Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.

There are some things you just don’t say in polite society. You don’t make overtly racist comments. You don’t insult the poor. You do your best not to offend others’ political sensibilities. But there is one type of comment that does not seem to be marked as inappropriate, though it certainly is potentially hurtful as it reflects an underlying negative attitude toward others—and a false assumption about language.

Here’s how it often goes:  “I can’t stand it when people say aks instead of ask—it sounds so stupid!” “It drives me crazy when people use double negatives, like I didn’t see no one, or Didn’t nobody get hurt. That just doesn’t make any sense!”

There is no scientific basis for such negative comments. Both the alternation between [sk] and [ks] (an instance of what linguists call metathesis) and the presence of multiple negative elements within a sentence with the reading of a single negation (or negative concord) are natural phenomena that are found across human languages. Negative concord is part of the grammar of Russian and Italian, among many other languages, for example, and was also part of the grammar of Old English and Middle English. We don’t hear people getting upset about the fact that the Italian Non ho visto nessuno (literally “not (I) have seen no one”) contains two negative elements—it is simply accepted as part of the grammar of this language, as it should be. Yet people get upset about negative concord in English. Why?

It’s because we associate these linguistic features with speakers who occupy a low position on the socio-economic scale. We think of negative concord as something used by certain black speakers, certain speakers of Appalachian English, and working-class people more generally. These groups have low prestige in American society and, by association, the variety of English they speak has low prestige—to some, it even sounds stupid, or illogical. But there is nothing illogical with negative concord as a strategy for expressing sentential negation; if it rubs us the wrong way, it’s because of who uses it in English. In fact, those who don’t look down on these groups, don’t look down on the way they speak, either. Young people who love hip-hop music and admire its performers borrow negative concord into their own variety of English to sound cool and gain street cred; whether a variety sounds stupid or cool is a reflection of how we feel about the people who use it.

To be sure, many would argue that [aks] or negative concord raise eyebrows not because of a negative attitude, but simply because they are not part of the grammar of English. English is not Italian—or Russian—after all. In this line of thinking, we object to these linguistic features because they represent a violation of the rules of English grammar. There is a major flaw in this reasoning, however: it presumes that there is a single grammar of English. There isn’t.

Think of grammar as a recipe that allows us to form the sentences of the language we speak—a mental recipe that tells us how to form, pronounce, and interpret the sentences of our language. There is no single recipe for English; rather, there are a number of recipes. They have a lot in common, but are also slightly different from one another. They give rise to different varieties of English. Such varieties align with many factors, including age, ethnic or social identity, and geographical location—there is no doubt that English speakers in London, Sydney, and Los Angeles have slightly different recipes and thus speak different varieties of English.

In every country, one of these varieties emerges as the variety of prestige—the one that people need to use in job interviews, in formal occasions, on television, and more generally to climb the socio-economic ladder. Schools teach the recipe (or grammar) of this prestige variety; in doing so, they empower children, by giving them access to economic opportunities. But this doesn’t mean that the other varieties are stupid, illogical, or nonsensical, or that they are a distortion of the prestige variety, or “bad grammar.” They are simply different; they reflect mental grammars that differ minimally from one another, within limits imposed by general properties of human language. When we say that they are cool or illogical, we are expressing a judgment on the people who speak them—and if the judgment is negative, it amounts to a negative judgment on the people who speak that variety.

How should we think of different varieties of the same language? Following an analogy in Mark Baker’s book The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar, I suggest that we think about varieties of the same language the way we think about varieties of bread. Different kinds of bread are the overt reflection of recipes that differ minimally from one another. There is no bread that is stupid, illogical, or a distortion of another, but there might be types of bread that we feel are more appropriate—or even required by convention—for certain situations, and types of bread found in certain places and not in others, or associated with certain ethnic groups or social classes.

Similarly, no variety of English is a distortion of another; there are some that are appropriate—or even required by convention—for certain situations, and some that are found in certain places and not in others, or associated with certain ethnic groups or social classes. But just as we wouldn’t say that biscuits, baguette, pita, or challah are illogical or stupid, or distortions from “proper bread,” similarly we shouldn’t think that African-American English or Appalachian English or the English of Boston’s North End are illogical or stupid, or distortions from “proper English.” The recipes are simply different, and we should consider ourselves fortunate and appreciate the varieties that they yield. No one wants to live in a homogeneous white bread world.
Zanuttini, Raffaella. 2014. “Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: October 22, 2014. Available online:

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