Around this time last year, CNN host Don Lemon and his guests Rick Wilson and Wajahat Ali received some attention for a segment in which they mocked the intelligence of certain Trump voters by suggesting that they couldn’t read, spell, do math, or understand maps. (You can view the video here: https://twitter.com/DailyCaller/status/12219 99373829144578.)
I’d like to leave the merits of their criticism and the ensuing political controversy to one side and note something that has received only a little attention: that is, to emphasize the intellectual disabilities of Trump’s “credulous boomer rube demo,” as Wilson puts it, Wilson and Ali assumed exaggerated Southern accents. They could have adopted any number of accents instead. They could have spoken like Pennsylvania “yinzers,” or imitated the distinctive “ohs” and “ehs” of many of the rural, working-class of the northern Midwest, or used the seemingly non-descript speech of the American Plains. After all, many of these speakers voted for Trump and fit Wilson’s “demo.” But nothing says stupid, apparently, like a Southern accent.
What Wilson and Ali revealed in this moment is the hiddenness of our linguistic prejudice. That is, without realizing it, we judge people based on the way they talk. I’ve done it myself; you probably have, too. This prejudice often goes beyond “accent,” in fact, to include the other elements of what linguists call “dialect.” Dialect consists in a person’s accent (or, to use the technical term, their phonological variation), word formation, vocabulary, and syntax and varies according to region, race, ethnicity, and class.
Dialect is almost completely determined by the speech community of your childhood and early adolescence. It has no necessary connection to intelligence. If Albert Einstein had been raised in rural Alabama, he’d have spoken with a Southern drawl, and his native intelligence would have remained intact. Conversely, if Gomer Pyle had been raised in Buckingham Palace, he would have spoken the Queen’s English with aplomb.
What, then, explains the low view so many have of the intelligence of speakers of Southern American English (SAE)? I’m afraid that it’s a symptom of contempt for the South generally. Such contempt isn’t limited to Southern culture, unfortunately. For similar reasons, people pre-judge speakers of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the dialects of the working classes.
But, in the end, might this seeming prejudice reflect in fact an accurate assessment of these dialects? Might they be inferior to Standard American English, the speech originating with the American elite?
That’s a difficult question to answer in a limited space, but to begin, we could ask ourselves what marks one dialect as superior to, or better than, another. Non-standard dialects like SAE and AAVE certainly do not lack rules, or a grammar, as some people tend to think. As I noted in my previous column, communication can’t occur without rules.
Might non-standard dialects lack the nuance of the standard? I don’t think so. We could consider what’s called the “double modal” in SAE. This use occurs when an SAE speaker says something like “might could” or “might should,” as in “I might could meet you for lunch tomorrow.” The second modal verb is, strictly speaking, unnecessary, but if you’re Southern, you know that it’s not redundant, that it’s a polite qualifier of the preceding ‘might.’
What else? Maybe non-standard dialects are inferior because they lack regularity. In other words, the non-standard dialect may have rules, but they’re inconsistent and illogical. Once again, however, consideration of how non-standard dialects really work proves the contrary. In some non-standard dialects like AAVE, for example, speakers will use the third-person reflexive pronouns “hisself” and “theirselves” instead of the “himself” and “themselves” of standard usage. It may sound wrong to a standard speaker, but if you think about it, the non-standard usage is arguably more regular, more in accordance with a rule, than the standard. The following should make this clearer:
Standard; NonstandardI stand up for myself;I stand up for myself
You stand up for yourself;You stand up for yourself
He stands up for himself;He stands up for hissself
She stands up for herself;She stands up for herself
We stand up for ourselves;We stand up for ourselves
You stand up for yourselves;You stand up for yourselves
They stand up for themselves;They stand up for theirselves
We see that the standard form of the reflexive pronoun shows itself less consistent by swapping out the possessive form of the pronoun (his/their) + self/selves for the objective form (him/them). The non-standard, however, maintains the possessive form + self/selves in every instance.
What seems to follow from the linguistic data and simple reasoning is that non-standard dialects are not inferior to the standard and that dialect does not determine an individual’s intellectual capacity. And now the irony of the CNN segment becomes quite clear: the whole time Wilson and Ali were implicitly mocking the intelligence of Southerners, they were the ones in need of an education.
Luke William Mills is associate professor of English at Wingate University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.