December 15, 2003

Like we used to could

Close listeners to President Bush's press conference today will have heard some delicious Texas phonetics, for example when he said of letting non-coalition partners get rebuilding contracts in Iraq that it "was sump'n I wadn't gonna do", with [d] for [z] in wasn't. There was also some classic Texas syntax, e.g. in " we used to could." In Standard English you can never use a modal (can, could, must, ought, shall, should, will, would...) in its plain form (like in an infinitival clause), but in lots of southern dialects you can (you find they might should, we used to could, and various other combinations). Writers who comment on Bush's speech tend to take his most startling departures from Standard English ("Is our children learning?" and so on) as evidence of brain damage. Those much-quoted subject-verb agreement errors certainly are remarkable failures of sentence planning; they're ungrammatical in every dialect. But things like sump'n I wadn't gonna do and like we used to could aren't a sign of inarticulacy or ignorance or anything of the sort. They're regional and informal, but they don't provide any basis for inferences about anyone's intelligence or competence in other domains. Most Americans seem to think regional speech varieties automatically and unfailingly signal low status and low IQ, as if there was some definite connection there. I'm not tempted in that direction, because the department chair who hired me when I joined the University of California, Santa Cruz, is one of the smartest syntacticians I ever met in my life, Professor Jorge Hankamer, who proudly speaks a pure southern Texan English that you could cut into cubes with a Bowie knife and make chili with. So I tend to associate Texan dialect (rightly in some cases, and doubtless wrongly in others) with high prestige and high intelligence. You have your linguistic prejudices, I have mine.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 15, 2003 11:51 PM