Them’s Fightin’ Words

Highfalutin’ – October 2010

by Elijah Gjeltema

Of all topics that rouse our passions, language is one of the most democratic. It may be the most popular subject behind “politics” and “kids these days” among literate folk. Perhaps it’s because it is woven into experience of the world in such a fundamental way – it is the most cerebral way we interact. It’s like an old friend, and like old friends, we get attached to it. Too attached, sometimes. For many, using language improperly is more than just distracting or irritating, it’s Wrong.  So wrong, in fact, that we don’t think twice when someone says they’d like to strangle someone for using “infer” rather than “imply.”  In 2008, two touring “grammar vigilantes” were arrested at the Grand Canyon for defacing a historical sign whose transgressions include misplaced apostrophes and a description of an “emense westward view” of the canyon. [The word is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary as an old and not uncommon variant of “immense.”] Perhaps police investigators should start a “pedant registry” – if rhetoric is any indication, angry language mobs should be the usual suspects in any case involving the interpersonal application of violence.

Language purists in France are so dedicated to their self-appointed knightly role that they established the Académie française to protect the vulnerable French language from the corrupting forces of the world. Members of this illustrious cabal are actually granted the title of “immortals.” Many English speakers pine for a similar establishment to safeguard our mother tongue against the blood-curdling horrors of “late-nite drive-thrus” and the like. In the absence of such an elite department, we have to settle for the codified wisdom of a few self-appointed sages. Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style form the core of the canon. Their proclamations have protected generations of English readers from the insidious split infinitive [present in the English language since at least as early as the biblical translator John Wycliffe, in the 14th century] and the pernicious passive voice [though just what the passive voice is they do not seem to know themselves]. More recently, Lynne Truss found success with her “zero tolerance” punctuation manifesto Eats, Shoots & Leaves in which she condemns, among others, those who misplace apostrophes: such sinners “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave”.

Language sticklers are, I think, basking in a sort of self-satisfied feeling that they and the language they use are civilized and proper. Stickling is a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. This superior attitude is justified, you see, because anyone, after all, can just go out and learn the rules. Those who don’t do so must be either lazy or unintelligent and hence deserving of scorn and punishment. I believe this attitude, though superficially defensible as encouraging adherence to lofty intellectual standards, is in fact a kind of discriminatory thought just as low, base, and unjustified as any other. Indeed, it is often a kind of camouflage for less socially acceptable forms of prejudice: it is often claimed that the Black English pronunciation of “ask” as [æks] is sign of profound laziness. Of course, switching the /k/ and /s/ sounds is hardly a reduction in speech effort, so accusations of sloth are wildly misplaced. But more importantly, this kind of attitude is nothing more than racism wearing a fake moustache – judgment based on pronunciation is no more legitimate than judgment on skin color. No one calls the English lazy for leaving out /r/ sounds. This sneaky meanness is not obvious. The masses of grammar snobs hardly realize the dark side of their craft. The disguise is an excellent one. Even the wolf thinks he’s a sheep.

In the Southwest, of course, we’ve had our own history with language discrimination masquerading as high-minded “education” incentives. Native American children sent to boarding schools were beaten for uttering a few words of their mother tongue under the pretense that it would spur them to learn English more quickly – it was good for them, you see, because it helped them to learn the more civilized, better language. But what makes a language better, really? Is it adherence to artificial, pompous decrees of Right and Wrong? I think it is something else – expressiveness, variety, and authenticity. Language is an identity marker. That is precisely why it is such an easy tool for discrimination. But it is a good thing, as well – the way we talk and the things we say reflect our rich and diverse experiences. Variation is not something to be stamped out, shunned, or stifled; it should be celebrated and cherished.

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