A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In The Defense Of Slang

I may not agree with how you say with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it and not be harassed by arrogant grammatical bigots. 
-Me, sending Voltaire rolling over in his grave.

You know what I'm really, really sick of? Well, a lot of things, but here's one: How adults* are so insistent that there is one "correct" way to speak English. And that the "correct" way is the way they, personally speak it.

If I hear one more teacher correct a student over something they said conversationally in an antagonistic way, I will launch into a lecture, right there. Because adults who correct children's grammar are not doing it because they want the child to speak in a way that will make the child happier or improved in any way. They are doing it because they want to make themselves feel better, plain and simple.

It's a fact of life I am exposed to every day: Adults think they are better than children, and they want to constantly reaffirm themselves of that notion. When a teacher would tell me to "correct myself" when I said "ain't"**, it was not because they thought that the contraction hindered my speaking in any way. They were doing it because pointing out how "Kids these days are ruining the English language" would make them feel superior.

Perhaps the thing that bothers me most is when these people insist that there is one form of a language. Indeed, when I confronted my asshole of a Latin teacher (I have mentioned her briefly on The Darker Side Of The Light), after she completely mis-defined the word "agnostic", her only line of defense was "That's the definition of the word in the English language. That's the definition in the English language." Eventually, all I could say was "I don't know what English language you were raised with, but you obviously are too Christian to know anything about other religions."

You should already have realized the problem with her argument: What English language? Perhaps one of the most recognizable defining features of a language is that it is fluid, constantly shifting to accommodate both the expression of new ideas, and the new ways of defining those ideas.

And that's what these people are ignoring: The fact that there is more than one way to express an idea. I know, shocker, right? It's absolutely horrible  that "ain't", "is not", and "are not" can all express a negation. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE POOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE?!

To further this ridiculous idea that ideas can only be expressed one way, I've heard several adults who, when challenged about why one style of talking was acceptable and another was not, say "That is not how people talk! The English language does not accept that phrase[/word/whatever]! No language does!"

Obviously, people talk that way - someone just was before you started harping about how something they apparently didn't say. (*Logic bomb*) The English language does accept it, and you should accept that, too. If someone can say something to me, and I can understand what they mean, then whatever language we're speaking in "accepts" it, end of story.

And yes, I have actually heard the last one, several times. A troubling assumption that reveals both an arrogance about English being representative of all languages, and a misunderstanding about the abilities of communication of ideas, is that what we call "slang" in English is as "unacceptable" in other languages as you want it to be.

I actually find the "no other languages" defense quite amusing. The people saying this do know that many of the things they're antagonizing this poor person for saying actually are "accepted" in other languages, don't they?

For example, something I hear a lot around this high school is the erasure of sentence-beginning copulas in questions. Either by having no copulas, or putting them in some place other than the "accepted" beginning of a sentence. "You got some gum?" (remember the partitive!). And in fact, that is how questions can be expressed in several languages - as if it were a statement with a different intonation. In Lithuanian: "Tu kalbi Lietuviškai." = "You speak Lithuanian." And "Tu kalbi Lietuviškai?" = "Do you speak Lithuanian?" The only difference between the two sentences is the rising intonation at the end - and this is how some people express questions in English.

So, arrogant grammatical-picking adults, does Lithuanian "not accept" that?

And another huge  thing I hear is the admission of copulas altogether in statements. And I mean any use of the copula - identity, class, auxilary usage, all of it. "She over there." "We good." "They ready." And guess what? In both Hungarian and Mandarin Chinese, use of "to be" is quite often admitted. The situation in Hungarian is a little more complicated (it's used sometimes...long explanation), but the fact remains that in general, you are saying "My name Annie." ("A nevem Annie", by the way.)

Let's hear again about that being "unacceptable"?

So yes, one of my pet peeves is arrogant adults stroking their ego by striking down every use of slang they see. This goes for everyone, including myself: Just think before you correct someone - could you understand what they were saying? If so, there's no reason for you to be correcting them.

*I have never seen someone under 15 doing this to another child, and only a couple people 15-18.

**I had to force myself to stop using that word, which was hard, as there was a strong Texan taint to both my accent and vocabulary. I'll explain more about that later, but now I never even use it unless I'm really angry or upset.

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