Why Grammatical Prescriptivism Reasserts a Bigoted Status Quo
gram·mar (noun) /ˈgramər/
1. [mass noun] The whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.
In the fields of critical theory and postcolonial studies, it has been established that the systems of oppression used by the colonizer rely on an “order” that employs binaries such as black/white, self/other, and civilized/savage – “a deep structure which regulates and legitimates imperial practices” (Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory, Tuhiwai Smith). Scholar and theorist Ashis Nandy has identified this as the “code” or “grammar” that governs imperialism. The “grammar” that orders imperialism is nowhere more evident than in the use of prescriptive language rules. The overwhelming majority of people view language rules such as spelling and grammar as static and coming from a place of authority. This is false, as both constitute discursive practices and there is no single authority on the English language. Therefore, arguing for a “correct” form of English is more often than not a racist act on the part of a white person, particularly if that white person is seeking to realign the speaker (a person of color or indigenous person) with the so-called “civilized” language of the colonizer. It undermines the project of reclaiming language to attempt to correct the new language and dismiss the intentional transgression as incorrect. This can even be as benign as pointing out a purposeful “typo.” Unfortunately, I was recently able to observe this phenomenon in action when an intentional misspelling on the part of a writer and black intellectual was aggressively corrected by a white stranger on the internet.
Michel Foucault’s conceptual framework of discursive practice is an essential analytical tool in understanding the power relations at work behind seemingly innocuous disciplines as broad and all-encompassing as language. From the cubbies of the classroom to the annals of academia, English grammar and spelling are taught, understood and negotiated as though there were a single, whole, and “correct” version of each. But both are more accurately understood as fragmentary, discursive practices rather than totalizing narratives handed-down-from-above.
If we understand discourse and discourse theory to be critically concerned with the study of communication both as a social practice in its own right, and as constitutive for social practice in general – it is possible to conclude that language has evolved from “being thought of as a medium for expressing meanings that pre-exist linguistic formulation to a system that constitutes meaningfulness in its own terms” (Critical Discourse Analysi, Terry Locke). In other words, the meanings of objects within language are constituted in and through discourse itself. Language is a tool for communication, but it is important to remember that all communication forms its own meaning and influences other meanings – it’s not just a medium. Foucault almost characterizes this capacity as sinister: “…they are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak; they do not identify objects, they constitute them and in the practice of doing so conceal them.”
In his essay, “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power,” Stuart Hall uses the rhetorical example of the “freedom fighter/terrorist” dichotomy to illustrate that discourse both forms itself and fundamentally implies an ideological power struggle. The same object, event, or action can be construed in two different ways: Israelis may label Palestinians “terrorists” but they rebrand themselves as “freedom fighters.” The two terms themselves are mutually intelligible but imply (as Hall states) “a contestation of power…it is the outcome of this struggle that will decide the ‘truth’ of the situation.” They are not just inert terms – the words “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” are part of an ongoing struggle, as Stuart Hall suggests in essay: “Partly because ‘facts’ can be construed in different ways…the very language we use to describe the so-called facts interferes in the process of finally deciding what is true and what is false.” Hall argues: yes, it is a fact that there is fighting in Gaza, but what does the fighting mean? Statements about the social, political, or ethical world can rarely be reduced to be simply true or false, and part of this ambiguity is manifest in the ongoing struggle regarding what is true and according to whom and why. Discourse therefore becomes a contested site – as power is constantly struggled over by various social groups with differing interests and competing ideologies.
If competing political rhetoric (e.g. “freedom fighter/terrorist”) is one discourse located within language – another can be located within the use of so-called prescriptive English grammar rules. In linguistics, prescriptive rules (versus constitutive ones) are often “construed as having descriptive intent…while in reality seem hopelessly silly, easily refuted hypotheses about the correctness conditions of language” (Identity, Power, and Linguistic Theory, Geoff Pullum). Sociolinguist Geoff Pullum has criticized the project of grammatical precriptivism: “But of course prescriptive rules are not intended to be constitutive. They are intended to be regulative. English is assumed to be already deﬁned in some other way, or not to need any deﬁnition. The prescriptivist’s rules are deliberately making recommendations about the ways in which you are recommended to use it or not to use it.”
Prescriptive grammar and spelling practices are a discourse in themselves, in the sense that one communicates information by one’s choice of which linguistic conventions to follow, within the wide variety of mutually intelligible forms of English. Since discursive practice belies a power struggle – one wonders what the politics of prescriptive grammar are exactly. If prescriptive grammar rules (the most famous of which is the disallowing of the contraction “ain’t”) are not necessary for constituting communication (we can understand each other even if we use the word “ain’t” for “isn’t”), then what are they for? Enter the concept of privilege in language dialects:
“In complex societies it is common for there to be a privileged dialect, privileged over others in the sense of being more prestigious or more widely admired or more generally employed for public communication or perhaps religion. Certainly this is true of the Anglophone world, where although phonology (accent) and lexicon (words) differ regionally quite a bit, there is a dialect known to linguists as Standard English that has a remarkably stable and consistent syntax worldwide.”-Geoff Pullum
Privileging one dialect over another almost always acts to maintain the status quo. The status quo forms and reasserts itself subtly on the level of discourse, and prescriptive grammar and privileged dialects are purely discursive social phenomena. They have no linguistic basis in fact. English has no single authority, it is constantly evolving – and it reflects the current status quo (which skews to privilege the white and the wealthy). For example: socioeconomic cohorts of poorer people tend to use dialects that include the contraction “ain’t” so the use of “isn’t” becomes a marker of class and those who don’t use it in given linguistic contexts are excluded not simply on the basis of language but more subtly on the condition of wealth – a form of privilege. Often, in many aspects of social life, the privileged dialect looks down on other dialects as less worthwhile or not “correct.” This logic is necessary to maintaining the privileged dialect’s place in society.
