Tuesday 4 December 2012

Linguistic cleanliness – will we ever accept variation and change?

How do you react when you hear people saying innit or like or how about when you see signs such as potato’s or tomatoe’s (see our previous post on the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’) in shop displays? For many people, these uses of language provoke emotional and, often, angry responses because they are viewed as ‘bad’ language and a threat to the stability of standard English.

Kate Burridge, a researcher and Professor of Linguistics, has taken a look at the attitudes and activities of ordinary people as reflected in letters to newspapers, listener comments on radio and email responses to her own comments made about language in various broadcasts. She states that linguistic purists tend to make a very clear distinction between what they see as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in language – in other words, what is desirable or undesirable. There are two aspects to this distinction; the first is that purists tend to want to retain the language in its perceived traditional form and they therefore resist language change and the second is that they want to rid the language of what they consider to be ‘unwanted elements’, including foreign influences. Burridge likens linguistic purism to dealing with taboo practices generally – ‘the human struggle to control unruly nature’.

Some of the examples that Burridge provides are quite alarming. After her explanation of the etymology of the term ‘GORDON BENNETT’ on TV, one viewer complained that the explanation was a ‘disgrace’ and followed the comment with ‘I hope that you die (pleasantly) before me: so that I can piss on your grave’. Another took offence at Burridge’s suggestion that the use of the subjunctive was a relic of an older system and responded with, ‘The only reason it isn’t used is that people are ignorant. Grammar hasn’t been taught in school for over 30 years and now our language is suffering. It is becoming a sort of Pigeon (sic) English’. Another referred to the ‘rape of the English language’ as ‘escalating out of control’ and ‘indulged in by people of all ages’. As Burridge notes, these are clearly passionate and confident responses, indicating that language matters to a lot of people.

Burridge also notes that many extracts that she has examined express concern over the ‘Americanization’ of English, especially as it pertains to New Zealand and Australian English, where the topic is hotly debated. She refers to newspaper headlines such as ‘Facing an American Invasion’ and to one writer who considers that English is deteriorating into a ‘kind of abbreviated American juvenile dialect’.

Why, then, do people hold such strong views about language use? The view held by Burridge, and indeed most linguists, is that such lay concerns about language use are not usually based on genuine linguistic worries but are reflections of deeper and more general social concerns. She suggests that the opposition to American English is more to do with linguistic insecurity in the face of a cultural, political and economic superpower and that somehow American English poses a threat to authentic ‘downunder English’ and perhaps to Australian and New Zealand cultural identity. Similarly, links are often made between ‘bad language’ and ‘bad behaviour’ and there is often an (unjustified) idea promoted that if a person has no regard for the nice points of grammar, then that person will probably have no regard for the law. With such deeply embedded attitudes towards language use, it is perhaps no wonder that we find such emotionally charged responses.

What, though, are the views of younger people who have grown up with awareness of linguistic variation and change? Schoolchildren are taught about standard and non-standard uses and in the media there is a wide array of regional accents used by presenters and broadcasters. E-communication is also playing a role in promoting colloquial and nonstandard language to the point where it may be achieving a new kind of respectability within society. We might think that these new attitudes could signal the end of linguistic purism but according to a survey conducted by Burridge among first year university linguistics students, the results revealed that there was still an overwhelming intolerance towards language change, especially when it came to American English influence. Of the 71 students interviewed, 81% expressed concern that the use of American elements was detrimental to Australian English.

It seems then that language attitudes are very deeply entrenched and that new attitudes and practices will take much longer to change, if they ever will. As Burridge concludes, the ‘definition of ‘dirt’ might change over the years, but the desire to clean up remains the same’.
Burridge, K. (2010). Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism. English Today 102, Vol. 26/2: 3-13.

doi: 10.1017/S0266078410000027

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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