Change my mind.
This isn’t an easy discussion for someone whose first language is English. Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared some articles that focus on the “linguaphobia” of anglophone Western countries – where the first and predominant language is English. Of course, the term “Western” encompasses dozens of countries in which English isn’t even a second language. I’d like to share opinions I’ve formulated after reading a number of works on the subject, such as ‘Ideologies and Ideological State Apparatus’ (Althusser, Louis 1970), ‘Rotten English: A literary anthology’ (Ahmad, Dohra 2007) and ‘The Empire Writes Back’ (Ashcroft, Bill 2002). The “subject” I want to talk about is anglophone Western society’s cultural and social issues surrounding the English language.
I realise beginning a blog post with a mini-bibliography could be regarded as a little obnoxious. I’ve not included it to qualify my own knowledge on this subject (which, while enthusiastic, is not extensive), but rather to evade problematic statements like “research suggests” or “according to science” or “studies have shown”. I hate those statements, because they seem to be used mostly as periods at the end of an argument, to close further discussion. For my opinions in this blog post, I have the following experience: 25 years of being alive, roughly 20 of those being exposed to literature, more than 10 of them studying literature, and 4 of them specialising in linguistics. Most importantly, I have around 7 years experience of browsing and observing content in social media.
I’d like to begin with a much loved term in British discourse: the “grammar nazi”, used to describe a person who calls out grammatical or lexical errors in somebody’s copy or speech, usually with passionate indignation. Not exactly a derogatory term; a term people will even use to describe themselves.
Aside from my first and obvious problem with this (that the word “nazi” is used here – in modern language – for something other than violent fascists), I actually don’t have a problem with people who want to call out errors in writing. I would be the first to advocate learning the difference between “there”, “they’re” and “their”, if only to linguistically equip the modern individual. What I do have a problem with, and I think reflects an extremely negative attitude towards language learning, is people being asked to “speak proper English”.
Let’s just take a moment to look at this. What exactly is “improper” English?
If I were to listen to a violent grammar fascist, this would be English language with recent lexical changes; slang that has not been “normalised”. I recently heard the word “peng” being used as a positive expletive. I’d never really felt the first intimations of old age until I heard myself saying “ah yes, when I was your age we said ‘lush’”.
Another thing that seems to drive people up the wall is improper use of sentence structure. This often appears when people use English as a second language, producing phrases like “it is what time?” because they fit the grammatical rules of their first language. Quite apart from grammar, it appears that very heavy accents can offend. But “accent” only applies to speech that doesn’t sound like one’s own. I’ve also noticed that people get very indignant and excitable about the use of different nouns in different “strands” of English. For example, the American/British exchange of “chips” for “crisps”, or “sweets” for “candy” is a very simple, yet apparently very confusing source of confusion.
There is a terrible, uncomfortable notion that if a person does not speak OUR version of English – and in Britain, “our” appears to be restricted to a population a little over twenty million – they not only communicate in a less valid way, but actually lack the intelligence to hold a valuable opinion. There, I’ve said it – and it’s because during my years of travelling, the only group I have encountered that not only seems to expect people to be able to communicate in their (the group’s) language, but also condemns those who can’t, is the population of first-language anglophones. Usually British ones. How embarrassing.
Now, the UK in particular seems to have a little remembering to do. As history appears to be turning itself inside out in a kind of grisly Moebius loop of “Back to the ’30s”, the concept of globalisation which we discussed in our blog post “Globalisation, Identity Crises and Good Countries” is becoming increasingly important. Boundaries between nations are less tangible than ever. The population of the planet is growing at a frightening speed. Our essential natural resources, like fresh water and air, are showing signs of dwindling in the near future. It’s terrifying – just read Clive Ponting’s ‘A New Green History of the World’. And just to top it all off, we’ve decided to place fascist gibbons in positions of enormous power.
As we know very well, language adapts and changes almost constantly. Especially English. Because, a few hundred years ago, the British empire violently and unapologetically invaded almost the entire world, spreading our wonderful language across the globe. By “spreading”, I mean forcing – by terrorising and enslaving vast populations of people – the world to speak “our” language. This might sound familiar in recent times. Social media, while a useful tool in many respects, serves a reinforcing role in social rhetoric. Donald Trump, for example, uses a very consistent and particular language to reinforce the memes beloved of his target U.S. audience. So English is now a global language. It’s used on every continent in the world, from red desert to black sea to green forests to white mountains. It would not be unreasonable, therefore, to accept that the English language in each region might be subject to adaptation. In some cases, to the extent that it bears little resemblance to the original.
Which brings me to my closing points. “Proper” English, as we hear/read/write it now, is unrecognisable from “proper” English as it was fifty years ago. What it is acceptable to say, and more importantly, do, in society is unrecognisable after a single generation of change. Just to take one example: our hierarchical systems of address have been transformed – not just linguistically but also in terms of body language, so in the way young and old, male and female, behave around one another. We expect free rein to travel where we will – a privilege afforded to an embarrassingly small percentage of the world’s population. And on our travels, we get ruffled when we are not greeted in “perfect” English, or perceive something as unforgivably poorly written. As a general population, we don’t try particularly hard to learn new languages.
What I’d like to suggest at the end of a blog post that started out trying to be balanced, escalated into a rage (sorry) and descended into a pit of depression (arrrgh!), is this. The flow of people between countries, in every sense – travel, exploration, wanderlust, migration, asylum-seeking, flight – is inherently less threatening than it was in the days of the British, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch navies. It’s a thousand times more informed, and the boundaries between countries no longer exist in such a physical sense (apart from certain embarrassing attempts at exceptionalism). Developing a universal acceptance of all language is a leap in a direction which so far, we’ve failed miserably to pursue. I’m not demanding that we uproot the British education system and insist that pupils should learn three languages by the time we reach high school (although, now I think of it…). Just that we develop a worldwide understanding that language evolves, and that rather than fighting this continuous transformation, it’s primarily the behaviour and actions of people that we should care about. Saying something misogynistic to a global audience is an action. Voting to elect someone to a global position is also an action. The actions of history are driven by our words, and we are in a position, right now, to decide what they will say.