Non-standard English and the New Tribalism

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Dave Frohnmayer, President Emeritus of the University of Oregon, defines the New Tribalism as,

the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality and ideology, ‘a give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners’ activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise.

I believe that much of the misuse of standard English that we are witnessing is linked to the New Tribalism.

Nonstandard English is a tribal marker. Consciously or unconsciously, speakers who have been taught standard grammar and word formation, but persist in saying or writing such stuff as,

Me and my friends play video games.
They invited my wife and I.
The detour effected our plan’s.
Your my best friend.
I’ll definately be their.

do it because they identify with a group that feels that the use of standard speech does not reflect who they are.

In the first half of the 20th century, when not every child had the opportunity to progress all the way through high school, learning to speak a standard dialect in addition to one’s home dialect was not seen as an optional by-product of education. The teaching of standard grammar, pronunciation, and spelling was one of public education’s major goals. Standard English was seen as a passport to a job in a bank or an office or a high class department store. It was a goal that ambitious young people mastered before having to leave school at the age of 13 or 14.

Two interviews in a documentary about life in the 1930s and 1940s illustrate the change that has taken place in U.S. educational outcomes since the early 20th century.

One of the interview subjects was a white man who grew up on an isolated farm and attended a one-room school house. The other subject was a black man who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. I can’t say with certainty, but I’d guess both grew up speaking nonstandard dialects at home. In the interviews, both men spoke standard English. They spoke with regional accents and inflections, but neither man made the pronoun and verb errors that are so common these days.

In the 1940s, only about 50% of the school population graduated from high school. The other half did well to complete eighth grade. Nowadays, school attendance is compulsory to the age of 16 in nineteen states, 17 in eleven states, and 18 in twenty states. Mastery of English grammar seems to have dwindled as time spent in school has increased.

A lot of critics blame the modern plague of sloppy English on texting and computer use. I don’t buy that.

Texting and Twitterspeak are dialects in their own right. They operate under their own sets of rules. There’s no reason an excellent texter can’t also be an excellent writer of standard English.

Doctors may talk about “phalanges” at a medical conference, but they talk about “fingers” and “toes” to their patients. The toughest punk on the street corner probably doesn’t go home and address his mother as “Yo, Bitch!” Most speakers instinctively shape their language to suit their listeners and readers.

When native speakers pass through eight or more years of formal instruction without mastering standard English, something psychological is going on.

Certainly there are other contributing factors, but I’m convinced that a great part of the problem is a fear of tribal rejection.

What standard English needs is a lobby, like the ones that exist to fight bullying and domestic abuse. It needs well-funded activists and celebrity spokesmen urging young people to say “My friends and I play video games.” It needs more employers like Kyle Wiens, iFixit CEO and founder of Dozuki. He requires all job applicants to pass a grammar test before interviewing them for a job of any kind. Says Wiens,

Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.

Now, as in the 1940s, the ability to speak and write a standard form of English is the ticket to a better life. Even if tribal identity requires speaking a distinctive dialect within the group, the ability to speak and write a standard form of English can be a great social equalizer.

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32 thoughts on “Non-standard English and the New Tribalism”

  1. The one that drives me crazy is most often seen in email or other written communication – I could of, would of, etc. Really? In these cases the writer’s sloppy pronunciation (could’ve, would’ve) translates into a misguided understanding of “could have” or “would have.”

  2. Dave Frohnmayer’s right. The use of standard English does not reflect who the so-called tribalists are, i.e., standard English is a badge of intelligence, education, and experience, qualities which barbarians disdain. It’s easier to flaunt one’s ignorance, even stupidity, and thereby garner the acceptance of one’s fellow barbarians than it is to think and to master objectively worthwhile goals. No one has to strain to achieve complacency within the context of arbitrarily subjective standards and that complacency earns them the adulation of their fellow barbarians.

  3. I think this was a great post with great advice.

    Could you write one encouraging the re-emergence of a separate singular and plural number in the second person?

    I would also like to make this remark:
    I don’t care what yinz (best option for a second person plural) think about (pronounced roughly like abaht) Standard English, here in Picksburgh we’ll still be goin’ dahntahn with our (pronounced “are”) aunts (pronounced like the bug) and ea’in pierogies ‘n’at. Then we’ll head to Gian’ Iggle (Giant Eagle, a local grocery chain) to get some hoagies.

