quick hit: a linguists delight

CaitieCat @ Shakesville blogged last Friday about prescriptivism, classism, racism, otherwise known as three bad ideas that go poorly together. She writes
As many of you already know, I'm a linguist by training and vocation, as well as by avocation: I simply adore language and languages, always have. One of the first things one often hears when mentioning a background in linguistics is something along the lines of, "Don't you just hate it when people say $EXPRESSION? Wouldn't it be great if they had grammar?"

My answer is always, "Well, no, actually, I don't just hate it; I find all forms of my native English delightful in the most literal sense, that is, they delight me. And further, every language and dialect has a grammar. If they didn't, no one would understand anything anyone said, and they do, or they wouldn't be talking that way."

Because, like most linguists, I'm a fairly staunch descriptivist. In small words, what that means is that I believe language is what it is created to be, and that it changes, constantly, and that change in language is neither bad nor good: it simply is. As linguists, it's not our job to tell people what is or is not "good $LANGUAGE_NAME". It's our job to study how and why language is what it is.

As a kid who struggled to see the point of standardized spelling ("but you know what I mean!" I would always point out stubbornly to my mother) I have always felt unjustly criticized by people schooled in more mainstream, socially acceptable American and/or British English for not using "correct" spelling and/or grammar. So I have to say, the five-year-old child in my soul was particularly delighted by this passage
When you deride someone else's use of English for its "failure" to adhere to the "standard" variety, it's not they who end up looking ignorant. Consider, next time, asking yourself about some "pet peeve" about a particular variety of English: Did the speaker achieve communication (the goal of language)? Were their goals achieved, in that you were able to understand what they said, their ideas successfully conveyed from their brain to yours? If so, then what grounds have you for complaint? [emphasis original]

Amen. And go check out the whole post over at Shakesville.


  1. I am split on this issue. Part of me loves that there is the potential in language to be creative and use words, grammar and spelling differently.

    But I work in Higher Education, more specifically in careers information. Part of what we do is helping students to apply for jobs and there is a certain way to write a CV for example. Conformity in format is valued. I think part of it is to show that you can follow rules and instructions. Even when jobs require creative and unusual thinking the recruiter needs to be able to understand the applicant's skills/ experiences/ education etc.

    With CVs/ Resumes there is always an issue with judgement and prejudice. To me following grammatic or linguistic rules when writing one is a small concession compared to the many other ways we may (need to) conceal our individuality in the workplace.

    Also I must admit that I, personally, like such rules. It makes my life easier to know how I am expected to spell something or whatever. It doesn't mean that I am always able to (or want to) follow them, but it's comforting to me to know that they are there.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, soirore!

    I agree that the issue is complicated and multi-layered. As you point out, conformity in language is closely associated with social and economic power in our culture -- knowing how to use the grammar of the dominant culture opens doors for us in lots of ways. As someone who is in the process of putting together a professional CV and looking for post-graduate school jobs, I'm acutely aware of this.

    At the same time, I think too often this connection between grammar and privilege is ignored for what it is: something we (as a society) have chosen to enforce. It's not an objective reality, it's not a "natural" relationship. Too often, people who correct other folks' grammar or speech turn it into a judgment of that person's intellectual abilities or character -- rather than talking about it in the context of playing by the rules of the folks in power to get what you want (to put it totally crassly).

    It's not the existence of such conventions that frustrates me -- it's the way we have obscured the fact of their creation over time, the fact that they are contextual rather than some inherent linguistic "right."