A few thoughts on language

In my earlier post I mentioned that I would do a little piece on Linda Darling-Hammond’s interview about the state of education. It is certainly a compelling read, but I am going to go in a different direction this weekend. Instead of touching on the important topic of the lack of educational success and its intimate relationship with poverty (which I am sure I will get into in the future) I am going to go in an entirely different direction.

As a former English teacher and journalism major, I love conversations about language. In fact, I believe that language and its uses act as the strongest forces that shape behavior, power, and oppression.

Consider the following quote:

“But that approach would also recognize that some forms of the language, while not inherently better than others, do carry more cachet, and that standard English — with all its stupid rules and irrational regulations — is still the form that’s used in the corridors of power. Refusing to use it will exclude you from those corridors, even though exclusion is often for dumb and prejudicial reasons.” -Jack Lynch in The Lexicographer’s Dilemma (2009)

I bring forth the quote because it captured the theme of the book and fascinated me. Earlier in the text, Lynch talked about how some of our discomforts with language are entirely arbitrary. He mentioned, for example, how middle-class and advantaged users of English often loathe the “language of the streets” and claim that using terms such as “diss” indicates a laziness that extends into not finishing entire words (like disrespect). Advantaged speakers make these proclamations while willingly and regularly using words like fridge (refrigerator), bus (omnibus), lab (laboratory), and so on. Thus, through the quote and the examples it is clear: language evolution happens, and being on the right side of language progression means inclusion while being on the wrong side means exclusion.

One might now ask me, “hey, you taught English, so what are you trying to say here?” My former students will definitely ask me,  “hey, why the hell did you make us do all those grammar exercises?” I admit, I hated teaching grammar, but I understood its importance. Our society selects, often because of reasons built on a shameful past, that there are arbitrary rules of the game. Better understanding these rules provides access to advantage, while ignoring them will lead to stigmatization and failure. If one uses “diss” instead of “disrespect” in a job interview, he or she will lower his chances to obtain work. I taught my students the rules because I wanted to help give them access.

However, and this point is more important than the last, I treated the post of providing grammar as a necessary evil. As mentioned earlier, language use is arbitrary and cultural. White, middle-class Americans will get away with using “bus” in a corporate memo, but they would have a harder time with “diss.” In fact, the spellchecker on this word processor just told me that one is a word, while the other is not. These are value-based attributions that are not unprecedented. American grammarians of the past made differences a point of pride and tried to codify these differences through behavior such as removing the “u” from words like colour. They did this to brand a form of the language that was unique from its origins. Most of us do not now hate Londoners when they use the different form.

Thus, I know I digressed a tad, but my point should be clear. Language evolves. The notion of a “correct grammar” is a misnomer because usage is arbitrary and has historically been a moving target. My take away message is to be cognizant of the value judgment traps that are easy to fall into when it comes to language and be mindful not to diss the people who do not speak the way you do.

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