English Well Speeched Here

(If you're not familiar with that book - a collection of signs from around the world about ladies with nuts and suchlike - you should check it out; it's quite hilarious. As is Anguished English, a history compiled from student writing, in which Socrates dies of too much wedlock.)

There are two parts to this whole English language thing I'm thinking about: one has to do with making English the national language, and the other has to do with how well native speakers speak (and write) it. I'll start there, because it's more clear to me what I think, which is: spelling matters! And commas! And apostrophes! And knowing how to use them correctly! I laugh at all those cartoons and books with funny examples, but really it makes me sigh inside. I tell my students that all those other traits of writing they're taught - organization, content, voice, etc. - have to do with what people think of their writing. But the conventions affect what people think of them. I am incredibly judgmental of restaurant menus offering "onion ring's" or a van with painted sides promising to Get Your Windows "Clean"! (Is that code for something?) And especially newspapers with errors. They actually have people who are paid to make sure there are no errors, even if they're just typos that spellcheck missed. Do your job! Yes, I make what are probably unfair assumptions about the intelligence of people who make these mistakes. Suck it up and learn how to write right.

My favorite example of why commas are important: Let's eat, grandma! Leave that comma out and we're suddenly talking to Hannibal Lecter. The kids always get a kick out of it. That said, I support poetic (mis)use of the language. It's like what I was taught about painting: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Once you can draw a good still life, you can go nuts with your spatter-painting and call it art.

The other part, the idea of making English the national language, well, it's a little more complicated for me. My initial reaction to the folks who propose that is that they are prejudiced and backwards and generally can't speak English all that well themselves (have you seen the signs at Tea Party rallies?). But once I get over it and start to think about the idea, I find that I'm not so sure. When I travel, or if I live abroad, I don't expect people to speak English to me. Yes, the reality is that in a lot of places people do, but that doesn't mean they should have to. Maybe folks in the tourist industry, but not the general public. I consider it my responsibility to figure out how to communicate with them, to learn the local language, even to say my name differently. I wouldn't expect to be able to get a job if I couldn't speak to the natives. So why wouldn't that be the same for people coming here?

And yet. It doesn't feel right to force people to live a substandard life because they can't understand English. To have a hard time getting good medical care. To be labeled stupid because they fail a test at school. To be unable to feed their kids because nobody will hire them. I don't know. I'm running up against my socialist libertarian tendencies again. Isn't there some kind of compromise that allows people to live decently and hold onto their own culture while also assimilating and acknowledging they're in the good ol' US of A? Can we celebrate our diversity and communicate clearly?

Of course this issue is tangled up in the immigration issue, which I won't get into except to say: when I taught in New Mexico, my students didn't realize there was such a thing as legal immigration. They'd only ever heard of illegal immigration. That kind of blew my mind.

Now I'm off to join Lynne Truss and her posse of guerilla grammarians, ninja mask on and sharpie in hand. All ye who err, beware!


Troy Simpson said...
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Troy Simpson said...

Hi Claire

You mentioned you liked Anguished English. So I thought you might also like this website: http://www.funny-english-errors.com