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You Talkin' to Me?


Published: January 9, 2005

Book cover of ''The Stories of English,'' by David Crystal.

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I CAME across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English.

In fact, there is no such thing as Correct English, and there never has been. That's why David Crystal, one of the language's leading scholars, titles his new history THE STORIES OF ENGLISH (Overlook, $35), plural. As Crystal shows, the notion of correctness emerged only in the late 18th century, the work of a few self-appointed authorities like the grammarian Lindley Murray and the pronunciation pundit ''Elocution Walker.'' Murray, Walker and their ilk believed the language had gotten out of control -- too many new words, too many regional accents, too many different ways of saying things -- and needed to be stabilized. Behind this linguistic anxiety lay an anxiety about status. Commercial expansion, imperial conquest and industrial revolution were creating a vast new middle class. Just as a host of conduct manuals had sprung up to teach these socially insecure ''new men'' how to act and dress, so did the language pundits step forth to teach them how to speak. (And were wildly successful at it; Murray's ''Grammar'' went through 200 editions and sold over 20 million copies.) The standard, in speech as in conduct, was politeness, defined by Samuel Johnson (himself one of the pundits) as "elegance of manners; gentility; good breeding." Correct English was upper-class English.

Or so, at least, one would think. As it turned out, even the polite classes couldn't be trusted to speak correctly. The pundits were not faint of heart; where no rules existed, they simply made them up. (It was they who gave us the prohibitions against split infinitives and double negatives. Not for nothing did they become known as ''prescriptivists.'') At least Johnson, in compiling his dictionary, turned for his authorities to the acknowledged masters of the language. The grammarians didn't hesitate to censure the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope for violating rules that hadn't existed when they wrote. (The word ''chutzpah'' apparently hadn't entered the language in the late 18th century.)

Fortunately, most people continued to speak the stigmatized regional and class dialects whose stories Crystal tells -- the Englishes that people have actually spoken since the language began. This is not to denigrate the value of what linguists call Standard English. Standard English, at least the way Crystal and other ''descriptivists'' understand it, is something like Correct English without the attitude, the language as it's used in formal contexts, the English of the press, the professions and government. It's not as narrow as Correct English -- it contains a surprising degree of variation -- nor need it be as neurotic, since its purpose is intelligibility, and most of the shibboleths the grammar police pride themselves on knowing, like not ending a sentence with a preposition, are irrelevant to intelligibility. And Standard English is extremely useful, because it allows English speakers everywhere to communicate with one another. It also allows us to communicate with the past. Standardization -- the one good thing the pundits gave us -- has dramatically slowed the pace of linguistic change, so that while Shakespeare sounded almost archaic to Jane Austen, Austen, equally distant from us, sounds almost contemporary. Standard English is the language's skeletal structure.

But nonstandard varieties -- the language's blood, muscle and nerves -- are equally valuable. They are English with its ear to the ground, the language as it is lived: the vernaculars of the kitchen and the street, of youth culture and ethnic culture. They are also the enduring wellsprings of literary achievement. The genius of English is an oral one, its literature greatest when hewing closest to speech (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Dickens, Joyce). It is no accident that our greatest author was a playwright. Anyone who fails to hear in the language of rap the harbinger of a new chapter in our literature's glorious history has a tin ear and a tiny heart. I don't mean children shouldn't be taught to speak Standard English. I do mean they should learn to value their own vernacular as something more than ''broken English'' -- as is the case, for example, in Italy, where schools teach the national language without seeking to eradicate a child's native Sicilian or Neapolitan. The student who says ''the bag of books are heavy'' should be corrected, but the student who says ''he be walkin' by'' needs instead to learn the distinction between his first language and Standard English.

1 | 2 | Next>>

.To Tell the Truth  (February 15, 2004) 
.Waking Each Other Up  (July 20, 2003) 
.The Tyranny of the Past  (March 2, 2003) 
.Third-Person Singular  (July 7, 2002) 
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