The case against language policing and grammar snobbery

I’m an avid listener of podcasts. As there’s more good stuff to listen to than I have time for, I’ve also become a collector of podcasts. That’s why I only now listened to an old episode of Talk the Talk discussing „grammar elitism“. (The podcast has since been renamed to Because Language — I really feel caught up in the past now, thanks.)

I highly recommend to treat yourself to the whole episode — it’s both entertaining and inspiring. Especially Daniel has a way to put things that really speaks to me, so I’ll take that as a starting point for a short ramble into the topic of „correct language“.

People talk in different ways. That’s okay. Actually, it’s rather cool.

I’m a bit amazed (and shocked) that the subject hasn’t been treated properly in this blog (only in passing) as it’s one quite close to my linguist heart. Let me explain.

Linguists are often met with the idea that they are the wise elderly judges of language in whom is invested the power to part the good from the bad, when actually they’re engaging in something much less authoritarian: Linguists do not seek to affect language, they analyse it. They look at how people use language and how it works. Contrary to widely held belief, we do not judge or want to instruct people how to speak. In fact, almost the opposite: The more diverse, the more interesting.

The fancy term for this approach is descriptivism. Its counterpart is prescriptivism, which is concerned with what’s correct. Linguists tend to mock this approach to language. But obviously, it has its justification and place: When you want to learn a language, you need some guidance on what’s considered correct.

Apart from being more scientific, a descriptivist mindset also doesn’t risk to be descending. This comes across very well in the podcast when Daniel recounts the story of an encounter with Gus, a working class guy who complimented him on the podcast, although it probably „not being for people like him“.

The problem with grammar snobbery and with language policing is that it puts people like Gus at a disadvantage for no good reason. If they want to get ahead, they have to learn to speak with a voice that they don’t feel is authentically their own. (14:55)

The way anyone speaks (and spells) is not connected to how intelligent someone is; rather, it has a lot to do with access to education and affiliation with a group.

But… This would mean that all ways of speaking are equally fine!?

Well, yes. They are. There’s many varieties, among them dialects (regional varieties), registers (formal/informal varieties) and sociolects (social group varieties). They all have the same value, though they might be associated with greater or lesser prestige in society (that’s sociolinguistics for you, dear reader).

The standard is the variety that is generally accepted and used for public communication — like Received Pronunciation in the UK or Hochdeutsch in German speaking countries. Often, the standard variety is to a certain degree artificial, a speech form based on the variety of powerful classes, enriched with some characteristics of other varieties.

Now you might ask: Is everything relative??? Is there no such thing as „good English“!?!? Do we have to „dumb down“ language and accept all errors as equally good?!?? What is this celebration of mediocrity!!1!??

Well, the argument isn’t one for abandoning all conventions. It’s about seeing the limits of them: Conventions are useful, but they only take us so far. Many roles in society are associated with certain norms. Correct grammar and writing are, for example, a marker of professionalism. Rather than getting rid of useful conventions, it’s about acknowledging the valuations attached to them. Insisting on norms just to shut people off cannot be their purpose. Descriptivism is not a plea for „anything goes“, but a reminder that conventions are human-made rather than imposed by nature.

The podcast ends with a clever note on how to handle this dialectic:

The way we communicate matters. But we’ve got to approach this from two angles: Fight language policing, because that harms people — but at the same time help people become good code switchers, because then they can play the game. (38:55)

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