Subsection 6.3.1 Standard American English
Standard American English (SAE
) (also called Academic English, or AE
; Mainstream American English, or MAE
; and Standard Edited American English, or SEAE
) is a variety of English that is priviledged by those who historically hold power in the academy and in our society as a whole. SAE
exists primarily as a written form of English. Because it is the language of people who have traditionally controlled American institutions of higher education, SAE
is usually used on campus in our written papers, speeches, lectures, and presentations. Of course, the notion that SAE
is “standard” is contested: On the one hand, because language changes constantly, there is no one moment in time when all users of SAE
can agree completely on what the standard is; on the other, SAE
is not truly “American” in that it is not the language of all Americans and has often been used to normalize white, middle- and upper-class language systems and to denigrate language systems that differ from them (and that hence, become “non-standard” and “improper”). And even within the basic category of SAE
, there are more specific conventions regarding language that distinguish a science class, for example, from a class in humanities.
If we support linguistic diversity, we accept that language is not static, that we will encounter words and expressions that come from a variety of disciplines and cultural communities. Merriam Webster defines language 1
as the methods of combining words as understood by a community. By contrast, a dialect 2
is defined as a regional variety of a language. While scholars acknowledge distinctions between a language and dialect, the line between the two is not always clear or without problems. One flippant way of explaining the difference between a dialect and a language is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”; in his essay “What's a Language, Anyway?” 3
linguist John McWhorter elaborates, arguing that there is no objective difference between a language and dialect, that the realities of speech are more complicated than these definitions allow.
We can better understand the status of SAE
and the role of linguistic diversity in advancing equity and inclusion by considering the history of African American English (AAE
), a variety of English spoken by some African Americans. AAE
has been researched and written about extensively, more than other varieties of English, and two respected scholars of AAE
are John Rickford of Stanford University and Geneva Smitherman of Michigan State University. Like most spoken languages, AAE
is rule-governed and systematic, although the system is too complicated and vast to summarize here. Today, AAE
is accepted as a variety of English, but it was rejected as a language in the past and it has been and continues to be maligned using racist ideas about black speech and intelligence. Two highly politicized cases about the use of AAE
in public schools are Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board 4
from 1979 and Oakland Unified School District's 1996 resolution 5
to use AAE
. In both cases, the use of AAE
by educators as a way to affirm the validity of AAE
and to help students learn SAE
was considered controversial. It is helpful to know this history when considering AAE
in academic contexts.
In addition to SAE
, other rule-governed varieties of American English include Chicano English (also called Mexican American English), Cajun English, Hawaiian Pidgin (also called Hawaiian Pidgin English and Hawaiian Creole English), and Southern White American English. These varieties of English not only have some different vocabulary than SAE
but also—and more importantly—have some different grammatical rules than SAE
. American Sign Language (ASL
), too, has a different grammatical structure than written SAE
Because the rules regarding language construction and use are complex, this section is intended as a general guideline for how to approach linguistic diversity. If you want in-depth information on sociolinguistics, or what constitutes a vernacular, dialect, or language, here is a short list of recommended reading about linguistic diversity:
Potowski, K. (2010) Language Diversity in the USA Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010.
Smitherman, G. & Villanueva, V. (2003). Language Diversity in the Classroom: From Intention to Practice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
There are also excellent resources on these topics here on campus. Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking an English course on the history of English, or courses in African American Studies, Asian Studies, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, and Latino/a Studies would be a good way to continue learning, as would getting involved in programs through your university's diversity center.