Talk Proper?

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At some point or another, we have all probably heard people tell others to “speak properly.” Chances are, we have seen this directed at people of color by white people. Something not a lot of white people are aware of is that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is its own recognized dialect. Stop telling people to speak differently.

AAVE is a widely studied dialect. According to the University of Hawaii Sato Center for Dialect Studies, there are several different stories on where AAVE originated. One theory is that it developed on plantations as West African people began to pick up the English language. Without access to education, they could not learn the “proper” grammatical structures.

Language evolves and every generation reinvents languages. New words, phrases and grammatical structures are introduced. What once was considered improper can become grammatically acceptable over time. For example, “proper” grammar says that a preposition should never be used at the end of a sentence, but now this is much more common and acceptable.

At this point, you may be wondering about the grammar you were taught in grade school. This is part of a dialect called Standard American English (SAE). This is what people are referring to when they say “speak properly.” SAE is the dominant discourse because the people who have traditionally held power in our country decided it was. That is the reason certain phrasing is deemed “grammatically correct” and other phrasing is viewed as “improper.”

AAVE developed because of a painful, traumatic history that white people were complicit in. While we who are alive today were not part of slavery, we still partake in a system built on white supremacy. We have benefited from this system and continue to benefit from it. That makes it even more problematic when we as white people chose to label AAVE “improper.”

Even if it is improper, who cares? Language is supposed to communicate. If what someone is saying is understood, who cares if they conjugate in the way that SAE demands? It is irrelevant. Quite frankly, demanding “proper” English is just elitist.

This same sentiment applies to people who speak English as a second language. The fact that they have learned English is already an accomplishment. Learning fully proper grammar in a second language is a tumultuous task. Depending on different factors (age when started learning, access to formal education, etc.), applying entirely “proper” grammar may not be possible. This does not delegitimize what an ESL speaker has to say. It does not mean anyone is less smart.

To my fellow white students, be aware of the full meaning behind the phrase “speak properly.” If you hear others saying this, educate them. Part of tearing down the racist system is changing the rhetoric we use. Let’s work together to end the racist mantra of “speak properly.”