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I am looking for an alternative to the word nonstandard (if necessary). I used the word in my answer to a question at Academia SE.

Let me first lay out the context. The question I was offering an answer to was

I just had a lecture from someone who has been a senior scientist (and has completed a PhD, post-doc) at a hospital for already 15 years. So I'm assuming this person is experienced in giving talks in English. However, almost one out of three words was completely unintelligible because of a very strong Spanish accent where every word gets morphed into a Spanish-English hybrid word.

I spoke to two people after the lecture and they both said they couldn't follow along because of the strong accent. The questions after the talk were also not about the lecture but about the speaker's field. My impression is that the talk was a waste of time for the two dozen people present.

Now I wonder if the speaker is aware of this problem, my guess is no and as such I feel the need to bring this to the speaker's attention. If it was me I'd very much like to know that I have a problem communicating because I feel like a lack of communication skills can be a very serious barrier to being a good scientist but I don't know if she feels the same way.

My plan is to use an anonymous email address to send this feedback, sandwiched between two compliments to avoid coming off as a negative person.

The answer I offered was

This might be productive in a direct conversation, if you are able to establish rapport, and if you can steer the conversation in a productive direction. You could start by asking her to clarify some key point you were interested in. Stop her as soon as there's something you don't understand, and if necessary ask her to spell the word you don't understand. The goal at this point is to succeed in communicating with each other.

If you are able to accomplish that, then you could say

"Thanks for clarifying that point. That is really interesting for me. I didn't understand what you said on that point during the lecture -- to tell you the truth, I was only able to get the meaning of some of what you said, and that made it hard for me to follow the arc of the presentation. I'm not very good at understanding nonstandard accents. So I have to rely heavily on the visual with a lot of speakers. Your slides about (topic B) helped me a lot, because they had a lot of detail."

That is a conclusion that helps the speaker move forward in a positive direction.


Additional notes.

Often one needs to crank up the belief in oneself in order to get through the PhD and other hurdles in academia. This sometimes leads one to a slightly Aspergeresque attitude of "I can find the words I need to express myself; mission accomplished; I'm not interested in how well other people are understanding me." Step one is to establish rapport.

Sometimes this rapport can result in the stronger English speaker having some influence over the other. Sometimes it results in the stronger English speaker getting tuned into the other's speech patterns better, and perhaps also developing empathy for what has led the other to his or her current state of mediocre English. This happened to me with respect to my advisor. For the most part I'm one of those people who finds horrible English, or horrible French, or horrible Spanish, excruciating, like chalk going the wrong way on a blackboard; and it continues to torment me later like a stuck song (ear worm). Once my empathy with my advisor was established, certain patterns, such as his tendency to omit words, got a lot less on my nerves.

In this comment, an Academia SE participant wrote

I had the same reaction against "nonstandard." It's not really a big deal, but I think it has a very slight moralizing overtone, since it associates "English I can understand" as "standard" and "English I can't understand" as "nonstandard." The trouble isn't whether it's normal/standard/acceptable/correct/whatever, the trouble is that you, and perhaps some other listeners, can't understand it. NBD, but I'd personally choose another word, especially when it's a touchy subject already as OP notes.

My question here: In this context, does the word "nonstandard" bump up the potential offensiveness of the approach I suggested in my answer? If so, please propose an emotionally neutral alternative.

For reference, Random House defines nonstandard as follows:

  1. not standard.

  2. not conforming in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc., to the usage characteristic of and considered acceptable by most educated native speakers.

(In my Academia answer, I was not using the term in a specialized linguistics sense, and if anyone wants to discuss that, it would be much appreciated if they would do it in a separate question.)

