Language privilege and regionalism

I recently told a Californian. “If it needs changed, I’ll let you know.” He asked where I was from. Until that moment, I had no idea that “needs changed” is a regionalism. Californians are taught to say “needs to be changed” or “needs changing.” This really took me aback because I’ve had a number of jobs in which I was paid to proofread. I know my grammar skills are well above average. Naturally, I had to find out whether my usage was incorrect or merely regional. I also wanted to know if it was truly a less common usage than the California version (it is).

I found a helpful MetaFilter thread which informed me that (a) there’s no hard and fast answer to whether “needs changed” is grammatically incorrect and (2) wow, people can be such assholes about linguistic constructions that get on their nerves. If you’re curious, the best explanation of where this usage came from – and why it can’t logically be considered incorrect – is here. But let’s get back to the issue of people being assholes, because that’s where a privilege issue comes into play:

I’m not a linguist, but “wrong” is probably the wrong term to use here. The construction is definitely nonstandard (outside of a certain region), so if you want to scare people away from using it, then you can legitimately claim that much – and people may naturally have an interest in not offending their interlocutors’ aesthetic sensibilities (witness the opprobrium manifested in this thread). Based on my experience living in Pittsburgh, it’s not quite as much of a class marker as you might think – it’s a regional marker, obviously, but I’ve been surprised at the number of professionals (lawyers and the like) who use the construction not only in speaking, but also in written work sometimes.

But, I mean, is it “wrong”? I don’t know – are you an American? If so, have you ever “agreed to a contract” with someone? Is an Englishman entitled to call that wrong, since one doesn’t “agree to” a contract, one simply “agrees a contract”? Or do you frequently use the word “gotten,” a past participle? That word is practically unknown in British English, but is pretty common in American English. Think about these kinds of differences between dialects and communities of speakers of a language before deciding to call something “wrong” or not.

Who’s the final authority on a language as common as English, which has been evolving separately on several different continents for hundreds of years? Until recently, London thought they should be – at least for the UK. All their TV shows not only used London grammar (sometimes including, for color, the class marker that is Cockney slang), but also London accents (the Cockney accent was usually reserved for criminals and lovable scamps). In recent years, the BBC has realized this is pure elitist crap, and they should be celebrating the various English accents instead of trying to make them all conform to the capital city’s idea of proper speech.

But Los Angeles hasn’t gotten it yet. Los Angeles has been the dominant representative of American English since TV began. Oh, sure, occasionally you hear a bad fake southern accent (there have been possibly a handful of authentic ones, ever, to my ear) or a Bronx accent or African American Vernacular – but like Cockney, they’re reserved for people who aren’t, well, “typical Americans” (read: “white middle class Californians”). Any “typical American” character is meant to speak with a Los Angeles accent. Southern actors must master the accent or satisfy themselves with playing  southern stereotypes (stupid people, “belles” and hateful bigots, as if we don’t have all three of those in generous supply in every populated section of the US). Black actors who didn’t grow up speaking the African American vernacular may be expected to learn it for roles, since they can’t be cast as “typical Americans” anyway.

Los Angelenos and people who speak like them think they represent the majority, but that’s not true: they represent the dominant media force in the dispersal of American English. This is why I had to check on my “needs changed” usage to see if it was really an uncommon construction: if you live in California and get all your media from California, you have no idea what’s common in the rest of the country. But Los Angeles media sets the standards, so when people hear less common constructions – even obviously correct ones – they tend to correct you with Los Angeles speech as their yardstick. (By the way, “needs changing” or “the roof needs fixing” sounds strangely quaint and totally incorrect to my ears, but I try not to be an asshole of epic proportions about it.)

