Debating language use and politics

In the CELSA Language Exchange, we do our best to help people learn the correct way of speaking whichever language they’re studying. However, it is also true that languages are living things that change over time and vary among different cultural groups.

In linguistics, there is something of a battle line between two perspectives: “descriptivists” focus on describing how language is actually used, while “prescriptivists” are primarily concerned with encouraging proper usage and adherence to rules. The New York Times recently featured a fascinating debate between two authors — Robert Lane Greene and Bryan A. Garner on either side of that divide.

Greene suggests that “The usage books of the past hundred years, written by prescriptivists, very often prescribe rules that I don’t believe are part of standard English.” Garner, on the other hand, defends the notion that one of the roles of linguistics is to offer guidance to literate people who want to use language properly. “Guidance about good English gets equated with genital mutilations,” he complains.

Such debates aren’t mere academic posturing — they have political and social consequences. Two prominent American scholars, H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, waded into the racial politics of American English usage in a New York Times column. In particular, they discuss President Barack Obama’s “linguistic flexibility,” which allows him to switch his syntax based on his audience.

While Obama’s ability to alter his speaking styles has drawn criticism, Alim and Smitherman maintain it is a strength that will have long-standing implications. They wrote:

“In a multiethnic, multicultural America where Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority and Asians are the fastest-growing minority, national politicians also will have to be fluent in multiple ways of speaking. For too long, sounding presidential meant sounding like a white, middle- or upper-class straight man (with modest leeway for regional accents). In 2012 and beyond, it’s going to take a lot more than that to win over the hearts and minds — and ears — of the American people.”