# How can a Language or a Dialect be incorrect or inferior than some other one?

The question is that can one say that a Language or a Dialect is grammatically incorrect? What if I say,

Sanskrit is grammatically incorrect modern Hindi

This doesn't make sense. We cannot compare a language/dialect with some other language/dialect. I am asking this question because in some other posts some users have claimed the same. I object their claim. This answer states that,

It's terrible (incorrect) English. But here ain't means didn't. ...

Calling a dialect, terrible, is it's disrespect. We can't say that AAVE is incorrect English. It's similar to say Doabi is incorrect Punjabi. The problem seem to be the fact that ain't has a lot of different meanings which depend upon the context. There is nothing wrong with it. There are many words in a language which can have multiple meanings, e.g. the word for. Google translator says it has three different meanings. The most odd one to me is for=because.

Question 1: Is that answer technically correct?

Another user claimed in their post:

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not grammatically correct modern English

Again they are comparing an idiom of AAVE with standard English. Not only that, an idiomatic expression can never be grammatical incorrect--IMO, e.g. consider the idiomatic expression "I, for one". Is this idiom grammatically incorrect?

Question 2: What is grammar and which constructions of a particular language, say e.g. English, are called incorrect grammar?

I can make some grammatical incorrect statements,

• I am been...
• Suppose, I am...
• I does this...
• We keeps done the works.
• I am not buy it yet.

I would say something is grammatically incorrect if we break the rules of the language in which we are speaking by using a set of words in a way which have never been used that way while communicating. If we can communicate well with each other with some idiomatic expression, which is used repetitively, which contain words in a way which are not used that way in other sentences, then I would say it is grammatical correct. I'd even say that there is a new rule in that language which is used in some specific idiomatic expressions.

As I understand it, grammar is made from a language. A language is not formed from grammar.

Question 3:

Can we compare languages/dialects to decide which is better? Specifically, Can we say that AAVE is inferior than some other dialect of English, if yes then please provide examples with justification, where AAVE is inferior than some other dialect of English and vice-verca if formal English is inferior than AAVE.

I can understand Hindi, Punjabi, spoken Urdu and little bit standard English, could you compare any of these languages and tell which is the best or most superior.

Thank you.

• To use a regional dialect is only "incorrect" in the sense that it violates the social expectation that speakers learn and use the predominant or "standard" dialect. A speaker of a regional dialect (let's say Bavarian) might be thought uneducated if he could not also speak "high" German. – TRomano Jan 16 '15 at 14:35
• The terms grammatical and correct or the like only have meaning when you define a context. So you can't per se say AAVE is incorrect English (meaning English as a whole), but you can say some sentence (which is valid AAVE) is not grammatical (Standard American) English. The other thing is that sometimes the language name has an implied dialect based on the context. So for example, if a teacher is expecting student's work to be submitted in standard English (normal in the US), then a teacher would be right to take off points for things which are correct AAVE, but not standard AmEng. – eques Jan 16 '15 at 15:12
• "Correct/incorrect" are no appropriate terms as to regional variants of a language. In a lot of cases the standard language began as one of various regional variants that gained dominance due to special causes. – rogermue Jan 16 '15 at 17:01
• Related question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/11128/7987 The discussion seems to imply that one language can't be inferior than other. – user31782 Jan 20 '15 at 15:43
• Some of the "incorrect" statements are acceptable to me. Topolectally marked, but grammatical. – OmarL Mar 20 '18 at 13:12

## 4 Answers

When you study linguistics, you learn about two approaches -- prescriptive and descriptive. Modern linguistics tend to prefer the descriptive approach, whereas early linguistics were often done in a (presumably often unconscious) prescriptive mode.

Prescription is problematic because it comes with an agenda, so in some sense, it is less scientific. There is no objective, scientific basis for ranking one norm as better than another.

Historically, a lot of what would eventually become science was done in pursuit of documenting, consolidating, and celebrating the status quo and the perceived virtues of the ruling class, the rich, and the culturally dominant. The concept of "correct standard English" has its roots in an earlier movement to define a particular register of English as normative, and all others as somehow incorrect, deficient, and inferior. (This was by no means an exclusively British idea; similar endeavors took place elsewhere, often as one of the many expressions of what we now see as the darker side of nationalism.)

However, there are situations where it makes sense for linguistics, or rather, linguists to define a particular convention as a norm. Modern linguistic norms help improve understanding and communications by introducing standards for a language where none existed before, or the old standards had problems.

