One of my favorite readings for the entire semester was bell hooks', “Language: Teaching New Worlds." hooks has a way of speaking right at the heart of things and I always enjoy her writings. This one spoke to me specifically because of the way I think about my own use of language.
Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries. It speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts that intrude, even violate the most private spaces of mind and body. It was in my first year of college that I read Adrienne Rich’s poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” That poem, speaking against domination, against racism and class oppression, attempts to illustrate graphically that stopping the political persecution and torture of living beings is a more vital issue than censorship, than burning books. One line of this poem that moved and disturbed something within me: “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” I’ve never forgotten it. Perhaps I could not have forgotten it even if I tried to erase it from memory. Words impose themselves, lake root in our memory against our will. The words of this poem begat a life in my memory that I could not abort or change.I've always taken issue with self applauding "grammar nazis" that are so prolific on the internet. From Facebook posts to newspaper articles, people have become obsessed with grammar. I've seen eloquent and strong arguments ignored and critiqued for a wrongly placed apostrophe. There are several problems I have with this type of needless language control.
When I find myself thinking about language now, these words are there, as if they were always waiting to challenge and assist me. I find myself silently speaking them over and over again with the intensity of a chant. They startle me, shaking me into an awareness of the link between languages and domination. Initially, I resist the idea of the “oppressor’s language,” certain that this construct has the potential to disempower those of us who are just learning to speak, who are just learning to claim language as a place where we make ourselves subject. “This is the oppressor’s languages yet I need it to talk to you.” Adrienne Rich’s words. Then, when I first read these words, and now, they make me think of standard English, of learning to speak against black vernacular, against the ruptured and broken speech of a dispossessed and displaced people. Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear, the speech of the Gullah, Yiddish, and so many other unremembered tongues.
1. It's classist.
The idea that there is a 'proper" way to communicate is steeped in classism. The wealthier you are the better your educational opportunities. The better your education, the more likely you are able to communicate in a way that people find respectable. Academia often sets the tone for what is considered "proper" and not all people have equal access to education. The idea that cursing represents low education or class is indicative of this.
Adult literacy in this country is a serious issue.
According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read.Being an asshole on the internet about an incorrect "their" pretty much misses the point.
2. It's racist.
Ask anyone who isn't white and they'll tell you that there is such a thing as "sounding white." Black English is often ridiculed and deemed as less intelligent even though African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) is recognized as a language that has its roots in Great Britain.
There's a question that's often asked: Is Ebonics a language? And that's really the wrong way to put it. But if there's an answer to that question, then it is: Yes, Ebonics is a language. It's English. Where we tend to stumble is that we tend to assume that it's bad English or broken English, when really, it's just different English - which, if a Martian came down and had to learn it instead of standard English, would find just as challenging and difficult to master the nuances of as standard English. And I don't just mean the slang. I mean the basic structure of it.There are also regional differences. Southern accents are seen as unintelligent. Individuals with thick accents or are often treated with contempt and less respect. (Even though English is often their second language.) So when people are policing language, they tend to be overly critical of any type of communication that is outside the bounds of what is considered "proper." But if "proper" was built on colonialism and educational disenfranchisement, then what does that mean for the entire system?
3. It's ableist.
There are people who physically cannot speak in ways that will ever be deemed as "proper." It is estimated that 15%-20% of Americans have a learning disability with dyslexia being the most common.
According to the American Speech Hearing Association:
"Language-based learning disabilities are problems with age-appropriate reading, spelling, and/or writing. This disorder is not about how smart a person is. Most people diagnosed with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence."Even if the person was less intelligent, nitpicking a person's argument based on grammar or sentence structure still avoids any real consideration or thought on the part of the reader. If you can understand what a person meant, then they're using language the way language is intended: to convey thoughts and feelings.
bell hooks writings speak to this domination in a way that is beautiful and relatable.
To recognize that we touch one another in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.By embracing the notion that there is only one way to correctly communicate, people are perpetuating old systems of oppression. We need to move away from a system of self congratulatory ridicule and remember that language is a living breathing thing that belongs to everyone.