I am often asked, “Is that ‘correct’ English?” It is not a simple question to answer.
I have thought about this often but recently I was reminded of it again as I listened to the audio version of Between the World and Me. Written and read by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the book expresses so clearly the history and experience of what it means to be Black in the United States. I was very moved but also kept being jarred by his pronunciation of the word “ask.”
I can imagine many people are saying to themselves, “Not this again!” But as a pronunciation teacher, I tense up when I hear it being pronounced “aks,” inverting the S and K. I know this is commonly used in English-speaking Caribbean countries and by many American Black populations. I also know it was pronounced that way centuries ago and even Shakespeare used it in one of his plays. But my immediate reaction was, “He is educated. Can’t he just say it ‘correctly?’”
So back to the categorization of “correct” English, or “standard” English, or “proper” English. How should we speak? Why would we use one pronunciation over another?
I believe it all comes down to conditioning and identity. John McWhorter, in his article The ‘ax’ versus ‘ask’ question, says, “for Black people, “ax” has a different meaning than “ask…” “Ax” is a word indelibly associated not just with asking but with Black people asking. That sentiment alone is powerful enough to cut across conscious decisions about what is standard or proper. “Ax,” then, is as integral a part of being a Black American as are subtle aspects of carriage, demeanor, humor and religious practice. “Ax” is a gospel chord in the form of a word, a facet of Black being — which is precisely why Black people can both make fun of and also regularly use “ax,” even as college graduates…”
So there! I will get used to it and accept it. But I will NOT teach it although I WILL explain it. And that goes for many other differences in pronunciation, including the consonants, the vowels and the music of the language. (See my blog post on prosody for more on this.)
When we refer to standard English, we are talking of the accepted, supposedly “neutral” speech used by professionals and upper middle-class people in the country. So firstly, “standard” refers to an accent of status. Does that mean it is correct? Not really. Rather it means it allows you to represent yourself as an educated person with a degree of status in society. But it really is no more correct than another way of speaking, just more accepted among the higher classes.
Secondly, standard English in Britain is different from standard English in Canada, or in the US or in Australia, etc. Perhaps the best way to find out what is standard in a country is to listen to the national radio. In Canada, that is the CBC; in England, the BBC; in the US, NBC; etc.
I have heard the Quebecois French be referred to as “old French,” as if it were out-of-date. I have also heard African-American English referred to as “bad English,” as if it were grammatically incorrect. In my opinion, both of these views are incorrect because both dialects are grammatically rule-bound. Just as so-called “Standard English” is.
All language changes over time. New vocabulary enters a language regularly and we are well aware of this as we move through life. Changes in pronunciation also occur, albeit more slowly but we can still see them during our lifetimes. In contrast, grammatical changes happen much more slowly. As linguistic groups separate from each other, certain aspects of grammar will change over time while other aspects will remain the same, depending upon where these groups are located.
Changes in pronunciation and grammar occur naturally and follow tendencies and rules which can be defined and taught. So just because French in France may use different vocabulary and grammatical structures, does not mean it is better or more modern. Perhaps it is seen by many as more prestigious or of higher status but it is no more correct than Quebecois French. And the same goes for Standard English when compared to African-American English.
When I teach grammar and pronunciation, I teach Neutral North American English, considered standard, with some Canadian focus if the client is living in Canada. It is considered professional-level English. But is it “better” or more “correct” than other variations? I don’t believe so.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, we speak the way we do because of our conditioning and identity. Our pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are conditioned by our upbringing and exposure. They are also part of our identity which can change by where we are educated, who we spend time with, where we live, what we believe, etc.
So for me to use “aks” instead of “ask” would be incorrect according to my conditioning and identity. But for Ta-Nehisi Coates, it is correct.