The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects 

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

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, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please." 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.

1. Appalachian a-prefixing

One of the most noticeable features of Appalachian English, which has been studied extensively by the linguists Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian, is the a- prefix that attaches to verbs. When people want to mock "hick" speech, they often scatter a-prefixed words around like "a-goin'" and "a-huntin'" and "a-fishin'," but if they don't actually speak the dialect, they usually make mistakes. That is because they don't know the rules of where a-prefixing can apply, and where it can't.

Rules? Yes, rules. To someone who speaks an a-prefixing dialect this sounds right: "He was a-huntin'."

But these sound wrong:

He likes a-huntin'.
Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me.
He makes money by a-buildin' houses.

It is not the case that a-prefixes can attach to any old word ending in -ing. They can attach to verbs, as in the first example. But not to gerunds (a verb serving as a noun for a general action), adjectives, or objects of prepositions, as in the other examples. The fact that those examples sound wrong to dialect speakers shows that there are conditions on where a-prefixes can go. The fact that those conditions can be described in terms of verbs, gerunds, adjectives, and prepositions show that the conditions have to do with the linguistic structure of sentences. A condition that depends on linguistic structure is a rule. A system of these rules is a grammar. This is what linguists mean when they talk about the grammar of a dialect.

People who speak this dialect don't learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can't describe them, the same way you know "I gave him a dollar" sounds good but "I donated him a dollar" sounds bad (even if you've never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn't follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

2. Southern American English "liketa"

Often features that are seen as sloppy pronunciations of Standard English show themselves on closer inspection to be used in a non-sloppy, highly consistent way—but according to a different set of rules. In the Alabama dialect studied by linguist Crawford Feagin, speakers say things like, "She liketa killed me!", meaning that she just about started to kill me, but didn't. This "liketa" is not just a shortening of "would have liked to"; it's also possible to say "I liketa had a heart attack."

"Liketa" is close to being a substitute for "almost," but it doesn't behave exactly like that word either; you can ask "did you almost die?" but not "did you liketa died?"

"Liketa" is not just a lazy version of Standard English. You can describe the conditions for its use—the rules of "liketa." As Feagin says, it "occurs in both positive and negative sentences, but not in questions and commands. It may co-occur with the intensifier 'just'; it always occurs in the past." Because rules govern "liketa," it is possible to break those rules, and if you do you can be said to be using it ungrammatically.

3. African-American English stressed "BIN"

African-American English has a number of distinguishing features, one of them being the use of "stressed BIN," described by linguist John Rickford. It carries the main stress of the sentence and is distinct from unstressed "been." It occurs in sentences like "she BIN married," which does not mean "she has been married." It means "she is married, and has been for a long time."

Stressed BIN is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for. It can also be used in places where Standard "been" would not occur, such as "I BIN ate it" (I ate it a long time ago).

There are structural conditions on where stressed BIN can and cannot occur. Its use is governed by rules. As linguist Lisa Green points out, it can't be moved to the front of the sentence for questions (BIN John and Lisa dating?) or used in a tagged question at the end (She BIN married, binn't she?), and it can't be used with phrases indicating a specific time (I BIN asked him bout that three weeks ago). Because there are grammatical conditions for the use of stressed BIN, it is possible to use it the wrong way, as nearly everyone who tries to mock it does.

More explanations of these phenomena and others can be found at the Yale Grammatical Diversity project, the mission of which is to serve as "a crucial source of data for the development of theories of human linguistic knowledge." However you feel about dialects and whether they are worthy of respect, the fact that human ways of speaking always settle into rule-governed systems, all describable in terms of the same set of basic linguistic concepts—that, at the very least, is pretty darn interesting. And frankly, the more you pursue what's interesting about it, the less emotional your judgments about dialects become.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40)

- Keurig K-Cafe Special Edition; $190 (save $30)

- Ninja OS301 Foodi 10-in-1 Pressure Cooker and Air Fryer; $125 (save $75)

- Nespresso Vertuo Next Coffee and Espresso Machine by Breville; $120 (save $60)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75)

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $80 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10)

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $16 (save $11)

- HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

- Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31)

- TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

- Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

- Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30)

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening; $40 (save $20)

- Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity; $50 (save $10)

- Marvel's Avengers; $25 (save $33)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

- The Sims 4; $24 (save $20)

- God of Warfor PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

- Days Gonefor PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

- Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250)

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $335 (save $64)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $120 (save $79)

- Seneo Wireless Charger, 3 in 1 Wireless Charging Station; $16 (save $10)

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

- DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

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- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

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- JBL Boombox; $280 (save $120)

Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

- Game of Thrones: The Complete Series; $115 (save $89)

- Jurassic World 5-Movie Set; $23 (save $37)

- Deadwood: The Complete Series; $42 (save $28)

- Back to the Future Trilogy; $15 (save $21)

Toys and Games

Amazon

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- Exploding Kittens Card Game; $10 (save $10)

- Cards Against Humanity: Hidden Gems Bundle; $14 (save $5)

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- LEGO Ideas Ship in a Bottle 92177 Expert Building Kit; $56 (save $14)

Furniture

Casper/Amazon

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- ROMOON Dresser Organizer with 5 Drawers; $59 (save $11) 

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- Writing Desk by Caffoz; $119 (save $21)

