The Dangers of Linguistic Elitism

by / 18 Comments / 2092 View / July 18, 2014

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?

Tough chance.

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.

References:

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.

Ryan, Camille. “Language Use in the United States: 2011.” Census. The United States Census Bureau, Aug. 2013. Web. 17 July 2014.

  • Sara77

    Cambodian is not a language.

    • disqus_AZ1MT3Qz09

      Yeah, it is? It may be (properly) referred to as “Khmer,” but for the sake of this article, don’t chew the author’s head off for something so trivial.
      – A proud member of the Cambodian community

      • Fiora

        Actually, as a person who is of the Cambodian community, I tell people I speak Cambodian all the time. Nobody grasps onto “Khmer”.

        People of France speak French, people of Italy speak Italian, people of England speak English, but people of Cambodia speak Khmer? That throws people for a loop and takes way too much explaining

  • SNOOT

    From what I can gather, this article has two major points: 1) we shouldn’t make fun of those with subpar English and 2) we should take a more relaxed attitude towards how English is used. I don’t think #1 is breaking any particularly new ground, as the argument runs in the same vein as “racism is bad” and “making fun of people is wrong”. #2, at the very least, is something resembling an argument. However, I wholeheartedly disagree. The reason language exists is to communicate – structures are in place so that people have an agreed upon standard when it comes to speaking. At a certain point, standard English is a priori, not because it’s “better” inherently but because it serves the community’s purpose better. Arguably, certain dialects may serve different communities more effectively, but standards also have merit. If we just decided that any and all forms of English are acceptable in usage, it could lead to a general demise in continental/international communication, not to mention that dictionaries would be downright massive.

    • disqus_AZ1MT3Qz09

      You sound like you didn’t read the article at all lmao
      Believe it or not, but these other dialects of English have their own complex structures and ways to write as well.

      • SNOOT

        And you sound like you don’t really understand what I’m saying. I’m not saying that dialects are some sort of “dumb people’s English,” I’m arguing that we should teach and enforce standard English because it’s simply the best way to maximize communication.

        • Baum ElNaihi

          I don’t think the author was trying to argue against teaching regular English. The main point of her article is about the power that proper english has and the social implications of not speaking it. She acknowledges that speaking proper english is key to success in American society. Effective communication will always be enhanced when everyone speaks the same language—that’s obvious. However, this article doesn’t seem intended to be about making everyone speak the same language. In a lot of ways(although a direct parallel shouldn’t be formed from this), it would be akin to telling everyone in South America to adopt Spanish as their primary language because it would make life easier. But obv, because language is a strong part of culture, there are more implications to that too. Erm, I think if you actually read the article you’d realize that the author isn’t advocating for ‘relaxed grammar’ or that speaking whatever language you want should be entirely free of consequences(as language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there will always be implications attached to language), but for everyone to realize the social power that comes with language and the fact that americans use their language abilities as a way to justify their shitty attitudes towards others(as in: Oh you can’t speak english? go back to your own country you *insert racial epithet here)

          • http://www.templecommunications.org Terry Buttwilder

            what if their own country also speaks english, like my friend david

        • miekko

          There is a fair number of details to “proper English” that serve no other purpose than to be “gotchas” that give away when someone’s not had the fortune of living an upper middle-class life from childhood. Genuinely, a lot of the things people regularly correct consists of nothing but that kind of linguistic elitist trap.

          • Fiora

            “Proper english” is just one giant linguistic elitist trap

  • Josh Buckley

    I think this article misses a few key things. First, the argument that language includes or excludes people is true – but this applies to languages other than just standard English. In fact, one of the main purposes of slang is to identify who is a member of a group and who is not. Additionally, there is no real justification for the assertion that only “correct” English speakers feel superior, maybe that’s true online, but face-to-face interactions can be different. Second, proper grammar and, to a certain extent, “proper” English does not exist arbitrarily. It is indisputable that proper grammar makes language more clear. Additionally, the existence of a standard dialect of English makes it actually easier for different groups to communicate, in a similar way that using English as a lingua franca makes communication easier. That is one of the reasons why this article was written in standard English, so that it would be accessible to the greatest number of people. Finally, the assertion that “racial, geographical, and class connotations of language are why it’s acceptable to say “Ello, mate!” but considered inappropriate to say “Aye, homie.” is entirely unfounded. If anything, the opposite is true (especially among youth), although neither would be socially acceptable in a business environment.

    • Baum ElNaihi

      1)”Additionally, there is no real justification for the assertion that only “correct” English speakers feel superior, maybe that’s true online, but face-to-face interactions can be different”—-true, but many English people have the social capital to back up their ‘superiority’. It’s hard to feel superior to other people if you’re poor(and thus don’t have the resources to back up the feeling of superiority). 2)“Finally, the assertion that “racial, geographical, and class connotations of language are why it’s acceptable to say “Ello, mate!” but considered inappropriate to say “Aye, homie.” is entirely unfounded. If anything, the opposite is true (especially among youth), although neither would be socially acceptable in a business environment.”….. Where do you live? The suburbs where all the white kids think that it’s cool to be ironically ghetto by saying “swag” and “homie”?” Maybe the better question would be: considered inappropriate by whom? But rly if you’ve ever lived in a major city with a large lower income black population(disclaimer, my family is originally from the middle east), and then you go out into the suburbs with your friends—people will undoubtedly treat you different because of the way you talk if you don’t talk ‘proper’. Older white people, and even younger white people will claim that you’re ‘ghetto’. Once I went out shopping in the burbs with my friend(who’s black) and overheard an elderly lady talkin about how “people who are black and talk like ni**ers” shouldn’t be trusted. That type of thing happens all the time. Does everyone ever talk about how people who say “Ello” are untrustworthy? NO.

      • http://www.templecommunications.org Terry Buttwilder

        but what defines english? sometimes when I’m at my therapist david’s house he tells me tha I need to control my anger before I hurt the people I love.

        • Fiora

          Maybe instead of using english to communicate your feelings, you shouldn’t say anything at all

    • Fiora

      Yeah, this article was written in standard english. Obviously, but that doesn’t negate the validity of other dialects of english in any way

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  • Halifax Steppenwulf

    I think the author is really extrapolating on what Weird Al says in his video. He’s referring to everyone who bastardizes the English language with text slang online. Learning English as a second language is obviously a difficult prospect and it’s hard to realistically expect ESL speakers to have perfect English. That said, there is a proper way to, if not speak, then at least write English, just like there’s a proper way to drive a car. Not everyone may follow these rules exactly and they may change a little bit from region to region, but they still exist.

  • doreene

    Take the idea of one perfect dialect spoken per language. On
    an even more extreme end, imagine one world language with one dialect. Now that
    would be a sad and truly depressing world. Honestly, with my cruddy
    hearing and an attention span that borders on rudeness when listening
    to others, one dialect and one language would be awesome.
    However, what fun is that?

    A musical turned moved Pygmalion or the other version, My Fair Lady
    explores in a funny way the whole sordid idea that one’s own dialect or way of
    doing things is best. Is the story egotistically tooting the Queens (‘ in or
    outside of Queens?) English and the world it encompasses? Of course, but I do
    not expect a work of art or literature to worry me too much.

    Try being an anchorperson in the US with even the highest intelligible and
    gentle southern accent. It would not matter if you were brain surgeon or
    the next Mark Twain. You’re not going to get slotted for national air
    time.

    Not sure I care if people pick my reply apart or not as my first APA paper
    is due soon on internet trolling. It would only help me no matter how
    someone replied.