Friday, November 29, 2013

What’s Good About Bad English?

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
The July/August Yale Alumni Magazine includes a piece entitled “Why ‘Bad’ English Isn’t.” Describing the work of Raffaella Zanuttini, a linguistics professor at Yale, the article’s author Peggy Edersheim Kalb, says, “Variation in our language, she argues, is a natural and very human process, whether it happens across geographic area or generations, socioeconomic lines or ethnic groups.” Kalb describes Zanuttini advocating a kind of pluralism in which "local dialect(s)" co exist with "the dialect of the elite.” Some of the dialects that Zanuttini validates are what standard bearers for correctness would call bad English. And one could probably count a number of formally educated Yale undergrads amongst those who’d hold such views in high dudgeon. After all, if you attack language, you’re attacking civilization. Huck and Jim didn’t speak correct English, but they’re characters in a novel. In fact, a new edition of Huckleberry Finn has been produced removing some of the racist language. The edition has its defenders and critics. And the issue is tantamount to the one that Zanuttini is dealing with. One could say if Mark Twain is sanctioning the use of poor grammar or racist speech, he’s setting a poor example. On the other hand, if beauty is truth, then beauty would be the victim of such a antiseptic approach to language. In Joyce’s Ulysses similarly you find a high level appreciation of language and structure coexisting with the vulgate. Anyone who has had dealings with the language police, who take particular joy in informing you it’s “he and I” instead of “him and me”will find Zanuttini’s approach refreshing, particularly since there’s an awareness of the fact that the King’s English exists in a dialectic with that of the people. Upstairs, downstairs, the high and the lo all should all be considered free speech. You don’t need no self appointed expert discountenancing your right to express yourself. Ain’t that the truth?


  1. You mean "Poor" English, I assume. Is he joking... ?

  2. OK, I’ve been ticketed again by the language police, but it’s only a misdemeanor. Right?

  3. Love this. Language is a tool, not an ideology (at least, to most of us), and I'd love to see someone do a correlation between the push toward diversity in idiom and spellings and the pushback from social conformity which applies increasing pressure as society becomes more complicated. You could almost create an algorithm based on Newtonian principles of the force applied toward conformity and the reaction toward manifesting individuality. Is it coincidence that Webster codified the English language at the same time that industrialization needed people to behave 'properly', i.e., follow orders, show up to work on time, etc, to keep the factories running?
    A friend of mine suspects that language is devolving, thanks to technology, and that soon we will once again be communicating in avatars rather than names, and ideograms rather than words.
    BTW, jst fr fn I ftn wrt wtht vwls.

    1. I’m working on my pig latin subjunctives, but will get back to you asap