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Myths that make monsters — Part IV

This is the fourth 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.

This column continues to focus on the fourth myth which is students often learn to value writing over speech.

Just as important as understanding that change and variation are part of the nature of language, students need to comprehend the role, nature and limits of standard language. First, and perhaps most crucial in fighting racism, is that the standard is not a linguistically superior variety of language. It is the agreed upon way to do things.

It is necessary for us to have a standard form of language but it is not by nature or form better or superior or more pure language. A language standard is absolutely necessary because it allows us to have one variety of English that can be taught in school and that serves as a basis for our written language. Because it is the variety that is written down in books, studied and learned, it receives a great deal of polishing and ordering.

This polishing and ordering have produced a set of grammar, spelling and word usage rules to which we can refer when we have a question or need direction in our writing. This is one of the many advantages of standard language.

When teaching students about the nature, role and limits of standard language, it is necessary to help them see how the polishing and ordering have also made the standard language artificial. Because the usage rules for the standard are based on formal, written English, and there are vast differences between writing and speech, any artificiality should come as no surprise. What does surprise many people, however, is that in the 18th century when it became necessary to codify the rules of standard English, Latin was chosen as a source for the creation of many important grammar rules. One of these rules is that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. There is a serious structural problem with this rule. English is a Germanic language and Latin is an Italic language. As such, these are two different languages with two very different structures or grammars. It is perfectly natural for English to place a preposition in sentence final position. The artificial nature of standard language is well captured in this example. What should be a perfectly normal and expected structure of English has been sanctioned as “wrong.”

When we teach students to think accurately about language, we are not teaching them that “anything goes,” nor are we teaching them to ignore the importance of standard language. While we are teaching them that the standard is necessary and valuable, we are also showing them that it is not linguistically superior. Gaining proficiency in the standard along with understanding that all language varieties are legitimate, rule-governed systems does not leave the standard unprotected. It simply allows everybody to have a seat at the language table.

Linguist Dennis Preston has noted that most European school children go to school speaking a nonstandard variety of their particular language. In school they are instructed in the standard variety of their language without being taught to look down on their native dialect.

When our educational system teaches students that the standard is really just the agreed upon way to do things and not some superior variety, it enables all English speakers to be included. And it makes it wrong to tell any native speaker of English “You don’t know how to speak English.”

Common language myths

1. Casual speech or dialectal speech is less logical than literary language.

2. Dialectal differences and slang are the results of language corruption.

3. We need a fixed (unchanging) spelling system because this keeps language from changing.

4. Language should never change because language change is decay.

5. Words that cannot be found in the dictionary are not words and we should not use them.

6. It is impossible to speak a language correctly without a formal study of the language’s grammar.

7. Knowing the grammar of a language means knowing all the rules of use that have been written about a language.

8. Speaking correctly means pronouncing words exactly like they are written.

9. Knowing how to spell words correctly is a sign of superior intelligence.

10. Written language is superior to spoken language.

11. Some languages/dialects in the world are more primitive than others.

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