way of speaking, and that departures from this standard are the result of ignorance or laxity (and we all know a few of those people who pride themselves on having “perfect grammar”). But this also, of course, seriously disadvantages those who did not grow up speaking the prestige variety at home, and must learn it through school (and mass media).

    Unfortunately the equal worth of nonstandard varieties like AAVE (even if everyone accepts it) does not obviate the need for a more widely spoken and understood standard, so students speaking nonstandard forms /will/ have to be taught to be comfortable in the accepted standard if they desire social and geographical mobility. I have read some good things recently about how to handle this transition without stigmatizing the student’s home variety or making them feel like something is being imposed on them. I’m planning on writing something on SoD about this once I get the chance to research it more fully.

    1. 10.1

      Yes, Dan. I read this and wanted to respond in much the same way.
      I spend a lot of my time teaching standard English grammar to non-standard speakers and writers, and I agree that it’s very important not to stigmatize dialects while doing so. I talk about how languages evolve and how grammatical structures tend to simplify over time. “I be, you be, he be” is actually a more evolved form of English than our current system, and if we hadn’t “frozen” our grammatical rules a few centuries ago as we made the transition from a primarily oral to a primarily written culture, we probably would all be speaking like Rachel today.

      I also tell them the rules of grammar today are kind of like a “portable diploma.” As far as I can tell, the main reason that mandatory Latin was taught for so long was that it was supposed to work as a kind of passport to weed out class imposters. When you couldn’t just write to a college and ask for someone’s transcripts, anybody could set up shop in a small town, or try to infiltrate a court, by claiming to have a degree from somewhere or other. Latin was the “secret code” that let people tell whether the education you claimed was real or phony. Nowadays, the rules of grammar serve the same function — they let you wear your diploma on your sleeve, as it were. It may not be fair or right, but it’s how society functions, and my students need to learn the rules if they want to get anywhere.

      It’s even more important nowadays, when more and more communication is written. How many of us here have dismissed someone’s argument on the internet because it’s ungrammatically expressed?

      1. Very good point. What’s funny is that those who actually study languages, including such a structured and frozen one as Latin, pretty quickly realize how flexible all languages really are. Back in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE there was a big debate between “analogists” and “anomalists”, the former being keen to force Latin and Greek into a strictly logical pattern (like wanting to replace “good, better, best” with “good, gooder, and goodest”), while the latter embraced grammatical variation. I think (but can’t remember for certain) that Julius Caesar was a big analogist. He was an asshole too, though perhaps his grammatical beilefs were the least of what made him one.
        But then Latin was, as you say, taught in English schools long after it had ceased to be the lingua franca specifically to teach the importance of structured rules and to exclude the less privileged. Certain English grammar rules were established for precisely the same reasons (i.e. the bizarre rule not to split infinitives because Latin never splits infinitives). It ceased to be about communication, and became about class identification.

  11. 11

    as always I’m reminded of Tony Harrison’s amazing poem “Them and Uz”, where he points out that some of the greatest writers in the history of the language (including Wordsworth and Shakespeare) consciously write in their dialects, and found themselves rendered into sterile “queen’s english” by paternalistic lit professors who just didn’t realize that (for example) in the works of Wordsworth the words “Water” and “matter” are a full rhyme.


  12. 12

    The interesting part is that I was taught the opposite in university. Linguistics does not acknowledge dialect as a valid concept. Dialects do not exist only languages, and most dialects are considered separate languages.

    But then in those in the field are never supposed to judge a language or the use of a language. Only the use matters, no matter what the rules or grammer nazis say. That’s the difference between literature and linguistics. The first is prescriptive the other is descriptive.

