Monday, May 10, 2010


All human beings are obsessed with status. In England it's generally called class. Kate Fox has written extensively on the subject in her wonderful book, "Watching the English".

Status is defined differently in different places. Londoners are obsessed with money. It is polite in London to show a new visitor round your house, showing them every room. Nowhere else in England is this normal behaviour with a new visitor, and provincials find the ritual strangely embarrassing. 

Houses in London are very expensive, and so house size is an honest signal of wealth there. One of the things a northerner notices in London is how poxy small the houses of wealthy Londoners are. The size of your house doesn't matter at all in Sheffield, where houses are cheap, and the size of your house mainly indicates how large a house you need, or even just how large a house you like.

People in Cambridge are interested in intelligence and learning. The subculture of the University has formal ranks, which were once marked by actual dress codes, remnants of which are still visible in the elaborate graduation ceremonies. 

Academic status isn't what it used to be, and so these distinctions are dying out. Cambridge is a wealthy city these days, with an acute land shortage. I expect the London custom will make it here one day.

As a boy growing up in Sheffield, I remember that people seemed obsessed with accents. Wealthy and educated people spoke more like southerners.

People with the native accent of the place were thought less of, by everyone including themselves. My grandfather once tried to teach me how to speak the local dialect: 'Weerwatterrunsoerweirin(glottal stop)wicker' is a place. But my grandmother caught him at it, and they had a serious row, in their fury both lapsing into their stronger childhood accents.

But there was also a strong back-reaction. I remember phrases like 'doesn't he have a lovely voice', but also 'stuck-up cunt', 'talks like a fairy' and 'southern poof'.

It wasn't just accent, either. Whenever I go home I get caught out by the breakfast/dinner/tea of the North vs. breakfast/lunch/dinner of the South. Writing this just now I had trouble putting the six in order. Calling dinner lunch in the North is an horrific piece of pretension. Moi?

It all seemed to matter so much to people, even though I think that everyone would have agreed that the whole thing was silly, if they'd ever stopped to think about it.

If you don't believe me, or think Sheffielders are silly people, rather than people with a silly hobby, then consider: How much do you care about spelling, or correct grammar?

And lets not have any of this rubbish abowt cleer communicaytion. It's not very difficulte to reed misspelled wurds, as long as youre respekting the fonetics ov the language and its orthografy. And thats the only sort of missteaks that a native speeker is going to make. Aktually writing in this stile is very liberating. I now find. Try it! You will lern things you didn't know you allredy knew.

But it does make you think that the writer is an idiot. And actually, you're not thinking 'idiot'. You're thinking uneducated. And you're not really thinking 'uneducated', either. What you're thinking is 'Working-class parents'.

This is of course very hard on dyslexics, who have a brain deformity that fakes the symptoms of poor education. So little Elektra is going to write like her daddy worked down a pit, beheading turkeys or whatever.

'Correct' spelling is at least easy enough to define.

The whole idea of 'correct grammar' is very suspect. What sort of 'correct' is it that prescribes 'Jack and I went to the pictures' when almost every English speaker naturally says 'Me and Jack went'?

Me and Jack are so hard-wired into the structure of the language that even very educated people with very educated parents need to think about us when writing. 

And one of the most comical mistakes you can make is to overcompensate and say 'Julie took Jack and I to the pictures'. People do this all the time. Other people sneer at them all the time. The crashing sound of self-betrayed pretension. You're copying what you've heard posher people say, but you haven't internalized the rule. Or you are posh, but you're also a bit dim.

Real grammar doesn't work like that. Foreign speakers make real grammar mistakes. Things like 'Will you take me to the pictures in your red big car?'. 

No native speaker, however ill-educated, needs to be told that that's strange. It just is, for no reason that's ever taught at school. The feeling when you hear it is the same queasyness as you feel when trying to work out the 'Jack and I' vs 'Jack and me' thing. It's the grinding of brain-gears being misengaged.

This doesn't prevent English children wasting hours and hours and hours on stupidities like spelling tests. And their parents of all classes being horrified when they're not very good at them. 

So what's the real point of spelling and grammar?

Well, it's like the Londoner's house tours, and the Sheffielder's accent neurosis. It's a status signal which is not explicitly recognised as anything so vulgar.

Why is it a good status signal? Because it's difficult to fake.

If you can't spell, you can't spell. If you don't know the artificial formal grammar of your language, you can't fake it. And even if you do know it, it takes practice to distort your speech and writing to fit the rules. In order to speak and write correctly you need an expensive education.

This explains the 'Jack and I' thing. It's not actually English grammar at all. It's just wrong from a linguist's point of view.

Once upon a time, scholars, who all spoke Latin as a foreign language that they had learned for professional reasons, wondered about the structure of English.

They knew that there are structures to languages, because Latin is a very different language to English, and in order to learn it, they had had to learn a lot of structural rules.

Of course the Romans didn't know anything about these rules. They just spoke their language. And almost certainly the structural rules that the Latin speaking scholars had learned must have failed to capture many details in the everyday speech of the Romans. But the rules were pretty good, if what you wanted to do was read the surviving Latin literature, and more importantly, communicate with other scholars in other countries, who knew the same rules.

