[Ads-l] An Army and a Navy

Margaret Winters mewinters at WAYNE.EDU
Sun Dec 17 21:51:30 EST 2017

I've always considered it ironic that Max Weinreich, THE historian of Yiddish, coined this rule of thumb when his native language and subject of his research was one of the salient conterexamples.  I like Jim's proposal, but think that, for most of what we study, Weinreich's characterization holds if we think of languages as a feature (property?) of political entities, those with an army and a navy.  But there are, of course, exceptions.


Former Provost
Professor Emerita - French and Linguistics
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI  48202

mewinters at wayne.edu

From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM>
Sent: Sunday, December 17, 2017 7:22 PM
Subject: Re: _try to_ vs. _try and_

First, thank you to those who responded to our request about "Bye Felicia".

On Sat, 16 Dec 2017 09:39:31 Zone + 0000 Margaret Lee <mlee303 at YAHOO.COM> wrote:

 Yes, I was taught to use 'try to' rather than 'try and'.   The old
'proper English' mandate, but what exactly is 'proper English'?  Who
decides what is 'proper'?   Are any of you familiar with the Max
Weinreich quote:  "A language is a dialect with an army an a navy" ?
<end quote>

The Weinreich quote is a handy rule of thumb, but it is, at a guess, 90% accurate, e.g. I am still looking for the Gullah army and the Yiddish navy.

A better definition: the distinction between language and dialect is arbitrary, but there is a (somewhat flaky) rule:
a dialect qualifies as a separate language IF it is the USUAL speech of a group which is widely considered to be distinct from the surrounding x-language-speaking population because the group is isolated socially, geographically, or by national borders.

Example:  the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe were isolated socially and were well-known to Gentiles as a distinct people.  Speakers of Gullah are geographically isolated from those on the US mainland, black and white, who speak dialects of English.  (Am I correct that Gullah is considered a separate language, not a dialect of English?) Portugal is a separate nation from Spain and therefore their speech is considered a separate language.

On the other hand, Cantonese is considered to be only a dialect of Chinese, as the Cantonese speakers, although perhaps geographically isolated, are considered and consider themselves members of the Chinese people and have been from time immemorial part of a Chinese nation.  Similarly Yorkshire, although not mutually intelligible with the speech of the rest of England, is a dialect because Yorkshire has long been considered part of England.

There are borderline (no pun intended) cases, e.g. Catalan, the speakers of which have been part of Spain since Spain became united with the marriage of Ferdinand (a Catalan) and Isabella (a Castilian).  However, they have kept somewhat of a separate cultural identity, they are geographically isolated, and, who knows, they may soon acquire independence from Spain.

What about AAVE?  It is a dialect because, while African-Americans are a distinct social group, they are NOT geographically isolated and many African-Americans do not speak AAVE, so it does not qualify as "usual speech" the way Yiddish was the usual speech of Eastern European Jews (and then there is Wilson Gray who posts on this list both in AAVE and in what I will NOT call "standard English" or "proper English").

Now for another question, posed by both Margaret Lee and Wilson Gray:  "what exactly is 'proper English'?  Who
decides what is 'proper'?"

I have an answer:  grammatically English has three major dialects, what I call "Patrician", "Plebian", and King James.  Patrician is the literary dialect.  Plebian is the widely-spoken very-resistant-to-change dialect characterized by such features as double negatives, negation by "ain't", etc.  AAVE is simply a subset of Plebian with certain idiosyncratic features of its own.

So who decides what is "proper"?


Patrician, being the literary dialect, is used whenever the literary dialect is expected.  People who customarily speak Plebian used Plebian as their everyday spoken dialect.  King James is used in religious contexts (and related contexts, e.g. a sign in front of a church "Thou shalt not walk on the grass").

Therefore (in the United States at least) there is "no sich animal" as Standard English, which implies there is also no such thing as "sub-standard English", merely English which differs in greater or lesser degree from the literary dialect..

Have I answered your question, Dr. Lee?

Now for "try to" vs. "try and".  Speakers of both Patrician and Plebian use whichever they are used to.  "Try to" is prescriptivist, for once for a logical reason: "try and" violates the diction rules in both Patrician and Plebian for use of the infinitive.

- Jim Landau

PS to Wilson Gray:  my grandson, almost two years old, is learning his colors.  He has the primary colors down pat but is having trouble distinguishing "black" and "brown".  He pointed to an African-American woman who was wearing a black dress and said "Brown".  The woman laughed and said, "You just made my day".

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