The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," "lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.
When this resolution was widely agreed to, the internet was still quite young. The term blogging wasn't even coined, Twittering was nearly 10 years away and text messaging in North America was pretty much unheard of. Oh, and my son - who is quite representative of what we call Digital Nomads - was not yet 4 years old. A community that spans a country, without the web to drive a vernacular, had established a new dialect widely enough used to be brought to the attention of a 'society of linguists' in a Chicago meeting that ostensibly put a stamp of approval on its existence. I'm not going to start to examine what the validation means, but I do think it is an incredibly awesome thing that this happened 13 years ago.
Grammar has always been an awkward thing for me. This is mostly due to the pressure I feel from the existence of what I (and many others) call the grammar police. Hell, I've even mis-spelled the word (eg. Grammer). As a blogger, there isn't a post that goes up that isn't riddled with over-zealous commas and dangling participles not to mention the mis-spelling of a word here and there (it's/its or effect/affect and the like). But I am writing in my own voice, usually a casual one, in order to allow the ideas to flow. To stop and think about my grammar is to stop that flow of ideas. Sometimes I read the post over after I'm finished to make sure it's understandable, but even then I'll miss words and sentence structures that are amiss. That's not my strength. That's why I had a damn fine editor for my book.
But whether I miss a typo or misuse a word doesn't much matter to me. If I was speaking to someone F2F about a subject, our conversation would be full of pauses and misused words and grammatical errors and I like to think of my style of writing as conversational. The only thing I hope is that the core message of my post makes sense. And that is the way I read posts as well. Unless there is a glaring error (I laughed heartily over techtonic shits), I never stop to think "Should there be a comma there?" I just read the post. Which is why the linguistic shifts that are happening right now are exciting to me.
Is there an equivalent to Ebonics in online culture? Or are we still speaking in 'slang' or 'lazy' or 'ungrammatical'? I'm not talking about throwing all grammar to the wind. We still need basic pieces of the structure of language to be able to understand one another, but we can certainly stop being so damned uptight about it. There is a point at which we stop helping people improve their grammar and start being downright annoying. Judging someone on their mastery of the language rather than the content of their message is another form of classism.
Consider these examples:
- As an Anglophone living in Montreal, my Francophone friends are kind enough to speak with me in English. As we talk, many of them speak with frequent grammatical errors, none of which register with me as significant. Sure, I could spend the entire conversation being really annoying and correcting them in order to "teach" them better English, but that would be jarring to the conversation, I understand what they are saying anyway and (the most glaringly obvious) I'm actually the ignoramus who hasn't learnt enough of their language to put together a full sentence, so I should keep my trap shut.
- I'm a big fan of The Wire, which takes place in Baltimore and includes in-depth dialogues from the police, the people who live in a poor neighbourhood (including the drug trade), politicians and news reporters. They all speak English, but different dialects of it. Switching back and forth between the dialects made me dizzy in the beginning of watching the series, but made me smarter by the end of it. Why? Like any other aspect of culture, linguistics tells a story. The politicians speak English, the police speak in a cross between Ebonics and English and the drug runners speak in pure Ebonics. The police build a bridge. Certain characters of each group cross over. The CTO of the drug organization, Stringer Bell, speaks English while his boss, Avon Barksdale, speaks Ebonics. Power structures appear between the languages. Classism and racism run high beyond skin colour and through language. I became smarter about the culture because I started to understand all dialects.
- About 3 years ago, my son (now nearly 17 years old) began texting rather than calling me. At first I had no clue what he was trying to 'say' to me, using oodles of acronyms (ROFL, WTF) and abbreviations (ur, l8, 4). I thought he was writing me in code. But slowly I learned the acronyms and abbreviations myself and found them 2b not only useful for quick typing, but useful for relating to my son. When I typed his language, I gained his respect. I also began to understand the breadth of change in language and culture that we are about to encounter.
- Business language has long been riddled with acronyms, abbreviations and buzzwords to describe broader concepts. Depending on the context of using this language, you sound either brilliant or like a 'douche'. In the boardroom, I learnt, structuring a sentence with a series of buzzwords and acronyms, such as "We need to broaden our horizons, breaking through the clutter with a value add to this paradigm shift while using best of breed practices to capture mindshare and increase our ROI" will bring on respect and promotion, whereas if I used that in a blogpost or tweet, I would be laughed at and called names. The use of any ONE of those buzzwords would strip me of my street cred. Alternatively, speaking in my son's lingo in the boardroom brings puzzled looks and potential discredit to my message. It will be interesting to see how the business world will cope with the Digital Nomads because as Jack Lynch says in A Lexicographer's Dilemma, "the crimes-against-the-language rate is going to skyrocket here in the electronic age".
- Something I learnt during the editing process on my book is that, apparently, Random House has a very different grammatical system than Penguin than does Wiley than does the Department of English at Penn State. Funny thing that none of the experts can really agree on sentence structure, punctuation and proper spellings and capitalization of things like the Internet...or is it the internet...or maybe they prefer the Web? Who knows, but after having an outside editor look at my manuscript, everything changed and then changed BACK once returned to Random House. What a funny bunch the English experts are! What I love about English grammar standards is that there are so many to choose from.
David Mitchell in a rather fun column describes the reality of the rules of the English language:
I should have said that correctness in language is vital to avoid unintentional ambiguity. But it usually isn't. No one ever accidentally bought more potatoes than planned because they were told to buy less rather than fewer. Of all the times I've typed: "Hopefully see you then" in an email, no one has ever subsequently complained that, when they saw me, I didn't seem hopeful. We sticklers say we fear confusion of meaning but it's the feeling that we've learnt and obeyed a set of rules that doesn't matter that really spooks us.
But goes on to say:
In the end, though, the rules do matter - it's just that obeying them doesn't. They need to be there to create a tension between conservatism and innovation.
And I (sorta) agree. The absence of rules is not the way to approach English grammar either. The tension is good to keep us at least partially understanding the gist of what we are trying to get across.
Language changes and morphs, both resulting from and driving cultural shifts. If it didn't we'd still be speaking in Olde English like we did a goodly length in times past (p.s. there were way more commas back then). On top of that - and much like web 'standards' - people disagree on what is proper and up to date anyway (wait, does up-to-date have hyphens?). There really isn't one source anymore, nor should there be. There isn't one English anyway. Not in the same country. Not even in the same city. But somehow, unlike the Tower of Babel, we manage to survive it. Is it the rules, like Mitchell points out, that keep us from throwing one another to our deaths? Perhaps, but I'd like to think it's more than a group of the highest ranking grammar police ordaining from above us all that keeps us understanding one another. I'd like to think it's a sense of community, where when I say Staycation, even the first time you've ever heard it, you understand what I'm getting at. I did. And it stuck.
[p.s. I know that some of you will think you are being smart alecs by correcting some part of this post's grammar.]