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Two stories have crossed my desk lately along themes of language and social hierarchy, which is something I find both endlessly fascinating and endlessly frustrating.

As a child who resisted standardized spelling for many years (I knew what I was saying, what was the point of spelling a word the way someone else wanted it spelled?) and who was close friends with a couple of wizard spellers (the kind of girls who were perfectionists about spelling and grammar and didn’t hesitate to point out where I deviated from the norm) I’m acutely aware of the way “correct” language use can be wielded as a social and political weapon. Steerforth at Age of Uncertainty writes about this very dilemma from the perspective of his own English, working-class childhood in A Touch of Class,

The unpalatable truth is that I harbour a prejudice – one that has its origins in early childhood.

My parents were both working class, but aspired to move up the social ladder and focused their aspirations on me. As a young child I wasn’t allowed to play with the “rough boys” and whenever we walked past Teddington Social Club, my mother would point to the women inside playing Bingo and tell me how “common” they were.

. . .

It’s complicated, but I think that my parents’ obsession with making me speak “properly” left me with a deep-rooted prejudice about the local accent. During my teens I successfully rejected my parents views on race, gender and politics and came to regard myself as a liberal (with a small “l”).

Little did I realise that beneath my enlightened exterior, there lurked a bigot!

Likewise, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg of NPR’s Fresh Air muses about the recent kerfluffle over Harry Reid’s use of the word “Negro” in reference to Barack Obama, and his suggestion that Obama was more palatable to the American electorate because he sounded “white” (7:53).

In our culture speaking and writing in “standard” English opens certain doors (and closes others). Depending on what your goal is, at least knowing how to speak and write in these ways can be a powerful tool at your disposal. At the same time, it’s important to remember that “standard” is not exactly the same as “right”: we choose to give authority to certain modes of communication (and certain spellings of a word) through widespread agreement that these modes and spellings are the preferred form. They are not inherently right, and the people who deviate from those forms are not lesser persons because of their failure to conform.

English is notorious for its plasticity: the way it constantly evolves over time, shaping and reshaping the boundaries of language and authority. Steerforth points out in “A Touch of Class” that “In the past, there was no such thing as received pronunciation. We know this, because before spelling was standardised, people wrote phonetically. Then, in the Victorian age, accents began to be linked to social background and that’s where all the trouble began.” The story is more complicated than that, of course (as crazy as the Victorians are, they cannot be blamed for all the ills of the modern age!). As Simon Winchester points out in his absorbing history of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, the OED was in many ways the quintessential exercise in Victorian classification — and yet it also broke from previous dictionary endeavors by basing definitions and pronunciation on usage rather than on what its editors considered “proper.”

When I’m frustrated by speech patterns or grammar that confounds, I try to remember this history and remain humble . . . as long as the individual at the other end of the pen or conversation genuinely seems to be using speech to communicate rather than obfuscate. While acknowledging we find different language patterns disconcerting or frustrating seems totally legit to me, insisting our way is better and that children people speak or write the way that we happen to prefer is really just a way of asserting our authority. Why not enjoy our glorious nonconformity instead?

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