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
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
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.
This summary was written by Sue Fox