Saturday, 2 March 2013

Learning to Write the "Standard": Class & Language Wars in the Descriptivists vs Prescriptivists Debate

Following on from my last post on class, in particular on working-class experiences of higher education, I wanted to write in more depth about the ways in which language itself has to be relearned for many  students when starting higher education. In order to do well, it is insisted that students become fluent in the right way of writing which is SWE (Standard written  English). I'm interested in what makes the standard the "standard" and for whom? And more generally; what do standards assume, whom do they privilege and what happens when students fall outside of them.

Standard Written English is the language we must master in order to write “correctly”. It is a written language that is not spoken by all its writers. It is the standard that must be adhered to, but for whom is it a standard, and who dictates it? To deviate from a supposed standard means to become Other: for example, British southern speakers consider themselves “without accent”, assuming that their way of speaking is the neutral norm and others “with accents” have deviated from the standard way of speaking. This also has a relationship to class: if one does not speak in southern accented English, one is breaking with the standards of the white southern middle-classes.

This has to do with who exercises power and dominance.  Another instance in which power and dominance dictate the standard is in sex. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the work of Jacques Lacan and countless other prominent male thinkers of the twentieth century, a woman’s ontological being is that of lack: a woman’s anatomical structure deviates from that of man, because she lacks a penis. The male is the standard and the woman is the incorrect substandard being. My point in giving these two examples is to highlight that we live in a patriarchal, imperialist society. Rules and standards are set by those in power: they are not neutral forms of being, writing and speaking, but the hegemonic regulations of those with power and status: predominately, white, middle and upper-class men.

As students, we have to confront the forged constructions of linguistic standards. We must learn the rules of the game of the education system, in order to "win" and be rewarded with high marks and a good degree. We are taught to learn mimicry, to repress our own dialects and to appropriate the language of people to whose discourse community we do not belong. Therefore for those who are not white and/or middle class, who do not speak or write in this supposed neutral standard English, it is a case of “if you can't beat them, join them”. We students then must learn a new language in order to pass ourselves off as white and/or middle-class, capable of using the good SWE that is held as the ideal and marked accordingly.

What then to make of the varying arguments of the prescriptivist and the descriptivist camps? I'm interested in interrogating the ways each work and the possible problems of each position from my own personal point of view of a working class student. The issue in the dispute between descriptivists and prescriptivists is not which side cares more about language, but what is given the highest value: the content or the format of the writing. As Brian Garner states: “The prescriptive camp explicitly values linguistic decisions and informed standards of correctness”.The two sides of this debate are perhaps not even arguing the same point. The descriptive camp are more interested in a sociological study of how language, that is the parole (speech) used by a society, has been constructed and subject to ever-changing structures and permutations. The describers are more concerned with the practice of speech, the shifting semiotic meanings and the utterances unique to a given discourse community. They are not dictating how we are to use language in an academic setting. As Garner points out: “Describers themselves write exclusively in Standard English”. The salient feature in their research is how entwined language and identity are. Despite our ability to vary registers, to function in differing discourse communities using different dialects, most people have a core parole that expresses what has formed their individual make up.

What is pertinent about this finding is that is draws attention to a process of erasure within academia: we exchange our individual parole for the langue of institutional authority and power. Terrance Hawkes explicitly links our construction of  language with our construction of selfhood, "since this self-regarding self-regulating, form constitutes our characteristic means of encountering and of coping with the world beyond ourselves, then perhaps we can say that it constitutes the characteristic human structure. From there, it is only a small step to the argument that perhaps it also constitutes the characteristic structure of human reality". If we take the stance that language and identity are closely bonded, then acceptance of the discriminatory idea that language usage that does not adhere to SWE is incorrect, can lead to a shattering of one's sense of identity. The linguist James Milroy comments that “in an age when discrimination in terms of race, colour, religion, or gender is not publicly acceptable, the last bastion of overt social discrimination will continue to be a person's language”. Although I do believe a person's language can be an essential aspect of how they view themselves, and factors in how they interrogate the world, I do not believe my language is my reality. However, it is true to say that human beings' experience of reality is subjective, and if you feel your language (i.e. your self) is under threat, then you may also feel your reality or validity is being questioned.

