Alternative Histories of English

By Richard Watts; Peter Trudgill | Go to book overview

7

The story of good and badEnglish in the United States

Dennis R. Preston

Nonstandard US English (NUSE) has a threefold identity. First, there are linguistic forms which never or rarely occur in the speech or writing of educated, middle- to upper-status speakers. 1 Such forms are traditionally the ones regarded as nonstandard by linguists. This, however, suggests a class-or status-based etiology for Standard US English (SUSE), a characterization which the democratic-populist ideology of the country would seem to deny.

Second, certain linguistic features which occur in the speech of the best-educated, highest-status speakers from some regions or from some ethnic groups are regarded by the general public as nonstandard, although nonlinguists prefer such terms as substandard or simply 'bad English' or 'sloppy speech'. This second category derives from the stereotype of such groups as being made up primarily of poorly educated and lower-status persons, which suggests that nonstandardness on the basis of status is recognized in practice if not in ideology, as mentioned for the first category. For example, 'sick at my stomach' is used by southerners of all educational levels, but, since it is 'southern', it may be perceived as nonstandard by nonsoutherners, who get 'sick to their stomachs' and probably see everything southern as 'substandard'.

At the same time, however, some features which may be used in a very limited regional area go unnoticed, by hearers from outside the region as well as the local speakers themselves, so long as the speakers do not belong to one of those groups about which negative stereotypes are held. For example, users of 'need + past participle' (e.g. 'my clothes need washed') occupy a relatively narrow band through the Midwest (though the form is perhaps somewhat more widely distributed than previously thought, as suggested in Frazer et al. 1996:263). Since these Midwesterners are not prejudiced against linguistically (or in other ways) by themselves or others, the users of this form are seldom mocked for it and are, in fact, surprised to find that it is not universally distributed.

Since the object of this survey will be folk or public notions of nonstandardness, rather than only those recognized by linguists, I will include comment about both sorts, but I will try to point out which is which, although it is not always possible to do so absolutely. In some cases it may be possible to find items which are straightforwardly nonstandard in one region but

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