Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English.

[Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.

Acocella taps into a theme current in much conservative criticism of educators. By giving up on drilling the young in “who and whom,” the argument goes, teachers are really oppressing them, under the guise of fostering their freedom and appreciating diversity. Meanwhile, these ivory-tower liberals wouldn’t be caught dead splitting an infinitive, and continue to enjoy the privileges that they deny their students. Liberals pretend to appreciate the great unwashed, but they themselves are never more than an hour out of the shower.

Some of this is just blanket “it’s all the fault of liberals” rhetoric, as when the old guard blames the New Deal for the Depression and the Great Society for urban poverty. Teachers, the complaint goes, must be to blame for ignorance. But there’s enough logic in Acocella’s remarks to merit some rebuttal. Do we do students a disservice by claiming that the double negative is a feature of their dialect, rather than a slatternly bad habit?

First principles first: the double negative really is a feature of a dialect. Suppose someone says to you: “He ain’t no fool.” You have two recourses: (A) you can scold her for using “ain’t,” which ain’t a word, and you can slap her again for saying that he ain’t no fool, which clearly, in the terms of symbolic logic, must mean that he is a fool, the opposite of the intended meaning. (The intended meaning that somehow came through loud and clear, despite the dialect.) Or (B) you can understand the sentence and answer in whatever way the subject’s degree of foolishness might require.

Now suppose someone says to you: “Il n’est pas un sot.” Again, there are several things you can say.

  1. “Hop off, frog.”
  2. “Je crois quand même qu’il est vraiment un sot!”
  3. “Huh?”
  4. “I’m sorry, but ‘sot’ isn’t a word. In fact, none of your words are words. And by using a double negative – both ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in the same verb phrase – you’ve inadvertently said ‘He is not a fool, not,’ which means that he is a fool. You need to study critical thinking.”

I’d probably say (3) in real life, and think of (2) later that night while I was falling asleep. (1) might cause an international incident, so that’s out. But (4) is hilariously absurd. Nobody corrects someone else for using their own language. You may hate the idea of escargot; you may still be calling your frites “Freedom Fries”; but even so, the French have a right to their own language, don’t they?

The people we don’t think have a right to their own language are people who speak our own differently from the way we do. Nobody’s embarrassed by cousin René when he starts speaking French, or even speaking English with that killer accent of his. But we’re embarrassed all the time by the way cousin Larry speaks: by his nonstandard syntax (even if it’s the syntax of Shakespeare); by his nonstandard vocabulary; by his regional accent (even when he’s speaking perfectly standard English in that accent).

“Non-standard” dialects of English are complete languages in the way that French is a complete language; regional accents are complete phonologies in the way that standard French is a complete phonology. It ain’t lazy or stupid to talk the way my grandfather talked, it’s plain different. Yet we disparage dialects, often in terms as seething and tendentious as those Acocella uses to disparage Hitchings’ arguments.

Why should that be? It’s essentially a social-class prejudice; as Bernard Shaw put it, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him,” and so for Americans and Australians and Irish people, for any in-group fractured into smaller in-groups. We are more inclined to despise the language use of our fellow Americans the closer it is to our own; such situations make us more anxious. Hence Bill Cosby’s beef with Black English:

You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…”

Hence the way my Slovak grandmother would despise other immigrant families in Chicago: not for speaking Slovak or Polish, in which she was fluent herself, but for speaking with accents, and displaying incomplete mastery of standard English inflections. “Listen to him!” she would say. “‘I was borned here.‘ He was born here, and he can’t even say ‘I was born here!'”

Obviously there is such a thing as incomplete knowledge of a language: just listen to me trying to speak anything but English, and you will get a vivid demonstration. But there are also people who move between or among the internally-coherent dialects of English with ease, and there are those who seem trapped within a certain dialect, never really mastering another. The former, the “code-switchers” as linguists call them, may owe their code-switching to innate ability, combined with accidents of birth and upbringing. The latter, however, monodialectal as well as monolingual, may be just as intelligent, just as capable of problem-solving, moral behavior, and philosophical meditation as those who move freely. It’s just that – to borrow Bill Cosby’s terms – they talk the same way on the corner as they talk in the house.

The pedagogical implications of these principles will have to wait for another blog post. But one thing is clear about what my colleague Jackie Stodnick calls “language-land”: it is a beautiful place, full of fluent speakers. It only starts to be ugly when we don’t perceive fluent speakers of dialects to be as intelligent, or as morally competent, as speakers of whatever currently passes for the standard in our language.

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