People want to talk to me about proper grammar when they find out I went to school for English and writing. They want to hear what I have to say about English these days and how people are using the language–well, really, they want to hear an eloquent diss on peoples who don’t talk good. At my job, I once served a woman who perked up after hearing I studied English; she asked, “So what do you think we should do to get people to speak proper English?”
People want me to go off on a rant about the difference between “their” and “they’re” and how “ain’t” isn’t a word, but they won’t get that from me. Funnily enough, after studying English for three and a half years at a university, my collegiate conclusion is that… English doesn’t matter.
One of the best classes I took in college was History of the English Language. This was the class that really changed how I started looking at language. Here is where I was introduced to the phonetic alphabet and the ways we create sound with our mouths. It’s been a while since I took the class, but basically in English, there are seven different places in our mouth that we use to pronounce sounds, and there are six different ways we manipulate air flow or our mouths in order to pronounce different sounds. It was really fascinating stuff.
There are specific names for all those places and means of articulation, but I’ll leave it at that for my purposes. What I do want to mention, though, is because of the ways we articulate sound, and because a lot of these sounds are distinguished by the way we move our mouths, some combinations of sounds are easier in sequence than others. For example, some words are hard to say because of the order of their consonants. Also, some sounds are very similar to other sounds, and the only difference in sound is where in the mouth it is created.
What we see is that a lot of words, over time, change so that they are easier to pronounce. For example, “axe” is easier to say than “ask” because of the order of the consonants (simply put). Consequently, a lot of people will pronounce “ask” like “axe.” And if the context is adequate (which it usually is, because not a lot of situations anymore involve an “axe”) then people know what that person meant by “axe.” Also, and this is one of my favorite facts from this class, “ask” comes from “acsian” in Old English, and in his writing, Chaucer used a medley of spellings for “ask,” including “aks,” “ask,” and “ax.” Basically, what this tells us is that somewhere along the line once language started getting recorded, someone seemingly rather arbitrarily decided the order would be “ask” and made everyone start saying it that way. So?
So language changes! It is constantly evolving to fit the needs of its users! Words evolve! The dictionary is updating all the time!
WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM FOR A BRIEF COUNTER-ARGUMENT…
I know some of you may be thinking, “Oh, well if English doesn’t matter, and language changes, then you’re saying we should all just make up our own language and spew nonsense words, and that’s okay? How can we function as a society if we don’t have grammar and order!”
That’s kind of not what I’m saying. I’m not advocating that we all make up our own language and be creative with English for the sake of confusing others. The point I’m trying to make is to embrace–or if nothing else, coexist–with the language changes that we see happening naturally. It’s hard to say “library!” Does it annoy me when someone says “libary”? Maybe a little, but I understand what they mean when they say it! Throughout time, there have been plenty of parts of words that have been dropped in order to make it easier to say, words that are now considered “proper” and “correct” words.
And then some of you may be thinking, “Well, it’s ‘hard’ to say ‘library,’ but it’s not that hard. We are becoming so lazy!” In English, we want to pronounce every letter in a word. Because a lot of Americans only speak English, it’s easy to assume that how we do it in English is the “right” way. But a lot of other languages won’t pronounce the letters in a word– for example, in French, when you conjugate regular verbs in the third-person plural present, the ending is -ent, but French speakers don’t pronounce that. So they could say, “Ils marchent,” and it’s pronounced, “Il marche” (which is actually the third-person masculine singular present). How do they know the difference between if they’re saying “They walk” and “He walks”? Context! We are really smarter than we give ourselves credit for; we can pick up on these conversational mysteries very easily.
And why would how a person speaks reflect their “laziness”? Hasn’t everything in human history been improved and innovated to be made easier, streamlined? Why would language–in an everyday, practical sense–be any different?
That’s when I get to my last counter-argument: “So, we should just make English super easy and convenient. What will the writers do when they only have five words to use?” Okay, maybe I should have made myself clear: I’m talking about English in the most practical sense of language. I’m talking about English that we use every day, that we use to communicate information and ask directions and order food and share the rundown of your day with your friends. I’m not talking about art, about literature, about writing. That stuff (that beautiful, miraculous stuff) will evolve in its own way, in whatever super cool way it will evolve, and use all the romantic language it wants to.
WE NOW RETURN TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAM…
Unfortunately, a lot of people who preach “proper English” are racist, too. The woman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post was racist, as I learned from the rest of our discussion, because she began criticizing “how black people speak” and basically at that point I was like, “Why are you telling me these things?”
Dialects are a thing that happen. Black people have them, white people have them, people in various geographic regions have them based on who they spend their time growing up with. You can’t expect all people across a huge span of land with different cultural backgrounds to all speak one unchanging, “proper” language. If you get angry when you hear black people speak “improperly” but you don’t get angry when you hear hicks speak the most improper English of your life, you should reflect on your prejudices and make a change of heart.
Also, maybe we notice “improper English” more now because of the internet and the ease with which we can connect with people different from us. More people (not just scholars and rich people) are typing and writing now more than ever (whether it seems that way or not) because of technology, and so everybody has access to putting their words in print–even the typos. English is a very confusing language anyway. And, because of the internet, this has already led to evolution in the English language because of the way the internet changes and evolves literally everything.
Another point: some English is so proper that it loses its communicability–people don’t understand it.
See? So, when I say “English doesn’t matter,” it matters, sure. And English matters a lot to me, a writer, because I use this language as a tool for my art. But colloquially, and even in the grand scheme of things, English doesn’t matter, or need to be taken so seriously. I have fun with my writing. In school, I played along with the fancy rules for writing essays and crafting sentences and that stuff is important to understand so that I can know how to tweak it and break the rules in the most effective way, but I’m a writer! Not everyone’s a writer. Not even everyone’s a reader.
If people can communicate with each other and have a mutual understanding of general language rules, isn’t that the point of English, a language and means of communication? My whole life’s studies has shown me how arbitrary and fickle language is, and while it seems permanent and set in stone to us right now, the long history of English (and all other languages) shows us how silly we are to think that this is the final form of English. We want to hold on to things because they’re “tradition.” We want things to be permanent, un-changing, and familiar, but everything in nature shows us that nothing can be permanent–the seasons, the shape of the land, the cycle of life. We are destined to grow and improve and that’s what we’ve been doing our entire human history. Don’t hate–see the possibilities.