Sunday, March 11, 2012

Of Prescriptivism and Privilege: Random Thoughts on "Grammar Nazis"

Last night, I was transcribing a debate in order to write the subtitles for a video I was working on and I came across a phrase that made me think. The theist in the debate proposed the existence of "a whole nother world". I was perplexed. In a strict sense, "nother" is not considered a word. But it IS a word. When we hear the phrase "a whole nother" everyone understands what it means; it's a synonym for "completely separate" or "completely different". Technically speaking, it's that word "another" with the word "whole" inserted as an infix in order to intensify it. In this way, it's similar to the phrase "abso-fucking-lutely". It got me thinking about our standards for "proper" grammar and whether or not those standards are justified by anything other than the expectations of the establishment.

When people say that there is a proper way to speak, this is called "prescriptivism" or "prescriptive grammar". It's very much accepted amongst educated people that there are certain rules we have to follow in order to "speak correctly". Many of us are told from a young age that we shouldn't split infinitives, use double negatives or say words like "ain't". When we asked why, we are given the explanation that we should follow these rules because people will take us more seriously, professionals and academics speak "properly" and because, well, that's "just the way it is". The more I study language, the less sure I am that prescriptivism or "grammar-nazism" is a valid position. I'm in no way a language expert, but I can't help but notice some rather concerning implications of grammatical prescriptivism.

1. What is Language For?

Language is, first and foremost, a method of communication. It's purpose is to convey information from one person to another, or, in some cases, from a person to an animal or from a person to a machine. Language develops and evolves based on what people say and how they say it. There is no "language god" that hands down our syntax, morphology or phonology. Like biological evolution, linguistic conventions arise out of combinations of and variations on older conventions. New languages form when two or more languages meet, or when speakers of a single language are dramatically isolated for a significant period of time. Because of the fluidity of language, it seems silly and unjustified to me to say that one dialect is "better" or "more proper" than another. To call a modern variation of english "bad english" appears similar to calling Spanish "bad Latin". After all, Spanish came about as a combination of what was called "vulgar latin" and the other languages that existed in the region in which Spanish developed. This same phenomenon occurs in English constantly. You may have heard of "creoles" spoken in certain areas of the United States or of African American Vernacular English, considered by some to be a semi-creole. The strictest of grammar nazis would call these dialects "bad english", but I must reiterate, this seems no more logical or defensible than calling Spanish "bad latin".

2. Let's face it. By "Proper English", You Mean "White English".

Have you ever thought critically about the "grammar rules" you're told to follow? Have you ever ever told by a "grammar nazi" or in school that you must change the word "she" to "her" following a transitive verb because english is a nominative-accusive language? You may have heard this in a linguistics class, but otherwise, you probably don't need to be told that if you're a native speaker. Rules like those are what differentiates english from other languages and thus, are what constitutes english grammar. However, when talking about "good grammar", we're usually talking about "no double negatives" and such rules. But let's think about that example for a moment.

There are dialects of english in which double negatives are used and understood. Generally, they are used in the African American Vernacular and in urban settings. Yet, in order to be taken seriously by the establishment, people raised to speak those dialects are forced to learn to speak as would a white, upper class male. For this reason, I believe that "grammar" is one of the strongest and most invisible examples of privilege in our society. I've heard that point made that "proper grammar" is not considered more acceptable because its "white", but instead because it's professional and academic. My point still stands. In the past, the "professional" and academic worlds were dominated by upper-class white males. It makes perfect sense that their dialect would be the one considered the most acceptable in those circles.

This is not a criticism of the entirety of academia as being a "white male" field. The scientific method does well to eliminate potential biases in academia. However, while scientific theories are subject to peer review, the culture of academia is not. The language of the professional and academic world is a part of that culture. We must not forget that fact. It is just as unfair to judge someone's intellect based on their dialect as it is to do so based on their skin color.

3. Is There Anything Useful About Prescriptivism? 

The only reason I can see as even remotely legitimate in favor of prescriptivist grammar is the assertion that, if everyone speaks in a similar manner, it's easier to understand each other. In fields such a science, accurate communication is incredibly important. I don't exactly know what the solution is to this conundrum. Even if that is a legitimate reason to establish universal grammatical rules, I still don't see the reason why that standard has to be determined by the privileged majority. This is clearly an area for discussion and, quite frankly, I wish I heard more of that on this topic. At this point, I think the most important thing we should do is the same thing we do when we hear any widely accepted assertion. The next time someone says that your grammar isn't "good", ask them what they mean by "good".

Note: I mean for this entry to only address speaking. I feel like writing is another can of worms that I'm not talking about here. Thanks.

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