Bi(s)on or Bi(z)on?

Discrimination comes in all forms. Kellam Barta, a lecturer in the English department, is developing a group to address discrimination based on something many don’t take into account: language.

“People talk in different ways,” Barta said, “and we’re all aware of that — but there are a lot of negative attitudes about different dialects, accents, vernacular.”

Kellam Barta hopes NDSU Language Diversity Ambassadors will help spread awareness of issues in language diversity.

Barta gave a talk at TEDx Fargo, highlighting that there is no “correct” version of English. So-called “incorrect” versions of English often demonstrate their own patterns of usage, even if they aren’t officially recognized in grammar guides.

“Attitudes about the way people speak tend to reflect underlying attitudes toward the group of people speaking in that manner,” Barta said, “so negative attitudes about black varieties of English, or the way young women speak, or southern dialects, stem from the fact that such groups are already marginalized in some way.”

Essentially, it is important for people who speak “prestige” varieties of English to respect differences — not deficits — in other ways of speaking.

At North Carolina State, where Barta got his MA in sociolinguistics, he led a group called Diversity Ambassadors, which focused on outreach into the community to give talks about language variation. “Our job was to spread awareness that attitudes about accents and dialects are essentially unfounded,” Barta said.

Barta hopes to emulate NC State’s Diversity Ambassadors here at NDSU, and recently co-founded the NDSU Language Diversity Ambassadors with Megan Even, a fellow lecturer.

The goal for NDSU’s group is the same: dispel the myths of inferiority, or the ideas that individuals are “lesser” or less educated based on the ways they speak by developing and giving talks, in both classrooms and the community.

“Even highly educated individuals sometimes discriminate based on language, more than they would by race, color, gender, class or creed,” Barta said. “People recognize that it’s wrong to discriminate based on those factors, but for some reason language and dialect isn’t on everyone’s radar.

“But for some reason it still seems more acceptable to make fun of someone because they have an Appalachian dialect, or to think someone is less intelligent if they have a southern accent or speak slowly.”

Just because someone says (hold onto your hats, now) “bi(s)on” instead of “bi(z)on” doesn’t make them wrong, it’s just different. And to be fair, the rest of the country with their ‘s’ sounds sort of outnumber this geographical area.

“This is something that could be valuable to any classroom,” Barta noted, “not just language classes. The idea that someone speaking a dialect is somehow failing to speak ‘correctly’ should be addressed for anyone entering the workforce.”

Any students interested in getting involved with the club are encouraged to contact kellam.barta@ndsu.edu.

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