Word of Meth
The politics of “Proper English”


This post is the second of two articles looking at linguistic prescriptivism and the politics around it. You might want to read the first one… first.   


“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government” That quote comes from Noah Webster, the early nineteenth-century lexicographer who compiled An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster filled his dictionary with rebellious new spellings in a deliberate act of defiance against English and Englishmen. It wasn’t a complete revolution, of course. British English and American English eventually re-established speaking terms, and, today the transatlantic tongue remains the world’s dominant political language. Maybe language is Britain’s last empire? Maybe I’m dramatizing the situation in order to give this post some memorable soundbites? Anyway, point is: though it’s not immediately obvious, language and linguistics can be extremely political.

In a previous piece I took issue with linguistic prescriptivism, the school of thought which opposes change to language and insists on strict adherence to the rules of “proper English”. I hope my previous piece succeeded in showing that “proper English” is really a construct which is neither perfect nor permanent, and in arguing for a more liberal and less rigid approach to language.

In this piece I want to discuss the insidious political ideas which drive prescriptivism. At its worst, I think prescriptivism is a form of classism, which promotes or condemns varieties of language based on the sort of people who typically speak them. In the absence of a rational linguistic agenda, many of the rules preached by prescriptivism become little more than arbitrary initiation tests; secret handshakes designed by an academic and social elite. People who fail to jump through these linguistic hoops – generally people who have not had the privilege of an upper class environment/education – are discredited or silenced, while the position of the privileged and powerful is consolidated.

Let’s pick on a particular prescriptivist value – the difference between “less” and “fewer” – and see how its prestige is unearned (if, as prescriptivists claim, prestige is rewarded to linguistic customs which are demonstrably better at communicating things than others). Technically, “fewer” should be used for countable nouns, such as oranges, while “less” should be used for mass nouns like “milk”. But what linguistic, communicatory purpose does upholding this distinction serve? “Less apples” is in no way ambiguous, and there’s no real need for two separate words anyway (after all, we can handle both “more oranges” and “more milk”). As a friend of mine recently said, “if you could tell what I meant, there was nothing wrong with how I said it”.

Another much-condemned feature of language is phonetic, rather than grammatical or semantic (which should already make you suspicious of the claim it poses a real threat to communication). The glottal stop, the sound people make when they don’t pronounce their t’s “properly”, is often deployed by the stars of comedy panel shows when they need to signpost that they’re pretending to be stupid or working-class. The glottal stop is also associated with laziness, although producing the sound is no easier than producing the “proper” t, the voiceless alveolar stop. As with misuse of “less”, the glottal stop itself is not a problem to communicating. But if the “proper” t is no better at communicating than its “improper” rival, why are some people so passionate about it? Purely and simply, it’s because that particular sound is lucky enough to be considered “proper English”.

Although, it’s not just luck. It’s no accident that the linguistic customs regarded as “Proper” or “Standard” are the ones most commonly associated with the politically, financially, and academically influential. The example of the rich and powerful is honoured as “the best” form of English, and all deviations from it, by comparison, become “improper”. Anyone who hasn’t been raised to speak with an upper class sociolect, or had the educational opportunity to “learn” it – almost as a second language – is accused of being “improper”. But as I hope I showed with my above examples, charges of linguistic, communicatory “improperness” are often rather spurious. The “improperness” being pointed at is usually a political/class identity which doesn’t conform to the typical upper class sociolect. So often, if you ridicule someone for poor grammar, you’re actually ridiculing them for their socio-economic background. This might be a good point to mention how issues of race are affected by all this. Look at the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, whose ability to speak English was questioned by George Zimmerman’s legal team. Look at the vile David Starkey, who, speaking after the 2011 London riots, claimed part of the cause was the prevalence of a variety of language he explicitly associated with “black culture”. Of course, a clear and universal language is ideal for certain matters (such as legal proceedings), but the fact this language must always be “Proper English” reveals a lot about which demographics the powerful wish to privilege, and which they wish to, by extension, devalue and delegitimize.

This isn’t to say that every grammarian is a sinister classist or racist. Certainly, it’s possible to be a “native” speaker of “proper” English who has no problem with those who aren’t. But the choice we make to uphold or ignore prescriptivist standards is always a political choice, which either strengthens or weakens “proper English”, and the clout of the “proper” people who speak it. Even teachers marking students’ work are performing a political service, smoothing out the creases of working-class sociolects and re-writing students until they become more “proper”. Some teachers may do this reluctantly, aware but not happy that their students will need to disguise their origins in order to sneak into socio-economic success. But since marking is done according to the often arbitrary standards of “proper English”, and since these standards, historically and presently, have been set by certain socio-economic groups, marking remains a political act, because it confirms the hold these groups have over the rest of us.

In my early teenage years, I trained myself to speak “properly”, and revelled in the self-appointed task of exposing the linguistic crimes of my friends and family. I look back at this obnoxious prescriptivism in much the same way I look at my old views on religion. I was an insufferable, capital-A Atheist, holding as dogmas the non-existence of God and the stupidity and iniquity of the religious. These former causes of mine were really self-promotion and prejudice disguised as self-righteousness, and I’m eager to ridicule them now. Helpfully, the twin horrors of aggressive atheism and prescriptivism have recently been married, almost beautifully, in the figure of Professor Richard Dawkins. In between his Islamophobia, his trivialization of child abuse, and his embarrassing misunderstanding of quite simple concepts from other academic disciplines, Dawkins tweets witty ripostes against those who tell him “your a dick”. (He doesn’t seem to realize that “your a dick” is now a meme, deliberately proliferated by critics who know how to annoy him.)

I confess that I still raise an eyebrow when I spot a stray apostrophe, and, like Pavlov’s dickhead, I internally tut when I hear a double negative. But I can’t act on this prescriptivist squirming without feeling guilty, because I’ve realized that it’s an ugly, politically-inflected nastiness which says more about my prejudices than it does about my linguistic tastes. Next time you go to correct someone’s grammar, ask yourself if you’re really improving their communication skills, of if you’re objecting to the person or their background. If the latter is true, think carefully before proceeding, or someone will tell you “your a dick”, and they’ll be absolutely correct.