Visiting lecturer to champion the value of local dialects
by Leslie Vryenhoek
Local dialects, said Alison Henry, get a bad rap as inferior to the standard or “correct” form of a language. “There’s a general perception that there’s only one correct form of a language, and that the others are wrong.”
Prof. Henry, a distinguished linguist in the School of Communication at University of Ulster at Jordanstown, will be at Memorial’s St. John’s campus to give the Henrietta Harvey Lecture, Local Dialects and the Myth of Inferiority, on Thursday, Nov. 23. She will also talk to classes, share ideas with faculty and try to take in some local dialects during her first visit to Newfoundland and Labrador.
The message she hopes to impart: local dialects are valuable both from a scientific and a cultural perspective.
“Standard English is very well described by English, but sometimes what we learn from dialects doesn’t work with what we think we know,” she said.
Prof. Henry also noted that while there’s been a global movement to support minority languages as an important resource, respect for local dialects is lagging behind.
“There are often features of a language that are highly stigmatized, so when you use these, people will perceive you as inferior.” This can result in fewer opportunities for employment or social advancement. However, she asserted, it’s all grounded in nothing more than preference and power. “What passes as the standard form of language is purely accidental, and dependent on where the power base is located within a region.”
And it’s a two-edged sword. Sometimes moving to a more standard dialect and developing what, in some places, is dismissed as a “too posh accent” or “putting on airs” can lead to ostracism within one’s own community.
While it’s important to value one’s local dialect, Prof. Henry does believe that a standardized version of the English language is also important, to facilitate communication across regions, but says one form doesn’t have to displace another.
“Linguists have not got the message across that people can be bi-dialectal, as well as bilingual,” she said, noting she believes this message is critical for educators. “Teachers fear that if they acknowledge local dialects as valuable, they will lessen students’ ability to pick up standard English. But actually, the opposite is true. Students can more easily acquire standard English if they can see how it differs from their own dialect.”
Prof. Henry believes there are signs that dialects are gaining respect, but added: “I wish we were making more headway.”