Standard English

May 26, 2011 Comments Off on Standard English

I had a great professor for two consecutive linguistics classes: Wisconsin Englishes followed by English Phonology. His personal brand of evangelism revolved around the idea of dialect discrimination; according to him, all dialects are created equal and yet everyone judges everyone else based on the way they speak. And a dialect can include different words (e.g. spider-burp juice), different syntax (“Pass me a beer once”), and “uneducated” phrases (ain’t), in addition to what most people think of as accents (that is, different ways of pronouncing the same words). I was converted 100%. According to Prof Raimy, there is no “right” way to speak, and everyone deserves to be treated the same way regardless of how they talk. At the same time, he showed us a video from the PBS series “Do You Speak American?” about an elementary school in L.A. which included a class called Academic English Mastery. The underlying idea is that kids shouldn’t be taught that their native dialect is stupid or worthless, but at the same time they will need to learn how to speak academic English in order to succeed in our dialect-discriminatory society. It’s a great clip. Of course, there’s quite a bit of disagreement over this whole thing: are we saying that black and Hispanic kids will only get ahead if they sound white? Surely that can’t be right.

But I argue that there needs to be a standard version of English, or at least a small continuum of standard. Look at writing. Students are (or are supposed to be) taught how to write well, according to a standard that allows some variation but not much. And that’s useful, because it means you can judge someone’s writing against someone else’s without having to take into consideration things like tone, level of formality, &c. It’s good for writing that isn’t supposed to be creative or unique, just functional, e.g. news articles, scientific studies, and academic papers. And the same thing needs to happen with spoken English, because the world is getting both too big and too small not to have a new lingua franca.

And English is already it. The profusion of just-enough-to-get-by versions of English alone should attest to that: Basic English, Globish, and Basic Global English are some examples. David Crystal, a linguist, even goes so far as to hypothesize that English is so widespread that it has taken on a life of its own, and will continue to be used for international communication, even if its “base” countries of the US and the UK lose their global prominence. With faster and faster transportation and communication, the different branches of companies, specialist communities, and political bodies can be located increasingly far away from each other—for example, in different countries—and need now more than ever to be able to communicate with each other, at a time when they are increasingly likely to speak different languages. The world as a whole should take steps to push English as a global language. And America should push Standard English as a national language.

Oooooh, I can hear the outrage. How dare you! Advocating Standard English means being down on Chicano English and African American English, and that’s racist. You are a racist scumbag, Natalie.

Maybe. I don’t think so, though. See, here’s what has driven people to fury when I’ve brought this up before: they’re unable to process my assertion that I’m not saying this because I’m white and because I already speak something close to what should be Standard English. That’s an unfortunate coincidence. I’m saying this because it makes sense. It’s already the state of things. I’m just pointing out that we should acknowledge it instead of pretending like someone has every bit as good a shot at getting a job if they speak African American English (AAE) as if they speak something close to Standard English. And people are already doing it. Most successful people who come from a background speaking a different dialect know, at least subconsciously, that when they’re interacting professionally with people from different backgrounds, everything will be smoother and easier if they make an effort to speak in a more standardized register. Even non-professionals know this. Once I was on the bus home from school, and a couple black guys were sitting near me. One of them addressed me in rapid-fire, incomprehensible language, and it was only after I’d said “What?” three times (feeling progressively more stupid each time) that he looked at his friend, sighed and rolled his eyes, and enunciated clearly, “What are you reading?” People who speak minority dialects already know how to shift their language, if they regularly come into contact with the majority dialect. It’s just a matter of acknowledging this, and helping them along with it. At least until everyone everywhere sees the light and stops judging people based on how they speak. Yeah, right. It’s definitely a thornier problem for domestic use, but I think if people could honestly consider the proposal instead of falling back on approved PC traditions and propaganda, it would be a great idea.

Allow me to re-stress this: I am not advocating Standard English because it’s my language or my dialect, or because it’s easier or less work for the people I favor. I am advocating it because it is already a massively widespread language that is well-positioned to become the universal platform for all communications, at a time when global interconnectedness is skyrocketing and everyone in the world would benefit from knowing that, if they learn to speak just this one language, they can speak to anyone in any country on any continent, for any purpose. And it would be nice for speakers of minority dialects to feel confident that they can compete on a level playing field with speakers of majority dialects. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lingua franca? Sure, it will involve more effort from people who don’t already speak Standard English, but life’s not fair, and I’m not counting on that as a measure to keep the riff-raff out of my dialect.

People assume that just because you propose something that you already have an advantage in, you’re doing it on purpose, to benefit yourself and to trammel everyone else. But if you think about it, that doesn’t necessarily hold. It would be like if David Beckham proposed an increase in the number of soccer teams in every town, because it’s good exercise. Just because he’s an international star athlete and it seems to be in his best interests doesn’t mean he’s wrong—and just because what he’s proposing would be easier for him than for the rest of us doesn’t mean it’s not worth it for everyone else to step up and do it too. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you have no idea how many people I’ve talked to who have knee-jerked to outrage on this topic, visions of white privilege dancing in their heads.

While I’m at it, I’ll go ahead and say that this should illustrate something very scary about PC: you can’t even come near PC topics without scaring everyone into anxious accusations. People don’t actually stop to think about anything anymore, I guess. No matter what someone says, you should actually think about it (crazy!) before you respond. Even if someone makes a statement about how blacks can’t be trusted with anything until they’ve been properly educated, or how Hispanics are naturally lazy because they come from a warm climate, you should think about it. See, in the first case, most people would react with horror and outright rejection, when a more sensible response might be, “That’s extremely racist, but on the other hand, it’s true that good education is a valuable thing.” In the second case, you might also comment on how racist that is, and think, “It’s true that people from warm climates seem to be more laid-back than other people. I’m not sure that translates into a weaker work ethic, though.” Incidentally, that was a really interesting exercise because I was just trying to come up with outright racist comments that should be dismissed immediately, but I thought about them, and realized that there was more to say about each than the PC knee-jerk reaction of “OMG that’s so racist!” The point is, being slow to dismiss something isn’t at all a bad thing, as long as you’re sure you’ve actually thought about it and made sure that there was absolutely nothing of value in it before you so roundly condemned it.

Okay. Hopefully you’re not all convinced I’m a racist now. The point of this post, minus the PC rant at the end, is this: Standard English should be implemented everywhere in American and everywhere in the world. It would be immeasurably valuable to have a real lingua franca again. The world needs it now, and anyway we’re already halfway there.

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