So the scholars tried to make a formal system to capture how English was spoken. Of course they were guided by the rules they already knew. From that point of view, it's obvious why it has to be "Jack and I" rather than "Jack and me" in places where you'd say "I" rather than "me", and vice versa.

I wonder how the scholars explained to themselves that most English people got it wrong? Probably they told themselves that the people were not as clever as they were themselves.

So they ended up making up a set of rules to describe English, which actually describe a slightly Latinised version of English instead, and then blaming English speakers (including themselves) for not conforming to the rules.

So that's why we're taught to say "Jack and I". Remember how many times your mother, or your teacher, had to tell you this? Remember overcompensating, and using "Jack and I" when you should have been using object case? Maybe your mother or your teacher's knowledge stopped there and you always say "Jack and I", which is worse than the original mistake?

I was lucky. I learnt Latin. As a result I made the same mistake the scholars made. But that's the right mistake to make. It always feels a bit weird speaking like that, but I can think fast enough that if I'm concentrating, I can override "Me and Jack" in subject position, and say "Jack and I" instead.

Now, do you remember being corrected for saying 'red big car' when you meant 'big red car'? No? Somehow that rule is just there, and no native speaker ever gets it wrong, even though very few of us can say what the rule is.

What the Jack and I rule is, is a rule which is difficult to remember, left over from an analysis of English grammar made a long time ago by Latin-speaking scholars who were trying their best with bad tools, that can be taught, amongst lots of other difficult rules.

Similarly with the famous split infinitive. In Latin the infinitive is one word, so it can't be split. In English, "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the natural thing to say. Boldly to go? To go boldly? Piss off.

Another example is the canard about not ending a sentence with a preposition. As Churchill pointed out, the sort of rule up with which one refuses to put.

The fact that no native English speaker can ever internalize these rules in the effortless way that we know that red big cars don't exist, and never make that mistake, is a sign that the rules don't fit with how language works in the brain.

I also present for your consideration your/you're, it's/its, there/their/they're. If you've ever got one of these wrong, pity the poor French, with their complicated conjugation system. Easy for a foreign speaker to learn, quite hard for the Frogs, who are trying to learn strange rules to spell words that they thought were all the same when they were babies puzzling out how to hard-wire their brains to make sense of the funny sounds their parents made.

And if you still think there's some kind of rationality to it, why is 'It is I' correct English, when 'C'est je' is so utterly wrong in French? The Academie prides itself on its rationality and purity.

Or explain the mistake in the following sentence 'The doctor's practise was insufficiently diligent, so his practise shrank'. God forgive me, I notice that sort of thing from time to time. I doubt one Englishman in one hundred knows the rule that explains it. But nobody would ever give advise.

So what's the rational English speaker to do?

How can we give our language its natural grammar and a phonetic spelling system so that no-one ever needs to spend precious childhood hours memorizing and internalizing this rubbish?

Let's consider:

You could defect unilaterally. Just write everything as you'd say it without thinking, and spell everything tricky as it sounds.

No more professional jobs for you. Your CV is straight in the bin before anyone's even got to the section where you describe your linguistics research.

You could decide not to care. You could spell well yourself, so that you're not communicating 'not fit to be left alone with sharp objects' in every e-mail. But you could deliberately ignore errors as far as possible in other people's writing and speech.

You'd miss vital clues about intelligence, diligence, and background. You'd spend far too long talking to people before you decided that it wasn't worth the bother. 

You'd give random offence to people from different backgrounds by making comments that are acceptable in your own circle but not in theirs. Consider 'bloody immigrants' against 'chav-mobile'. Both perfectly acceptable in the circles in which they're acceptable. Both exceedingly offensive in the wrong place. 

If you were in a position to hand out jobs, you'd interview all the wrong people. You'd waste hours coming to conclusions that you could have come to very quickly. If you got your decisions right at all.

So it would be difficult as an individual, and most unlikely to catch on.

What about as a society?

We could abolish the teaching of spelling and grammar in schools. Just refuse to waste any more time on it.

Ha, ha, bloody ha. People would cheat. Educated parents would educate their children. A certain artificiality of style would mark the writing of the privately educated. Imagine the awe-inspiring lack of smugness with which this sentence might be spoken.

Spelling and grammar would become more reliable status indicators than they are now. At least it's now possible for a working class child to acquire the habits of his betters.

Here's another thought:

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which although publicly funded are almost the ultimate bestowers of good education/intelligence/diligence markers in the form of their degrees, could mandate the use of 'Natural English' in exams. Points could be deducted for old-style 'Vulgar Spelling' and 'Bourgeois Grammatical Mistakes'.

Our brightest and cleverest youngsters would have to spend time unlearning their painfully acquired habits. In time, because they always do, they'd become our highest social class.

And people would start to cheat. To copy. Luckily it wouldn't be very hard! And I reckon that the problem would be gone in a generation.

I trust that the University Senates will leap happily upon my modest proposal in the holy names of Equality and Reason. 

1 comment:

  1. Dude. I really liked your text. I have been very skeptical of normative grammar since I read a portuguese book called "Preconceito Linguístico: Como é e como se faz" -- which basically translates to"Linguistic Prejudice: What it is and how it's done". It showcases this idea that what constitutes a language (and thus what is correct) are its speakers, and that a language can have many different dialects without any of them being wrong. Thanks for the text!