My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Dialects, Idioms, and Intelligence (Mailbox)

Image description: White Mailbox with two letters inside
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I can only handle one seemingly simple question that turns into a massive explanation of cultural tensions once every few weeks.]    

Our week of mailbox posts continues...

Aelyth asks: 


First of all, I really thankful for your page, Got me back on track writing my world further. Secondly, it's so mesmerizing how much depth English has, as a foreigner, I learned it pretty much by watching movies and reading online stuff, but not so much proper books, yet I thought I should write my novel in English, for obvious reasons, but well. I'm not there yet that's for sure now. The thing what I want to ask you, do you know any site or book which explains this part of English? Like a dictionary of some short, explaining the expressions, and on top of that the more poetic expressions. Because I really want to learn that. 

On another note, I used English a long time ago last, so I'm not sure, if I missed out something, but... I read this post which said: "My mom didn't raise no fool." Isn't the double negative makes a positive?  Or that's just in math? 😀 Sorry, I'm quite a hermit, no social life, I have no one  to ask. And You seem pretty legit in grammatical questions. 

Third thing, Another question, it's about writing techniques... Ish. So I have this story, with a bunch of characters, and I'm pretty sarcastic in real life - no wonder I don't have friends - but When I write, I just can't come up with smart answers, as there are no stupid questions. Any idea how to make dumb characters? 😀 

Thank you very much. For inspiring, and for showing the hidden beauty of this language. 

[Chris's note: I added the link to the letter above.]

My reply:

Daaaaaaaaaaaaaang. So much for little league, I guess.

If you asked me to come up with a list of things I'm good at (after the initial imposter syndrome wore off that obviously I'm not good at anything, of course), I would actually have a reasonably robust list. I am pretty good at dissecting popular media through a literary lens. I give decent back rubs. I do this thing with my tongue piercing–well maybe that for another time. And I guess I can sort of write, though that is more a skill foraged out of years of determined practice than any kind of innate talent.

But I don't think, even if you told me I had to keep plugging away every day at that list for a year that "legit in grammatical questions" would be anywhere on it. It's a good day when I can use the right homophone in a Facebook post and not forget what commas are for.

But I'll do my best.

So there's good news and there's bad news, Aelyth. The good news is, you're in luck: teaching at this level is actually one of my three day jobs. And I'm pretty good at it. I rock coordinating conjunctions, relative clauses, and prepositions almost as well as Trogdor burninates.

The bad news is....while your grammar isn't perfect (particularly punctuation if you're looking for where to put your improvement energy), the things you're asking me about in your question aren't actually grammar problems.

Also, that the questions you've asked are not grammar errors, is probably the simplest things that could be said about them, so here comes some cultural unpacking. And given the gravitas of the issue at hand, I'm going to be stepping away from my usual sarcastic persona,  just so I can be extra careful.

The first thing you mentioned ("My mom didn't raise no fool.") might be considered an idiom or maybe a fixed phrase, but it comes from a dialect of English. In modern standard English (which would be considered "proper" English by many of the white male elite and institutions still primarily run by them) it is considered an error to use a double negative. So yes, in formal, academic English, this would be an error, but almost every native speaker will know exactly what you mean.

"My mom didn't raise no fool," is an expression used within AAVE (African American Vernacular English) which is a dialect that doesn't have the same prescriptions about double negatives. Some people who are not linguists or anthropologists may not understand this, but AAVE actually is a viable, "proper" dialect of English with roots that go deep into the US history of anti-black racism and slavery and a "code" that couldn't easily be deciphered by white people. It is, simply put, a very slightly different language. And the only reason it isn't treated as such has to do with the ongoing racism in our culture and the power differential between those who see it as legitimate (less social power) and those who do not (more social power). Today it is mostly spoken by urban working-class Blacks or by middle-class Black folks who are often adept at "code switching" between AAVE and "standard" English. AAVE has its own vocabulary, it's own grammar (which makes perfect linguistic sense when studied), and its own idioms.

Now before I leave it there, let me make one more point about this expression. Be careful using it. I don't know where you're from or what you look like from your question, but there's some context here that I would be remiss not to give you.

I don't normally spend a lot of energy policing linguistic syncretism and how humans acquire language makes the intersection between race and culture very difficult to untangle, but you should be made aware of the cultural conflict you're stepping into. Not every Black person will care as much about AAVE in general or this expression in particular, a lot of white people will dismiss and trivialize the whole thing, and there is some complexity (like how the phrase is common enough in rural Appalachia to make trying to figure out who it "belongs to" almost impossible) that would take a lot longer to explain than a single post. Linguistics is super complicated and trying to keep two languages that share a geography from mixing might be a lost cause.

But what I can tell you is that white people in the US have a racist and colonialist legacy that complicates how it would be perceived by many if a non-black person used an expression like this. AAVE is often appropriated by people who are not Black to make them sound tough or "edgy" or trendy or even faux trendy funny like when a nerd "misuses it" to appear extra ridiculous, while at the same time it is considered by those higher in the social hierarchy to be "bad English," filled with "errors," or indicative of a lack of education. It mirrors many other aspects of Black culture that are repudiated by we white folk, but then become "cool" when done by people who aren't Black, particularly by white people.

As an example, I need go no further than the expression you asked about. In "standard" English, which is considered "proper" by those with more power in our cultural dynamics. "My mom didn't raise no fool," is, in AAVE, a way to say basically "I'm not foolish," or "I'm not going to fall for that." White people, applying "proper" English's prescription against double negatives have repeatedly portrayed Black folks in their arts and entertainment saying this expression WHEN THEY ARE BEING FOOLISH.

