Following Chaucer’s Lead: Changing Attitudes Towards Nonstandard Dialects

The idea that a person’s dialect dictates their class, education, and even intelligence is deeply ingrained within modern English-speaking societies. This manifests itself in many forms. Older generations will often complain about the speech of younger generations, suggesting that they are misusing the language. Minor linguistic variations are seen as almost heretical, or literally heretical in the case of translating religious texts. Candidates for public offices will change their speech to appeal to people they consider to be higher or lower class. English teachers in elementary and middle schools will dictate style rules to their students about how to make their writing “proper” without explaining what exactly “proper” means contextually. This use of language has become so universal in English that it is easy to take for granted without realizing the damage it can do and also how deeply flawed and hypocritical it is at its core. Understanding the history of this concept is the best way to grasp how absurd it is. Using dialects to denote lower class and education has a long history dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, but it is important to note that dialects haven’t always been directly associated with notions of class. Acknowledging that there is a legitimate alternative is a good first step in understanding the problem of using language as a quality judgement or as a means of social stratification.

In Chapter Eight of The Stories of English, David Crystal discusses the use of dialect in Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale.” This is an early use of a nonstandard dialect in a written work and the way the dialect is treated provides an interesting comparison to how nonstandard dialects are viewed today. Crystal writes “The significance of Chaucer’s use of these dialect features, however, extends well beyond the range and frequency of their use. What is really interesting is what they suggest about his attitude towards the dialect. In modern English, we are used to seeing regional dialects criticized and condemned” (168). In the Reeve’s Tale, two university students from Cambridge use northern dialectal features in their speech that are reflected in their dialogue (Allman 385). However, it is important to note that while dialectical features in the Reeve’s Tale are not used to make the characters seem “rustic or provincial,” class notions are still present linguistically. In his article “Sociolinguistics, Literature, and the Reeve’s Tale,” W.W. Allman writes that Symkin, the Miller in the text, employs “linguistic means to condescend to his social betters” (391). The students’ northernisms, however, do not play into this mockery. Their dialect and their class remain largely unconnected.

Chaucer’s use of nonstandard English didn’t only include Northern dialects. He is also considered one of the first writers of English to drop the pronunciation of [h] in words such as “hole” and “horn,” a feature used notably in the Cockney dialect, a dialect associated closely with the working class. While it is a topic of debate, Ruth J. Bradley suggests that Chaucer used the Cockney dialect extensively in his writing, four centuries before previous philologists had estimated the use of the dropped [h] in writing to have begun (Bradley 76). Disdain for the Cockney dialect is pronounced in the work of 19th Century prescriptivists. Crystal writes about the dropping of the [h] in chapter 16 of The Stories of English. He describes John Walker, whose 1791 pronouncing dictionary offers instruction on how to avoid the sort of “vulgarities” that are common in Cockney. Walker considered dropping the [h] to be the “worst fault” of the “bad habits” of London speech. Crystal points out that even though [h] dropping became synonymous with Cockney speech, it was “not specifically a London feature” and that “most people in England and Wales drop their h’s some of the time” and, as shown in Chaucer’s writing, it hadn’t been considered a sign that a persons was low class until the 18th Century prescriptivists decided it was. To a modern reader, these pundits ideas are laughable. The way they decide what aspects of language to vilify seems to be almost at random and based on their own prejudices towards the lower classes without any sort of logical reasoning to back up their claims What readers might not realize is that the exact same type of vilification is present in our own society. One feature of Cockney English that prescriptivists like Walker did not target–either because they didn’t notice it or because it was not yet a feature of the language–is the glottal stop. This feature became a useful indicator of class in the 2010 United Kingdom general election. A column from that year in The Spectator complains about the  The writer says “Younger people do not realise how annoying glottal stops can be to those a generation older–such as me.” The writer discusses how the candidates, including David Cameron, use the glottal stop to appeal to voters. “If other politicians, such as David Miliband, think glottal stops make them more acceptable to younger voters, note that Nick Clegg uses them like the avuncular Mr Cable. How big is the ‘stop the stop’ vote?” (Wordsworth).

A similar phenomenon is happening as of this writing in the 2016 United States presidential election. A study from 2015 from the Journal of Political Marketing analyzed how a presidential candidate’s “language intensity” affected college students’ ratings of their credibility. The study found that  “language levels alter political realities when nouns, verbs, and adjectives are tweaked to different degrees of moderation or extremity. Dimensions of credibility, for example, are affected by the candidate’s rhetoric, and vice versa” (Clementson 1). Students were more likely to find a candidate credible if their language were less intense. A “gentler tone” made students more likely to accept the speaker’s’ statements as fact and rated them higher on “character.” However, despite the higher credibility, this type of discourse is less likely to call listeners to action than more grandiose statements, such as the famous quotes “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”; “Ask not what your country can do for you …”; “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Clementson 3). The article goes on to give its readers instruction on how to mix the low and high-intensity language in their own speech to best appeal to voters.