An interesting example is the orthography for Quechua, where an older norm which was based on Spanish conventions is being displaced with one which is better adapted to the requirements of the language itself and removes a heavy bias for favoring a particular dialect. It should be noted that there is a lot of resistance against this movement -- the (in some sense) linguistically sound agenda clashes with the conservative agenda, sometimes violently so. Part of the reason this is problematic is that Spanish conventions and the cultural dominance of the Cuzco region are still assigned high status among the population, and so the reformed spelling is perceived as "worse" because it is at odds with their established cultural norms.

... At the same time, you will notice my bias in describing this as "linguistically more sound". This is obviously dubious; I am certainly not qualified to prescribe a particular orthography for a language I do not speak. But I can tell that the agenda for the new orthography points out some unfortunate features of the old convention which seem like obvious flaws; for example que- is clearly a weird way to write /ke/ in a language where there are no traces back to an earlier Latin pronunciation with rounding. Whether this simplification, and the many others introduced by the reform, outweigh the drawbacks of making earlier texts hard to read for new generations who are trained in the new orthography, I cannot say; and the possible cultural stigma of dialectal spelling might cause the reform to fail for external reasons.

With that out of the way, your question doesn't make sense strictly linguistically but there is a lot of social science to be derived from the relative status of registers of English or Punjabi dialects. That's not to say that the cultural and social factors which shape our language are uninteresting (indeed, that is the domain of sociolinguistics) but these phenomena tend to be analyzed from a descriptive, rather than presecriptive, point of view (and it's hard to see how prescription could make sense in that context).

The concepts of "good" and "bad" have to be judged relative to some standard. There are at least (at the very least) two standards by which to judge the correctness of a sentence like "It ain't broke" (likewise "It isn't broke"; "It ain't broken"; "He done broke it"; or "Not be the broken of it is"). One standard is a normative standard: there is an assumption (scientifically unsupported) that there is an identifiable language "Proper English", that there is a way to verify whether a given sentence is in Proper English, and then if the sentence is in PE, it's "good", otherwise it's "bad".

Another standard is the descriptive standard: does the sentence accord with the rules of a particular dialect of English. My judgment it that "It ain't broken" conforms to the rules of my dialect but "*It ain't broke" doesn't. Also, "Not be the broken of it is" does not conform to the rules of my dialect. In the dialect of some individuals (ones that I know!), "It ain't broke" does follows the rules. So we would say that by the descriptive standard, a given sentence could be good (or bad), and it's an empirical matter that needs to be determined. I suspect that my last example follows the rules of very few, if any, dialects of English.

One substantial problem is determining whether a given sentence is or is not generated by the rules of the grammar in a particular dialect. We do now actually directly know what those rules are, so instead we interpolate: we develop theories of rule systems. A very common practice is to equate willingness of a speaker to accept a given sentence with "grammaticality". There is over 50 years of literature on the extremely fraught topic of determining what a given rule system really does (generates, allows), since all we have access to is behavior of speakers. A related problem is the notion of "dialect". Every person who speaks a language has learned implicit rules that enable him to speak the language, and not everybody who learns "English" learns the same set of rules. Obviously, there are differences between US and UK English, Indian and South African English, and so on. We also know about East Coast US, Southern US and Chicago English... not to mention Columbus OH English vs. Grove City OH English. Apart from regional dialects, there are ethnic dialects, occupational and class dialects, age dialects, and just random but systematic differences that we can't classify. A semi-famous example is the question of whether "Tom's difficulty to understand makes him a bad teacher", which is completely grammatical for me (it means "the fact that people can't understand Tom makes him a bad teacher"), which other people – many of whom teach syntax – reject this kind of construction. When people say "It's good in my dialect", they generally mean "I accept that".

Now turning to Question 2, we have 2 sentences and 3 fragments. I am least optimistic that "We keeps done the works" is generated by anybody's grammar – that is, as long as we're only considering people who are native speakers of English. I would not be surprised to encounter a language learner uttering or accepting "I am not buy it yet", but I would be surprised if this is generated by the grammar of any native speaker. I have a neighbor who says "I does this", so that's just a flat-out "yes" or "good".

I sort of understand the idea underlying saying that ungrammatical utterances is "using a set of words in a way which have never been used that way while communicating", but people invent new sentences all the time, especially when talking about new situations. The notion of "rule of grammar" that I've relied on here overcomes this, because it says that there are general and co-minglable properties of sentence structure that allow me to invent completely novel structures all the time.

