Service of Language: Yale Alumni Magazine Cover Story Touts “Bad English”

July 15th, 2013

Categories: Education, Language, Speaking

Homer Byington didn’t sleep well Friday night and it wasn’t due to the heat. My husband was disturbed by the cover story of his college’s alumni magazine, “Why ‘bad’ English isn’t.” The writer, Peggy Edersheim Kalb, ended the article in the July/August issue of the Yale Aulmni Magazine: “But by showing that different kinds of English are used almost everywhere in the United States, [Raffaella] Zanuttini and her team are determined to teach us that variation is the rule, not the exception. And grammatical differences should be celebrated, she says. ‘You don’t have to be ashamed of a local language.’”

Zanuttini is a linguistics professor at the school. The professor and some dozen undergrads and graduate students in the university’s Grammatical Diversity Project study the arrangement of words and phrases i.e. syntax, [not vocabulary]. The team “wants you to let go of your prejudices,” according to the article’s subhead.

Kalb again quoted Zanuttini: “ ‘Certain people want to get rid of features that are stigmatized, but that’s certain people,’ says Zanuttini. ‘Some people want to get rid of any linguistic feature that marks them as coming from the South. Other people like to have their own identity’—and those who are proud of being recognized as Southern don’t want to homogenize their language to match other parts of the country.”

Identifying and recognizing colloquial turns of phrase is nothing new but suggesting that twisting the language is acceptable merely because someone might discriminate against the speaker—or the speaker might  feel discriminated against—makes little sense. For those “proud” of being recognized as Southern as Zanuttini said, or from New England, New York, New Jersey, the Midwest, etc., let them rely on their regional accent, but leave the language alone.

Phrases such as “ain’t nobody a man,” “We might can go up there next Saturday,” and “You know, if you drank a half a drink, you might oughta go home and sleep it off,” are spoken in New York, Texas and Utah respectively according to one of the illustrations in the article. Could you have recognized the states of origin? I couldn’t. Doesn’t that water down the argument that people enhance their identity via quirky/incorrect turns of phrase that tie them to a region?

What happened to the melting pot concept here in America?

What would the professor say about those who feel pride in their mother country? If those of us first generation Americans mimicked the way our parent or parents spoke English there would be verbal chaos. What would happen to communications?

Shouldn’t we look to places like Yale to set the standard and help us all speak English correctly? Isn’t there enough satisfaction in being an American? There’s so much we can’t change about ourselves–our DNA, color, race, age–and much, such as language, that we can.

What benefits are there for individuals, regions and this country to lowering the linguistics bar? Why not raise the education bar? Are these linguists ashamed of their advantages because they attend or teach at a prestigious university? If you were to move to a foreign country, even if you couldn’t ace the accent, wouldn’t you want to learn to speak the language correctly?

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13 Responses to “Service of Language: Yale Alumni Magazine Cover Story Touts “Bad English””

  1. ASK Said:

    Professors like those cited in the article must be the reason why so many undergraduates do not know how to spell, punctuate, or write…And, it seems to me such a question already arose several years ago when the question of teaching ebonics was raised.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Once again I feel as though I’ve just played a hearty game of pin the tail on the donkey after a vigorous bit of spinning because this professor’s viewpoint seems so off kilter as to make me dizzy. Isn’t the idea of education, whether higher as at Yale or even in first grade, to improve one’s skills? Because math and I are not friends should the teacher say that we don’t want people like like Jeanne to feel badly so she gets a checkmark next to 5 + 4 = 7?

    The energy of this team would be better directed to teach young children to speak correctly than to encourage them not to learn the standard.

  3. Tugce S. Said:

    The article you mentioned really puzzles me. The whole point of education is to improve oneself. If what you already know is good enough what’s the point of going to school? How would the author explain why many people come to US just to improve their English? Being proud of your identity shouldn’t be confused with learning the right thing. I think making a mistake while you’re aware of the correct one is just ignorance.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with you which is why I find this so alarming–unless the professor is hoping to get on the map and is doing this for that reason. Maybe she–or the writer of the article–wants a book contract and to get one you need to prove a public interest and following. Perhaps she hopes for a kerfuffle. If that’s true, too bad she couldn’t think of more legitimate ways of drawing attention to herself.

  5. Anonymous Said:

    Donna Boyle Schwartz commented on Facebook:

    Donna wrote: “Communication skills are the key to advancement in our society. Therefore, this article seems counter-intuitive–we should be emphasizing the importance of proper grammar, spelling, word usage and punctuation, rather than letting things “slip by” under the questionable banner of diversity and regionalism.”

  6. H.M. Byington Said:

    A few years back, I was invited by a Neapolitan poetess and her husband to Sunday family lunch at their gracious Victorian villa in the countryside not far from Naples. At one point, in front of children, grandchildren and assorted guests, she brought out her latest book of poems in Neapolitan and read to us from it. They sounded glorious, but I understood only every fifth word, maybe. She then told us, speaking once again in her cultivated Italian, that her publisher had suggested that if she were to translate the poems into Italian, he could assure her of a far larger audience for her work. Picking up a similar book, she read to us one of the same poems. The Italian was easy to follow, and the sentiment beautiful, but the “music” of it was not the same. Her reading made me grateful for the continued existence of Neapolitan, even if I am unable to speak it.