Periodicals like the one from 2010 appear consistently during American presidential elections. In October 2015, the Boston Globe reviewed the language used by nineteen presidential candidates using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a test that is full of linguistic biases in its own right. Their (possibly specious) finding that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke at what they deemed to be a “4th-grade level” was then commented on by multiple news outlets including Esquire, Salon, Newsweek, Politico, and Wired as well as being fodder for late-night talk show hosts. The finding was widely used to suggest that the candidate was actively trying to appeal to uneducated voters, with one article even beginning the the words “Donald Trump isn’t a simpleton, he just talks like one” and that his language is “grating… on the ears of the educated class” (Schafer). By directly relating education and class, the writer exemplifies the way pundits latch on to language as a way of drawing socioeconomic lines regardless of whether their intentions are to demonize either what they consider to be elitism or lack of education. However, these sources at least make plain their intentions of using language as a rubric to disparage their political targets. Others, however, are completely unaware of the damage they can cause.

A relevant modern example is the attitudes towards Black vernacular English in the United States, a well-researched topic that has an important place in the history of American sociolinguistics (Myhill 27). In her article “Teacher Attitude Toward Black English and its Impact on Reading Achievement,” Evelyn Roshonn Lawson found that while teachers themselves had “positive perceptions toward students who use Black English in the classroom” and that these teachers’ attitudes did not have a statistically significant impact on reading achievement, there was still a widely held belief by the teachers that “students who speak Black English would face future problems in job and educational accomplishment as well as social issues because of their limited communication skills” (Lawson v). Some of the problems the teachers listed were facing career ceilings and difficulty writing college entrance exams, which shows the bias towards standard English commonly held in standardized tests. The teachers also listed social problems they felt students would face. The teachers reported that students are labeled “ignorant, illiterate, and uneducated” because of their dialect (58). The article goes on to describe teaching strategies to help “bridge the gap” between the black vernacular English and the school’s “accepted language.” While teaching this way is pragmatic and will help the students succeed in a society that dismisses their native dialect, it does nothing to improve the larger racial issues that necessitate this prescriptivism. In the introduction to his book Beyond Ebonics, John Baugh writes that “it would be myopic and wrongheaded to pursue educational reforms for African American students in a social vacuum” and that a broader approach must be taken to “increase linguistic tolerance among all Americans” (Baugh 3). While the students themselves will benefit personally by being taught standard English, doing so in order to appear more formal, professional, or correct is only perpetuating the idea that nonstandard American dialects, particularly those associated with racial minorities, are somehow inferior to standard American English. By teaching standard English as correct, it is natural that students across the United States would look down on nonstandard dialects regardless of their own speech. Without proper instruction regarding the history of English, it is inevitable that students will naturalize standard English without understanding the social and racial ramifications of doing so while simultaneously not even being aware that an alternative exists, as is the case with Chaucer.
The ubiquity of using the English language as a way of denigrating people due to their race, socioeconomic status, or even aesthetic preferences has led to the practice becoming completely naturalized. Whether it be by teaching students to lose their native dialects as a way of appearing professional, or by considering voters uneducated based on the way they react to the level of difficulty in which their preferred presidential candidate speaks, or even by referring to a nonstandard English speaker’s accent as being “broken English,” using language to divide people is so common and accepted that even if the damage it can do is acknowledged, people are unlikely to realize that it isn’t an inherently natural thing to do and that steps can in fact be taken to reduce its effect. This is something that needs to be taken into account in education. By understanding the history of nonstandard forms of English and studying them in a way that does not make quality judgements about them, students can learn that linguistic variation does not in fact relate to ignorance, lack of education, or illiteracy as it is often assumed to be.


Works Cited

Allman, W.W. “Sociolinguistics, Literature, and the Reeve’s Tale.” English Studies 85.5 (2004): 385-404. Web. 4 May 2016.

Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Google Scholar. Web. 4 May 2016.

Bradley, Ruth J. “The Use of Cockney Dialect by Chaucer.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 29.1 (1943): 74-76. EBSCO. Web.

Clementson, David E., Paola Pascual-Ferrá, and Michael J. Beatty. “How Language Can Influence Political Marketing Strategy and a Candidate’s Image: Effect of Presidential Candidates’ Language Intensity and Experience on College Students’ Ratings of Source Credibility.” Journal of Political Marketing (2014): 1-28. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 4 May 2016.

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. Woodstock: Overlook, 2004. Print.

“For Presidential Hopefuls, Simpler Language Resonates.” Boston Globe, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 04 May 2016.

Lawson, Evelyn Roshonn. Teacher Attitude toward Black English and Its Impact on Reading Achievement. Diss. Texas  A&M U-Commerce, 2010. N.p.: n.p., n.d. ProQuest. Web. 4 May 2016.

Myhill, John. “Why Has Black English Not Been Standardized? A Cross-cultural Dialogue on Prescriptivism.” Language Sciences 26.1 (2004): 27-56. Science Direct. Web. 4 May 2016.

Schafer, Jack. “Donald Trump Talks Like a Third-Grader.” POLITICO Magazine. N.p., 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 May 2016.

Wordsworth, Dot. “Mind Your Language.” The Spectator. N.p., 30 Apr. 2010. Web. 04 May 2016.



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