Linguistic Variations Outside the Mainstream

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As linguists we make the distinction between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar, and insist that we are more concerned with the descriptive facts and try to come up with theoretical analyses and explanations of these facts, rather than focusing on what is considered proper grammar, or even so-called correct usage. Admittedly there are definite merits to linguistic standardization and proper usage should be encouraged, e.g. in schools and in academia. But that’s not what most linguists are interested in. However despite our focus on linguistic usage, sometimes it seems that in most aYaleGrammarrticles we do not really see much reference to non-standard usages. Linguists are normally very good at proper grammar and sometimes this advantage in language becomes a disadvantage, because it is not easy for us to take notice of real non-standard linguistic variations. Recently I came across the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, which is indeed a very fascinating project. A few years back when I was still in graduate school, I had the pleasure of being in the audience of a talk given by Professor Raffaella Zanuttini on Appalachian English. It was definitely a great talk which drew our attention to lesser-known facts of English outside the mainstream. So it is only natural that Professor Raffaella Zanuttini is actually the leader of this Yale Grammatical Diversity Project.

After a quick look at the catalogued data and preliminary analyses available on the project website, I feel as if I came upon a linguistic treasure. Although the list of linguistic phenomena is still quite short, I think it is a good start and if more people join this research project it will eventually expand to more varieties of English in more places. Actually in my dissertation I also drew upon a regional use of the English adverb of quantification “all“, as discussed in James McCloskey’s (2000) article titled “Quantifier Float and Wh-Movement in an Irish English” (Linguistic Inquiry 31: 57-85). In West Ulster English and some southern variety of American English, e.g. North Carolina, you can say something like:

What all did you get for Christmas

Here the adverb “all” floats to the wh-word. This kind of usage is not universally accepted by all English speaker although it is quite commonly used by some.

It is probably interesting to note that non-linguists often refute the validity of such non-standard data and claim that people are not supposed to say so and hence we cannot use such data in our research articles. This is indeed frustrating on multiple levels. For example, I have encountered many non-linguists who insist that you cannot say “he don’t” because “it is wrong”. I guess that their views of correctness are understandable, but as a linguist, I am excited about such “non-standard” uses. There was one time when a friend of mine who speaks such a variety of English natively told me about the distinctions between “he doesn’t” and “he don’t”. In his dialect of English, there are both forms, but intuitively he thinks that “he don’t” might be used more for temporary situations while “he doesn’t” might be used for more permanent situations. This is very fascinating. Interestingly, I found this webpage where someone posed the same question and analyses, and other people replied with interesting views, among which of course we find the “linguistic police” claiming that “it is wrong” to say “he don’t”. So here the real interesting thing is that there is a distinction expressed by the choice between “don’t” and “doesn’t”, and a linguist would definitely welcome such a fact and want to figure out why this distinction is related to the choice of verb agreement features.

Here I think of another related variation. Some native English speakers say “you was”, and I have heard this multiple times when I talk to people. I wonder if these speakers also use “you were”, and whether they make a distinction between “you was” and “you were”. Interestingly some people say “they was” too. I wonder if they also say “they were” and if they do, is there a difference there?

So now I am thinking about variations and non-standard usages in Chinese. I can only think of “有” used as an aspect marker, e.g. 你有看过吗, and “很” modifying a noun or verb, e.g. 很男人,很受伤. But I am sure there are many more interesting regional usages. I wrote a paper on the verbal use of the wh-adverb 怎么, e.g. 他怎么你了. This usage is pretty common in northern China, but not quite readily understood in the south, as confirmed by my Taiwanese friends and colleagues. They do not use 怎么 in this fashion at all and they find it not particularly sensible. Anyway I think I should probably be more on the look out for such regional or non-standard uses in Chinese as well, and maybe some interesting linguistic findings can be made.