Small wonder then, that scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith take issue with linguistic privilege, prescriptivism, and an ideologically essentialist understanding of language that marginalizes people of colour, indigenous peoples, women, sexual minorities and generally those who stand opposed to the lexical “order” that imperialism needs to maintain. The very words “blackness and whiteness” and “man and woman” can connote harmful binaries for many people.
In fact, one way for people to overcome this hurtful aspect of language is to deliberately transgress from Standard English and create new grammar and non-traditional ways of spelling for themselves. In queer theory, words such as “womyn” and “hir” have been created as part of a vocabulary that disowns the traditional gender binary. Black artists and intellectuals alike have embraced the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) as a legitimate and internally consistent form of speech. Moreover, it has also been used as a means to transgress the paradox of “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” and reclaim language from the legacy of colonialism.
Real World Contexts:
Scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith cites Frantz Fanon’s call “for the indigenous intellectual and artist to create a new literature, to work in the cause of constructing a national culture after liberation” in her essay Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory. Recently, Kim Crosby—a black intellectual and activist—answered this call when she purposely chose to use the word “whitness” in a blog post entitled “Deconstructing whitness and white privilege during Black History Month.” This blog post, as many are, was “synced” with Facebook such that all Facebook users associated with the account of the administrator posting were able to view and comment on the blog post. This opened up the discussion to the wider community in the hopes of spreading awareness. Unfortunately, it backfired as the first comment on Facebook started a vitriolic thread that descended into accusations of racism and detracted from the original point of the blog post.
The individual in question (who shall remain nameless) commented something to the effect of: “You spelled whiteness wrong. Signed, random helpful white guy.” In response the author of the post posed a query: “According to who’s language suga? Ignoring the angry red lines of the werd processor is a speshal form of transgression for people of colour such as myself.” From there, the original commenter proceeded to attempt to discredit her spelling further by pointing out that it was not possible for her to be transgressing purposefully since she spelled the word “white” two different ways in “whitness” and in “white privilege.” Angry words were exchanged, and when the author (predictably) called the commenter a racist, he replied that she was crazy for labelling him a racist when he was just trying to be helpful.
In order to unpack the power dynamics at play in this interchange, I want to critically examine the initial action taken by the commenter. Despite the fact that his comment was signed “random helpful white guy,” there was nothing random or helpful about what he chose to do. As a white individual – one that was barely acquainted with the administrator posting the blog piece to Facebook – he felt he had the authority to tell a woman of colour he had never met that she was wrong.
To begin with, most of us feel we have the authority to correct someone on factual grounds if we think they are wrong and we know the right answer. Knowledge is the mitigating factor – in intellectual contexts it confers power and therefore authority. Of course, discursive practice complicates the relationship between knowledge and power. It’s not static but constantly changing: each implies the other. When the author of the post asked the commenter on whose authority or according to whose language she was wrong, she was alluding to the discursive aspects of language and linguistic authority. The question becomes: why did the commenter feel entitled to take the action of “correcting” her spelling? Well, because he assumed he was “right” (and he is according to the status quo) and thought he had the authority to tell her so. His version of language has been replicated and endorsed over and over again by society. His is a privileged dialect. That linguistic privilege, together with the privilege he enjoys as a white man over women of colour, encouraged him to “correct” the author’s spelling.
It is important to note that once the author pointed out her intentional use of language, the commenter did not drop the topic and accept her point. He went on to point out the inconsistencies in her system of spelling, discrediting her and re-establishing his own authority by claiming that his way of spelling was more logical and therefore better. When the author of the blog post objected to this and called him a racist, he responded that she was crazy. In taking that deeply sexist action, the commenter characterized her as irrational and overly emotional, effectively silencing the author of the piece and denying her any agency in replying. The final result: his actions completely delegitimized both her and the language she chose to use. The entire conversation was particularly ironic given that the blog piece that sparked it was about white privilege during Black History Month.
During Black History Month, one of the names that we often invoke in gratitude is that of W.E.B. DuBois. In his essay Of Our Spiritual Strivings, he alludes to a vast veil that separates him, the black subject, from the rest of humanity: “Then it dawned upon me with certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (Race and Racialization Essential Reading, Du Bois). The veil DuBois locates as excluding him is a metaphorical veil, yes. But the metaphor is grounded in a multidimensional reality of racism, class prejudice, xenophobia, sexism, ableism, and other systemic prejudices. Part of this veil is language, and the understated discourses of privilege it sustains and enables. The subtle nature of discourse and the ignorance that perpetuates remains a standing challenge to the project of reclaiming language.
We can only urge the racialized subject to “rewrite and reright” language in order to penetrate the veiled reality of imperialism and simultaneously assert his/her humanity while challenging the dominant hegemonic systems they are engaging from within.
Muna Mire is a University of Toronto student and opinions editor for The Strand.