Critical ThinkingEducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Literacy privilege

If you use social media, chances are you’ve seen the following Glove and Boots video floating around on the internets:

 

 

Now, as an educator I absolutely 100% believe that we should be doing our best to teach students to comfortably engage with and communicate in standard literary English. It is a crucially important skill to have in a knowledge economy, and, like it or not, our society routinely uses mastery over the standard language as a marker for overall intelligence, educational attainment, and social class. Not making sure that all of our students have access to the opportunities and resources that such language skills provide would be irresponsible.

BUT.

This doesn’t mean we have to approach the topic of standard and divergent language use in a way that casts non-standard varieties of English in a negative light. Treating non-standard language as inferior or unworthy of being taken seriously is a huge and long-standing cultural problem, and one I am currently trying very hard to counteract with my own academic work on dialect music in the Renaissance.

Literacy privilege is A Thing, and we would all do well to remember that people don’t make linguistic “mistakes” because they are “stupid” or “lazy,” but for a wide variety of reasons that we as readers or listeners are unlikely to be aware of. I highly recommend this three part series on the topic for anyone interested in reading more.

“I see your point Dan,” you may say, “but what does this have to do with a video that uses puppets to teach standard usage? After all, you yourself said that mastery of standard English is still an important skill.”

And so I did, fictional interlocutor. But my problem with this video is not that is attempts to teach standard usage in an amusing way, but rather the problematic way in which its creators have chosen to frame the topic. To wit, here is a selection of quotes from the video (with time marks so you can find them):

***

(0:17) No, Mario, he didn’t literally explode, he’s [sic] just isn’t using the word right. / Is he stupid? / Naw, he’s probably just kinda lazy.

(1:59) Yeah, take four seconds and make sure you’re using the right one. You learned this in the third grade, dummy! / Don’t say that! / What?

(2:07) Heighth! / That is not a word.

(2:12) On Accident! / No, it’s by accident or on purpose.

(2:26) [re: loose/lose] They’re two different words! What’s wrong with you?

(2:38) …or literally, you’re a little illiterate.

(3:03) In conclusion, we all talk different [sic]. But that’s no excuse to tweet, “Brad Pitt, your still dreamy”

***

As you can see, even this fairly benign “educational” video comes with all kinds of embedded value judgements. These include:

1) Common linguistic “errors” are the usually the result of laziness, but sometimes betray low intelligence.

2) Common regionalisms or variations are objectively wrong, or not even words.

3) Using a perfectly acceptable rhetorical device (hyperbole) to extend the meaning of “literally” makes someone illiterate.

Here’s the thing: none of these embedded assumptions are true in any meaningful way, and they are extremely harmful assumptions to have in a world where many people have legitimate difficulties in learning or using the literary standard.

First of all, linguistic variation is a perfectly normal phenomenon, and there is no objective reason to privilege one speaker’s usage over another as being “more correct.” AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), standard literary English, and every other regional or ethnic variety of English and every other language are all equally clear, expressive, systematic, and internally consistent.

Just because we have this arbitrary collection of grammatical rules, vocabulary, and orthographic conventions that has gradually been codified as the literary “standard” over the last few centuries (largely because they reflected the usage of the politically and economically powerful) does not mean that usages departing from this standard are “wrong.” They are merely non-standard.

Koko the gorilla, wearing a tiara and holding a piece of pink plastic resembling a tablet

“Damn right,” said Koko, whose philosophical musings can be found on Thought Catalog. Credit: koko.org

Furthermore, to claim that a perfectly cromulent example non-standard vocabulary (like “heighth”) is not even a word is really, once you think about it for a second, a direct attack on the humanity of the speaker: if it is not a word that they are speaking, if it is truly devoid of syntactic value (in any language!), then what is left but some kind of pre-linguistic animal vocalization? Because humans use words to communicate. Heck, even gorillas can use words!

It couldn’t possibly be that morphological shifts occurring by analogy to other words is a real phenomenon, could it? Nah, they just dove right in there with the language-shaming.

And it isn’t like we aren’t all aware of the fact that standard usage is arbitrary. We all acknowledge that there are several standard versions of English, and differences in spelling and usage among them are not qualitative, but simply matters of convention or chance. For example, how is “different to” (Br) vs. “different from” (Am) any different from the video’s example of “on accident” vs. “by accident”? Even within American English pairs such as “in line” and “on line” are both considered acceptable, although use the latter is common only in the Mid-Atlantic region.