    1. 12.1

      Erm, I minored in linguistics, and that’s not entirely accurate. Linguists acknowledge that dialects exist; however, they point out that the line between “language” and “dialect” is exceedingly blurred, and the labels are largely defined by culture. There are several ways in which this can happen:
      1. Culture may unite linguistically divergent languages as being the dialects of the same language. As an example of the former, the many languages of China are collectively referred to as dialects of “Chinese”, despite the fact that many of these “dialects” are mutually unintelligible. Similarly, many linguists feel that the varieties of “Italian” spoken in Sicily and Veneto (including Venice) constitute separate languages from the “official”, Tuscan-derived Italian; however, they are not legally acknowledged as separate languages by the Italian government (similar to Occitan/Provencal in France, which most consider “just” a dialect).
      2. Sociocultural or political boundaries may separate mutually intelligible dialects. This is the case with Serbian and Croatian, Czech and Slovak, and to a lesser extent, it is the case with Hindi and Urdu (though here, the formal language of both are differentiated by each borrowing from Sanskrit and Arabic/Persian, respectively).
      3. Languages sometimes exist in what’s called a dialect continuum. This is somewhat less pronounced for European languages, as the leveling force of national standards *have* erased many dialects. But in other parts of the world, such as Africa, there is a chain of mutual intelligibility amongst neighboring peoples; ie, speakers of Language A and understand Language B, and speakers of Language B understand Language C, but speakers of Language C do not understand speakers of Language A.

  13. 13

    Highly recommended read on AAVE:
    “African American Vernacular English Is Not Standard English With Mistakes”: [PDF] http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/aave-is-not-se-with-mistakes.pdf
    Pretty long academic article by a real-live linguist, but very approachable to the layperson. It looks at many features of AAVE which other English speakers might classify as “inferior” or “corrupted” formulations (e.g. not conjugating “be” in certain situations, frequent double-negatives) and compares them to the same instances in more highly-regarded languages and dialects.

    Also it describes how the dialect’s rules are just as strict and sophisticated as any other’s. For example, if someone asks me how I’m doing and I say “I be cool,” that’s not actually grammatical in AAVE, even though it violates some of the same grammatical rules in my dialect that AAVE does.

    TL;DR: AAVE speakers are not flagrantly violating the “real” rules of English grammar. They’re actually rigorously following a rather different but equally sophisticated rule set.

  14. 15

    There is a series of books that deal with this thing in kind of an interesting way: Fool’s Compay, by Robert Asprin

    In one of the books they run into an alien race who, no matter how the captain, whose codename is Jester, tries to correct him, always has the translating system echo back, “Clown”. Later in the series some of the company staff, while on a stay on the alien’s world, work it out. Seems, the whole species doesn’t learn to talk until much later, after they learn written language. This has the odd consequence of causing them to, in effect, all read the same words, but have, basically, something like “family dialects”, or worse, even “individual” ones. The reason why their contact kept coming up with clown, every time he address the captain was because, when the translator ran it back out to the alien, it would come across as there word for such a performer, only, it wasn’t the only word they had for it, and it differed from person to person. So.. the translator would, when feeding it back, entirely dependent, it turned out, on which alien used the name, would come up with everything from clown, to fool, to bozo, to you name it, with only a very slim chance it would actually end up being Jester. Somehow, they sort of just learned to, later in life, get the “gist” of what they where saying to each other, and, when they needed to be more specific, wrote it down. But, it played hell with translation equipment.

  15. 16

    Gujarati and Hindi are different languages, so the comparison is rather inapt. In any case, Rachel Jeantel is illiterate. She couldn’t read the letter. She appears to be poorly educated and thus “ignorant”. It’s not merely her accent and a smattering of grammatical differences. And regarding your charge of “racism”. You’re just hitting the macro. It’s like a Pavlovian response. No thought required. Routed straight through the brain stem.

    1. 16.1

      Poorly educated =/= ignorant. That just means she’s ignorant in certain (academic) areas. By saying poorly educated = ignorant, you’re privileging academic knowledge as the best/only kind of knowledge, which is classist (and stupid).

      The point of this article, which obviously flew right over your head, is that AAVE is not “ignorant English,” and that people (like yourself) who claim that it’s just poor grammar due to ignorance are ignorant of what AAVE is. It is a dialect of English recognized by linguists that has grammar and syntax (e.g., English grammar and West African syntax). It’s not just “accent” and “a smattering of grammatical differences.”

      And regarding your charge of “racism”. You’re just hitting the macro. It’s like a Pavlovian response. No thought required. Routed straight through the brain stem.

      Hahaha. I want to play! You’re just hitting the privilege macro. No thought required. Routed straight through the denial part of the brain! That’s so fun! Don’t you just love making wild accusations??

      There is a very clear history of women of color being treated as hysterical, ignorant, unintelligible, and primitive/backwards (e.g., see these common stereotypes of black women). Heina also said it’s a combination of racism and classism, not just racism. I think your comment makes it pretty clear that she’s spot on.