  4. Hooray for this post! In my home standard English is expected and demanded. There is neither room, nor excuse, for anything less. My eight year old knows how and when to say “whom”, all of my children text with correct spelling, grammar, AND punctuation. We refer to ourselves proudly as grammar geeks.

    Speaking and writing correctly is contagious. When someone respects you they begin to speak like you. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed people correct their grammar when talking with me because they know I care about it.

    Keep up the good work. I love getting these daily posts in my email box each morning.

  5. Thank you for this article. I enjoyed it, and will keep it for ready reference. You articulated a subject that I find fascinating, and you did it with grace and style. I appreciate that very much.

  6. This is an excellent article. I am so glad that someone is actually talking about this and how serious it is becoming. This sloppy English is so common nowadays that I see it even at work. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. I sometimes wish I had the power to use the good old red pen to correct all the ridiculous errors. Thank you for taking the time to tackle this subject.

  7. The thoughts presented here give us something to consider as an explanation for nonstandard English. In my own circles (which cover several states and sectors of life) I’ve noticed that schools don’t emphasize grammar and that younger people learn English usage more by what they hear, which is usually nonstandard English. It’s not that they’re consciously trying to use a dialect for a situation, it’s that they’re parroting others.

    The same is true for adults. Language is fluid. People simply echo what they hear, thinking that they’re saying it the way people should now be saying it. For example, the phrase “They invited my wife and I” or a similar phrase such as “They invited my wife and myself” is seen by many as a polite way of expressing oneself. Most people have forgotten the rules (and the rules are not that important to them anyway) and just go with what they hear.

  8. The way young people speak does reinforce their identity in the tribe. The problem with spouting faulty phrases such as “me and her are going out” is that the speakers do not know the Standard English “translation.” In a job interview, a tribe member will say exactly the same thing he says to his peers. As others have pointed out, schools (and parents) are not teaching, correcting, and yes, drilling their children.

    As mentioned above, people speak language as they hear it. Television, film, and advertising obliterate whatever little grammar young people have learned in school by scripting poor usage for their announcers and actors. News anchors and talk show hosts are prime English abusers. Noun-verb agreement and pronoun misuse are rampant.

    “There’s a lot of reality shows that actually have that.” (a news-talk person)

    Worse are written words that actors must speak:

    “Her and her kid are going to live with us.” (a supposedly intelligent character on a TV drama)

    We need these two things:
    More emphasis on grammar in schools:
    Perhaps students might be told, “Yes, the way you and your friends talk is okay when you are hanging out. But you also need to learn to speak ‘grown-up English,’ and use it when you write a paper, seek a job, and wish to show that you are an intelligent person.”

    Pressure on media to model fault-free English:
    If people who are concerned about the erosion of our language will persist in pointing out errors, perhaps scripters and copywriters will clean up their acts.

  9. Ditto, ditto, ditto! I do agree that, often, nonstandard English is a tribal marker. However, as mentioned in a couple of the comments above, I think it’s also a lack of knowledge and understanding. I edit letters and other pieces written by intelligent, competent adults, and I see these kinds of errors on a daily basis.

  10. 9:58 Nancy
    You’re right, of course. That’s why I stuck in “Certainly there are other contributing factors.”
    Children and new immigrants in the first half of the 20th century could learn standard English by listening to the radio or going to the movies. It’s an enlightening experience to study the dialogue in old movies and news clips featuring speakers like Edward Murrow.

    10:55 Nancy
    I believe we’ve lost the battle on “There’s” used to introduce a plural–at least in spoken English.
    However, I do think you’re on to something with the idea of more pressure on the media. If enough viewers would deluge the offenders, things might turn around. The people to target are local television station managers, producers of the dramas and comedies, and ad agencies and their clients.

    The efforts of parents like you to teach your children the difference between informal and formal speech are certainly part of the solution.

