Friday, January 23, 2015

Lars-Gunnar Andersson and Peter Trydgill, "Bad Language"

 – Penguin Books 1992

Read from January 13th to 21st 2015

My rating :

I come, I seen and done

There are at least three allegations in Lars-Gunnar Andersson and Peter Trydgill’s Bad Language to make the delight of every pupil and bring to despair any teacher:
  1. English native speakers do not make grammatical mistakes in speaking;
  2. There is no such thing as bad language (except for swearing, maybe);
  3. What today is a mistake could be legit tomorrow.
 The first statement is so comforting I was seduced by it myself for a while. It is true, English is not my mother tongue, but I tried to verify it by remembering the mistakes my students often made in our own language and I soon realized that these mistakes didn’t necessarily come from a dialectal slip, but often from careless correlations between speaking and thinking and even more often from plain ignorance.

The idea of a language for everyone to use as “bon lui semble”, without care for stuffy rules that prohibit expressions like I ain’t, I done, etc., on the grounds that they are rather social prejudices than linguistic arguments is seductive indeed, the more so as it is a warm pleading for the right of dialects and even slang to exist and prosper:

It is ungrammatical to say I done it in Standard English, but it is not ungrammatical to say I done it in English.

However, I don’t think this the point. Nobody contested the beauty of language variations, especially their stylistic, geographic and historical functions, and nobody would dream to correct them, in order to uniform spoken (or even written) language. But without a reference point, be it Standard English, or French, or Romanian and so on, the communication between speakers of the same country but inhabiting different dialects would become soon impossible. Therefore, it is commendably to preserve and encourage linguistic variants, but not recommended to deny the importance of (or ignore altogether) grammatical, phonetic and linguistic rules. However comfortable you feel while wearing your pyjamas, you take them off and put on conventional clothes when you adventure in the street, don’t you?

On the other hand, it may be true that society had something to do with linguistic prejudices, but any standard language is built upon the most prestigious variant of a language and this is often upper-classes language. It is related to snobbery, maybe, but also to education that makes it reliable in the eyes of the  common speakers. The following statement should be amended accordingly, that is to illustrate that dialect is not “bad language” and it should not be made fun of, but IT IS a deviation from the norm:

Prejudice against lower-class dialects is not dissimilar to racial and sexual prejudice. We believe that is highly undesirable and it is our job as linguists to work against ignorance about dialect differences and for greater dialect tolerance.

So, the second allegation is also contradictory, based on the confusion between “bad” and “mistaken”, that is, between political correctness and grammatical correctness.

Finally, the third statement is also partially true. There are many examples of words, expressions, even entire sentences that were deviation from the norm in the past and became norm. The explanation is quite simple and can be found in the extreme dynamism of any language. When we watch a film shot not so long as fifty years ago, the language we hear has a vague, obsolete turn nobody uses anymore. It is quite possible that an expression someone used inappropriately as a joke or from ignorance, be repeated until the correct form is forgotten:

…the answer to the question ‘When is a malapropism not a malapropism?’ is ‘When everybody uses it.’

But not all of them. On the contrary, these “outcast” malapropisms are the exception, and the savoury anecdotes of linguistics.

Overall, I think that the authors (sound linguists, by the way) wrote this book with the laudable purpose to preserve oblique languages by telling people not to be shy to express themselves in their own way, for their own way is not bad. And it is not, indeed, as long as they realize they don’t speak Standard English. But do they, always? This is the crux of the problem.


  1. I ain't seen no native speaker to write good (in French, at least).
    I hope ”decât atât am avut să spun” won't become the norm in Romanian.
    I think I've covered all three of them. :p