So, all that said, how can we address this problem in an effective way?

First off, I think it’s important that we all agree that it’s inappropriate to use the kind of language in this video (or any other kind of negative or ableist language) when addressing non-standard usages we encounter both on the internet and in real life. And before the hardcore prescriptivists start with the pearl-clutching and the “how can we just stand by and fiddle as the English language goes down in flames,” I want to be clear in saying that this doesn’t mean we can’t still help people to get better at standard usage, at least in appropriate situations.

And really, if you are using disparaging language like this in your attempts to “help” people get better at standard English usage, chances are you’re a lot more concerned with trumpeting your own linguistic/intellectual/social status than you are in actually teaching them anything.

It’s also worth thinking about what actually constitutes an appropriate situation to offer someone grammatical “corrections.” If possible, it’s pretty much always highly preferable to offer corrections in a private, low-key kind of way. Pointing out someone’s nonstandard usage in a public setting, even when not intended as a rhetorical weapon, can still be embarrassing for the affected party.

If offering a private correction is impossible, chances are you don’t know the person in question well enough to be correcting their usage in the first place. So don’t. Really, it’s just that simple. In the wilds of the internet, you simply have no way of knowing why a stranger writes the way they do.

Perhaps they aren’t a native speaker. Perhaps they are dyslexic. Perhaps they have to use speech recognition for some reason or another. And yes, perhaps they simply don’t know the rule in question. In any case, it’s really not your job to fix it, and doing so will almost inevitably just make someone feel attacked, uncomfortable, or unwelcome.

In the case of public writing, it’s reasonable to assume that writers (like me!) would prefer their copy to be as standard as possible, so it’s fine to point out things that may have been missed in the editorial process. By the same token, there is no reason to go any further than pointing out the oversight and moving on with your day. Don’t assume they need to be taught why a given mistake is a mistake, and be aware that there are a number of overly pedantic rules that it is perfectly possible to reasonably disagree with.

Picard soprting a puckish expressionAre you a “grammar maven”? What do you think of the video? What is your biggest grammatical pet peeve? (Mine are loose/lose, often pronounced with a t, and hypercorrections like “between you and I”). Did I make any mistakes in this article?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

12 Comments

  1. February 25, 2014 at 1:45 am —

    Huh, I’d never thought about “on accident” vs. “by accident” before. So many of our prepositions are quirky. We say an apple is “on” a tree but a bird is “in” a tree. It’s easy to get confused. It’s interesting that the puppets aren’t so pedantic about the non-standard vernacular that several of the character’s employ in their speech (did I hear a double negative in there?), but damn if you use “literally” wrong. Maybe if your language quirks are cute or old-fashioned, that’s considered ok, but if you speak in a manner typical of teenagers or younger people (they/they’re, literally, alot, or any of the other ones I hear people complaining about online), then that’s considered irritating?

    Also, we should be so worried about misspelled tweets? I always figured that tweets are supposed to be casual. Certainly my grandparents wouldn’t recognise most tweets as standard english sentences, what with all the # and @ symbols.

    • February 25, 2014 at 1:56 am —

      I think the “casual” vs “incorrect” distinction is a tricky one to navigate. There is definitely a difference between abbreviating and misspelling (which they do bring up in the video), and I think framing it in this way contributes to the idea that people are being “sloppy” or “lazy” with language both when they abbreviate and when they misspell.

      I for one don’t buy the idea that people make grammatical/spelling errors because they are being “lazy.” How would that even happen? They see the error there in the text and decide to save a few keystrokes by not fixing it? OR does it mean they don’t want to look up the rule (which actually means they don’t know the rule, not that they are lazy.) One exception: I do think misspelling something and then using “(sp?)” to acknowledge this fact while typing on a device that accesses the internet does demonstrate a bit of laziness.