  11. Kyle Wiens is my kinda guy! I could probably get a job if there were more people like him around, because there would sure be more job vacancies LOL
    I think I am pretty good on the grammar end, but I also know that I slack sometimes. I definitely say “Me and her…” when I’m among friends in casual situations, but I kick it up a notch if I’m speaking to my boss (or when I used to speak to my mother, who would have swiftly beheaded me for saying that). I think I have no issue with people who use nonstandard English, as long as they KNOW standard English and use it when necessary and appropriate. I figure it’s like wearing a bathing suit: It’s fine for the beach but not appropriate for a business meeting. The idea of using the right tool for the job. You don’t throw out your hammer just because the current job calls for a wrench.

  12. This ties in somewhat with the idea of “tribalism”. I wrote to the Web site Space.com this morning to correct its writers and editors on this one:
    NOT “A Switzerland-based spaceflight company” but “Swiss-based”. The first half of this phrase is always the adjective, as in “American-based”, “British-based”, “Canadian-based”, “Dutch-based”, “German-based”, “Japanese-based”, “Korean-based”, “Mexican-based”, “Russian-based”, “Spanish-based”, and “Swedish-based”.

    The phrases were not used, but indeed that article did mention two other companies that are Canadian-based and Spanish-based.

    Actually, the whole notion of adding “based” is unnecessary and it ought to be dropped. I think that this is another one of those useles items from British English. A “Swiss company”, a “Canadian company”, or a “Spanish company” all make perfect sense with the understanding that 100 percent of the company does not necessarily have to be located there. Is the reader to be credited with having no common sense at all?

    Also, phrases such as “the Chicago-based Boeing Corporation” are quite misleading. Yes, it is true that Boeing now has its (small) headquarters in Chicago, but the guts, muscle, and bone of the company (its primary factories and design agencies) are still located in the State of Washington. Boeing has a few other factories in California, Missouri, Texas, etc., but NONE in the State of Illinois, which is where Chicago is. The part of Boeing that is associated with Illinois might as well be located on the Internet, with its workers scattered across North America and around the world. Someone who works for Boeing in Chicago could just as readily be physically located in Mexico, Alaska, or Puerto Rico. To identify Boeing with Illinois is quite misleading to anyone who does not know that the REAL Boeing Company is clustered in Washington State.

  13. Good luck with that lobby. It will be labeled as, at best, a facet of white privilege.

    For my first ten years, my father was Army, so we moved all over and I ended up with a regional-free spoken English. Well, part of it was the moving and part was the insistence of my parents to speak properly, no matter the circumstances.

    Post-Army, we ended up outside Nashville. The kids in my neighborhood (I’m white…they were all white) made fun of the way I talked. While most of the ribbing was good natured, simply speaking proper English got me labeled as “Einstein”, “smart-ass” etc.

    Moving to the south side of Chicago for jr high and high school, though, was completely different. This time I was minority white and speaking proper English, whether I did it or one of my black friends did it, was overtly frowned on.

    Both cases of tribalism.

  14. I’ll add that I was a bit disturbed to find that one of the Kindergarten teachers at my daughter’s new school says “axe” instead of “ask”, even when reading from printed material that clearly reads “ask” (we were all following along).

    At first glance, my initial reaction was, “This is someone that’s supposed to be teaching our kids how to speak proper English?” I tried to mull it over, putting it up against someone with a deep South twang in the same position, but I kept coming back to the teachers I had in TN, who, despite their DEEP Southern twang, still got the words right.

    The last part of that thought was that it’s unlikely that anyone will try to correct that teacher’s speech pattern out of conscious or unconscious adherence to politically correct rules.

  15. My favorite tribal group are the redneck teabaggers. I realize they don’t represent the majority of the tea party, who generally are well educated, but they are a constant source of humor. I suppose one can forgive the mistakes on hastily written signs, (“Get a brain! Morans”, “Respect Are Country; Speak English”, or my favorite “Vote NO on Libarry”) but when someone takes the time and expense to commission an over-sized bumper sticker which declares “One Big Ass Misteak America” I have to chuckle.

  16. The desire to be accepted, by many of those in authority, has led to appealing to the lowest common denominator – not only in the use of language, but in general demeanor, as well. Many teachers would rather be cool and popular with their students than to present themselves as proper examples. “OK, you guys, we’re gonna do grammar now, so git outchur books.” Even Mr. Obama speaks this way (Does the “Mr.” make me sound too formal?) It seems to me that more respect could be garnered for the content of the words spoken by those in authority – and for the speakers, as well, if they were spoken more formally. Instead, sadly, the effort is so often toward the pedestrian (most of whom would think that I am speaking of “him and her walkin’ down da street over dare”).

