Prescriptivism, Classism, Racism: Three Bad Ideas That Go Poorly Together

As many of you already know, I'm a linguist by training and vocation, as well as by avocation: I simply adore language and languages, always have. One of the first things one often hears when mentioning a background in linguistics is something along the lines of, "Don't you just hate it when people say $EXPRESSION? Wouldn't it be great if they had grammar?"

My answer is always, "Well, no, actually, I don't just hate it; I find all forms of my native English delightful in the most literal sense, that is, they delight me. And further, every language and dialect has a grammar. If they didn't, no one would understand anything anyone said, and they do, or they wouldn't be talking that way."

Because, like most linguists, I'm a fairly staunch descriptivist. In small words, what that means is that I believe language is what it is created to be, and that it changes, constantly, and that change in language is neither bad nor good: it simply is. As linguists, it's not our job to tell people what is or is not "good $LANGUAGE_NAME". It's our job to study how and why language is what it is.

This is where it might be useful to define terms a little bit.

A language, for our purposes, is a system of sounds, and rules for how those sounds should be used to convey meaning to another human being. Every single language that isn't specifically created for the hearing-impaired fits this definition.

A written form of a language is a system of marks and the rules for their use, intended to be a representation of the sounds and their rules. Note that these rules for mark-use may be very different from the rules for sound-use: the written form of "running" includes a "g", where the spoken form for many people in ordinary speech involves so such thing. The "i" in the last syllable is almost exclusively rendered as a schwa, a vowel which English uses constantly in unstressed syllables. Not being aware of these differences is a big part of what characterizes the speech of non-native speakers, what we call "foreign accents".

A dialect is a bit of a funny word, in linguistics. There's kind of a hazy point between when a language is splitting into dialects, and when the languages becomes separate, and this point is often defined for non-linguistic reasons. For a good example, see Serbian and Croatian, which share a huge similarity on many levels, but which are adamantly two languages, not dialects of the same one - for reasons historical, ethnic, and all kinds of non-linguistically-important grounds. And whenever we as progressives find ourselves making what should be objective decisions based on political or religious differences, we should see this as a red flag for likely non-progressive behaviour.

A grammar is, basically, the ruleset which tells the speaker how to organize the sounds used in the language so that meaning will be conveyed. Every language has one, by definition. EVERY language. This explicitly includes those "dialects" which are frequently derided, such as what I learned in university to call the "Black English Variant*", that variant which is labeled "talking 'hood", or whatever other it's been slapped with lately.

It's not news to any of you that this dialect of English (BEV) is widely derided as "having no grammar", and as being the speech of uneducated people and/or people living in poverty. It's not impossible that some of you even have held this view.

So, here's my bombshell for many of you: BEV has exactly as much of a grammar as the more "standard"** varieties we see used in the mass media. It is completely regular, has conjugations and infinitives and passives and every other little gem we love in language. It has rules for how to neologize (create new vocabulary), and those rules are well-enough understood that, for instance, new songs performed in it don't need subtitles for native speakers, as they would if the language didn't include those rules.

It does not limit its speakers linguistically (but I don't think I need to tell anyone here how it can limit its speakers socially/in the work sphere/in education/et c., because of prejudice and bigotry); how could a thriving and vibrant community be making movies and music in it if it did?

Being a fully-fledged language/dialect in its own right, it can be easily seen that it is so by the fact that many of its native speakers are able to code-switch into and out of it with as much ease as any child of a bilingual home. As with any bilingual home, there are usually social rules about when code-switching should be done, which I'm sure at least some of our Shakers of colour and/or immigrant Shakers could give us in moments, if they wanted to.

There are strong elements of classism in this too. When was the last time you gave an "Aw, shucks," and poorly imitated the speech mannerisms of people from the US' Appalachian region? When was the last time you laughed at Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel on The Simpsons?

By appropriating their dialect for use as allegedly "comic" fodder, we tell people who are native speakers of that dialect that they are less than we are, that they are inferior, unintelligent...and think for a moment: if you're thinking that kind of thought about a group of people for no other reason than the way they speak - which is quite simply and only a product of absorbing the language as humans do, by listening to the other humans around them - how are you not being a classic walking definition of the word "bigotry"?

When you deride someone else's use of English for its "failure" to adhere to the "standard" variety, it's not they who end up looking ignorant. Consider, next time, asking yourself about some "pet peeve" about a particular variety of English: Did the speaker achieve communication (the goal of language)? Were their goals achieved, in that you were able to understand what they said, their ideas successfully conveyed from their brain to yours? If so, then what grounds have you for complaint?

Remember that what are today dialects, in 200 or 500 or 1000 years, may be wildly divergent languages. That's how languages happen: groups of people, for various social and psychological reasons, alter their language slightly from the "standard", in order to express various identities. Over time, membership in that linguistic group becomes more and more isolated from people speaking the "standard" variety, and eventually, the standard and the variant become mutually unintelligible.

If, say, Nero had been able to successfully force everyone*** never to change language, all of us in the West would be speaking Latin. Not French, Italian, Spanish, or even a good chunk of English: just Latin.

Language changes; dialects exist. Neither of these things are inherently bad. The opprobrium they bear is only that with which our society chooses to freight them.

* My apologies to you all if this is no longer the apt term, and my gratitude in that case if someone can tell me what the most recent name is. Edit: Per several of you (and my thanks!), the accepted current term seems to be "AAVE", for African-American Variety of (or Vernacular?) English.

** And please note, again, that when you're talking about "standard" language, you're normativizing one group's dialect at the expense of another's. And that ain't real progressive.

*** Please note that this has never happened in the history of humanity, despite strong efforts by many, many people.

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