There aren’t many topics I’m uniquely knowledgable about, but I did study linguistics for my undergrad degree. People tend to want to talk to me about language once they learn this, probably because language and communication are such a integral part of the human experience.

Appreciation

Last month in the US we had Juneteenth, and President Biden signed an executive order making it a new national holiday. The occasion prompted many Twitter discussions sharing American history and the modern-day impacts of our nation’s legacy of slavery, which in turn got me thinking about Black (American) English and linguistic profiling.

(Disclaimer: I’m white.)

I first learned about grammatical features of Black English in my undergraduate linguistics classes. Personally, I’ve never been immersed long-term in a majority-Black environment and I wouldn’t try to speak Black English myself. Rather, I’m sensitive to how white supremacy and those who perpetuate it simultaneously disrespect and appropriate Black English and other parts of Black American culture. It’s a contradiction that Black Americans witness and experience every day, though I won’t claim to speak for them.

Originally, I wanted to amplify the work of Black linguists—like Professor John Baugh, who first developed the theory of linguistic profiling. I started writing a post to share their work, but I realized that many readers won’t have studied linguistics formally and may miss valueable insights. While I think linguistics is a relatively approachable subject, there are some fundamental ideas that I want to share before I start directing readers to scholarly work on Black English.

Linguistics what now?

In my opinion, linguistics is a fairly approachable subject. It’s a lot less abstract than, for example, high school math. We’re already experts at using our primary language without even thinking about it.

In fact, I believe introductory linguistics topics—phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology, historical linguistics—could absolutely be taught at the high school level. Some of it already is! You’ve heard of morphemes, right? Prefixes and suffixes and the like.

I’ve even taught introductory phonetics to interested friends, who usually get a kick out of learning that seemingly unrelated sounds are actually made in the same part of the mouth.

Allow me to share a few things that I tend to talk about when I talk about linguistics with someone for the first time. While my formal linguistics education is about a decade out of date and I’m far from an expert, most of this should (hopefully) still apply.

Language is arbitrary

By that I mean: there aren’t specific sounds (or words or grammar structures) that are inherently connected to the thing they represent in a particular language.

Take the word tree. There’s nothing inherently tree-like in tree. The sounds in the word tree have no more relationship with a tree than the sounds in arbre or (pronounced “ki” in Japanese). The only reason tree means “tree” is because we as English-speakers have collectively agreed that it means “tree.”

Language is arbitrary. The sounds that make up our words? Arbitrary. The syntactic placement of words and morphemes in a sentence? Arbitrary.

In that case, how does language even work? Linguists and cognitive scientists are still on the case (linguists can’t even agree on what defines a “word” because word boundaries behave so differently in different languages), but the simple answer is “because we agree on it.” Every word, every grammar rule in a language is a tacit negotiation among the various parties in a conversation, which is why miscommunication is so common and why it can be helpful to define more formal rules in formal contexts.

We strive to describe

Most people’s experience with grammar is a prescriptive one:

Modern linguistics isn’t about that. We don’t go around criticizing strangers’ accents like in My Fair Lady.

Instead, the goal is to describe what’s happening in the language, whether phonologically (sounds), morphologically (parts of words), or sociologically (how people use it). You may hear the term “descriptivist” used in linguistics-related contexts. It’s basically a label that linguists give ourselves to say “I’m not here to judge or criticize your use of language, just to observe and describe it.” (Though I won’t deny that descriptivist linguists can still inflict harm—for example, by disturbing local communities while conducting research.)

Another important point: if your intended audience understands what you’re saying, you have successfully communicated and thus are speaking “good” English (or whatever language you’re using). Your grammar is fine. You’re conjugating verbs and modifying nouns and placing prepositions without even realizing it. It might not match what we call Standard American English, but that doesn’t make it bad grammar or bad English. This is especially important to remember if what you speak is a dominant variety of your language. Different doesn’t mean incorrect.

Still, there are certainly times when it makes sense to be more prescriptive, like when giving a speech or writing a resume. People will even code-switch between different languages, dialects, and registers (levels of formality). This is fascinating to linguists, especially since code-switching requires a very high level of fluency in each of the language varieties being used! So when a Black American English-speaker code-switches between Black English and Standard American English, you should be impressed. When a Spanish speaker uses Spanish and English together in the same sentence, it’s a unique skill that’s actually quite hard to develop if you weren’t raised in a bilingual environment.

So remember: as descriptivists, we’re approaching language study with curiosity, fascination, and appreciation rather than with judgement or criticism.

Stay tuned

I’m going to stop here for now.

For future post(s), I’m not going to make promises about dates beyond “hopefully I’ll publish something before I start my next job.” A few different formats that could work:

(And now you get why it’s taken me nearly a month to write this…)

In any case, let me know if you found this informative! ♥