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    I would have to partially agree with the comment; "nonstandard" does come across a little judgey. I think the comment that suggested "certain" is helpful. – Hank Oct 4 '17 at 14:27
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    I think it's extremely misleading of your cited SE participant to suggest that nonstandard associates with "English I can't understand". In fact, I'd say it's completely the opposite - we tend to apply that label to constructions where the meaning is obvious, but the exact form of the utterance isn't one "mainstream" speakers would usually use (and specifically, would avoid in contexts where they wouldn't like their linguistic competence to be called into question). Note that linguists tend to use marked, but this usually has a slightly different significance. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '17 at 14:50
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    You could give more context to make this more accessible. Here on ELU, 'nonstandard' is almost always applied to usages, whether syntactic or semantic. There is the problem that what one person labels non-standard, another may label slang and another dialect. It has been explained before on ELU that the term 'non-standard' is ill-defined anyway. M-W quite correctly gives the broader definition: << not conforming in pronunciation, grammatical construction, idiom, or word choice to ... – Edwin Ashworth Oct 4 '17 at 15:08
  • the usage generally characteristic of educated native speakers of a language >> This may be true of someone's speech, but would certainly come across as condemnatory; claiming a particular usage used by someone to be non-standard is nowhere near as damning. But there are again grey areas; who decides what should be labelled non-standard as opposed to dialect phonology? – Edwin Ashworth Oct 4 '17 at 15:11
  • As somebody who often speaks standard English to reasonably fluent speakers of English as a foreign language, I regard non-standard English as something I can usually understand but non-native speakers frequently cannot and where I can provide an English-English interpretation service – Henry Oct 4 '17 at 17:00
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Use of "nonstandard accents" implies there is a "standard accent".
Is there? Which is it? Does most everybody agree on it being the standard?

If the answer to any of those questions is "no", and if you care about not offending other people (however irrelevant the offending point might seem), then I agree that alternatives like "certain accents" or maybe "unfamiliar accents" are more neutral, and so would serve a better purpose in establishing that rapport you very appropriately talked about in your answer.

Just for the record: today, saying that there is such a thing as a "Spanish standard accent" would be fairly offensive to 90% of native Spanish speakers (and there's half a billion of us).
Sure, some accents are understood better by some people, some accents are seen as more "intellectual" etc. -- but to put one above the other would be disrespectful. There is a fair agreement over all Spanish academies, that every Spanish variant is as Spanish as any other.

I'm sure any Mexican would be as mad if I told them their accent was "nonstandard" as I would if they told me the same.
I can only guess that the same applies to English speakers.

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    Use of non-standard implies there are one or more standards, and neither of them is adhered to. Your example of Spanish is a good example. I can come up with a gross misspelling of common Spanish words, such that all those Spanish academies will agree that it's not proper Spanish by any standard. – MSalters Oct 6 '17 at 11:16
  • @MSalters But we're not talking about spelling, we're talking about pronunciation, about accents. Are there recognized standard accents in English? Is the Texas accent more or less standard than the New Maine accent? California vs Alabama? New York vs London? How about Aussie accent? Is Indian accent officially shunned as "nonstandard"? – walen Oct 6 '17 at 12:27
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    You also have to remember that we’re not talking about Texas or California accents here. Those will all be considered at least somewhat standard, though departing to various degrees from the most standard dialects. We’re talking about a non-native speaker’s accent. If I spoke Spanish and pronounced everything as though I were reading Chinese out loud, I can guarantee you that no Spanish speaker would consider it ‘standard’, or indeed be able to understand a word of what I said. The same goes for English. Standardness is gradual, but at some point, most people will agree that something → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 7 '17 at 8:53
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    → is definitely standard, and at another point, they will agree that something is definitely not standard. Incidentally, in English it doesn’t really matter that much whether we’re talking about spelling or pronunciation, since English spelling is no more regulated than its pronunciation. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 7 '17 at 8:54
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    Thanks, walen, I'm going to go with "unfamiliar accents." This puts the focus squarely on me, the listener, and not on the speaker. And it will hopefully sound less judgmental. – aparente001 Nov 4 '17 at 12:53
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Excellent question, because it is hits a lot of issues with disparagement, taboo, euphemism (and its treadmill).

Sure, any word has its natural strength of elicited emotional response. 'Grass' is pretty neutral, 'fat' some could argue is descriptively neutral but nobody likes to be heard called that, 'bastard' seems always disparaging even if it has a non-judgmental literal meaning, 'shit' will have your grandmother annoyed or actively tell you to watch your language, and there are further words that will have her slap you.

There are a number of words to describe how... hm... how to put this tactfully... how much of a member of ... the ... no... a group. No judgment on those in or out of the group. Just inside or outside. There's 'minority' (If in fact that group is smaller. There's 'normal' but that seems judgmental. 'Average' is so clinical, yet has its own problems. Neurologists use neuro-typical and -atypical for people towards the tails of behavioral spectra (eg autism).

The British use 'received' (as in 'Received Pronunciation") as some radically misdirection by metonymy or implied absence or ... I don't know what. What's being received? Who is giving and who taking? Never mind, I don't think that's really part of it.

Anyway, all these alternatives for someone who doesn't speak like you could be problematic simply because they point out a difference, and the concept of the difference is a problem. And to different extents, the messenger, the word that is used to label the difference, can be blamed or accrue varying degrees of the emotional baggage of the concept.

