On the fascism of Grammar

I don’t know who put me onto this two part essay on grammar yesterday (I feel like it was Superlinguo, but I could be wrong), but I’ve enjoyed reading/chewing on it. It starts as a piece on why grammar purism is annoying, distracting and misplaced:

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you…

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

I’ve written previously on language mutability in the case of Indonesian punk rock band Punkasila and why I think it’s important. In Punkasila’s case we see language and art sitting side by side – and we while we see language moving, when the art doesn’t move, it loses all power to effect change. This piece attributed to Mark Twain, and Valerie Yule’s long career as an educator have been my two go to references, this will be my third.

As I write this, the music of artist Dual Core has come on and realise that hip hop threw grammar out the window over twenty years ago and hasn’t seen a reduction in popularity as a result. Criticisms of the genre have never been “that was poorly articulated”, quite the opposite in fact – when an MC can “make the words flow”, or express meaning in a clever and unique way, they are lauded.

While the headline I’ve chosen is overblown, my essential concern is one of conservative thought versus progressive thought. If we don’t sculpt our language in such a way that we can express new ideas, or old ideas and beauty in new ways, we run the risk of stagnation. A rusting on of ideas, an increasing boredom with beauty and difference. And that’s not the world I want to live in.

Part two of this essay is less rant, more literature – but has it’s own beauty. In particular, it address the idea of language formation moving between languages, in relation to Rushdie’s The Satanic Versus, and the richness that it provides

However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

It is for this reason that I don’t believe that translators and interpretors need worry about their working futures – computing has a long way to go before it can weave this magic.