Grammar Nazis and the Politics of Language

The Grammar Nazi: we all know one.

The person who would have felt the need to correct someone when they said would of instead of would’ve, who couldn’t let go of an incorrect possessive apostrophe, or who would balk at the thought of people getting their theres or they’res wrong.

The snob who scours social media with his or her finger mobilised atop the asterisk key, ready to pounce whenever they find a grammatical error.

The social campaigner fighting to rid society of linguistic apathy and complacency.

I know the type because I’ve been one…

…and I was one until the day I came across a moral dilemma. Was this grammar fascism of mine a justifiable crusade to inform people how it was best to communicate the English language or was it, as the label “grammar nazi” suggested, a form of repression denying people their freedom to choose how they wished to express themselves?

The seeds of my skepticism towards linguistic purism were planted by one George Orwell when I read 1984. The creation of Newspeak, a new state-controlled language which stripped English down to its most fundamental, necessary words and syntax, was an eye-opener demonstrating the potential political power of language. With fewer words, people had fewer ideas to play with and fewer ways to express themselves. Controlling language was thus shown to be a means of decreasing freedom of thought and the ability for interpersonal communication, thereby enforcing obedience.

It was in this context that I took the news that the Académie française, a council of the “official” custodians of the French language, urged French speakers to drop their usage of English or Anglicised French words and expressions. Though it sounded harmless (just a bunch of influential figures encouraging the regulation of language to preserve a society’s cultural and historical traditions), I couldn’t help but make a very loose comparison with the idea of Newspeak.

That consideration didn’t stop me from judging people’s language usage though. Why should people not be held to a certain standard of speaking and communicating like they would be regarding the way they dress, the way they behave themselves, or the way they choose to live? Speaking and writing were for me a test of character – if you weren’t well-spoken (or at least attempted to appear well-spoken), a sign of intelligence and self-respect, you were instead considered to be lazy or apathetic.

This begged prompted the question: by what – or, more specifically, whose – standards was I using to test people’s character by the way they spoke?

This is a debate that I have recently discovered has been raging since long before the term “grammar nazi” was first coined.

Ever since language systems were organised to allow people within large social groups to communicate shared, mutually understood language codes with each other, there have been people expressing the need to stay true to those commonly agreed rules and norms. When Persia, Greece and then Rome occupied ancient Egypt, for example, government bureaucrats decided to retain the official usage of hieroglyphics from the Middle Kingdom era (over a thousand years earlier), so as to maintain some formal continuity and avoid mass confusion.

The practical reasoning behind this was solid: why change what has been working for so long?

Problem was, people who have traditionally espoused the need to maintain the same linguistic codes over the years were the authorities or social elites, whose spoken and written languages were enforced on others to become the “standard language” of their society. People needed to emulate their prescribed language usage in order to gain their respect or prestige (and pass the social “character test”) and achieve social success. These linguistic snobs were the historical precursors to what we today describe as grammar nazis, or fascists, and they make up a category of people known as linguistic prescriptivists.

Prescriptivism in linguistics is the idea that a language has hard and fast rules, and language change is but a perversion of the one rightful language. Though many academics and scholars tow this line today, they generally follow the standards set by people of wealth and high class, just like the members of the Académie française. In other words, people who have been churned out of the education and work-field systems to then pay respect to and espouse the social values and customs that made them so successful in the first place.

There is a wide portion of people who do not subscribe to society’s values and expectations, or who responded negatively to their experiences in the education or work-field systems. They are the ones who are more likely to not appear well-spoken, or even well-mannered for that matter. They are more likely to swear, use colloquialisms and dialects, and disregard grammar rules and norms.

People who feel language isn’t a fixed system, but rather an ever-changing social construction, are called linguistic descriptivists. They argue that language is a natural, free-flowing human activity and therefore subject to change; the only thing that matters is that people come up with and proliferate terms, mannerisms and grammatical rules and that, as long as most people generally agree upon their meaning, they become a part of the ever-growing communication system. As linguist Stan Carey wrote in his blog:

Nothing in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: “What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society.” John Lyons echoed this in Language and Linguistics: “There are no absolute standards of correctness in language.” The more I learned about how language works and wobbles, shifts and drifts, the more I realised how misguided my presumptions and prejudices could be. This is an invaluable lesson for an editor, who needs to be willing and ready to shift perspective according not only to context but also to prevailing conventions of what is correct or perceived to be so.

 

In this light, words like “literally” and “hopefully” no longer mean “literally” and “hopefully”, because people no longer ascribe to them the meanings that they previously used to designate. If the whole point of language is to allow people to communicate ideas to each other, and the ideas designated by words in formal language systems are lost in translation, then surely those formal systems cease to be effective languages.

Today, grammar nazis are more than just snobs. They champion a particular ideology about how language should be practiced. While they cannot literally be described as fascists (as they do not actively enforce the rules for which they advocate), their attitudes to language usage are definitely politically motivated: they live in a world where the average citizen should communicate in a particular type of way, and therefore think in a particular way.

 

Further reading

“Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory” ~ Geoffrey K. Pullum

“The Rise of Prescriptivism in English” ~ Dr. Shadyah A. N. Cole 

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