It's a slap in the face. It's racist. It's bullshit. And it casts folks who speak this dialect as automatically foolish by virtue of not understanding the irony of a double negative. And all that history and oppression and racism still exists when white people want to turn around use this expression as an "edgy" way to say they're too smart to fall for something.

Your second question will require no less finesse. 

First of all, I know you wouldn't really know this as a second language speaker, but the word "dumb" is probably not the word you want to use. It's kind of falling out of usage these days because it's sort of unkind. I know I'm fighting an uphill battle (even with liberals) to retire terms like "idiot" or "moron" but there are certain slurs that have to do with people's abilities that have finally been recognized as hurtful. Most of us don't use the R-word or add "tard" to the end of words anymore. "Dumb" is kind of edging into that second group.

That's because usually the people we're calling these things are actually being immoral or obtuse or harmful or inconsiderate or any number of things that don't have anything to do with their brain capacity or processing speeds, and we have grabbed for a word that hurts other people as well by equating immorality, harm, and lack of consideration with these folks–when we shouldn't.

It's like calling our current president "insane." He might be, but I'm not his licenced therapist, so I don't get to make that call (and and if I were he would have my confidentiality).  What his real problem is is that he's racist, transphobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, and completely self centered. And plenty of sane people are all those things, and plenty of mentally ill people are none of them (at least not to the same degree). When I tie all those things to "insane," as if "insane" is metonymy for all these things (when that's not what they have anything to do with), it makes it that much harder for someone who legitimately has a mental illness to avoid the stigma that they are also going to be racist, homophobic, self-centered and such. Language has that power and people who use language carefully (like writers) should do well to know it and use words with greater precision instead of insisting the world at large ought to know what they meant.

Originally "dumb" meant unable to speak and then kind of grew to mean stupid as well. But honestly, if you see someone "acting dumb," their behavior mirrors someone who is deaf. Someone "acting dumb" will be mimicking having trouble speaking because they can't hear precisely what the words are supposed to sound like. They will speak with exaggerated long vowels and slur their words. It's really, actually SUPER shitty if you think about it for a half a second to cluster those two assumptions about a person together in one vicious mockery. Super smart people can be deaf and have trouble talking in a "typical" way, and folks with brilliant articulation aren't necessarily bright. In fact, most ways people telegraph that someone isn't smart–speaking like someone who is deaf, southern drawls, imitating down syndrome, impersonating autism–are all pretty fucking awful and rooted in bigotry.

And even though most people don't mean to insult both groups with the one insult, they absolutely do.

But the other important thing is just exactly where you're going with the idea of "less intelligence" anyway. Sometimes people are slower because of a processing difficulty like ADD or Autism, but still quite bright. A lot of people are intelligent, but may not seem so because of completely separate issues like mental illness or emotional disorders. Our very concept of intelligence is culturally rooted.  In the U.S., for example, it favors linguistic and mathematical ability over anything else including basic emotional literacy or interpersonal skills. Spatial geniuses aren't considered geniuses if they can't write a paper about it or apply it mathematically.

Further, consider how often "stupid" is synonymous with "non-conforming" in some way–particularly when it comes to following the directions of authority.

So your question about a considered portrayal of a character who is maybe not as smart as average folks probably has the same answer as my question of what you even mean by that. The unkind value judgements are more likely to lead to flat, bigoted portrayals because they spring out of the idea that "stupid" vs. "smart" exist on a single axis instead of a honeycomb of nuance. Figuring out if a character has a processing disorder or is maybe less adept at linguistic expression (but super good at reading the emotional states of those around them), or if maybe they just sit off in the corner arranging the matchbox cars by color and size because they engage the world differently instead of "less intelligently" will make for a FAR more considered, genuine, and high integrity character.

Are you sorry you asked yet, Aleyth?

Making characters smart is a little easier since you have infinite time. I wrote a bit about that here.

In general, I think the best thing for you would be to keep reading. A lot. Read read read, and when you're done reading, read some more. That's where you're going to find the answers to the kinds of questions you're asking. Beyond the grammar (and even beyond vocabulary) language opens up into culture. An anthropologist would argue that language IS culture. Everything from idiomatic expressions to the intense emotive force of insults isn't accessible through even the most accurate translations. You've reached the point where these expressions and phrases and stories have underneath them complex (and often horrifying) history and cultural conflicts. Reading (as well as other kinds of linguistic engagement, but since you want to write in English, I'm recommending reading) is really the best way to begin to tap into that huge linguistic iceberg that is 90% beneath the surface.


  1. I'd add that while this particular example might be specific to AAVE, the use of double negatives is pretty common across non standard dialects among different cultural/racial groups in the US. Depending on the situation and viewpoint, it can be seen as making the speaker sound uneducated or as down to earth and unpretentious. The combination of ain't and no is a common example. When I taught English to immigrants I always covered this pattern of speech as it was one they were likely to encounter in regular conversations in their lives. Also, even as a native English speaker I often come across phrases I don't quite understand. Usually a google search will produce several entries that I can piece together to determine the meaning.

  2. In terms of writing characters that can say or ask things that could inspire clever or sarcastic answers (while still making those characters full, complex people), I might specifically recommend the Wheel of Time books, which have many characters who are generally smart and reasonable but are un-self-reflective or have strong beliefs about How Things Are that are not (or are no longer) true.