For pronunciation (and other aspects of language), the first descriptor people use is 'right/wrong' or 'correct/incorrect'. For example, "It is incorrect to pronounce 'wash' as 'warsh'". This is how we think school teachers tell us how to conform to a particular variety. It has the force of such schoolteachers, which usually translates to shaming. And even on sites like ELU there is a slight tendency to fall back on that elementary and tendentious language.

But the alternatives are like those above. Normal? Average? Minority might work but has its connotation problems and also may not be literally true. Informal? That's often the case and is not terribly judgmental, but may not be actually in fact true.

The word usually used to describe this is 'non-standard'. 'Standard' is what people are 'expected' to speak. It is the most euphemistic so far. There may be others, but this is the word to use. I think I'd be pretty upset if someone told me I speak atypically. Even if it is true. That's pretty clinical. If it comes across as judgmental... maybe it's the messenger, or maybe it's the message.

  • How would you feel if someone said you speak nonstandard X? Where X is some language that you speak a little bit, but with an accent that makes it hard for people to understand you? – aparente001 Oct 4 '17 at 21:28
  • @aparente001 Exactly. It's feel bad. But is it the word or the implications? Could be the word. It'd sound much much worse to say 'you speak bad English'. What about 'you speak an interesting variety of English.'? 'Nonstandard' is closer to 'interesting than it is to 'bad'. – Mitch Oct 4 '17 at 22:56
  • When I wrote, "I'm not very good at understanding nonstandard accents," I meant, "I'm not very good at understanding people whose English pronunciation is significantly different from the norm." It was intended to un-point a finger of blame that the other person might have imagined was aimed at her. Would "atypical" be better? – aparente001 Oct 5 '17 at 0:52
  • @aparente001 The word 'fat' by itself is mostly neutral (not totally, but certainly not taboo). But to call someone that to their face is hurtful. To say to someones face that they pronounce 'atypically' might be taken as a clinical statement, or could easily be understood that the speaker is euphemising for 'you talk bad'. "I'm the one with the accent? No you are!" You're looking for a way to say that you didn't understand without placing blame on them. I think a simple adjective is too simple for that. – Mitch Oct 5 '17 at 13:27
  • @aparente001 I don't think 'atypical' would work either (is it that individual or is it their minority group?). But to the social context, you might want to redirect the blame to yourself. "I'm not from around here". – Mitch Oct 5 '17 at 13:31
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It is quite straight-forward and could by some still be seen as judgemental/confrontational but I would suggest just using 'accented' instead of 'nonstandard'.

Of course in the suggestion you linked it was explicitly modifying the word 'accents', like so:

I'm not very good at understanding nonstandard accents.

and 'accented accents' obviously makes no sense, so I would have just omitted the word in this context.

  • Everyone has an accent - which ones are non-standard? – Azor Ahai Oct 4 '17 at 18:53
  • I think you're suggesting "I'm not very good at understanding accented English. Is that right? Now let's see if people think that has less of a bite than "nonstandard English." – aparente001 Oct 6 '17 at 3:41
  • I am suggesting leaving out nonstandard entirely and just calling it accented, yes. – Mara Oct 6 '17 at 4:16
  • What classifies one as accented then? Every English speaker has their own accent. – NVZ Oct 6 '17 at 7:51
  • Everybody is accented, sure. With a language as widespread as English there won't be a region where people speak the unaccented English. However, speakers have gradations of accent that put them a specific distance away from 'baseline English'. In the context of the question, if somebody is complaining about somebody's accent then it would be implied that this distance is significant to cause hindrance (to this particular listener anyway). – Mara Oct 6 '17 at 7:55
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Webster says that nonstandard is:

2 : not conforming in pronunciation, grammatical construction, idiom, or word choice to the usage generally characteristic of educated native speakers of a language

and Google says

not average, normal, or usual.

  • (of language) not of the form that is accepted as standard.

This definition does not add any good or bad connotation onto it, it simply states that the spoken form is not the usual or average.

Although the actual word has no connotation, the lack of popular usage may cause people to stop and wonder why that word was chosen.

  • -1 : For your statement "this definition does not add any good or bad connotation onto it" Connotations are not necessarily listed in the dictionary, that doesn't mean that they don't exist or are not relevant. – Azor Ahai Oct 4 '17 at 18:54
  • This is correct, but they do use other words to describe connotations. No such words with these connotations were used in the definition, as stated in my point. Not really a valid reason to downvote. – Marshal Oct 5 '17 at 3:31

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