Los Angeles English is fine, but it is neither more correct nor more pleasing than other regional variants on the language – not even within the US. As the above commenter noted, the English say “I had got my package before I left” and Americans say “I had gotten…” When I was in school, kids who said “had got” were corrected. And yet, Americans routinely use “have got” as in “I’ve got high hopes.” The British more correctly say, “I’ve high hopes for you”, and that sounds odd to our ears. I’ve never yet met a grammar cop who didn’t say, “I’ve got a cold” or – even more bizarrely – “I’ve got to go.” What’s a to go, and where did you get it? Got means “obtained”, not “possession of.” “I’ve obtained a cold” sounds just fine, if a little formal, but if you’re an American, it should actually be “I’ve gotten a cold” if that’s what you mean.

And what about “pretty good”? Ironically, I see grammar cops use this one all the time – “this is a pretty good example of that horrible, vile construction that makes me cringe” – and what the hell does it mean? And how come it isn’t “what in hell?” Meanwhile, English desperately needs a word for “you [plural]“, which is why regions keep making up their own. I think “y’all” is a good one, but it will never become “standard English” because the Los Angeles media has made it emblematic of some imaginary Dueling Banjos land where everyone’s inbred, stupid and uninformed about hygeine.

See why this is ridiculous? English is the confused child of about six parents, none of whom could stand one another. It’s amazing the language works at all.

But more to the point, it takes a lot of entitlement to think there is one correct English when English is spoken as a primary language throughout the US, most of Canada, the UK, Australia and a few other nations with histories of English-speaking imperialism. And yet, we’ve all been trained from birth to recognize as “fact” that Los Angeles English is how Americans (should) sound and speak, to think of the solitary London accent as the English accent, etc. Why? Because dialects are markers of class. Because Los Angeles speakers  have “no accent” and everyone else in the US has “an accent.” Los Angeles determines the standards. They say “needs to be changed”, so of course people go forth and act like total douchebags without even realizing it when their delicate ears are assaulted by a different construction. It never even occurs to them that both constructions might be equally valid.

Nor does it occur to them that even if one construction is less correct than others, or not correct at all, it might still have value as an expression of a different region and worldview. The Boston Globe sums it up nicely: “So if you think Pittsburgh’s grammar needs corrected, consider the alternative: Maybe the majority’s attitude needs adjusted.”

Yes, the majority’s attitude frequently needs changed.

Comments

  1. Em says

    Interesting! I hadn’t heard that construction before, but it does make sense (why is “He needs the car washed” okay in standard usage but not “If it needs fixed”?).

    Another possible example: while watching a British TV show, one character asked, “So do you live here?” and the other replied, “No, but I will do after next week.” Now, I have never heard an American use “will do” in that manner, and I suspect that if an American English teacher ran across it, s/he would scratch out the “do” and write “redundant” or something like that. But it’s perfectly okay in England. And it makes sense: if someone asks whether you will speak at a conference, and you say, “Yes, I will speak for an hour,” that’s fine – no one dings you for repeating the verb, although it isn’t strictly necessary (you could just say, “Yes, for an hour,” which has no verb at all). So why can’t “I will do” be the future tense of “I do”?

    I also found this explanation of why the singular “their” is actually perfectly fine (as everyone agreed before 1795, apparently). Because really, when you say, “If anyone calls, tell them…” it just wouldn’t make sense to insist on “him,” or even “her.” “Anyone” could turn out to be no one, one person, or more than one person, and we don’t have a pronoun for “unspecified number of persons of unspecified gender and undetermined existence.” Yet this is repeatedly drilled into us as a terrible grammatical sin.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ah, yes, the “will do” thing. Another Britishism that used to sound wrong to me is “I’m going to hospital” or “I’m in hospital.” We’re taught you can only drop the “a” or “the” if it’s a proper noun, as in, “I’m going to Manila.” But we say, “I’m going to lunch.” Is lunch a place like Manila or a verb like “fix [the car]” in that construction? And what about “going to work”? English is SO all over the place!

    I LOVE your research on “their” – it bugs me to no end to have to either choose a gendered pronoun or use something like “him/her.” Now I have LINKS to support using “their.” :D

    I am SUCH a nerd about language!