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Beauty

Haus/Amazon

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- Honest Beauty Clearing Night Serum with Pure Retinol and Salicylic Acid; $20 (save $8)

- WOW Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo and Hair Conditioner Set; $30 (save $5) 

- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser; $15 (save $5)

- wet n wild Bretman Rock Shadow Palette; $9 (save $6)

- EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Face Sunscreen Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid; $25 (save $6)

Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

- Ganni Women's Crispy Jacquard Dress; $200 (save $86) 

- The Drop Women's Maya Silky Slip Skirt; $36 (save $9)

- Steve Madden Women's Editor Boot; $80 (save $30)

- adidas Women's Roguera Cross Trainer; $40 (save $25)

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- Timex Men's Weekender XL 43mm Watch; $32 (save $20)

- Ray-Ban Unisex-Adult Hexagonal Flat Lenses Sunglasses; $108 (save $46) 

- Reebok Men's Flashfilm Train Cross Trainer; $64 (save $16)

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What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other Fever Words

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By Samantha Enslen, Quick and Dirty Tips

We come to you in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever, and that got us thinking about the word fever and the different phrases that use it.

After a bit of noodling around, here’s what we learned.

The Origin of the Word Fever.

The word fever comes from the classical Latin febris. It’s also related to the Latin word fovēre, meaning “to heat,” and the ancient Greek τέϕρα (pronounced tephra), meaning “ash.”

Fever originally related to heat.

The first time it was printed was in an Old English herbarium—a book describing how to use herbs as medicine. The author said that people who have a “fefer” should “wyrte wel drincan on wætere”—that is, drink lots of water brewed with plants from the wort family, like spiderwort or St. John’s wort.

The Meaning of Fever Gets Extended.

By the 1300s, we see the use of the word expand. It starts to also mean a state of nervous excitement or agitation. We see phrases like “a fever of jealousy” and “a fever of the soul.” We still use that meaning today—you’ll know that if you’ve ever had “a fever for the flavor of a Pringle.” (For those of you too young to recognize that jingle, it’s from an iconic 1980s ad for those flattened, processed potato chips known as Pringles.)

Fever also paired up with various modifiers over time. These phrases referred to an intense enthusiasm that usually burned out quickly.

For example, in the 1600s, “tulip fever” broke out in the Netherlands. These bulbs began to be imported from the Ottoman Empire, and prices for them skyrocketed.

In the 1760s, when the Seven Years’ War raged between Great Britain and France, British fanatics were said to have “war-fever.”

In 1848, the discovery of gold in California sparked a “gold fever”—a mass migration of miners into California’s goldfields. By 1855, more than 300,000 people had moved into the state.

And of course, in the 1970s, many of us had the most embarrassing fever of all—disco fever. Admit it—many of you probably wore gold lame and bell-bottoms, and danced your heart out to songs like “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer.

Those were the days.

Fever Phrases: Cabin Fever, Fever Dream, Fever Pitch

Fever has also become part of some standard phrases we use.

Cabin Fever

There’s “cabin fever,” the restlessness and irritation that comes from being cooped up too long in a small space. (Perhaps needless to say, many of us are feeling that right now.) The term appeared in the American West in the early 1900s, probably because of settlers being trapped in literal cabins for weeks on end during the heavy winters that hit states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

Fever Dreams

There are also “fever dreams.” These are the bizarre, hallucinogenic dreams that can come when you have a high fever. If you’ve ever seen the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie Spellbound, you get a sense of what a fever dream might be like.

“Fever dreams” can also refer to any outlandish ideas. If a friend told you she’d quit her job, bought a horse, and decided to bring transportation via carriage back into fashion, you might say she was having a fever dream.

Fever Pitch

Finally, there’s the expression “fever pitch,” which refers to a state of intense excitement. In 2019, when the Washington Nationals were competing for their first-ever World Series trophy, you could say that “baseball fever” in Washington had reached a fever pitch. Or in 2016, when LeBron James brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals, excitement in Cleveland was definitely at a fever pitch.

Why Do You Catch a Cold, But Run a Fever?

One final topic for today. Why do you catch a cold, but run a fever?

Catching a Cold

“To catch a cold” is an idiom. It first appeared in the 16th century, and originally meant to literally become chilled by exposure to cold weather. By the late 1600s, it took on the meaning we use today: to become infected by a cold virus.

Until recently, the phrase was shorter: “to catch cold” was more common than “to catch a cold.” And there’s also a darker version of this phrase: “to catch your death of cold.” This phrase was likely a favorite of parents warning their children to dress warmly: “put on a hat if you’re going outside, or you’ll catch your death of cold!”

Running a Fever

The phrase “to run a fever” is also an idiom. It uses the word “run” in the sense meaning “to cause, or to move.” You can see a similar usage in the phrase “run amok,” meaning to move in a frenzied, out-of-control way.

In this case, one’s temperature is moving upward; thus, one “runs” a fever.

That’s our rundown on fever-related idioms. I wish everyone good health—and I am sending warm wishes that “cabin fever” isn’t hitting you too hard.

Sources

Ammer, Christine. Catch a cold, run a fever. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Boissoneault, Lorraine. There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever. Smithsonian Magazine, September 18, 2017.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Gold fever, Seven Years’ War (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).

Merriam-Webster. A Retrospect of Words From 1918 (accessed April 20, 2020).

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Fever, cabin fever (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other ‘Fever’ Words. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.