This story lays out in a very poignant way the effect of stigmatization of dialectical differences and the injustices. As we read this particular story, we may be indignant on behalf of the enslaved people, and clearly can identify the injustices of a people oppressed because of language and dialect differences. However, what we may not consider, is that this bias may also be very present in our current culture.
The predominant dialect in the United States is referred to as Standard American English (SAE). It is what you will hear on the TV, in most interactions and communities around the area. But it is not the only dialect you will hear. Certainly, people recognize accents and small dialectical differences from different regions of the country, such as a Southern accent, California vocabulary terms, and a Bostonian accent. These are not the only difference you will hear. African American English (AAE) is also very prevalent, but tends to have a more negative perception among most listeners. To many listeners, AAE is viewed as showing reduced intellect, to be the language of the ghetto, or some other less than desirable connotation. In fact, this dialect is just as valid as any other, with all the complexities of every other dialect, from a language perspective. When we hear it, we need to put aside biases and listen for context and communication. It is unfortunate that one dialect can give a negative and inappropriate impression.
Dialect is reflective of history, location, culture and community. One dialect is as valid as another and carries community values. It is too easy to dismiss it as sub-par simply because one is unfamiliar with it, or it is not the majority dialect. Each dialect carries a rich history and community that the speakers value and enriches their interactions with others. One challenge is that for listeners not familiar with the dialect, it also carries vocabulary and pragmatics that they may be unfamiliar with. Not being familiar with a dialect does not determine its value however. When we interact with other dialects and vocabularies, not only do we expand our language skills, but we also expand our cultural experiences and exposure to different backgrounds.
There was an interesting interview regarding the dialectical differences with a well-known African-American media personality within the last few years. In the interview, he spoke as we are used to seeing him on our TV screens, with a SAE, well-spoken and articulate. He was discussing culture and community. He then switched to AAE as an example. He spoke clearly and intelligently on the topic, but in a completely different dialect. It was almost shocking to hear the difference and have one’s inherent bias confronted. In the interview, this gentleman went on to discuss the perceptions, and the communication challenges of using a minority dialect. Not that there is a value difference, but there is a perceived difference by listeners. It was a striking example and clearly denoted the value of both dialects, different but equally valuable.