  17. There’s some decent insight here, e.g., “Texting and Twitterspeak are dialects in their own right. They operate under their own sets of rules. There’s no reason an excellent texter can’t also be an excellent writer of standard English.” You also implicitly say the same thing about nonstandard dialects. And yes, it’s true, a good command of standard English is necessary for many jobs. The important thing to note is: not ALL jobs. People like Wiens who make a perfect command of standard English a requirement for any position are misguided. For one thing, they themselves would never get 100% on any test. How could they, when there is disagreement among usage authorities? (The AP now accepts “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, for example.) For another: yes, if you’re going into communications, you’d better know how to use standard English. If you’re going into housekeeping? Not as important. (I say this as someone who has housekeeping staff — immigrants — in his family.)

    I also find the idea that we need a “standard English lobby” strange. We already have one. It’s called the media, government, publishers, and the educational system.

  18. To: The Byzantine Bandit
    In the ancient roots of our language, in Indo-European, they not only had the singular and plural forms of nouns, pronouns, and verbs, but they had singular, DUAL, and plural (more than two).
    So, you would need to dream up a dual form of the pronoun “you”.

    I vote against the whole idea of dual forms, and likewise for singular and plural forms of “you”. I also vote against using “they”, “them”, or “their” as singular pronouns. I think that such things are simply lazy because the sentence needs to be phrased in a different way.

    Also, companies, corporations, organizations, teams, families, and crews are all singular entities, and these should be referred to as “it”. E.g. “The family drew its sole means of support from the pension of its deceased father.” I used the word “it” twice to emphasize, and also to drive certain people of the British Isles WILD !

  19. Speaking of children from poor backgrounds learning to speak Standard English.

    Decades ago, Black children in the United States, mostly from poor or lower-middle-class families, learned to understand and speak Standard English in CHURCH. Protestant and Catholic seminaries taught their students to speak English correctly and fluently. My goal here is not to advocate religion (since I am an agnostic myself) but rather to give credit where credit was due.

    The same applied to a lot of poor and lower-middle-class children in the South and the West who were White or American Indian. Even if their schools were not good**, they learned good English in churches, synagogues, and Buddhist temples – no matter what their religion was.

    It was the churches and seminaries of the South that produced such great orators as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Andrew Young. I am sure that many people of other races learned to speak well in churches, synagogues, and temples. For the past two decades, at least, most young people have been doing other things besides going to chuch, such as playing video games, etc. Something that you couldn’t learn about speaking was by playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Grand Theft Auto, and the thousands of others.

    Once again, I am giving credit where credit was due, and pointing out that not so many young people go to church, etc., anymore.

    **Note that lots of poor and lower-middle-class children went to good schools with dedicated teachers, too. I am not omitting that, especially since I was one of those children. It also helped that my mother and father were both (poorly paid) schoolteachers, but they took an interest in teaching, every day, and they KNEW the principals and assistant principals, and all that. I was one of those unusual schoolkids in which I went to the same junior high school where my mother taught, so of course she knew the principal and assistant principal! My mother also went to graduate school with some of my high school teachers. They had all been working on their master’s degrees. Once again, both my sister and I were unusual in this.
    What is not surprising is that we both have graduate degrees in various subjects. (In our case, completely different subjects.)

  20. Matt Gaffney:

    Some more important badges of intelligence, education, and experience are moderate rhetoric, careful and logical argumentation, examination of one’s own biases and assumptions, and a general desire to be reasonable and even-handed. You apparently lack all of them. Better get to work! You wouldn’t want someone to consider you a barbarian!

  21. I have listened to an interview with Andrew Young, who was present on the podium when Martin Luther King gave his famous speech in Washington, D.C. (“I Have a Dream”) in 1963. We have just recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of this speech.

    Mr. Young** said that he knew what Dr. King had planned to say that day. His speech was already outlined. Mr. Young could also tell it right away when Dr. King decided to divert from his plan and to “improvise”. Mr. Young said that he whispered to the man in the next chair and he said, “What these people don’t know is that they are all about to go to CHURCH.”

