A Grammar Review Lesson With Regional Dialects

From Mental Floss:

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

“Every dialect has a grammar” does not mean “everything is relative, and let’s throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore . . . What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar. Continue reading at Mental Floss

As one who has many friends and loved ones who speak with the dialects highlighted here, I heartily agree that spoken dialect is not necessarily an indication of intellectual ability. The folks I know who use these dialects in speaking never use them in writing, which means they keep TWO sets of grammar rules in their brains, and have the ability to tailor their usage to the occasion—a vital rhetorical skill. Authors from Shakespeare to Dickens to Berry have made excellent and proper use of dialect in their best works. All of which should deter anyone from disparaging regional dialects out of hand.

For a fun opening exercise in my Poetics & Progym class at Providence Prep, I wrote these four sentences on the board:

  • “He was a-huntin’.”
  • He likes a-huntin’.
  • Those a-screamin’ children didn’t bother me.  
  • He makes money by a-buildin’ houses. 

I told the students that the first usage was correct in the Appalachian (short a in the third syllable, please!) dialect, and the the other three were wrong. They had to construct the grammar rule to explain why. This sparked a lively review of verbs and verbals, and the ways each is used in a sentence.

So, what’s the rule? The article explains it, but not exactly in a succinct rule. We came up with:

The a- prefix can be attached to a verb, but not to a *verbal.

*A verbal is a verb used as an adjective (participle) or a noun (gerund or participial noun).

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