“We don’t need no …” On linguistic inequality

Deviations from so-called standard forms of language (such as the double negative) make you stand out immediately. Try and use double negatives consistently in your university courses or at the next job interview and see how people react. Even if people won’t correct you explicitly, many will do so tacitly. Such features of language function as social markers and evoke pertinent gut reactions. Arguably, this is not only true of grammatical or lexical features, but also of broader stylistic features in writing, speech and even non-linguistic conduct. Some ways of phrasing may sound like heavy boots. Depending on our upbringing, we are familiar with quite different linguistic features. While none of this might be news, it raises crucial questions about teaching that I see rarely addressed. How do we respond to linguistic and stylistic diversity? When we say that certain students “are struggling”, we often mean that they deviate from our stylistic expectations. A common reaction is to impart techniques that help them in conforming to such expectations. But should we perhaps respond by trying to understand the “deviant” style?

Reading the double negative “We don’t need no …”, you might see quite different things: (1) a grammatically incorrect phrase in English; (2) a grammatically correct phrase in English; (3) part of a famous song by Pink Floyd. Assuming that many of us recognise these things, some will want to hasten to add that (2) contradicts (1). A seemingly obvious way to resolve this is to say that reading (1) applies to what is called the standard dialect of English (British English), while (2) applies to some dialects of English (e.g. African-American Vernacular English). This solution prioritises one standard over other “deviant” forms that are deemed incorrect or informal etc. It is obvious that this hierarchy goes hand in hand with social tensions. At German schools and universities, for instance, you can find numerous students and lecturers who hide their dialects or accents. In linguistics, the disadvantages of regional dialect speakers have long been acknowledged. Even if the prescriptive approach has long been challenged, it’s driving much of the implicit culture in education.

But the distinction between standard and deviant forms of language ignores the fact that the latter often come with long-standing rules of their own. Adjusting to the style of your teacher might then require you to deviate from the language of your parents. Thus another solution is to say that there are different English languages. Accordingly, we can acknowledge reading (2) and call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a language. The precise status and genealogy is a matter of linguistic controversy. However, the social and political repercussions of this solution come most clearly into view when we consider the public debate about teaching what is called “Ebonics” at school in the 90s (Here is a very instructive video about this debate). If we acknowledge reading (2), it means, mutatis mutandis, that many English speakers raised with AAVE can be considered bilingual. Educators realised that teaching standard forms of English can be aided greatly by using AAVE as the language of instruction. Yet, trying to implement this as a policy at school soon resulted in a debate about a “political correctness exemplar gone out of control” and abandoning the “language of Shakespeare”. The bottom-line is: Non-hierarchical acknowledgement of different standards quickly spirals into defences of the supposed status quo by the dominant social group.

Supposed standards and deviations readily extend to styles of writing and conduct in academic philosophy. We all have a rough idea what a typical lecture looks like, how a discussion goes and how a paper should be structured. Accordingly, attempts at diversification are met with suspicion. Will they be as good as our standards? Won’t they undermine the clarity we have achieved in our styles of reasoning? A more traditional division is that between so-called analytic and continental philosophy. Given the social gut reactions to diversifying linguistic standards, it might not come as a surprise that we find equal responses among philosophers: Shortly before the University of Cambridge awarded a honorary degree to Derrida in 1992, a group of philosophers published an open letter protesting that “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” (Eric Schliesser has a succinct analysis of the letter.) Rather than acknowledging that there might be various standards emerging from different traditions, the supposedly dominant standard of clarity is often defended like an eternal Platonic idea.

While it is easy to see and criticise this, it is much more difficult to find a way of dealing with it in the messy real world. My historically minded self has had and has the luxury to engage with a variety of styles without having to pass judgment, at least not explicitly. More importantly, when teaching students I have to strike a balance between acknowledging variety and preparing them for situations in which such acknowledgement won’t be welcome. In other words, I try to teach “the standard”, while trying to show its limits within an array of alternatives. My goal in teaching, then, would not be to drive out “deviant” stylistic features, but to point to various resources required in different contexts. History (of philosophy) clearly helps with that. But the real resources are provided by the students themselves. Ultimately, I would hope, not to teach them how to write, but how to find their own voices within their various backgrounds and learn to gear them towards different purposes.

But to do so, I have to learn, to some degree, the idioms of my students and try to understand the deep structure of their ways of expression. Not as superior, not as inferior, but as resourceful within contexts yet unknown to me. On the other hand, I cannot but also lay open my own reactions and those of the traditions I am part of. – Returning to the fact that language comes with social markers, perhaps one of the most important aspects of teaching is to convey a variety of means to understand and express oneself through language. Our gut reactions run very deep, and what is perceived as linguistic ‘shortcomings’ will move people, one way or another. But there is a double truth: Although we often cannot but go along with our standards, they will very soon be out of date. New standards and styles will emerge. And we, or I should say “I”, will just sound old-fashioned at best. Memento mori.

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