While you can judge particular sentences as "good" or "bad" in a particular dialect (because we have identified a standard – do the rules of that dialect generate the sentence?), there is no sensible standard for comparing the goodness or badness of a language – good for what purpose?? Punjabi may be better for attracting a business partner; or maybe you should use English because the potential partner doesn't know any Punjabi.

We've gotten into this debate as a side issue on this forum before, so let me take this opportunity to address it directly.

I think we would all agree that, unlike many other subjects, language is defined by consensus and not by some objective reality. What I mean by that is, suppose that everyone in the world agreed that the Earth is flat. Would that make it flat? No. We can perform objective experiments to prove that it is round. When we are talking about science or history, it is very reasonable to say, "I have discovered Everyone is wrong, and the right answer is something else." But when it comes to language, suppose that I said, "When people say that 'me' refers to the person speaking, they are wrong. 'Me' means 'the tallest person in the room'." Well, I am simply wrong. If everyone agrees that a word has a certain meaning, than that's what it means.

Some say that that's the end of the story. Definitions, grammar, all are defined purely and entirely by the consensus of the people who speak and write the language.

Others say that this is part of the story, but that it is also meaningful to say that, even though usage X is more common than usage Y, Y is "better" for some reason. Perhaps it is more consistent with other usages, or Y is clear while X creates an ambiguity, etc.

Personally, I think it's good and fair to say, for example, that we should resist changing the definition of a word because there is already a word with the new meaning but no good alternative with the old meaning. For example, many people today object to the use of the word "he" to refer generically to either males or females as sexist, and so instead use "they" as a singular pronoun for a person of unknown or unspecified gender. Personally I think this is a bad idea, because it loses the distinction between singular and plural, and so makes the language less robust.

Or to take the example you give of the word "ain't": "ain't" has half a dozen meanings: "am not", "are not", "is not", "were not", etc. We already have perfectly good words for all of these (except "am not"). So why create a new, ambiguous word? It's a change in a direction that makes the language less clear. I think it should be resisted.

You seem to be concerned about the idea of denigrating the dialect spoken by some minority of the population. On that point, I think, from the point of view of someone who wants equal recognition of his dialect, the situation is hopeless.

If some minority -- oh, I should clarify that by "minority" here I don't mean an ethnic or racial minority, but a linguistic minority. This MIGHT coincide with an ethnic minority and it might not. But anyway, if a minority speak in a slang that violates the grammar rules used by the majority, then whether you define language purely by usage, or you define it by logic, either way their language will be seen as inferior. It is different from the majority, and in language majority rules, so they lose. If their grammar is less consistent and well-formed, then by logic they lose. (If some minority group had a slang that had a more well-formed and consistent grammar, the case might be ambiguous. But I've never heard of slang being more regulated than formal speech. Conceivable, but not likely.)

As to a statement like, "Sanskrit is just grammatically incorrect Hindi", well, that sounds like a joke. If someone said that seriously, meaning that Sanskrit is an inferior language because it resembles Hindi but does not follow the same grammar rules, that doesn't sound like a serious argument. I don't know either language and I don't know the history of the languages, so there might be a serious comment somewhere in there about the origin and development of Sanskrit.

• If their grammar is less consistent and well-formed, then by logic they lose--I disagree AAVE's grammar is more rigid than standard English's. "ain't" has half a dozen meanings: "am not", "are not", "is not", "were not", etc.--I disagree, standard English has made many unnecessary different words for "ain't". Why remember those dozen words if we can use "ain't" for all of them. AAVE is superior than Std. English. – user31782 Jan 16 '15 at 15:47
• It's a change in a direction that makes the language less clear Change in what? No one is changing English. AAVE is different language/dialect, which has it's own grammar and vocabulary. – user31782 Jan 16 '15 at 16:01
• Ain't is far from being a new word. It's centuries old. And I don't see it as more or less ambiguous than other words. In fact, it is probably very much less ambiguous than most words. In any given context, it is recognizable what it means. In other words ain't is about as grammatical as grammatical gets. – δοῦλος Jan 16 '15 at 17:26
• Jay no linguist would describe AAVE (also sometimes called 'Ebonics') as a different 'language' from English, but rather as one of the many dialects (= mutually intelligible varieties) of English. Linguists have demonstrated that it is regular and stable, has its own grammatical structure and lexicon, both of which differ to some extent from that of other Englishes. I recommend you read Geoffrey Pullum's paper on this issue.. If you want more, google 'AAVE grammar'. – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 16 '15 at 22:25
• There are numerous papers analysing AAVE, most of them not trying to argue any points about whether it's slang or not, in the same way as it's not necessary to argue whether or not American English is a dialect of English or just slang. This is not a controversial question amongst linguists. But I'm curious that you suggest that there are 'reputable experts' arguing that AAVE is 'just slang', can you please point to where I can read their arguments? – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 20 '15 at 1:03

