On elitism and sanctimonious corrections of misspoken words

Language is a huge and complicated and ever-evolving beast — open up an English dictionary sometime, and then another, and another, and marvel at which words are included, how they are defined, and how the dictionary tells you to pronounce them. Often, these things are not consistent. Not just across dictionaries, but also dialects and regions. English speakers across the world use the language in totally different and fascinating ways.

But there are some English speakers who are big on prescriptivism. There is only one right way to use English, and that is their way: You must follow their grammar and punctuation norms, their pronunciations, their word meanings. If you don’t, you’re ignorant. Not just ignorant, but incapable of using English. No one will understand you. You’re making yourself look silly. You should learn how to do it right.

This is…not accurate.

Look, I am not a linguistics professor, and in a way, in this setting, maybe that’s a good thing. English is not an absolute language and it never was. It’s constantly shifting, and those shifts happen too quickly to follow. I pronounce the world ‘almond’ differently than lots of my friends do. Am I wrong? Are they? I’ve definitely run into people who are sanctimonious about it and who mock me for the way I say it, which makes me self-conscious about it, which is, frankly, bullshit. The way I pronounce almond is a perfectly valid way, it’s a very specific regional dialect, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it tells you interesting things about my lexical past and where and how I learned English, which is actually really cool, in my opinion! But the way I say it is apparently a ‘low class’ way used by ‘uneducated hicks’ so it makes me sound ‘stupid.’

Sometimes I think people are joking around, and they don’t quite realise the effects of what they’re doing. Getting on people’s backs about how they structure sentences, say words, or use words often comes across as extremely elitist, imposing very specific values about how to talk the ‘right way.’ Like many people in the United States, I code switch, using English differently in different settings. People code switch because of the notion that there’s a ‘right’ way to do English, and out of awareness that they will be less respected and taken less seriously if they can’t speak ‘properly’ in the eyes of society, while at the same time wanting to retain the dialect and manner of speech true to their families and communities.

If someone’s meaning can be understood, does it matter if they’re doing it right? When I say ‘almond,’ nearly every US English speaker understands that I mean the roughly oval-shaped seed of a drupe commonly grown for its protein-rich seeds. People in other regions of the world may or may not understand quite what I mean, but they can probably extrapolate from the general sound and context. If I structure a sentence in a way that’s a little bit unconventional but that sentence is still comprehensible, is it really that important? If I use a slightly weird word, or slip up and don’t use the word I meant, have I committed a cardinal sin against English?

The way some people carry on, you’d certainly think so.

See, here’s the thing: Unless you know someone very well, there are probably things about that person’s background and experiences that you are not aware of. Maybe someone is actually not a native English speaker. Maybe someone has periodic aphasia, a brain injury, or another cognitive issue that sometimes causes word salad, or makes them slip up on a given word. Maybe someone has a stutter, and tries to avoid certain lexical combinations. Maybe someone is from a different social, class, or regional background than you think they are.

People tend to be extremely self-conscious about these things because we are taught collectively to be ashamed of them, and to hide them up as best they can. My Fair Lady is perhaps a quintessential example of a ‘low class’ person who is taught to ‘talk right’ so she can enter the rarified upper classes. People who speak differently from those around them, for whatever reason, can develop a lot of anxiety around it, and it is extremely stressful when people call attention to it. Especially when there’s no particular reason for it other than to be right, to smugly say ‘that’s not how you say that’ or ‘I think you mean XYZ.’ It feels elitist and smarmy and gross.

Often when you genuinely think you are being helpful, you are not actually being helpful. There are times when it’s relevant to pull someone aside to discuss a point of word use or pronunciation, and that’s generally when someone is being offensive (to alert them to that fact so they can decide if they want to continue to be) or when someone’s word use, sentence structure, or pronunciation is actually confusing enough that they might want to be tipped off to the fact that people who speak English the way you do are having a little bit of trouble understanding them or might be confused. Not ‘people who speak English correctly’ or ‘intelligent people’ or ‘upper class people,’ but people who speak English like you do. That’s all. It’s up to them to decide if they want to keep using a specific word or construction (e.g. I use ‘fanny’ very differently when I’m talking to British friends than I do with US ones).

When you feel a burning need to correct someone’s English, ask yourself why you’re feeling that need, and how it will actually benefit the person you are talking to. And then ask yourself about appropriate context. Should you publicly shame someone, or pull them aside later?

Image: word, melanie cook, Flickr