Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fun With Grammar/The Trouble With King's English

Quick preface: I posted this on my journal over at OK Cupid, and as I feel that it's a pretty important concept, I'm gonna repost it here because, well, it's my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.

Aside from phrases such as, “I don’t know what to put in these things/You can’t summarize a person in a single paragraph,” the most common message that I read in people’s profiles on Okay Cupid is something along the lines of, “If you can’t type/speak/conjugate/hyphenate/etc correctly, then do not message me.” I find this to be very troubling.

In linguistic surveys, people from across the country (the United States, anyway) typically identify people from the Midwest as speaking the most “correct” form of English. Specifically, those people from Michigan. I imagine that folks from the southwest, the UK, and other parts of the English-speaking world (sorry guys, that wasn’t my fault) would disagree with this. And hey, I’m from Michigan and pretty much disagree with this. Just the same, the perceptions of people determine what is correct and what is not.

That last sentence was important; what I mean by that is that degrees of ‘correctness’ change from region to region, and only due to mass-communication and quick-traveling methods can people as widely dispersed as those in the United States even have a conception, on a gigantically national basis, of what ‘correct’ on this level is. Just the same - as bizarre as it seems to me at times - we do. It is known as the King’s English.

The King’s English changes from region to region. It’s different in the UK, in Michigan (where I am from), in South Africa, in China. Note that ‘King’s English’ does not necessarily mean English itself, but rather the form of whatever predominant language of a region is that is spoken by the power base. The actual form of that power base does not matter; in America, that base is generally that of the government and the voice of media on a national scale. Generally, this refers to a specific dialect of a language rather than a specific language.

When people write or say things like, “I cannot tolerate people that cannot distinguish between ‘you are/you’re/your’ or refuse to use them correctly,” what they are really saying is that they are not willing to engage in discourse with people that refuse, for whatever reason, to conform with the language structures of the predominant power base. Ironically, I see this often in the profiles of people that claim they are unique, anti-conformist, original in every way possible, and entirely themselves - and damn what ‘the man’ tells them to do.

Often accompanying this is a bit of explanation; generally, these accuse people that fail to capitalize every proper noun and conjugate flawlessly as being lazy or stupid. In real-life, this is tantamount to racism; Ebonics, as a dialect, is every bit as complicated and nuanced as any of those found in the English language, and follows a similar structure of rules. This is why, although an individual removed from an Ebonics-speaking community may have tremendous difficulty understanding Ebonics, individuals from those communities have no trouble whatsoever understanding each other.

So why is that someone choosing to write in a more Internet-friendly fashion is immediately thought of as stupid, lazy, or unworthy? Although whether or not Internet-speak/leetspeak/etc is a dialect or not is difficult to determine and is a question for another essay, I believe it to still be important to consider. What’s to say that a person that uses “your” to replace “you are” (instead of “you’re,” for those of you keeping track at home) isn’t actually following a system of their or their communities’ own choosing that is every bit as rule-based as your flawless English?

This sort of discounts those individuals that genuinely do not know how to conjugate a verb and lumps them into the “more intelligent than you might like to think” category automatically, and that isn’t fair. It also is not what I am setting out to do. Just the same, I fail to see that people that are incapable, for whatever reason, of writing ‘correctly’ are inherently stupid. Is the failing of a school system the fault of the individual that had no choice but to attend? Is it somehow their fault that the raw lack of emphasis on grammar after middle school allowed them to slip through the cracks of high school without ever mastering the more nuanced bits of the language?

I don’t really think so. Sure, I prefer to read words written by people that can effectively produce King’s English; it’s easier on the eyes, mind and heart, but simply because they cannot doesn’t mean that they don’t have something valid to contribute to mine or your life, or that they couldn’t have a profound influence on us in some other way. John Milton, the guy that wrote Paradise Lost, dictated the entire thing to his daughters; someone that types five words per minute, has no understanding of conjugation or sentence structure, and couldn’t spell ‘cat’ with a dictionary could compose something on their own more effectively than Milton could.

And yet we revere Milton as a visionary.

Were he physically capable of composing the work on his own, could he have spelt everything correctly and kept the pacing/phrasing/grammatical structures found within the text the same? I don’t know. Is it important? Not in the least - because we have Paradise Lost and, honestly, that’s all that matters.

I guess that what I’m getting at is that the next time you receive a message or an IM or something from someone that writes, “Hey whats up” and fails to conjugate what+is correctly, don’t ignore them. Don’t discount them. Consider, at least, giving them a chance. Maybe they are stupid. Maybe they really are profoundly lazy. But hey - maybe just maybe, they’re a Ph.D candidate in particle physics that decided to dedicate more time understanding how existence functions as a whole rather than mastering the intricacies of composition.

7 comments: said...

I think that you have to address whether or not iSpeak is a language in and of itself. You use Ebonics as a point of argument, but Ebonics is an Oral Language and has no "official" written form. Since iSpeak is really a "written" form and has developed in the region of the "internet" it's a bit different, isn't it? Are people who use the "you are/you’re/your" as you wrote them really just going against the system? Or are they in fact being lazy? Is the creation of this "language" based more on regional relevance, or was it in general laziness from not wanting to type an entire word out in chat? Your argument seems to hinge on whether the assumption of laziness is correct or not, but I think it far more likely the language developed from laziness or, to use a less emotive word, ease of use - if that's the case, then it is perfectly reasonable to believe that people who use iSpeak to that degree may be a little lazy. Though I suppose at that point, it's a matter of perspective.
The example of "you are/you’re/your" is interesting. Working backwards, we have to understand what "your" in iSpeak would be. As with any language, there has to be a solid understanding between more than a single party of definitions in order for it to work. We aren't talking about "internet tribesmen" speaking their own language, we are talking about the changing of the English language to adapt to the Internet. So what does "your" mean? How do we use it? How do I know if they mean your, you are, your stuff, etc? I hope that I am coming across fairly clearly - what I am trying to get at here is that it may in fact be perfectly fair to judge somebody by their language use on the internet.. if what they are saying doesn't conform to any rules at all, then how are we supposed to communicate with them? People who live isolated from other people may develop their own language, but they are likely to be unable to communicate with us.
I don't know - it may not be fair to describe these people as "idiots." In giving benefit of the doubt, we kind of have to assume they are reasonable people on our level. At the same time, it is important to understand what this change in language does to the individual. Sociolinguistics will tell us that language limits our ability to interact along the lines of the words offered to communicate. I wonder if word usage such as "your" is having an impact and what it means on the interweb.

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Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Daniel A. Russ said...

Thanks! I appreciate the feedback - and also knowing who my fans are. Feel free to sign a name next time :)

Anonymous said...

I wish not acquiesce in on it. I over precise post. Specially the title attracted me to read the sound story.

Anonymous said...

I am reading this article second time today, you have to be more careful with content leakers. If I will fount it again I will send you a link