Like Garner, David Foster Wallace describes himself as a "descriptivist prescriber". He states the prescriptivist case in a gentler way. By using the self-deprecating term "snoot" he attempts to endear himself to the reader, deliberately using informal language and a conversational tone to show that he is "just like us after all". Wallace of course knows what register is appropriate in the context of academic publications, but chooses to disregard his own rules in a rather disingenuous tactic intended to 'level with' the reader. This acts as "the spoon full of sugar", so that when at the end of his essay he tells a student (and us the reader) 'This is just How It Is" - that we must us SWE or fail - the harsh truth is supposedly easier to swallow. Wallace expresses in this passage of dialogue with a student his awareness that SWE is the language of the powerful, and that this could be seen as "racist and unfair", yet by using the example of successful and powerful black people he reinforces the conservative view that conformity breeds success, that success is gauged financially and education enables class climbing and access to power. The usefulness of Wallace's instruction "you're going to use it, too, because I am going to make you" is a prescriptivist lesson of the uses of conformity. 

To elevate the status and authority of his argument, Garner often cites which university his chosen prescribers come from: "the Oxford professor Jean Aitchison", "Richard Bailey of Michigan" and "F.W, Bateson of Oxford" etc. Yet when commenting on the possible future degeneration of language, his regard for the authority of institutions of education  disappears. Perhaps this can be explained as an example of educational elitism. In a university-damning passage he suggests: “The spirit of the day demands that you not think critically – or at least not think ill – of anyone else’s use of language...And there is a large, powerful contingent in higher education today...trying to eradicate any thoughts about good and bad grammar, correct and incorrect word choices, effective and ineffective style”. In my experiences of being a student I find this statement totally unfounded. During my BA, the marking schemes for essay submission clearly state that students "must show correct grammar and lexical choices" etc, as well as "clarity and flair". During the first half of my degree, before I knew better - and to my personal displeasure - the quality (or lack) of correct SWE was often treated as of greater importance than other things my written work had been praised for, such as being "original", "interesting" and possessing  "sophistication and independence of thought" etc. At that point, not being able to master SWE put me at a disadvantage  Garner's hyperbolic comment is comparable to that of a white racist from a predominantly white area who believes that "the blacks are taking all the jobs" - his scaremongering comes from the same position of  fear and ignorance: fear for the loss of a standard he highly regards, and ignorance in that he is not writing from the position of a student currently in higher education.

Garner falls into a perfomative contradiction when he says that "without some stability, the English language wouldn't be much as a lingua franca".  The use of this Latin phrase, rather than an SWE version, reveals a privileged education in which a familiarity with Latin is expected and is in common use. (Perhaps showing my own ignorance - but I didn't know what this phrase meant until after completing my degree!). Still, I feel the usage of Latin here speaks of the old boys club influencing English language – what percentage of the population finds this phrase in common use? Why not use the vernacular ''bridge language", to follow the prescriptivist insistence on correct English usage that is clear and understood by all its users? Surely this is an example of elitism within language use on the side of the prescriptivist. Should students today, despite not having had access to that type of education, be learning Latin phrases in order to join a prescribed discourse community? Or is it the case that, as Colin MacCabe argues, “the eighteenth-century grammars, and more importantly the views of language and class which underpinned them, continue to terrorize English speech.”. 

Language can be used as a weapon: those who have access to decent, thorough education can wield their words in a manner that dominates and oppresses those who do not possess that capability. When one party uses Latin it is a blatant display of knowledge that carries with it an easy confidence that stems from privilege. This is not about intelligence or clarity, but about education: who has it and who doesn't. If you are going to enter into the debate you must acquire this learning for yourself, not to conform to the standard set but to have the same mastery of language.


  1. I don't want to sound like I am being overly prescriptivist, but I do have a measure of difficulty understanding that the use of SWE is really that much of a widespread problem for those studying Higher Education level.

    What I mean to say is that while the government clearly need to get more working-class young adults into University, I would hope that any prospective degree student would have attained a decent level of SWE in their education leading up to degree level study.

    Unfortunately, the absence of marks for good spelling and grammar in current GCSE exams, coupled with the gradual (but not wholly negative) changes our language has recently experienced through social networking and other technology, makes it hard to argue that a benchmark like SWE should not exist, however bias it may or may not be towards certain perceived classes.

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