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Myths that make monsters — Part III

This column is the third part in a series that challenges four fallacies or myths in our culture’s general perception of language and how it works because these fallacies cause great social harm and injustice. Previous columns have addressed the three language myths: first, that we teach people to think about English as if it should exist in one form only; second, that only standard language has grammar; and third, that using the terms “good” and “bad” to describe language can be harmful because of the powerful moral connotations attached to their use.

Today’s column focuses on the fourth myth which is that students often learn to value writing over speech. Why is this? Writing is considered more logical and structured than speech. In order to learn to write we go to school and receive intensive, specialized training that continues for years. Speech is often less valued because it is learned naturally in the environment of the home and community. Speech is also instantaneous. A speech act occurs and then is gone unless it is recorded. Because writing is associated with the classroom, literacy and learning it is accorded a higher value than speech. Leslie Milroy, a well-known sociolinguist, argues that speech is often considered unstructured, ungrammatical and slovenly because it is compared to the formal, codified rules for writing.

In reality speech is complex, sophisticated and organized along clearly structured patterns. Consider all the layers of complexity speech has. Tone of voice, rhythm, intonation and body language are just a few of the ways speech is made rich by resources not available in writing. Students, however, are not always taught to value the logic or appreciate the structure of speech nor are they taught the difference in function between speech and writing. Milroy describes the classroom’s imbalanced perception of the two skills as follows:

As writing skills are difficult, our educational systems have concentrated on inculcating a relatively high degree of literacy, with little attention paid to the nature of spoken language as an everyday social activity … Spoken language is taken for granted. As a result of this constant emphasis on written language, there is an understandable tendency for people to believe that writing is somehow more complicated and difficult (and more important) than speech.

Because non-standard varieties of English tend to be spoken and are not written down, they are by association also deemed less worthy, less like real language. Even more problematic is the tendency to hold the speech patterns and structure of dialects, such as Black English and Hispanic English, accountable to the same rules that have been established for formal writing. Although writing is derived from speech, we have created an inaccurate balance in our estimation of writing and dismissal of speech. The specialized rules of formal, written English have become the basis for standard English and this includes speech.

We must be accurate in our perception of these two skills. It is not as simple as one skill being better or more worthy than the other. Writing and speech are very different forms of communication with different purposes and vastly distinctive structures. For example, it is natural for writing to incorporate syntactically complex sentences with subordinate clauses. These same structures do not fit comfortably in speech which because of its immediacy and the social context often utilizes shorter phrases, ellipses, deictic devices and repetition.

When speech utterances typical of Hispanic or Black English are compared to the uniform, highly valued structures of the written language, the popular reaction is one of condemnation in part because of the myth that writing is superior to speech.

Instead of allowing students to passively absorb wrong ideas about language, we need to be intentional in how we teach students to think about language. Students need to understand three key facts about language: first that it is always changing, second that it always exists in variation and third, what the nature, role and limits of standard language are.

Language is always changing. It is a fundamental part of the nature of language. It is difficult to grasp the nature or drift of the change within the perspective of one lifetime because the changes are occurring so gradually (McWhorter, 1998, p. 8). Also, most of us are uncomfortable with language change. We invest years of our lives in learning the standard form of English and any changes to this system seem like corruption or decay, but this is simply not true.

Our spelling system preserves many examples of written language’s inability to keep up with changes in the spoken language. Standardized during the early modern stage of English with the invention of the printing press, our spelling system is lagging behind the changes that have been occurring since. For example, we no longer pronounce the “k” in “knife” or “knight.” The final “e” in words like “love” and “like” is now silent. These sounds disappeared a long time ago and yet their written counterparts remain as a reminder of what used to be a phonetic reality. English has changed dramatically since the invention of the printing press but these changes have not weakened the language. Students must understand that language change is not decay. It is just change and history eventually proves that many of the changes that make speakers uncomfortable are eventually accepted without question by future generations of speakers.

In addition to understanding the inviolability of language change, students also must understand that language always exists in variation. It is important for students to accurately place the multiple dialects of English and to understand that non-standard dialects of English such as Black English and southern English have a structure or grammar. In their excellent book “Do You Speak American?” MacNeil and Cran describe common attitudes toward nonstandard dialects when they write:

To speak of black “grammar” will disconcert many Americans, white or black, who think that Black English is merely a lazy or broken English. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry once called it “a language that has no right or wrong expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations, and no discernible rules.” That is a common assumption, except among linguists.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.