Earlier this week, the song “Word Crimes” was released by Weird Al Yankovic, a parody of the highly controversial song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. In the video, Weird Al explores writing in the “proper” way and references some elements of speech—including nouns, prepositions, and grammar. With a catchy beat and witty lyrics, the type Weird Al is known for, he does not disappoint. However, in doing so, he lightly touches on some more serious topics.
Due to my passion for education and linguistics, I found the song, and accompanying video, highly entertaining. With lines like “Literacy’s your mission,” the importance of writing well is made clear from the beginning. However, through his song, he makes some statements that have further reaching implications than there appears to be upon first glance. The overriding sentiment of “Word Crimes” is that the ability to use proper English is paramount; it is paramount to the point that Weird Al suggests that people who cannot use standard American English should “go back to preschool” and “get out of the gene pool.”
In his promotion of education and literacy, Weird Al makes a big mistake. Not only does he suggest that people with poor English fluency are unintelligent, but he also jokes that these people are somehow unfit to reproduce. Whether you call it linguistic elitism or language prejudice, the belief that the ability to speak a particular language makes a person wholly superior to another person is both socially dangerous and inconsiderate of reality.
In America, the ability to read and fluently write English is key to one’s success in academia and much of the working world. But according to the Literacy Project Foundation, “45 million [Americans] are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level.” In addition, “20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage.”
Thus, the inability to read and write, or the inability to read and write at a level correspondent to one’s age, is caused by a vast variety of problems. As literacy is often rooted in one’s schooling, factors that affect one’s education—poverty, poor schools, behavioral or mental problems, learning disabilities, and parental education and involvement—all contribute to difficulties engaging with the English language.
Additionally, people often use language as a form of inclusion—or exclusion. The language that people speak identifies them within their community as an “insider.” If you speak a language, in the same way that your peers do, you’ll be better off.
But what if you speak a different language? Or a different dialect of the same language?
The determination of whether a language or dialect is superior or inferior is often already decided by people based on its association with a particular social class (or lack thereof, in relation to Appalachian English) or race (as in Black English). These racial, geographical, and class connotations of language are why it’s acceptable to say “Ello, mate!” but considered inappropriate to say “Aye, homie.”
Moreover, what the majority of Americans considers “proper English” is, in actuality, simply the language that is spoken by the majority. But there is always a minority to the majority. The minority, in this case, are people who speak dialects of English or people who have learned a different language, such as Mandarin, Vietnamese, Spanish, or Swahili, before they learned English. According to the 2011 United States Census, 60,577,020 people speak a language other than English at home. Many of those people speak a language other than English as their very first language. The people in the minority face dozens of challenges throughout life. People who cannot engage with English in the way that the majority of Americans do have problems finding work and reading things as simple as prescription drug labels, and they have a higher rate of involvement in criminal activity.
American society is a manifestation of the power, and exclusivity, of speaking, reading and writing proper English. After all, people often correct other people’s language as a subtle show of dominance. Think about how many people correct another person on Facebook if they confuse “your” and you’re.” People are not motivated to correct another person’s grammar in the public sphere for the sake of benevolence or devotion to “correct” English. By pointing out flaws in another person’s language, you effectively say, “I know the ‘real way’ to speak and write English. Let me tell you how it’s done. Because obviously, you don’t know how to write/read/speak correctly because you are either ignorant or stupid.”
By chastising someone for saying “I finna” instead of “I’m about to,” we send the message that there is only one proper way to speak. That there is only one “correct” form of English. We send the message that people are somehow inferior simply because of the language that they speak. Sentiments like “Learn our language or go back to your own country!” or the casual racism implicit in criticizing an inner-city youth for the way they speak all illustrate this message.
But when there are multiple dialects of the same language being spoken at once, is there ever one truly correct English?
No, there is not.
In a world where many people do not speak the same way, the implications of acting like there is only one proper manner of communicating are vast. So, while Weird Al’s new song “Word Crimes” may be an undoubtedly witty take on the original, it is myopic not to actually consider that the lyrics of his music can be used to reinforce the notion that one language is superior, or even that mocking another person because of the language that they speak is socially acceptable.
National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, and U.S. Census Bureau. “Staggering Illiteracy Statistics.” Literacy Project Foundation. Web. 16 July 2014.
Vajda, Edward. “Linguistics 201: The Dialects of American English.” Linguistics 201: The Dialects of American English. Western Washington University, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.