You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

It's English. Know your rights

Some time back, Oxford University Press sent me an advance reading copy of Jonathon Green’s The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang, but I have such a backlog of books that I am only now getting to it, and it is fascinating.

Mr. Green, also the author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, makes salient points in his introduction. Slang is the language of outsiders, people outside the mainstream, “the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society.” It is characteristically urban. It is “vibrant, creative, witty, and open to seemingly infinite re-invention” as it toys with the standard dialect.

It is part of “the overarching English language.”

He means by that: “It is on equal terms with standard English, the language, traditionally, of the broadsheet press, the BBC news, and other top-down communicators. Slang may be considered ‘worse’ than standard English and suffers such slipshod condemnations as ‘bad’ language or ‘swear-words’, but such dismissals spring from ignorance. Prejudice, not fact. In linguistic terms it is a cousin, a somewhat raffish and rackety one no doubt, but in no way as poor relation nor a black sheep. If it is scorned, the scorn is the product of fear and suspicion, and even, given slang’s wonderful inventiveness, of jealousy.”

I have had a number of fruitless conversations on private discussion groups with hard-shell prescriptivists, a couple of whom not only insist that standard written English is the only “correct” English, but limit themselves to the standard written English of the first half of the twentieth century. It’s as if they, having developed a private taste for spats and bustles, insist that everyone should dress that way. They imagine that even current standard written English is degenerate, having been corrupted by descriptivists—the people E.B. White was scorning half a century ago as “the happiness boys.”

It’s true that nonstandard dialects are out of place in some contexts—dissertations, applications for jobs, &c.—but those are just fashion mistakes, like the woman who attended the opera wearing hair curlers because she was going someplace afterward.

Many writers, like P.G. Wodehouse and H.L Mencken, or lowly imitators like me, write in the standard English with occasional borrowings of slang for effect. But Mr. Green points out that the people who habitually speak in what we call slang do not think of it as slang; it is their language. And there we get to the central point. They are entitled to their own language.

English, I have said before, is the most democratic thing we know. We each have one vote. Within that “overarching English language” there are many dialects and registers, and the people who speak and write in those dialects and registers have every right to use them, just as much right as the spats- and bustle-wearers have. Schoolteachers and usage authorities have some influence, though not as much as they imagine, because the language is going to go where we collectively take it. Slang bubbles up within it and contributes to its development.

To insist otherwise, to carry on about “bad English” or “the lowest common denominator,” is to express a profoundly anti-democratic attitude.

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