Hear ye, hear ye!

Yo! Listen up! May I have your attention, please! Language changes, this is an obvious fact. What was considered ‘correct’ or acceptable English generations ago may be considered wrong today, and vice versa. In fact, if you go back enough generations, the concept of “correct English” doesn’t even exist.

I’ve known this for a long time. I have also long been aware of the simple fact that “rules” of English serve the function of providing delineations of class & status groups, as well as providing tools to keep newcomers out. This functions in all directions. One dialect of English is as good as another, and proper, or correct use, is determined by the community of users. It is fluid. There is no “correct” English in the sense that one way of speaking is right, while the others are wrong.

So, why do I find it so hard to refrain from correcting my childrens’ grammar? Lingering language snobbism, conformity, and the desire to have them be well aware of what is considered standard, educated English in today’s world. After all, you never know when you might find yourself at tea with the Queen of England, and then you would certainly want to know that one says, “Jenny and I,” rather than “Me and Jenny.” But, my concerns are probably ill placed. Any child that is educated and grows up in an educated household can probably detect the surrounding language shibboleths in an instant, and adjust accordingly.

It’s all about socialization, wanting to feel comfortable. People want to speak like their friends and family, which is why local dialects persist in the face of the mass-media onslaught. If people want to fit in linguistically, they can without much effort, provided they have the background. Same thing goes for teaching kids how to eat with a knife and fork. If a middle-class kid with a college education wants to be perceived by his or her peers as such, he says, “…and I.” If he doesn’t give a damn, she says whatever she wants to. It’s really all about class/status recognition and class anxiety.

Buuuttt…I still grit my teeth when I read or hear constructions such as “Give a copy to Bill and I…” So obviously wrong! Give a copy to Bill, give a copy to me, give a copy to Bill and me! Simple. Well…as Steven Pinker points out in his discussion of this construction under his denunciation of “language mavens” in his book, The Language Instinct, one could perceive the construction “Bill and I” as a unit, in which case, the grammar makes sense. Maybe in twenty years this way of speaking will have become so common that it will be “standard.” Only a few cranks will rail against the decay of the language, insisting that it is plain wrong, even though everybody understands exactly what is meant by the phrase. And fifty years on, the controversy will be dead, only a subject for erudite statiric remarks about close-minded curmudgeons.


One Response to Hear ye, hear ye!

  1. Loyal Achates says:

    Hey, you’re back!

    I still think Orwell got it right in ‘Politics and the English Language”.

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