      1. Liberal jargon macros: “privleging” “classist”. Evidence of your programming. Falsehood on a deep level. But I’m not condemning you. There’s still hope. You can unlearn liberal brainwashing. I did. Your whole first paragraph: reading a lot into what I said. But the way you interpret is telling. You’re applying ideological filters.

        “The point of the article…” Yes, I got the linguistic argument. I agree. Again, you’re jumping to conclusions. But you appear to have missed the point. The implication is that Jeantel is a bright, articulate, well-spoken young woman who is being pilloried simply because of her accent. Dude, just watch the videos.

        “You’re just hitting the privilege macro.” Your “privilege” discourse is thoughtless. You’re forcing a interpretation, leaving out complexity. I’m not looking down on Jeantel or condemning her. I assure you, I have no intention of deprivilegizing her.

        “… wild accusations …” Okay, some hyperbole for the sake of argument. But then, you’re showing it’s not hyperbole.

        “combination of racism and classism” Can you define those terms? Really. I don’t even know what they mean. I am from the lower class. In any case, your response to my comment makes it pretty clear my liberal critique is spot on.

        1. Haha! Man. Okay.

          Yes. Being aggressively derided for speaking a recognized dialect is totally equivalent. Ask these. Is she well-spoken according to the rules of AAVE? Does it matter given that her friend fucking died because some asshole had a gun and used it without provocation? Why is her language a focus at all? Is it perhaps because of a classist and racist lens cast on her testimony instead of the Goldman content?

          Will actually was making the point that uneducated and ignorant are not the same. Ignorant, for example, would be not knowing enough to provide a reasonable rebuttal to an argument, deliberately ignoring that you don’t know enough, and both equating illiteracy with ignorance and ascribing some classical conditioning retconning to someone else’s behavior with no familiarity.

          And come on, Pavlovian? Really? Operant, if anything. Which it’s still not, but I mean Operant vs. Classical is like, super basic psychology.

          1. Buzz — A troll doesn’t argue. I’m arguing. You’re just name calling. Thus, you are the troll. But since old man didn’t even read my comment to Will (or pause to think) there’s not much to argue. By calling me an asshole you’re sustaining the response. From the three of you I am to understand that I’m classist (sic), racist, ignorant, I can’t follow an argument, etc. My original comment was fairly innocuous. Talking to liberals, one walks on eggshells. You’re thin-skinned. There’s an underlying violence and menace to your discourse.

            But this labeling has a purpose. Liberals seek to establish a hierarchy. There’s the in group and the out group. You want to privilege the in group. Liberalism is all about the struggle for power. It’s a supremacist ideology. You use people like Ms Jeantel as mere tokens, rhetorical props to establish power relationships.

          2. “The implication is that Jeantel is a bright, articulate, well-spoken young woman who is being pilloried simply because of her accent. Dude, just watch the videos.”
            “Is she well-spoken according to the rules of AAVE?”

            Yes. It is obvious I did not read your comments.

            And, Edgar, you obviously didn’t even Wikipedia operant nor classical conditioning. Repeating something doesn’t make it true.

          3. Pretty sure we rang the bell (“liberal brainwashing macros”) and you’re the one who drooled, assclown.

            Kindly fuck off now.

  16. 18

    It’s weird how liberals are so thin-skinned that the mere existence of a halfway decent conversation among them provokes an attempted angry negation from someone who can’t stand the thought of Americans not greeting AAVE with contempt. Surely we are the ones who have lost control of ourselves.

  17. 19

    I think the problem with Edgar Lee’s comment is the use of the word “ignorant” without any kind of qualifier. I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s discussion of the inhabitants of Papuan New Guinea in “Guns, Germs and Steel.” They possess a profound ignorance on virtually all the things that we think are important. Yet they possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the plants and animals in their environment that allows them to survive and thrive in a place where any of us, parachuted in from an airplane, would barely survive a day. And even though I consider myself pretty well educated, there are some topics that many of my peers consider extremely important — sports, say, or music, or tv shows — where I am profoundly ignorant.

    Speaking of ignorant, I have been actively avoiding watching news about the trial. You say that Rachel is illiterate, and that may well be factually true. Poorly educated? Probably — though that’s likely not her fault. But ignorant? I’m willing to bet there’s at least something she knows more about than you do.

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