Language, Snobbery, Mockery, Pain

Over at A Star in the Face of the Sky,  novelist David Haynes is having a conversation about language and snobbery and mockery and privacy and teaching and other interesting, difficult things.  Today my friend Robin Black kicked off the conversation with these thoughts:

Although I’ve long had questions about how we teachers discuss our students, the post on Facebook that prompted my – perhaps preachy, surely humorless –  status was actually not of that nature, but was a photograph of a sign advertising “Tudoring.” The comments below had all the expected conjectures about whether the person who wrote it could turn you into Henry VIII and so on; and all I could think of was how my daughter who has language-related disabilities could very easily put up such a sign. And that’s hardly the first time I’ve had this creepy sense on Facebook, and in other contexts too, that it’s uncool but also just plain weird that people laugh at those who struggle to spell well or speak well or write well. Earlier the same day I had seen a post by a literary agent mocking submission letters many of which had been written by people perhaps of limited education and definitely of poor expressive skills. Their errors, in tone and in grammar, don’t necessarily signal disability, but I think that seeing the ways in which my daughter’s disabilities have caused her to write exactly the things people ridicule (and that we teachers at times ridicule behind the backs of our students) has sensitized me to the fact that disability or not, these missteps are almost always signs of some kind of disadvantage, whether intellectual, educational, economic or otherwise. And I just think it’s bad form to mock people who lack the advantages you may have – and who may well be suffering over that lack.

Some thoughts I left in the comments over there:

I spent my middle and high school years in a small, rural Indiana high school where the local dialect sounded distinctly “ignorant” to my ears. My parents were well-educated and intellectuals, and I was decidedly an outsider among my peers in those years, so some of my disdain for their speech patterns was self-protective, for sure. But I also just had a terrible bias that anyone who said “ain’t” and “we was” and “I seen” and used double negatives — etc etc etc — must just be pretty dumb and uninteresting. Then I grew up and learned a lot about language and dialect and I became a high school English teacher in rural Indiana — and it broke my heart to learn that my very smart students actually agreed with my adolescent self. They believed they didn’t know how to speak English, that their grammar was not just different but “wrong” and that they were, obviously, dumb. Simple as that. I spent most of my three years there trying to impress upon them that the grammar of their dialect was every bit as rule-governed as the grammar of standard English, and that it was every bit as capable of expressing complex, interesting thoughts. That standard English was a dialect they needed to learn, but only for social and political reasons, not because there was anything deficient in their own dialect.

I still see that sort of prejudice all the time. Intellectuals and language professionals mourn the loss of dialect and language diversity, but then mock folks on Facebook who don’t speak or write with standard English. I worry that for many of us, dialect may be “quaint” or “folksy” and we may even be willing to accept a few magical negros (or the poor white trash equivalent) who speak wisdom in those dialects, but for the most part, we don’t really think they can express complex thought.

You should go join in the conversation!

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About Marta Rose

I am a writer and a homemaker living in Philadelphia with my wife Julie and our children, Trixie and Micah.
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3 Responses to Language, Snobbery, Mockery, Pain

  1. Patrick says:

    My experience was similar to yours (as you know), and one of the great gifts of Facebook has been connecting with folks from my past, finding them articulating insightful, complex, empathetic and brilliant thoughts in that dialect I used to disdain. To some extent my thinking has been shaped by the fact that my life in NYC has put me in contact with some of THE MOST PROVINCIAL people on the planet. They’re often well-educated, speak standard English just fine, are erudite and sophisticated in the way these things are measured, know all about Opera, gourmet food, yada yada yada… and they’re completely close-minded about anything outside Manhattan. Nothing else of value exists outside here (though one can also ‘find anything here’). They often express condolences when they learn where I grew up. They talk about the ‘fly-over’ zone. They PRIDE themselves about never having been west of the Hudson, or, in some cases, outside their neighborhoods. My dad’s relatives, many of whom never finished high school, are lively, intelligent, insightful, and usually much kinder and more empathetic than many of the sophisticates I’ve met here. They’re also funny as hell, which not only speaks of their intelligence, but makes them better company than the snobs, and humorless ‘good people’ one can find in Quaker and activist circles.
    I agree that standard English is a necessary tool in certain circumstances, and I reserve the right to make jokes when mistakes are made in that context. The ‘Tudoring’ sign might be a case in point; I would think twice about hiring a tutor who misspelled her own advertisement. In my own defense, I also just get amused by the pictures that spring up with some mistakes like this. Imagining how Henry VIII or Elizabeth I gets involved is fun, and I think harmless. Likewise I think cover letters to literary agents might need to meet a specific set of criteria. But over the years I’ve gotten much less patient with people who see themselves as the last heroes in some kind of grammar Alamo. A misspelled word or misplaced comma is evidence that our civilization is doomed. Sure, some of them are just being funny, but some of them MEAN it. I guess there’s still nothing wrong with having rules for certain contexts. We just need to see them for what they are. Not knowing the rules of grammar is like not knowing the rules of soccer or chess. It’s only a problem if you want to play the game.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I have tried so hard to not be snobbish about spelling. But misspelling just sticks out like a sore thumb to me. And there are times where I just cannot figure out what the person is saying until I realize they’ve misspelled something. It is so frustrating to me and a block to clear communication! I try not to mock though. Well, sometimes some light humor-ful mocking, to try to point out the difference between peek and peak (recent example). I think I am such a literal thinker that I have a harder time with this than others do, perhaps.

  3. Holly says:

    Wow. Makes me think about this on a whole new level. I’m sorry for being such a snob and for not thinking about how it might affect others.

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