English As She Is Spoke

07/23/2012 11:28 am ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

Written by Rosina Lippi Green

In discussions about language, prescriptive types generally scorn academic linguists; they see us as language anarchists who reject the very idea of rules. In fact, any linguist will tell you that all human language is structured and rule governed. What linguists and anthropologists object to are pronouncements about good and bad language which are founded in aesthetics, fashion, or prejudice, but served up as objective truths with a side order of superiority. Less important (but still irritating) is the way many prescriptivists get wound up in inane controversies about punctuation, which has nothing to do with spoken language, but still will be filed under "proper grammar."

Prescriptivists can be purposefully obtuse and more than bellicose when arguing a position. Geoff Nunberg provides a concise overview of prescriptivism from Safire's non-political and "almost ostentatious civility" to examples of John Simon's "We Who Know Better" nastiness, which is certainly at least part of the reason linguists generally don't let themselves be drawn into public debates on words like "hopefully," as in "Hopefully they'll calm down soon." But there are a courageous few who will challenge the more extreme prescriptivist claims. And then there are sociocultural linguists/anthropologists, which is my field.

Sociocultural linguists are actually interested in prescriptivism. What people believe about language as a social and cultural good is important, because those beliefs have significant influence on individual behaviors and institutional policies, which in turn have repercussions that extend deep into the personal lives of many.

Any challenge to the idea of one proper, unchanging, homogenous variety of English is understood as a challenge to all kinds of authority and the very fabric of society. A classic example of this comes from a public debate about language in California's schools in the mid-1960s. The Superintendent of Public Instruction was quoted as saying, "Correct English just has to be taught to the next generation unless we want a replay of the Tower of Babel bit around 1984." Such prophesies are quite common, but the threatened collapse of society as we know it has yet to happen. This dire prediction might be dismissed as dramatic exaggeration, if it weren't so common. Those who grant themselves the authority to decide what is proper and acceptable in language have very effective -- if fallacious -- talking points:

1. Critics like John Simon and the Superintendent of Instruction want you to believe that language is complicated and requires a strong hand to be kept in line, as do its speakers. Without their watchful attention, things will descend into chaos.

2. Without much effort, they convince you that your pronunciation of "often" or the way you conjugate "to be" is wrong. They will call on history and logic to back them up, and then ignore contrary but verifiable facts when you bring them to the table.

3. They want you to believe that the variety of English you're speaking will never be taken seriously, and neither will you, if you don't lose it. What they don't say clearly is that they -- and others like them -- will be the ones to exclude you. They could just as easily say "Be/talk more like us, or we'll bar the door to you."

The implied promise is that if you are willing to be linguistically (and culturally) assimilated into their Borg-like view of the world, you will gain a protective shield; people will listen to you, take you seriously, and you will not be unfairly judged. This is easily disproved by a simple test. Ask any person of color if speaking English like a news broadcaster is enough to isolate them from racism. Ask any immigrant from Asia who has spent thousands of dollars on accent reduction courses if getting closer to native speaker pronunciation is the key to being accepted.

The reasoning seems to be that social and cultural equality is out of our reach, not because we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge and accept difference, but because we haven't yet been successful at eliminating difference.

Rosina Lippi Green earned her MA and PhD at Princeton and then spent ten years on the faculty of the University of Michigan, first as an assistant and then associate tenured professor. Currently she works as a communications consultant and independent scholar. She is best known for "English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the U.S." the second expanded, revised edition of which came out in January 2012 with Routledge Books, and for her novel "Homestead," which won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1999.