Suppose sixth-form pupils in Kent ask me - their English teacher - whether the Kentish sentence 'They done it when they come' is grammatical. When I insist it is, they will ask me for proof because we all know that this sentence is commonly called not just ungrammatical but bad English, sloppy.
For the final answer we are supposed to refer to the definitive book on English grammar for our time, A Comprehensive Grammmar of the English Language by Sir Randolph Quirk and his team. This book was written for lay people and stands in my local reference library near the complexities of the British Rail timetable and the equally definitive book on vocabulary, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
Unfortunately for me, the Quirk grammar does not list 'done' or 'come' as possible past-tense forms. Since the book claims to be a 'comprehensive grammar of the English language', the Kentish sentence must be ungrammatical. My students have won the argument.
But I know that linguists would agree with me that the sentence is grammatical. Kentish speakers do
not say on one day 'They doned it' and on the next 'They it doed'. When speaking Kentish, they always say 'They done it'. And this is
what grammar is: regularities in the ways we order and inflect words in sentences.
How, therefore, does it happen that, even though linguists themselves believe otherwise, our definitive book on English grammar makes the Kentish sentence seem ungrammatical?
Let us start with a little linguistic history. About 100 years ago linguists (that is, people who study language according to scientific principles) came to the revolutionary conclusion that, scientifically speaking, no part of language should be discarded as malformed or bad; language varies for many reasons and each variation is as worth studying as any other. In the years since John Patten and I attended school, knowledge about language has increased enormously, entirely due to this conclusion. One practical benefit is that speech therapists now diagnose and treat people with speech disorders more successfully than before.
Linguists are vilified for this revolutionary idea, just as other scientists (such as Galileo and Darwin) were when they overturned the conceptual world lay people lived in. But unlike Darwin, linguists have not succeeded in replacing lay opinions about language with scientific understanding. The revolution is incomplete.
Look in any modern grammar book written for lay people and you will find little or no reference to variation in English. The Quirk team, for example, included in its book only 60 instances of regional grammar, with no regional tense forms, not
even 'We was here'. This is partly why the book is so short compared with the OED. Moreover, two-thirds of the regional grammar that the team did include appears in small-print footnotes.
The regional systems of multiple negation ('Nobody said nothing') and of pronouns ('Where are y'all?') are as important in regional dialects as the Standard systems are in the Standard dialect - that is, the single dialect which is regarded by lay people as correct. But, whereas the team describes the Standard systems fully in the main text and allows one perennial problem in Standard English - the split infinitive - more than two pages, they relegate the regional systems to short footnotes - the typeface and place for unimportant information.
We must, therefore, conclude that the Quirk grammar and all grammars for lay people are incomplete by linguists' own definition of grammar. Despite their titles, they are not grammars of the English language. They are grammars only of the Standard dialect. Linguists would say these grammars have a gap where regional grammar should be. Lay people, however, do not notice the gap.
But lay people do more than state that 'They done it when they come' is ungrammatical. They also assign value: this sentence is bad English, sloppy. Linguists, however, know that the Kentish sentence is as grammatical as its Standard equivalent and is unambiguous - unlike, for example, the Standard English 'the balloons burst when we hit them'. The lay value judgement, therefore, is prejudice.
This is how prejudice fills the gap in the linguists' grammar and hides from lay people their lack of knowledge about language. This same lack of knowledge hinders teachers who try to remove the prejudice that, for example, you are thought unfit to become a doctor if you say 'I haven't got no tablets'. It also helps explain why John Patten, recalling what used to count as knowledge of language, is about to legislate for the teaching of the same flat-earth ideas about language that he learnt as a child.
He could not now legislate for a Fifties syllabus for physics. Years after racial and sexual prejudice have become unacceptable, language prejudice is still acceptable to an educated mind.
This year I am attending evening classes on botany. An ignoramus about plants, I am expected to use field-study guides that train me to observe plants as minutely and scientifically as my postgraduate linguistics course trained me to observe language. The guides are as dense with technical terms and careful observation as any specialist linguistics book. This is the level of knowledge about plants that lay people are expected and expect to achieve. It is as challenging and scientific as a linguistics course.
If you compare these guides with David Crystal's Rediscovering Grammar, then this book with its jokey cartoons and easy-read text really ought to be in the junior library with the other find-out-about-it books I am secretly consulting. On the back cover, moreover, someone has blurbed 'Rediscover grammar - an easy guide to getting it right'. But the primary reason for studying grammar, as for studying plants, is not to identify deviant plants or verbs, or correct ones. It is to identify and understand what there is. Only then will you know how to use English well.
I make this comparison not in scorn or blame, but to highlight both the low level of knowledge about language that lay people are expected and expect to achieve and the coexistence of scientific lingustics and language prejudice.
Teachers ought to find the teaching of prejudice professionally unacceptable. But, without the knowledge that regional English is grammatical, English teachers can hardly avoid either acquiescing in prejudice by making no comment or promoting it by censuring regional speakers and praising Standard ones. Their reasons for doing so are born of realism, but are also socially unjust and intellectually dishonest.
People tend to assume that, if teachers accept variety in English, they will teach variety and eventually we will cease understanding each other. But this assumption is a red herring. The aim is not to teach variety but to accept the English each child brings to school as the starting point and to teach them how to converge according to whom they want to communicate with. To think we must use the Standard to speak or write English well is prejudice. Kentish and Scouse are as grammatical as Standard English. English that conveys the intended message efficiently is good. Any dialect can convey messages efficiently.
The question is how are we going to teach good English: by relying on accurate knowledge of language, or by continuing to muzzle regional mouths with the ancient curse: vulgar, un-English, sloppy?
The writer teaches English to speakers of other languages.
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