grammaticality judgments

I started grad school in the fall of 2000, after a few years away from academia. (I spent those years mostly working in bookstores, in case you wondered.) One of the two classes I took that first semester was Syntax I, a rollicking good time of drawing syntactic trees and judging the grammaticality of sentences like:

  1. Fred put peanut butter on the sandwich. (Sure. Sounds grammatical.)
  2. Bob ate the sandwich. (Totally grammatical. Where’s my sandwich?)
  3. I asked what Fred put peanut butter on. (Yeah, it’s grammatical.)
  4. *Bob ate the sandwich that I asked what Fred put peanut butter on. (Huh?)

The class was a rite of passage, as all new grad students to the program (more or less) had to take it. There were also a lot of undergrad linguistics majors in the class. The course was a fair amount of work, with fairly long drawn-out homework assignments. I didn’t find it too hard, just time-consuming to do the readings and homeworks. But most of the students found it quite challenging, it seemed, and many had a lot of trouble with the homeworks.

One day, when our homework was passed back to us, I happened to see that the woman sitting next to me got a score of 100. The same as me. And I found myself feeling surprised. And I was actually quite startled by my surprise. Because I recognized that it was not just about the challenge to my ego resulting from someone else getting high scores. I realized that I was surprised that she, this particular woman, was also getting high scores.

Why was I surprised, I wondered. She was a grad student in my program, like I was. Clearly she had a college degree, was educated. And from the brief interactions we’d had up to that point, I had a generally good impression of her. She was friendly, outgoing, enthusiastic. But I realized, as I reflected on the incident after class as I headed home, that I had been surprised to realize that she was also smart. And I came to the realization that the reason I hadn’t expected her to be smart was that she had a distinct regional accent.

It was disturbing to me to realize that I’d had this prejudice. Me. A student of language and linguistics. I know that the mainstream American dialect, the accent of TV newscasters and movie stars, is just one of many varieties of the English language. No better, no worse. All language varieties are systematic, grammatical. And the variety of a language that a person speaks is no reflection of that person’s intelligence or abilities, but merely a reflection of that person’s history.

But our society (and I’m sure it’s not just ours) places value on certain language varieties above others. People feel, whether it’s conscious or not, that certain accents sound more intelligent than others. To the average American, for example, a person speaking with a “refined” British accent will sound intelligent, even if that person is dumb as a stump. Likewise, many Americans will consider regional U.S. dialects to make a person sound uneducated. Many speakers of regional dialects consciously “lose their accent,” or shift to the mainstream accent, in order to avoid perceived stigma.

I’ve thought about this brief incident from my own past a bit lately, following various topics in my sociolinguistics class. Specifically, I’ve thought a lot about how perceptions about language affect speakers of non-Mainstream dialects, particularly AAVE (African American Vernacular English). Like the mainstream dialect, AAVE is complex and rule-governed system, albeit with some different grammatical rules than the mainstream dialect. Many people, however, including educators, actually know very little about these non-mainstream dialects. Instead, they often assume that speakers are speaking ungrammatical English, or that the speakers are even somehow deficient cognitively. The impact of this can be particularly harsh on young children starting school.

It’s hard for me to admit that I’ve also been susceptible to subtle linguistic prejudice. But this awareness has opened my eyes to the real risks of discrimination to children and other speakers of non-mainstream varieties of English. And I’m heartened by the fact that many Universities now require teachers-to-be to take a course in linguistics, which hopefully will give them some background knowledge of AAVE and other linguistic variation.

9 thoughts on “grammaticality judgments

  1. Excellent post, alejna. And so deliciously different social justice-wise.

    I’ve certainly been guilty (note ubiquitous emotion) of the same.

    I have a copy of “Sin & Syntax” on my nightstand. Okay, not really, but it’s in the room. But, I still had no idea what you were doing with that parsing diagram.

  2. KC-
    Thanks. And thanks for sharing that you’ve experienced similar feelings of guilt. It’s so easy to criticize prejudice, so hard to admit when we are the ones guilty of it.

    And I’m not familiar with “Sin & Syntax.” I’ll have to check it out. I’m really not a syntax person, but the sin makes it sound like fun! (And maybe I’ll have to revisit the ambigous parse trees.)

  3. fwiw, there are distinct accents in Lima, Peru – and (what i find interesting) a specific accent that you only find spoken by upper-class women in the city. it’s a local, gender-specific accent.

    i have no idea if this sort of thing exists elsewhere, but your post reminded me of it.

  4. jenny-
    Cool bit of info. Thanks. (Perhaps I can refer to it in class to amaze and impress. I’d bring it up at cocktail parties, but I don’t get to those too often. Anyone want to invite me to a cocktail party?) I have heard of other gender-specific accents, and certainly other locality-specific ones, but haven’t come across local-gender ones. But we’re just reading about more case studies of variation in class now, so perhaps I will learn of another. (Actually, I’m supposed to be doing that reading right now…)

  5. Quite interesting. I’m am mostly guilty of this transgression myself. O how wrong am I! I came from a poor background, but I am well educated, I often judge others on how they sound.
    Hey, I’m not perfect.

  6. I love the way you link your philosophial topics to your every day experience. The concept that we make unconscious judgments that we consciously think we don’t hold is also discussed in Gladwell’s book, Blink. I had the same experience with a woman who sat next to me in my first law school class. She had a seriously strong Arkansas accent and I immediately pigeon-holed her in my mind without even being conscious of it. She eventually became my best friend, my study partner and kicked my ass in every class we took together. (except Contracts – I aced that one).

  7. Alice-
    Thank you! And I’ll have to check out Blink. It sounds interesting. (Oh, the reading list I have…)

    Thanks for sharing the story of you and your friend. The woman I mention in the post above also became a good friend of mine. And funnily enough, I now have trouble even hearing her accent. (She has a Boston accent, by the way.)

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