a look at dialect

Sayin' Whut Comes Natruly
by Carmen Tassone

as humans, I don't believe it's a matter of us wanting to communicate with each other, but rather I believe we are compelled to communicate with each other. It's in our nature to express our thoughts, our ideas, our emotions to others. Yet to be understood, whether it be written, spoken or otherwise, we must use well-defined ways of communicating. Without such definitions, I believe misinterpretation or misunderstanding would ultimately be the result.
     For instance, let's say an airplane takes off from Bogota, Colombia and heads to New York City. As it approaches the Big Apple, the aircraft is placed in a series of extended holding patterns because of an unusually high volume of traffic caused by poor weather in the northeast. As the aircraft circles around the city, the aircrew grows concerned about their fuel consumption. The captain of the aircraft speaks very little English and has to communicate through his first officer. Several times during the long delay the first officer tells the air traffic controller "we need priority," but at no time does he declare an emergency. After waiting over an hour, the aircrew finally informs the air traffic controller that they're about to run out of fuel. The controller immediately gives the aircraft clearance to land, but after a missed approach and during a go-around, all four engines fail and the aircraft crashes into a wooded area sixteen miles away from the airport.
     Of course such a scenario isn't likely to happen, right?  Not so. This actually happened. On January 25th, 1990 Avianca's Flight 052 from Bogota, Colombia bound for New York's JFK International Airport crashed into Cove Neck, New York because it ran out of fuel after waiting one hour and seventeen minutes to land (NTSB). But at no time during the flight did the aircrew declare an emergency. Aboard the Boeing 707 were 158 people, 73 of whom did not survive the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the probable cause of the crash was "the lack of standardized understandable terminology for pilots and controllers for minimum and emergency fuel states" (NTSB). In another words, if the aircrew had properly communicated the crisis by declaring an emergency, the air traffic controller would have understood the peril of the aircraft and would have cleared it for landing sooner.
     Tragic as this accident may be, it is a haunting example of what could happen when we "fail to communicate." And if I understand correctly what a professor from West Virginia University suggests, we should ignore standards for communicating, and we should simply use our native "dialect feature" and not worry that we may or may not be understood.
     I believe effective communications is vital for our continued existence. And it appears the first emperor of China, Chao Cheng (Ch'in Shih huang-ti), in 221 BC also knew this when he gained complete control over all territories in China. To overcome communication problems caused by multiple dialects used throughout the newly established empire, the young emperor standardized his nation's written language, as well as, its weights and measures (Britannica 1). This allowed meaning, not pronunciation, to be conveyed to everyone throughout the new empire no matter what "dialect feature" a person used.
     Japan also recognized the value of communication, because in the 3rd century it adopted China's written form of language as their own and called it kanji--Chinese characters (Britannica 2).  Although the Japanese vocabulary was different from that of the Chinese, Japan was able to use kanji to standardize its written language as well. I know from personal experience native speakers of Japanese may not speak or understand Chinese, however, they can grasp the essence of some written Chinese because most kanji have the same meaning in both languages.
     As for English, I am aware that it is a living, breathing language that has evolved over many centuries and it will continue to evolve no matter what we do. I've even heard, and agree, that the language we use today will not exist in ten thousand years, and it surely will not as we know it today come the next millennium. But I see no reason to hasten the death of English by acknowledging "dialect features" such as "up'err" and "nalcom" as part of the English language. Maybe I'm being a little overdramatic with this, because dialect is simply colloquial speech used in specific regions of our country, and certainly such speech is understood by those familiar with the specific dialect, but for outsiders, such speech may be foreign.
     However, I do agree with Associate English Professor Daniel Moshenberg when he said we should not judge intelligence by the way a person speaks. I too know of no correlation between pronunciation and intelligence. But I wonder what would happened if a person had never learned standard English and then tried to communicate to outsiders using only his or her native (English) dialect. Would he or she be understood? Maybe; that is, as long as his or her dialect wasn't too strong. But if it was, I fear not, especially if the communication was in the form of writing.
     I think people are more lenient to a person's speech as apposed to a person's writing; except maybe when lives are at risk.  I also believe we all have some form of dialect in our speech, which is to be expected.  For me, northeast by way of the South. I still catch myself saying "y'all" and "yonder," but I also say "yunze" and "up'err."
     But when it comes to writing, I agree with all my past English instructors who've said that we do not and should not write the way we speak.  There are of course exceptions to this rule.  For instance, when we're writing dialogue or when we're attempted to create some special effect.  But normally when we write term papers, stories, business letters, reports, etc., we try to write clearly enough to convey our message so we won't be misunderstood.  We should also try to eliminate any ambiguity or grammar flaws in our writing, and we should watch for misplaced modifiers that could lead to misinterpretations. ("Gosh, this is beginning to scare me.  I'm starting to sound like my instructors.")
     Although I believe Professor Hazen is right to suggest a teacher shouldn't try to correct a student's speech, I don't think a teacher should discourage a student from learning standard English. But then what of the question, "who has the right to say one dialect is better than another?" I concede to this question by simply saying no one has this right. Dialect maybe fine around family and friends, but in my opinion, a person who can articulate him or herself meaningfully through written or verbal expressions is armed for success in a world reliant on skilled communicators.  


 Works Cited:

          NTSB. "NTSB Aviation Accident/Incident Database". National Transportation Safety Board. 2000. Online. Available: http://nasdac.faa.gov/asp/fw_ntsb.asp. 12 March 2000.

          Britannica 1. "Ch'in Dynasty". Encyclopędia Britannica. 2000. Online. Available: http://www.search.eb.com/bol/topic ?xref=24030. Accessed 13 March 2000.

          Britannica 2. "Japanese language". Encyclopędia Britannica. 2000. Online. Available: http://www.search.eb.com/bol/topic ?eu=44348 &sctn=1. 13 March 2000.