  3. Em says

    That one always sounds odd to me too. But if we go to school, why not to hospital? Is there some weird reason why work and school are somehow Platonic forms and thus proper names while hospitals are always specific manifestations? I really doubt it. Sometimes when I look at all the exceptions and just plain weird bits of English, I wonder how anyone ever learns it. The verbs alone are terrible! Work/worked but sing/sang, because for some words we hang onto ancient verb forms like that pair of jeans that will likely never fit again, but we just can’t give them up. (Why are jeans and pants plural, anyway? Because once upon a time some guys wore separate hose in pairs instead of a single garment?) Plus the zillions of irregular forms instead of the manageable handful I remember from Spanish. Go/went? How could anyone guess that? And there’s no good reason why we regularized “brethren” to “brothers,” but kept “children” instead of switching to “childs.” Yeah, I’m also a language nerd :-D

    I’m also pro-split infinitives, for the record. Just because you can’t do it in Latin is no reason not to do it in English! And what if what you’re really doing on a particular occasion isn’t just saying you will not x, but actually creating a negative form of a verb, to not-x? Ye olde grammarians surely would have known the Latin word nolo, the opposite of volo. If they could smush “non volo” into one word to create a negative form (approximately, “to not-want”), then I don’t see why we can’t split our infinitives for the same effect. It wouldn’t always work their way in English – who would recognize “to ne” as the opposite of “to be”? Nobody, I’m betting.

  4. says

    When I was growing up in the Midwest, we considered our accent to be the one on TV, and endlessly debated if it was an accent at all or simply the basic form of the language. I find it very interesting that LAers claim it’s theirs. Wonder who else wants it?

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sorry if I gave a wrong impression – LA people don’t CLAIM it’s their accent. They aren’t even conscious of it. It’s just that if you grow up here, it’s all you hear. Whereas, if you grow up in the South (for example), you hear the Southern accents around you AND the L.A. accent from TV, so at least you are aware not all Americans sound alike.

    Midwestern is actually very close to the California accent, but I do hear some small but telling differences. (I like midwestern better.) I can totally see why you all felt your accent was the one you were hearing on TV – I think there are several accents that are pretty close to the California one (the mid-Atlantic states contain a lot of accents that are very close to it, with differences mainly in vowel pronunciation), and the existence of these actors help to bolster the concept that the California TV/movie accent is THE American accent. And it may indeed be more of less a majority accent.

    I once listened to a linguist on a talk radio show saying there is no such thing as “no accent.” Every speaking of every language is an accent. I believe this was the sort of thinking that led the BBC to reconsider its policy and start including a rich variety of English accents on their TV shows – AND I LOVE IT. I was never wild about London accents, and now have discovered I adore some of the northern ones.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? I was thinking today about the phrases “clean up” and “wash up.” Up? How did that get in those phrases? English is such a hodge-podge, and it’s so full of idiosyncratic landmines that a native speaker like me, with well above average language skills, can still easily find herself tripped up (ha! there it is again, what’s up with that? < –OMG, that wasn’t intentional!).

    I think I’m just going to back away slowly now. :D

  7. Em says

    Or “put up with.” Where does putting or up come into it?

    I don’t know if it’s common anywhere else, but in northern California we also have the expression “hella”: That was hella cool, my parents were hella mad, etc. It flows easily and I’m used to hearing it – but where did it come from? “Hell of”? That makes no sense. Did someone just want to use “hell” as an adjective (in the same way that “bad” was used for a while) and somehow an extra vowel sneaked in to make it roll off the tongue more easily?

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL, the first place I heard “hella” was Cartman on South Park. I like it – it’s a great, colorful substitute for a few ableist terms (“crazy”-related) I try to avoid using. But for some people, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard. And I have NO idea how that word got constructed. It’s like a substitute for “as hell” that somehow turned into an adjective. It strikes me as brilliant, but it just seems to have come into the world fully formed.

