When you examine the history of a language, you understand that people speak the way they do for a reason – not because they’re any less intelligent than anyone else.

Hiram Smith

Knowledge erases prejudice, including language prejudice, according to Professor of Spanish Hiram Smith, who studies stigmatized dialects. "When you examine the history of a language, you understand that people speak the way they do for a reason," he says. "Not because they're any less intelligent than anyone else."

As an example, Smith cites San Basilio de Palenque, a small village in Colombia founded in the 1600s by a band of slaves who'd escaped their Spanish captors. Villagers, especially older ones, still speak Palenquero, a blend of Spanish and the Kikongo language spoken in the tropical forests of the Congo and Angola.

"It's an endangered Creole language," Smith says. "Many Spanish-speakers viewed it as a corrupted Spanish dialect, and many Palenqueros were ridiculed for speaking it. As a result, the language is dying." He made Palenquero the focus of his research as a graduate student and visited San Basilio de Palenque numerous times to conduct interviews and document the language.

Understanding the historical background of a dialect helps to engender linguistic pride and erase linguistic prejudice, Smith notes. "Unfortunately," he says, "we're all taught prescriptive grammar. Too much emphasis is placed on how a language should be spoken and not enough time is taken to understand why it's being spoken that way in the first place. Should a child be corrected or criticized for speaking the way his family has for generations?"

Conducting sociolinguistic interviews is tricky, Smith says, especially when the subjects come from a very different culture. How do you put people at ease? How do you learn not to offend? How do you protect your subjects' dignities and identities? These questions are at the heart of Smith's class on field research.

Someday, Smith hopes to take a group to San Basilio de Palenque, but his students must learn to interview local populations first. "The goal is to record speech as it is spoken in a natural setting, analyze it using quantitative methods, and then provide more reliable descriptions of the grammar as it is actually spoken in communities," he says.

Posted Sept. 29, 2014