    Yes, the rest of the speech from then on came directly from sermons that Dr. King had preached on several different occasions in various Black churches down South. Dr. King was a Baptist, but he had been welcome as a guest speaker at many other kinds of Black Churches in the South: Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. Dr. King probably spoke at some synagogues, too.

    “I may not get there, but I’ve seen the Promised Land!” is something that Dr. King drew directly from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. You should be able to tell my great admiration for Dr. King – and I am not Black and not a Christian, but one who was born and raised in the South – but I have lived everywhere from Maryland to Illinois to California, and as far south as Central Florida.

    **Mr. Young is also known by his former occupations and positions:
    Ambassador Young (to the United Nations)
    Representative Young (of Georgia)
    Mayor Young (of Atlanta)

  22. Excellent article, I concur 100 %.

    As a non-native English speaker, I particularly find it funny (not to say plainly irritating) how “good” has taken to replace “well” or “fine”. I hear it almost daily in TV series, spoken by supposedly cultured or educated characters, on newscasts, and so on. Nobody would advertise the self-promoting fact that one is “good” (chuckle) but answering an offer of more tea, for instance, with “No, thanks, I am good” beats me (at any rate, it is still better than saying “I am full” which is, to me, the height of bad taste, or poor manners). However, I don’t think that the increase of this usage is, per se, a tribal marker, but more an indication of “following the herd”. And this is why education (with a capital E) at schools should insist on the use of, and schooling in, standard English.

  23. In higher education, it is considered pedagogically declassee to teach grammar as grammar. New instructors are encouraged to take an “organic” approach to discussing grammar and to avoid drills, direct (undisguised) instruction, and (Heaven help us!) diagramming sentences. Grammar has become anathema in English Departments except as part of the Linguistics curriculum. Witness a recent invitation sent around to instructors in the English Department of our university to attend a talk on “How to Teach Grammar Without Teaching Grammar.” I think I have to add another “tribe” to the list my fellow contributors have amassed.

  24. One of the best Daily Writing Tips responses I’ve read. Most strongly agree that Textspeak and Twitterspeak are emerging as dialects in their own right.

    I used to teach high school (in Melbourne, Australia) until 2009 and I even caught myself writing ‘u r’ on the board and saying ‘LOL’. A tribal effect? You bet! When you’ve got hundreds of teenagers with whom you interact daily, you can’t help but innately go with the flow.

  25. In a nutshell, I think what you’re describing is the defensive posture that “I’m not stupid, I’m just a nonconformist!”

  26. “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. That is a practice up with which your reader will not put!”

  27. Quoting Kelly Dibble: In these cases the writer’s sloppy pronunciation (could’ve, would’ve) translates into a misguided understanding of “could have” or “would have.”

    No, these are not “sloppy pronunciations”, but rather they are contractions that have been in English for CENTURIES:
    {could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, must’ve, here’s, that’s, there’s, aren’t, couldn’t, daren’t, didn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, isn’t, mustn’t (pronounced “mussent”), shan’t, shouldn’t, weren’t, wouldn’t, you’re}.
    These are not used in formal English, but they can be used in informal English, and by that I mean the language that is a level above slang. They are not strictly slang expressions by any means.

  28. A funny one:
    On the other hand, words like “youse” really are slang – dialect words.
    Years ago, I worked in a deparment store with a woman named Mrs. Guise, and she was from New Jersey, too. Mrs. Guise worked in the service desk area, and she needed to make announcements over the P.A. system. One day, I thought that Mrs. Guise said, “Youse guys, service desk.” Later on, I went to her to tease her about it, and I said, “Mrs. Guise, this is Alabama, not New Jersey! We don’t say ‘youse guys’ here!”

    Mrs. Guise laughed, and then she replied that she had a daughter named Sue who happened to be in the store, and she wanted to see her daughter. So, she announced, “Sue Guise, service desk.”
    Aha – the joke was on me. She did not say, “Youse guys, service desk,” after all.

  29. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that NOT understanding that {could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, must’ve} are contractions for {could have, would have, should have, must have} is wretched!
    I agree with Kelly Dibble about that completely.
    There isn’t any excuse for interpreting ‘ve as “of”.

  30. “What standard English needs is a lobby, like the ones that exist to fight bullying and domestic abuse.”

    I tend to agree. But what would we call it? The “Alliance Anglais?” 😉

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