The English Language and Social Class

I’ve still been thinking about common mispronunciations since Saturday. While doing a little casual googling to confirm what I suspected about which mispronunciations annoyed people, I came across a post which featured some of the more common language errors that bedevil Americans in particular. They were all there: supposably, libary, literally, irregardless, aks et al. And I can understand why they might be annoying. If you say one thing, and someone else says another, that’s annoying. Even more so if the dictionary agrees with you. Getting annoyed is ok, but are such errors really a sign of the death of the English language?

Because that’s what the writer was suggesting, which to me seemed quite hyperbolic. I mean, think about it. Would using any of these words affect your understanding of what a person was saying? Most are simply one letter away from their dictionary definitions, so it’s easy to know what the person is talking about. Even with literally, which you could argue is completely misused when it’s used as an intensifier, I think it’s still usually pretty clear what the person is saying.  So how then is the language dying? For me, something like using your instead of you’re would be more cause for concern, as that ignores some fundamental aspects of grammar. But that’s a pretty isolated incident, and most of the errors people get really annoyed about don’t affect grammar, and therefore don’t affect comprehension.

It might seem strange then that someone might proclaim such minor errors as evidence of the language dying. But I think the real answer lies in who’s making these mistakes. The post featured little comics to illustrate each error. One features a character with a mullet, tank top, and baseball cap using both supposably and nucular (instead of nuclear). The comic about mispronouncing library suggested that mispronouncing it was a sure sign of making people think you’re illiterate. Which irked me, because the first image featured a character asking writers if he could find their books at the libary, but the author stated that hearing that, he only heard “Books? Those are thing things I use to prop up my coffee table when it’s not level, right?” So the fact that the character was interested in reading and seeking out books was entirely undermined by a slight pronunciation error.

It was clear to me that the author was more concerned by these people, who they are and how they speak, rather than any actual effect on the language. Most of the errors were those more likely to be made by people from poorer backgrounds, and the author/artist portrayed them as such in a stereotypical manner. Now of course, if people are poorer, they’re less likely to have access to (quality) education, and are therefore more likely to make language errors. Which is generally true, but then the post ignored any of the mitigating factors for why people might make errors. For example, another comic in the same post had a police officer asking “How hard is it to say ask?” as opposed to aks. Which is grossly oversimplified. It’s not just that people choose to say aks instead of ask for arbitrary reasons, or they’re incapable of saying ask. If you grow up in a situation where other people around you say aks, and you’re not in a situation where you’re not frequently exposed to written English wherein you see ask spelled correctly, you’re more likely to say aks. It’s not a simple case of just making a mistake, because context is crucial, and some people are more fortunate to grow up in a context in which it’s much easier to use language correctly than it is for others. Not everyone, however appreciates the good fortune they have that they’ve grown up in such a context.

Plus, there are plenty of other common errors that are made by people of more diverse backgrounds, that the author didn’t mention. Like your instead of you’re, or saying If I would have… instead of If I had… The fact that these mistakes are so common, and can’t be pinned to one particular group of people, means that they don’t get pointed out so much. Your/you’re a little bit, but very few people seem to be aware that If I would have… is not correct, and in fact has no real relation to established grammatical patterns at all.

So I think it’s clear that people’s reactions to errors are more about tribalism than any genuine concern for the English language. Some people say one thing, others say it slightly differently, but the first group have the dictionary and standards of usage on their side. Still, if we still understand what people are saying, it shouldn’t matter if what they’re saying is a letter or two away from what you’re saying. But we establish lines between what we consider proper and improper language usage, partly based on grammatical rules, but also partly based on who’s using what. Those who have social and economic power have a lot more control in deciding what’s “correct.” There was a recent illustration of this in a young American woman’s high-school yearbook message, in which she said:

Anything is possible when you sound Caucasian on the phone. 

There are more connotations beyond the racial aspect to the message too, with Caucasian also meaning middle class. The quote garnered a lot of support but also a lot of controversy. She had many supporters, but just as many saying one should know better than to speak “ghetto” (again, conflating race and poverty) in professional situations. And obviously this example specifically applies to the United States, but there are equivalent situations all over the world, and not just in English. In most countries it’s inconceivable to enter, for example, a business deal, while speaking with an accent or dialect of a lower socio-economic background. It shouldn’t be, because communication wouldn’t be impeded, but it would never happen. Because language is not just about communication, it’s about making an impression. And people will say you need to modulate the way you speak in certain situations to make a good impression. But then the only reason using language in a certain way makes a bad impression is because of pre-existing social prejudices. And none of this situation is helped by the fact that the onus is on those from disadvantaged backgrounds to change their mode of speech, not anyone else. It’s just throwing up another barrier on the path to social mobility. It’s easy to say “just talk like us!” when you’ve always talked that way.

Of course, such prejudices are very difficult to change, but considering how we communicate and think about language might be one way to bridge some of these gaps. So the next time you hear someone pronounce something in a way you don’t like, try to put yourself in their shoes and consider why they might say it that way, and if it actually matters that they do.

3 thoughts on “The English Language and Social Class

  1. Spoken language is forever evolving, and you could argue that written language (and the grammar rule books that go with it) are the death knell. If you never see it written down, or have someone point out your split infinitive, you will carry on making yourself understood anyway, maybe more confidently?

    Liked by 1 person

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