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American English is incredible malleable and diverse, and it would be a mistake to impose artificial rules. Not only would it be a mistake, it could even be construed as racist. The imaginary Correct English (whether Oxford or Webster-based prescriptive grammatical rules) is one that is clearly defined by the white upper-class hegemony in higher education. As Deresiewicz (2005) states, "there is no such thing as Correct English, and there never has been." Dialects and accents are a sign that the language is alive. Language reflects subculture and social identity, and can allow for the vivid expression of ideas that would be severely restricted if there were only one Correct English.
Language is a form of cultural capital. Therefore, "stigmatized forms" of language such as Redneck or African-American speech, are "typically those used by social groups other than the educated middle classes -- professional people, including those in law, medicine, and publishing," (Finegan, n.d.). The elite need their dialects too; and specific professions need their jargon. But it is not right to impose the grammatical rules of the white power elite on everyone else. As Deresiewicz (2005) puts it, "our language should be a playground; instead we make it into a minefield." Not only does prescriptive grammar create dangerous social hierarchies and stratifications; elitist language rules also prevent students from enjoying the act of writing. Deresiewicz (2005) describes students who force their thoughts into the garments of elitist academic lingo, what the author calls "hypercorrect." Instead of expressing thoughts in a genuine and organic way (writing as she would speak), the student churned out artificially perfect language. "Language snobbery so often smacks of elitism, because that's exactly what it is: a coded expression of disdain for the less advantaged," (Deresiewicz, 2005).
Ironically, the reverse is also happening. The glorification of African-American dialect among upper-class suburban white youth signifies a different type of "language crossing," the term that Cutler (n.d.) uses to describe the use of language to traverse different social boundaries. Just as a young African-American student might leave behind the "ebonics" dialect to write an essay for her teacher in "hypercorrect" academicese, a young White student might leave behind his perfectly honed elitespeak when he be illin and chillin.
Language crossing can have a negative connotation, too: representing mockery, disdain, and subordination of social groups. Cutler (n.d.) for example, uses the example of the mockery of Spanish to create social distance from Chicano culture in the Southwest. Saying "I left my car-oh at the garage-oh, chico" is not celebrating the beauty that is Chicano dialect, but is rather condescending in its assumption that Spanish is just English with an extra syllable tacked onto the end.
The rules of grammar should be more descriptive than prescriptive. Descriptive grammar celebrates the changes that take place organically within a language: such as the shifts that we can easily trace when comparing Chaucer and Shakespeare with modern authors. At some point, phrasing falls out of favor or transforms into something that resonates more with youth. Those changes often occur due to contact with non-English speakers, which is why English is such a fun and potent language. English is already an amalgamation of various tongues and grammatical traditions. The cultural diversity within English-speaking countries enhances the language's tendency to change, grow, and evolve.
"The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking about grammatical problems that encouraged thoughtful attention to language, not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules and strictures," (Nunberg, 1983). Nunberg (1983) describes the conflict between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar tells us what is "right," whereas descriptive grammar tells us what exists. The former makes a judgment on the dialect and its speaker, stigmatizing a person based on their socio-economic class or their ethnicity. The latter describes differential language patterns to reveal cultural diversity.
Teaching prescriptive grammar is problematic because those rules are crafted by only one group of people: and a very small group, at that. People in positions of power do not comprise the majority of the population. To have people in power dictate what is right and wrong in grammar is unfortunately a parallel for the ways people in power impose their will upon perceived subordinates in other ways. Teaching prescriptive grammar also hinders creative self-expression, such as by forcing students to write a five-paragraph essay so that every sentence is preordained and none can begin with a preposition. Students know the rules of prescriptive grammar are meant to be broken: as soon as they read any good literature or creative non-fiction. No good writer writes exactly according to the rules of Correct English. Correct English produces a false and stiff product that few can relate to or even take seriously.
Variations in English will continue to parallel variations between different demographic groups. Just talking on the phone with someone can indicate what geographic region they are from; what age they are; and what ethnicity they claim. Linguistic diversity can be construed as a positive feature of cultural diversity, rather than cause for alarm that some students are not learning "proper English." Yet it might be that language discrimination is the final frontier of institutionalized racism or class-based discrimination. As J. Fought (n.d.) points out, "speech is a convenient stand-in for other kinds of stigma that we recognize but do not openly acknowledge." It is no wonder that a prescriptive grammar code is an emblem or feature of social conservatism. Nunberg (1983) notes, "a commitment to correct grammar is naturally associated with a conservative ideology." Resistance to diversity and fear of change are what characterize fundamentalist approaches to grammar or religion.
Grammar "Nazism," or grammar "policing" is fun when it is an effort undertaken in good humor or to draw attention to the simple differences between elite constructions of English and more colloquial ones. The encouragement of students to speak and write like Cambridge graduates teaches them about linguistic diversity and the phrasings used by academics who wish to get published in peer-reviewed journals. However, the prescriptive tradition in grammar is rarely used in a benevolent way. "The real issue about linguistic right and wrong is one of deciding who wields power and who doesn't," (Finegan, n.d.). When students are told that their phrasings or dialect is incorrect, those students are stigmatized as being stupid, stubborn, or illiterate. Those same students would thrive in language arts classes if they learned how to take those dialects and record them in the form of creative writing essays. The celebration of alternative dialects of English does not preclude the learning of the standardized, "elite" styles. Learning about linguistic diversity is the goal. Baron (n.d) claims that most Americans already do speak several different types of dialect without thinking about it. "We all master several different varieties of our language, standard and less so, that we deploy depending upon social contexts," (Baron, n.d.). At home, it could be, like Valley Girl talk? And in school it could be the talk of the school marm.
Moreover, students should learn about the social function of language and of linguistic diversity so that they can appreciate the nuances of the English language. Language does create in-group and out-group status. A Black kid growing up in an upper-class elite family will be teased and taunted by his Black cousins in Compton. The stigma works both ways; those who cannot speak slang well will not have the cultural capital to succeed on the streets; and street smarts are just as valuable as book smarts when it comes to the total gamut of social, economic, and political success. Cutler (n.d.). calls the phenomenon the "outgroup use of prestigious minority codes." Fah shizzle. Linguistic diversity is a facet of cultural diversity that is often ignored, even by sociologists.
The plethora of dialects in…[continue]
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