Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This morning, as usual, I rolled out of bed to my computer and checked my RSS feeds. In doing so, this quote from a professor, taken from Sally Thomason’s latest post on the Language Log jumped out at me. Actually, that’s not true, it sprung into my heart, soothing my harrowed soul and putting as much of a smile as it could on my still-slumbering face. Here’s a bit of it:


I always emphasize that it’s not so much right and wrong, that people speak differently everywhere, but that there’s a certain amount of snobbery in knowing “standard usage” and adhering to it, like it’s a password that says, “I know the code, I have learned the secrets of this society of academics/lawyers/receptionists and can be trusted to behave appropriately.” I tell them they HAVE to learn it and know when to use it unless they want to shoot themselves in the foot on resumes and applications, but they don’t have to believe it’s God’s Preferred Way of Speaking English.
I’ve had more than one student come up to me after an ACT class and say, “You’re the first English teacher I’ve had who didn’t tell me my mother spoke like an uneducated hick,” or “This is the first time anyone’s explained why standard usage is important.”

It’s sad that pointless prescriptivism may keep these kids from top schools. But that’s why we absolutely HAVE to teach it to them, so they’re not fighting an uphill battle on the language front. They’re already at a disadvantage without the money, resources, and connections wealthy suburban Chicago students have in spades. It would be brutal not to teach them the “code” they need to pass the gatekeepers.

Laura Petelle (the author of this excerpt), you are, officially, my hero-of-the-day for February 9th, 2007. This all DESPERATELY needed to be said, and it sounds like you’re saying it, not just to Language Log, but the people for whom it counts.

Standard usage is just that, a standard of usage, but that term can be deceiving. Just because a language (or a dialect) is not the same as the accepted standard doesn’t mean it’s “sub-standard” or “uneducated”. Every dialect is grammatical, meaning that it conforms to its own specific grammar (and usually more frequently than the speech of those trying to use a “standard dialect”, and there are no “better” or “worse” dialects than any others. “Non-Standard” does not mean “sub-standard”, and I applaud Laura for teaching that.

Sadly, she’s right. Knowing the “whom“‘s of the standard dialect (of any language) can be seen as a showing of one’s social status, and a person who’s never been taught those sorts of things will be at a disadvantage due to a charming little set of social stigmas based on language use. So, as she says, we have to teach people the rules, but also let them know that it’s okay to ignore them at home. Just because I need to wear a tie to go to a wedding, doesn’t mean I should wear it at home while watching a movie. “Standard Usage” is a sociolinguistic tool, and although we need to know it, we don’t need to worship it.

So, Laura, if you’re out there reading this, you have my highest respects, and if you’re ever in the area, I’ll buy you a smoothie if you post your above comments outside the English department.

Don’t worry, though, they’re just across the courtyard from Linguistics. We’d have your back.



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