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.
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.
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.
Are 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).