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Letter to the Editor

BY DI READERS | NOVEMBER 09, 2009 7:20 AM

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Value language diversity

Beau Elliot’s recent opinion piece (“Put English on it,” Oct. 27) is spot-on in pointing out how flawed the English-only movement is. But Elliot’s own attitude about the English language — an attitude which, unfortunately, many people share — is equally flawed.

The truth is that language is in a constant state of change. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it peculiar to American English. (Otherwise, Dallas police wouldn’t have a problem with Spanish: Both it and English would still be some Indo-European ancestor language.) Additionally, change in a language is not equivalent to its decline.

The kind of English we learn in school may be labeled “standard English,” but this variety is not inherently better or worse than any other variety. All languages and varieties of languages contain a set of rules for constructing words and phrases that make sense; we call these rules “grammar.” The grammar of nonstandard varieties of English may happen to include different rules from that of standard English. But it is important to note that these inclusions or exclusions are mostly arbitrary and are, in either case, consistent, not random, or “sloppy” variations.

For example, the “singular ‘they’” phenomenon that Elliot decries has attestations dating back centuries, even to Shakespeare and before. Generally, it is used when the pronoun’s antecedent is indeterminate in number or gender. Again, this is not a random or lazy variation; it is a consistent pattern, but it simply happens to be a rule that standard English does not include.

I’m not dismissing learning standard English or arguing that it’s good or bad that society expects it in certain environments. I am arguing that we should be careful not to stigmatize others based upon their language usage. We should value language diversity — inside our own language as much as outside.

Robert Morris
UI graduate student in linguistics


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