    Another interesting “who’s right/wrong?” question popped into my head today: group nouns. We treat them as singular. “The band is playing tonight.” The British treat them as a plural collective: “The band are playing tonight.” Logically, one has to be wrong because the theories behind each choice contradict one another completely. And yet, both theories make sense. It is a single group, but it is a group of several. It’s just a matter of where your focus is. So, neither version is wrong.

  9. says

    OIC.

    The difference between British and American is what finally settled it for us, I think. Even if we wanted to claim that Midwestern was the basic form of American, to British ears it would still sound like an accent. So you really can’t speak a language without an accent, I don’t think.

  10. Cinnabar says

    I’m a firm believer in “everybody has an accent”. It boggles my mind that some people think there is a state of not having an accent. How is that possible? If you use your voice to speak, you will by definition have a style of inflection and pronunciation. Either it blends in with everyone around you so you don’t notice any differences or it stands out in some way. It’s all a question of what’s “normal” to you, and that’s hardly an objective criterion.

  11. Em says

    Funny, my dad just asked me about collective nouns yesterday. He wanted to know whether using the “[collective noun] were” construction would imply that he was considering it as a group of individuals rather than an undifferentiated group – which actually sounds like a handy distinction – and I had to tell him no, it would imply that he’s British. I find it amusing how the choice contradicts national stereotypes too: America, treating a group of individuals as a single unit? Heresy! :-D

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, one could argue that it belies the press spin we give ourselves and reveals the truth: that America is obsessed with conforming to the group, and groupthink and groupspeak. And we DO have a peculiar emphasis on keeping up with the Joneses and all that, for a nation of rugged individualists.

  13. Em says

    Hm, not sure about the nuances of this comment threading…

    Anyway, I always like noting those sorts of stereotype-contradictions, because we really are such a conformist nation and so delusional about it. That rugged 19th century? Funny how our history classes mention the Homestead Act and land grants to railroads, but somehow fail to mention that it was a massive federal subsidy. (And often theft, but that’s another issue…) Then there was relief money for states whose harvests failed (or other natural disasters), which those rugged Western states did not turn down, and massive corporate and/or government irrigation projects, and regulations about spitting in public, and all the other things our propaganda says didn’t happen. Plus all those “independent” farmers who bought houses and tools through Sears catalogs, or were hired by (or were the owners of) companies to get homestead claims in a region and set up a “democratically elected” puppet government, etc. etc.

  14. says

    One of the things that amuses me in all this is that, to my knowledge, none of the countries that claims English as their national language has a body equivalent to L’Académie Française – a prescriptive authority on what is and is not Proper English. Instead, we have descriptive bodies like the Oxford English Dictionary, who try to document English as she is spoke, not English as they would like it to be.

  15. The Other Anne says

    Growing up I was always told that we of CO (some parts, anyway) had no accent. As I grew up I realized that was incorrect, and we in my region merely have a “lowest common denominator” accent, in which we have the least number of vowel sounds. For the life of me I cannot say cot and Caught differently, nor not and naught. It blew my mind. Now that I am paying attention I can definitely see where I say things differently from the rest of the USA.

    What’s also fun is that I have family and friends all over the country so I love visiting them if I can or just watching them on facebook and seeing how the trends kind of sweep across the country. For example, my family in Wisconsin got obsessed with country about three or four years back, and now many of my friend in CO are, but it took a few years for that to reach the yuppy-child hipster people of CO from the midwest. (This is entirely anecdotal of course and it’s probably different for everyone, but it’s what I’ve noticed.) It’s the same for slang, though that tends to depend on where it originated. My friends in Boston were saying “legit” a year or more before my friends in CO, as well as listening to Dragostei din tei (and YAY for THAT craze being over). Fashion, too.

    Pretty much all of my friends growing up and family (aside from extended and grandparents) are from the same relative class background, though, so my personal anecdotal sampling is pretty uniform.

