Dialect or simply illiterate?

Ilse Stolte needs to write blogposts for my course Non-Standard English (and prescriptivism) as well. Here is the first one, and one with a request to our readers to fill in a survey on the acceptability of two stigmatised language feautures.

As a lover of British literature, TV, and film, I have read and seen my share of Cockney stereotypes. Sometimes, the story does not even have to be set in or near London for characters to be given the well-known Cockney features. If a character is supposed to be working class and/or uneducated, they swallow their Hs, replace their Ts with glottal stops, and, of course, “don’t need no education”, as Pink Floyd would say.

Especially the last feature – multiple negation – seems to be highly stigmatised and is seen as “a stock example of uneducated speech” (Howard, 1993: 133-134). I actually find this quite surprising, since throughout the history of English, double negation has been used extensively and it never seemed to be a problem. Double negatives can be found in the works of authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. More importantly, it is generally assumed to be one of the most common features in British dialects (Cheshire et al. 1993: 75).

For all this, most authors of usage guides do not go easy on them. Simon Heffer (2010), for instance, calls them “offences against logic” and “the product of illiteracy and stupidity” (201: 57). Even the ones that do not fully forbid the use of double negatives, Robert Baker (1770), for instance, says that not and no can be used with neither and nor “not with an ill grace” (1770: 112-113). However, in the same section, he calls the use of these words together “wrong” and essentially not “the correct Way of speaking”.

So this is why I decided to bring in another common feature, namely demonstrative them. Looking at the usage guides in the HUGE database, there are far fewer entries for demonstrative them than there are for multiple negation: only five compared to 33. The language used is also less harsh and negative. For example, in the Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1999), demonstrative them is simply labelled “non-standard or dialectal” (1999: 570). However, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000), this feature is described as “dialectal or illiterate” (2000: 226-227), which reflects a rather strong condemnation.

The differences between the number of entries and the language used in two entries made me wonder about the status of both features in the eyes of native speakers of British English, so I decided to have a survey to find out, though I am also curious to hear the opinions of speakers of other varieties of English. So I would be really grateful if you could help me find out by filling in the survey, which you’ll find here. Many thanks for your time!


Baker, Robert. 1770. Reflections on the English Language. London: John Bell.

Chesire, Jenny; Edwards, Viv & Whittle, Pamela. 1993. Non-Standard English and             dialect levelling. In Real English: The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles, edited by James Milroy & Lesley Milroy. Harlow: Longman Group Uk. 53-96.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 1999. Pocket Fowler’s Modern             English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heffer, Simon. 2010. Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why it             Matters. London: Random House.

Howard, Godfrey. 1993. The Good English Guide. London: Macmillan.

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2 Responses to Dialect or simply illiterate?

  1. Then there’s my approach, which I think makes more sense:

    double negatives
    It is not true, as some assert, that double negatives are always wrong, but the pattern in formal speech and writing is that two negatives equal a mild positive: “he is a not untalented guitarist” means he has some talent. In informal speech, however, double negatives are intended as negatives: “he ain’t got no talent” means he is a lousy musician. People are rarely confused about the meaning of either pattern, but you do need to take your audience into account when deciding which pattern to follow.

    One of the funniest uses of the literary double negative is Douglas Adams’ description of a machine dispensing “a substance almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

  2. Absolutely! And quite funny indeed. Thank you Paul!

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