American English not the only standard
Column | Frontlines
Those of us studying the social sciences may be familiar with the concept of cultural hegemony, defined as the domination of a ruling class by means manipulating the worldview of the lower class, allowing the lower class to participate in its own oppression. Often this concept is associated with subjection based on gender, race or economic status, but who would suspect that language, a system so closely ingrained into our personal lives, has hegemonic power? In the United States, the English language is subtly, yet powerfully hierarchical — our cultural knowledge teaches us that English has a standard, and those who speak and write by this standard are viewed as educated, well rounded and overall superior. Other forms of the language, primarily black vernacular English, denote stupidity, narrow-mindedness and overall inferiority because as a culture, Americans see black English as less logical and less rule driven. Yet, what exactly makes black English substandard?
To put it simply, it ain’t. Jirka Hana, a senior researcher at the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics at Charles University in Prague, demonstrated how black English follows its own strict set of grammar rules. For instance, the sentences “she late” and “she be late” are considered unacceptable to the Standard American-English speaker, yet each sentence implies an inherently different meaning. “She late” would translate to “she is late” in SAE, but “she be late” expresses a habitual or recurring situation translated as “she is always/usually/repeatedly late” in SAE.
In her essay, “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses how SAE speakers argue that double negatives cancel each other, as they do in some mathematical operations. Curzan argues that this belief is absurd, as the double negative is utilized in French and Spanish and can be found in “Beowulf” and “The Canterbury Tales.” She also explores how the word “ain’t” first appeared at the end of the seventeenth century as “an’t,” a contracted form of am not and are not. Other contractions, such as won’t, I’m and couldn’t redeemed themselves throughout history, but “ain’t” didn’t make the cut. “In Standard English, speakers accept aren’t I? as grammatical. How in the world is aren’t I? more grammatical or logical, for that matter, than ain’t I?” Cruzan wrote in her essay. In fact, many criterion of SAE are not perfect, such as the lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. The only power that makes black English inferior is the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which introduced the English world to a standardized version of the language in the 1800s. Yet, since black English is culturally regarded as unacceptable, black students from segregated neighborhoods are put at an immediate academic disadvantage as school abruptly forces them to disregard the predominant dialect of their own environment.
Yet the hegemony of the English language is ubiquitous and has its own unique effect on academia. Scholarly articles expect to be written with a distinct grandiose rhetoric, and often, the meaning behind the words is hard to digest. When academics share their ideas in a written form perceived as brilliant, it actually limits the scope of their message to a select, privileged few. Many programs strive to make scholarly information publicly available such as Rutgers’ electronic repository, RUcore, but this type of exclusive language impedes these efforts. Students often mimic this style of writing, pushing aside creative expression to focus on making an impression. Expanding our ideas on what we view as acceptable language has the potential to open up new doors. Perhaps embracing slang could allow a writer or speaker to more clearly portray a thought, allowing readers and listeners to focus on the substance of a message rather than its presentation. Thinking of language as flexible rather than static will make English more inclusive, crippling cultural hegemony.
Alex Meier is a School of Arts and Sciences junior studying journalism and media studies. She is an Associate News Editor at The Daily Targum.