  16. says

    Great post. As a native Spanish speaker, this really hit home. This dialect-vs.-correctness issue (an issue only the speakers of the “standard” language seem to have) is even bigger for us, speakers if a language that’s official in 22 countries and not only has a “standard” form in each of them (plus the many “dialects”) but also a “Real Academia de la Lengua Española” (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language) dictating the grammar rules and correct vocabulary for all of the Spanish-speaking world.
    And I tell you, whenever two or more Spanish speakers from different countries meet, the conversation will at some point inevitably steer to the “we say that different at home” subject. Dilectal differences is for us It’s right there next to the weather when it comes to conversation topics.
    I once listened to a linguist on a talk radio show saying there is no such thing as “no accent.”
    Of course, the linguist is correct. “Standard” language is just a convention – regional dialects are not bastard children of the “standard” one, but siblings. Had the English kings established their empire from Liverpool instead of London, then Scouse would most likely be the “proper” language, and London English would sound “provincial” to us ;)

  17. Harrison Murray says

    Are you sure it’s really Los Angeles that is the standard? I’ve read that the central Midwest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_American) is where the “standard” American dialect has come from (and where many of the news anchors from the early days of television were from, most notably Walter Cronkite). Indeed, Southern California has its own regional markers that appear in media to designate someone as being from California (“surfer” and “valley girl” dialects are essentially exaggerated versions of American youth dialects from the 1980s, for example).

    I’ve lived in western Tennessee all my life and I so thoroughly believed in the superiority of General American as a child that I trained my voice to imitate the accent of the presenters of Meet the Press (no, really) and insisted to my classmates in school that “y’all” and “ain’t” were not words. And the idea is hard to shake–when I hear someone speaking in a strong local accent I end up unconsciously ascribing negative Southern stereotypes to that person, even though I shouldn’t.

  18. Jennifer Kesler says

    Harrison Murray,

    The Midwest IS where it “came from”, but now what you hear on TV is what I hear every day from local speakers (I’m in L.A.), not what someone in the midwest hears. The SoCal accent is heavily influenced by Midwestern because so many Midwesterners move here constantly. And yet, there are relatively subtle differences now, and when a Midwesterner comes to town, you can always tell they’re not from around here by their accent. Because SoCal is so insular and so unaware of anything outside this tiny region, it makes sense that the local accent here became substituted in media.

    The surfer and Valley girl accents don’t actually exist here anymore, at least not that I’ve stumbled across. They were a funny 80s phenomenon, and they live on as a caricature of California, but don’t represent any real accent I’ve ever heard.

  19. LA says

    This first came up in my life when film students I knew noticed what a distinct accent and speech pattern in the 1940s there was. We dubbed it “British Brooklynese”. It existed nowhere else but in Hollywood films. However, those who watched a lot of movies would soon begin adapting their native accent in one way or another. We had a chance to ask our parents about it, too, since they’d been alive through the times. One of my uncles rebeled by adopting a very thick Brooklyn accent merely to annoy my grandmother, who was from Boston…

  20. Tracey says

    As a non-native speaker of English until my mid-teens, I can tell you that the mid-west accent is not at all like the California accent. To my ears, the mid-western dialect is very nasal and sharp.

  21. Neil says

    The funny thing is that I never use the word “get” or its derivatives (I find it to be rather overused). I tend to be a bit more formal in my writing; whether it be a result of my education, or a result of my egotistical need to sound intelligent. I also monitor my speech to make sure I conform to the General American (I am Minnesotan, but I have always sounded more a newscaster due to going through the St. Paul public school system). I try to avoid regionalisms for the simple reason that it creates fewer ambiguities. The stereotype for people in my area is something I find unappealing, and therefore I try my best to distance myself from it.

    By the way; the word “you” is plural for “thee” (due to it originally being the direct object form of “ye”).

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