The word "dialect" is unfortunate, because it means different things in speakers different, oh, ah, hum, "dialects". In the good old times, it used to mean a kind of "sub-language" or "quasi-language" - what was described, with some wit, as "a language without an army and a navy". In that sence, Venetian, or Hunsruekisch, are "dialects". More recently, and more politically correctly, in our troubled times when it is deemed improper to talk about some facts of life, including navies and armies, "dialect" came to mean any variant of a given language. The former definition became badmouthed for being "extra-linguistic" - but unfortunately the word dialect is still applied to things such as Pommersch or Neapolitan, while now being used also for very different phenomena, such as AAVE, the Portuguese spoken in Rio de Janeiro, the several non-standard varieties of any given language, slang, professional jargons, etc, etc, etc.

So, is it possible to say that "Venetian is a dialect", and that, being a dialect, it is "inferior to Standard Italian"? Well, there would be a problem here; after all, "Italian" is just "Tuscan dialect" upgraded to national language through a political decision. If other factors had prevailed, perhaps the newly unified Kingdom of Italy would have chosen Sardinian, or Sicilian, or Piedmontese, as its national language, and now we would speak of Tuscan as a "dialect". So, both languages, Venetian and Tuscan/Italian were "born equal". But the fact is, the Italian State machinery is run in Italian, not in Venetian, Calabrian or Friulian. And this introduces a deep inequality between Italian in the one hand, and the other languages of Italy in the other, because the State, albeit being "extra-linguistic" in the sense it is meant when we say that the difference between language and dialect is "extra-linguistic", is a very powerful glossopoietic entity, that "produces language" everyday - especially through its courts and academic institutions, but also, even if less decisively, through its army and navy.

This gives the standard language a decisive, if unfair, advantage against dialects such as Venetian or Hunsruekisch: the State speaks Standard Italian or Standard German, and if you want, or need, to communicate with the State, you will have to do it through the appropriate national Standard. In this precise sense, Standard Italian is "superior" to any other language of Italy: it is the language that is taught in schools, that you need to know to read the national press, to listen to TV, to demand in court, to write your doctoral thesis... and to properly communicate with your sargeant, nevermind if you are a footsoldier or a captain or general.

But I suppose you are asking about "dialects" in the more modern meaning. Is Standard English "superior" to cockney, or AAVE? Or is Standard English "correct" English, while the other variants are "wrong" English, or perhaps different languages?

I would say no. Those variants are part of a same language, English, and they serve different purposes. You don't write a dissertation in cockney, but you also don't address your buddies at the bar (or your family at home) in Standard English. You use different "registers" of the English language, some more formal, some more informal. The informal registers tend to vary more geography-wise than the standards, but that doesn't make the English spoken in Pennsylvania a different language than the English spoken in South New Wales (though, of course, if given a few centuries more, they very weel might evolve into exactly this, and become mutually incomprehensible).

A traditional, prescriptive, point-of-view is that the standard is the only "correct" language. This is the reason people look at constructions like "it ain't true" and say they are "wrong". They do not conform to standard grammar, or standar lexic, or both. And since the standard is the only variant that is studied in school, and consequently, the only whose rules are aprehended consciously, people tend to imagine that the standard "conforms to the rules of language", while informal variants are like the Old Far West, a territory of lawlessness. But this is false; the speech of the prostitutes or the teamsters is not less regulated by rules than the English of the Queen - they are just different rules, quite probably not even less strict than those of Standard English, and those rules are not taught or even studied in the same depth as stardard rules are.

So, there are sentences that do not follow the rules of Standard English, but the rules of other variants of English. Those are "wrong" only if your intention was to speak or write Standard English. If used in an informal social context, they are probably correct. The opposite is also true: to speak among friends like you were in court or parliament will result in you being told to stop; they probably won't tell you you are speaking "wrong" English, but the effect is the same: to enforce the rules that are contextually correct.

But there are also sentences that do not follow the rules of Standard English, nor the rules of any other variant. Those would be wrong English by any measure.