  2. February 25, 2014 at 3:27 am —

    1.) I think that people should already give up on “literally”. Language changes and “literally” has obviously lost its meaning of “exactly this thing”. Meaning is defined by the community of users, not old books or ethymology*
    2.) There’s another aspect of this and that is native speaker privilege. English is THE lingua franca of our times. It is estimated that 2 billion people on this planet speak English in some rudimentary form at least. And if you want to participate in international discourse, be it as a commenter on the internet or a scientist in a conference, you need English. And quite often, instead of addressing arguments, people are dressed down because their variety is different.
    Yes, I’m going to call it a variety in its own right, because that discussion is one that highlights the issue: While linguistically (not necessarily in everyday life) all native varieties are considered equal, and typical features are not characterized as mistakes or lack of proficiency, non native speaker varietes are denied the status of a variety and their typical features are still charcaterized as faulty and mistakes, as if the last 50 years in linguistics didn’t happen.

    *Funny annecote time: When I first read Frankenstein, I was kind of confused that everybody (literally!) was gay.

    • February 25, 2014 at 4:10 am —

      1) I still maintain that “literally” is not even a change in definition but a perfectly normal use of hyperbole. Complaining about “literally” meaning “figuratively” makes exactly as much sense as complaining about any other non-literal meaning in figurative language. What they are actually arguing is that “literally” is the only word in the whole language that never gets to be used in any sense other than its literal one.

      2) Non-native varieties are definitely a thing all of their own, and an interesting one at that (side note: part of my dissertation also deals with non-native speakers, including an instance where they are portrayed speaking a local dialect!).

      What’s particularly interesting to me is the way countries with a robust system of teaching English-as-a-foreign-language develop their own special dialectical quirks. For example, English pronunciation is typically taught in a uniform way based on the native sound-set, which yields a particular and fairly regular accent throughout that system. However, this can be different in two places with the same source language: in France, English /th/ is rendered as /z/, but in Quebec it is rendered as /d/. That difference is basically universal in both places, with the exception of those speakers who learn to speak with /th/.

      Non-native speakers also often end up using somewhat uncommon words or phrases very frequently because they are an official or direct translation of a common word/phrase in their native language. For example, I was editing a book proposal today which included a lot of English written by native Italian-speakers. All of them tended to use the word “nowadays” where a native speaker would usually use “these days” or “today,” because “nowadays” is usually given in textbooks to mean “oggigiorno.” Same with “for some years,” which sounds odd to a native ear but is incredibly common among Italians speaking English because “some” is the textbook translation for “qualche.”

      But yeah, I think the experience of language learning is useful also for the humility it teaches in that phase where one is constantly frustrated by an inability to eloquently or coherently express an idea because of linguistic limitations. Unfortunately the vast majority of native English speakers never progress far enough in a foreign language to reach that stage, and so aren’t left with the appropriate respect for people who manage to surpass it or any sympathy for those who are still stuck in it but are trying their best nonetheless.

      • February 25, 2014 at 4:38 am —

        Hehe, I often use “or” where native speakers use “and”. Because German.
        Oudated idioms are another thing. If you hear anybody say “it’s raining cats and dogs” they are probably German. Those things are a bit like hearing Christopher Lee in German: you know immediately that something is off, but it#s hard to put your finger to it.
        “Non-native varieties are definitely a thing all of their own, and an interesting one at that (side note: part of my dissertation also deals with non-native speakers, including an instance where they are portrayed speaking a local dialect!).”
        Is your dissertation published? I’m asking because my yet to be written dissertation will deal with something similar (I hope)

        • February 25, 2014 at 4:41 am —

          Not yet (it’s not quite done!), but I am looking around to publish that bit as an article soon-ish 🙂

  3. February 25, 2014 at 10:45 am —

    I’ve recently started including the aversions people have to the word “like” and to swear words as problematic linguistic judgements as well. So often they are used to differentiate between one’s own group and various out groups.

  4. February 25, 2014 at 11:20 am —

    Shouldn’t “none of these embedded assumptions are true in any meaningful way” actually be “none of these things is true in any meaningful way”

  5. February 25, 2014 at 5:44 pm —

    I’d like to recommend one of my favorite podcasts A Way With Words. Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette are the hosts. They’re informative without being judgmental. Grant especially really loves the variety of English and has taught me to lighten up about what I used to consider “non-standard” English.

    • February 25, 2014 at 10:47 pm —

      Thanks I’ll check it out. There’s also Lexicon Valley with Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, sponsored by Slate.

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