    All languages are wonderful, valuable things, each in its own way, and sadly we are now losing them from the planet faster than new ones come into being. I applaud Yale’s continuing to study how they came to be, grow, change, live and die.

    Nonetheless, Peggy Edersheim Kalb’s article disturbed me deeply, because the very essence of what Yale taught me about research was to avoid preconceptions, keep an open mind, and explore evidence honestly. Her absolute certainty that “diversity” is a “good thing,” and by inference, that “good grammar” isn’t any better than “bad grammar,” makes her sound more like a litigator building a case than a reporter reporting about the findings of a research team, and calls into question the integrity of the whole project. Or, was this all a “set up” from the beginning designed by the university not to discover the truth but to bolster some preconceived political goal?

    Curiously, according to Kalb, in professor Zanuttini’s ideal world, we’d each master both our own English dialect and the dialect of the elite, and points to Italy and Spain as examples of countries with multiple dialects where one dialect became the dialect of choice. What she doesn’t mention is that both those countries in the past hundred years have suffered from multiple-decades of brutal fascist rule, disastrously devastating multi-year wars, separatist movements among their northern provinces, serious regional antagonisms, consistently inept governments and incompetent or corrupt political leadership. More recently, as their economic woes have worsened neither country is solvent, and unemployment, particularly among the young, has skyrocketed. Birthrates have plummeted despite both being Catholic, and migrations of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa, legal or illegal, have intensified. Such countries are hardly poster children for the benefits of diversity.

    I have an open mind, but the rewards of diversity may not exceed its liabilities. However, my Neapolitan hostess was right to publish her poems in two languages. If someone does not speak your language, how are you going talk to them? You are going to do it in theirs, and, while you are at it, you might as well do it right.

    I spend most of my time in New York City, where I suspect more varieties of English are spoken than anywhere else in America. The language is changing faster than most people realize, to the point where, occasionally, when I overhear snatches of conversation on a subway or in a restaurant, I have difficulty understanding what is being said. This is fine, natural and shouldn’t be changed even if could be, which it can’t. But with all that money students now pay to go there, Yale should make sure everyone has an opportunity to learn how to speak and write in clear, correct English – the “elite” English of the professor’s ideal world.

    I now fear that this may not be the case at Yale.

  7. JBS Said:

    Don’t know if it will make Homer feel any better, but I’ve found typos in the Michigan alumni publication … as well as in Time. Judy

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your comment made me think of French patois–in Louisiana, Canada and Haiti. These iterations are reminiscent of your Neapolitan poet’s regional Italian but there’s a difference: The patois isn’t spoken in France but by people who live across an ocean.

    I also thought of art, and how contemporary artists are often skilled in traditional drawing and painting before launching into abstract work and of writing, where to communicate clearly you must know the rules and when and how to break them successfully so as not to lose the reader. You might say the same about cooking and baking.

    I should have asked you to write the post.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    ASK had a similar thought: She noted that professors such as this one are the reason undergrads can’t spell, punctuate or write. Some become the editors of those who weren’t taught and you describe the [sad] result.

  10. Lucrezia Said:

    Should Yale be the American version of the Academie Francaise, which turns a royal purple at the faintest hint of change to what is considered proper French? Visit France and discover a number of regional “patois” which haven’t the faintest resemblance to French. Same here in the States and Canada. People aren’t paying attention on either continent, and haven’t done so for centuries – otherwise we would still be speaking the language of Beowolf or Roland.

    Now try mainland China. There are the main languages, Mandarin and Cantonese which include hundreds of dialects which no doubt undergo frequent updates. Language everywhere is in constant flux, and like the Yangtze, no one can stop the flow.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Don’t think anyone objects to patois. It’s about celebrating phrases such as “We might can go up there next Saturday” and others referenced in the article. Most of the people I know with young children on hearing the addition of “can” would tell the child it’s unnecessary. Those who themselves would add it wouldn’t notice, which doesn’t make it correct.

    I think that the Academie Francaise focuses on words; this effort is about syntax.

    The word “ashamed” came up in the article–I think the Academie is more about correct/incorrect. Do people who speak incorrectly realize that they do or that they should feel embarrassed? I don’t think so nor are they making a statement about pride in their region–one of the points. The article politicizes language, and as Homer notes, takes this stand without the appropriate research. My bet is that if it has anything the Academie has piles of research.

  12. Anon Said:

    “Shouldn’t we look to places like Yale to set the standard and help us all speak English correctly?” If you are “looking to places like Yale” for answers, and you reject the answers you get, why bother “looking to them” in the first place? You would seem to already have the answers in mind.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If anyone had a crush on a university it was I over Yale. There was a time in which I looked to it, as you suggest I should now have done, and accepted much of what its intellectual gurus uttered.

    However the devil-may-care approach to language touched on how I make a living—communications—and made me so sad, which is why I wrote about it.

    I’ve seen and been shocked when once proud institutions, organizations, businesses and brands limped and then collapsed. It can happen. I hope that this linguistics detour doesn’t bode the same for Yale.

    By the way, do you really believe that any place—even Yale–should never be questioned, and assumed always to be perfect and right? The mother/father to child response “because I said so” works only up to a point, yes?

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