The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects 

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Thinkstock

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

"Every dialect has a grammar" does not mean "everything is relative, and let's throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please." What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar.

1. Appalachian a-prefixing

One of the most noticeable features of Appalachian English, which has been studied extensively by the linguists Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian, is the a- prefix that attaches to verbs. When people want to mock "hick" speech, they often scatter a-prefixed words around like "a-goin'" and "a-huntin'" and "a-fishin'," but if they don't actually speak the dialect, they usually make mistakes. That is because they don't know the rules of where a-prefixing can apply, and where it can't.

Rules? Yes, rules. To someone who speaks an a-prefixing dialect this sounds right: "He was a-huntin'."

But these sound wrong:

He likes a-huntin'.
Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me.
He makes money by a-buildin' houses.

It is not the case that a-prefixes can attach to any old word ending in -ing. They can attach to verbs, as in the first example. But not to gerunds (a verb serving as a noun for a general action), adjectives, or objects of prepositions, as in the other examples. The fact that those examples sound wrong to dialect speakers shows that there are conditions on where a-prefixes can go. The fact that those conditions can be described in terms of verbs, gerunds, adjectives, and prepositions show that the conditions have to do with the linguistic structure of sentences. A condition that depends on linguistic structure is a rule. A system of these rules is a grammar. This is what linguists mean when they talk about the grammar of a dialect.

People who speak this dialect don't learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can't describe them, the same way you know "I gave him a dollar" sounds good but "I donated him a dollar" sounds bad (even if you've never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn't follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

2. Southern American English "liketa"

Often features that are seen as sloppy pronunciations of Standard English show themselves on closer inspection to be used in a non-sloppy, highly consistent way—but according to a different set of rules. In the Alabama dialect studied by linguist Crawford Feagin, speakers say things like, "She liketa killed me!", meaning that she just about started to kill me, but didn't. This "liketa" is not just a shortening of "would have liked to"; it's also possible to say "I liketa had a heart attack."

"Liketa" is close to being a substitute for "almost," but it doesn't behave exactly like that word either; you can ask "did you almost die?" but not "did you liketa died?"

"Liketa" is not just a lazy version of Standard English. You can describe the conditions for its use—the rules of "liketa." As Feagin says, it "occurs in both positive and negative sentences, but not in questions and commands. It may co-occur with the intensifier 'just'; it always occurs in the past." Because rules govern "liketa," it is possible to break those rules, and if you do you can be said to be using it ungrammatically.

3. African-American English stressed "BIN"

African-American English has a number of distinguishing features, one of them being the use of "stressed BIN," described by linguist John Rickford. It carries the main stress of the sentence and is distinct from unstressed "been." It occurs in sentences like "she BIN married," which does not mean "she has been married." It means "she is married, and has been for a long time."

Stressed BIN is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for. It can also be used in places where Standard "been" would not occur, such as "I BIN ate it" (I ate it a long time ago).

There are structural conditions on where stressed BIN can and cannot occur. Its use is governed by rules. As linguist Lisa Green points out, it can't be moved to the front of the sentence for questions (BIN John and Lisa dating?) or used in a tagged question at the end (She BIN married, binn't she?), and it can't be used with phrases indicating a specific time (I BIN asked him bout that three weeks ago). Because there are grammatical conditions for the use of stressed BIN, it is possible to use it the wrong way, as nearly everyone who tries to mock it does.

More explanations of these phenomena and others can be found at the Yale Grammatical Diversity project, the mission of which is to serve as "a crucial source of data for the development of theories of human linguistic knowledge." However you feel about dialects and whether they are worthy of respect, the fact that human ways of speaking always settle into rule-governed systems, all describable in terms of the same set of basic linguistic concepts—that, at the very least, is pretty darn interesting. And frankly, the more you pursue what's interesting about it, the less emotional your judgments about dialects become.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

40 Dandy D-Words To Deepen Your Vocabulary

iStock/gazanfer gungor
iStock/gazanfer gungor

It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.

Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth(Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.

Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here…

1. DAB-DUMP

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.

2. DABERLICK

Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.

3. DABSTER

An astute or especially skilled worker.

4. DAFFLED

If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.

5. DANDIE-CLAW

A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.

6. DANDLE

To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.

7. DANG-SWANG

To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.

8. DANGLEMENT

An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.

9. DAPPERPYE

An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”

10. DAPPERWIT

A quick-witted, lively young man.

11. DARING-HARDY

A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”

12. DAWK

A thick fog or mist.

13. DAYLIGAUN

An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”

14. DEAD-HORSE

As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “flogging a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.

15. DEAD-NIP

18th-century slang for a failed idea.

16. DEAMBULATE

To walk about, or to stray away from home.

17. DECIDOPHOBIA

If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).

18. DEDOLEATE

A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”

19. DEJERATE

To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.

20. DEONERATE

To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.

21. DEPECULATE

Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.

22. DEPEDITATE

In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.

23. DEPROELIATION

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.

24. DIABLERIE

The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the Devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.

25. DIABLOTIN

Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.

26. DIAL-PLATE

An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).

27. DILLYALL

An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.

28. DILORICATE

To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.

29. DIMBER

Dimber was a 17th-century word meaning “pretty” or “smart,” while a dimber-damber was the leader or “face” of a gang of rogues or vagabonds.

30. DISCALCEATE

To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.

31. DO-NO-BETTER

The slightly less complimentary Edwardian equivalent of bae—a do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”

32. DOATY

When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.

33. DOCH-AN-DORRIS

A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”

34. DOCK-WALLOPER

Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.

35. DOLLYMAWKIN

A frivolous, scatterbrained young woman.

36. DOODLE-SHOP

An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.

37. DRAGGLETAIL

In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.

38. DULCILOQUY

A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.

39. DUTCH CONCERT

The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.

40. DWINE

To dwindle or pine away.

This article originally ran in 2016.

To Apostrophe or Not to Apostrophe: How to Pluralize Your Last Name

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iStock.com/katerinasergeevna

Let's suppose your last name is Jones, and you and your family want to send out holiday greeting cards or wedding invitations. How would you make your last name plural—Jones'? Jones's? Or Joneses?

Although it may seem complicated at first, the rules of pluralizing last names are actually pretty simple, as Slate has pointed out. Unless you want to make your last name possessive, there aren't any circumstances where you would need to add an apostrophe.

The rule goes like this: If your name ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, add -es to the end. Walsh becomes Walshes, and Malkovich becomes Malkoviches. For all other endings, simply add -s to the end (as in Smiths, Whites, Johnsons, etc).

Of course, things get a little trickier when you want to make a last name plural and possessive. "Errors involving plural proper names are so common that I almost never see them written correctly," June Casagrande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Let's say you want to notify friends and family that a party will be held at the Jones household. You could take the easy way out and write just that, or you could opt for, "The party will be held at the Joneses' house." Simply tack an apostrophe onto the end of a plural name to make it possessive. Plural first, then possessive.

The LA Times provided a few other examples of plural possessives:

"Unlike singular possessives, which take an apostrophe followed by an S, plural possessives take an apostrophe alone. So if you're going to the home of the Smiths, you're going to the Smiths' house. If you're going to visit the Williamses, that would be at the Williamses' house. Mr. and Mrs. Mendez, known collectively as the Mendezes, live in the Mendezes' house. And Mr. and Mrs. Berry, whom we call the Berrys, live in the Berrys' house."

On the other hand, if Mr. Jones lived alone and was having a party at his place, you would write "Mr. Jones' house" or "Mr. Jones's house." Both are acceptable—it's merely a difference of style and personal preference. Names that end in s are the exception to the singular possessive rule, though. You'd normally just add 's to make a singular name possessive, such as Mr. Berry's house or Mrs. Mendez's house.

Now that you know exactly when and where to add an apostrophe, your holiday greetings will not only be jolly but also grammatically correct.

[h/t Slate]

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