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How Language Purity Is A Tool To Further White Supremacy and Classism

How Language Purity Is A Tool To Further White Supremacy and Classism

Language purists seem to think that everyone is given the same opportunities and is born with the same abilities to take advantage of those opportunities.

By Sarah Khan

Language purity is a trend I’ve seen more and more of lately, which isn’t so surprising considering how quickly the English language is evolving as it becomes more and more liberal in its grammatical rules; the singular “they” is a perfect example of that. And it’s around the time that it started becoming more normalized that I noticed a slew of people — whom I call language purists — suddenly coming to the defense of the English language as if it were in danger of a sudden demise rather than the powerful, omnipotent, contradictory colonial monster that it actually is. What these not-so-well-meaning defenders of the English language seldom realise or admit, is that their staunch refusal to accept anything outside of standard English is rife with racism, classism, and ableism.

I’ve seen even the most progressive activists fall victim to language purity, with one (with whom I recently went on a date) insisting that people should make the effort to learn standard English because it exists for a reason. Putting aside the fact that this line of thought implies blindly following the rules and never stopping to consider whether they make sense or are even just, the point of any standardized language is so that there’s a baseline to which everyone speaking that language can refer when any confusion comes up. And that baseline is not set in stone — nothing about language is ever set in stone! The beauty of language is that it is so malleable and is perpetually evolving. If a language stops evolving, it dies (See: Latin!). The point of spelling and grammar and even syntax is simply to get a message across without any misunderstanding. That’s why we have they’re, their and there; but context is everything. If I ask someone “Are they able to do this?” and receive the response “Their able,” I know they mean “they are able” even though the incorrect “they’re” was used. In this case, my going out of my way to correct their grammar and spelling is just an obnoxious thing to do since the message came across clearly, despite the spelling error, and therefore the spelling and grammar was moot. 

The whole point of language is to communicate clearly. That’s why there are “right” and “wrong” spellings of words and why we have rules about when to use a comma and when you use a semicolon. But if the message gets across despite any errors, then the rules are irrelevant because the point of the language — to get a message across clearly —has been made. 

That’s the case in most interactions, especially on social media, where correcting spelling and grammar has become a handy way to tone police people. This idea that standardized English is “correct” or “proper” English is complete and utter bullshit because there is no such thing as correct or proper English! English is like the colonial settler of language (unsurprisingly) in that it constantly takes from all other languages, claims the stolen parts as its own, and then has the audacity to say certain dialects aren’t “correct.” The whole damn language today is a mishmash of a variety of tongues and the grammatical rules vary from place to place and make little to no sense whatsoever. And don’t even get me started on some of the pronunciations of words in this mess of a language. English is actually an incredibly difficult language to learn and even those who speak only English fuck it up regularly. Yet, incredulously, those same people expect multilingual folk to never err in this absurd language, despite juggling multiple tongues in their heads. 

The subtle racism in expecting an immigrant to speak flawless English is racist. It implies that people should put their native tongues on the backburner in order to perfect a colonial language that was standardized by the same people who ruined the homelands these people have emigrated from. It says that people in western countries should focus on English because it is more important. That, in turn, adds to the concept that assimilation is necessary for immigrants and refugees; but it’s only assimilation into a colonial culture that’s acceptable and encouraged. Not only does it further marginalize Indigenous folk whose lands we’ve settled on, but it becomes another way in which the settler-colonial culture further oppresses BIPOC. 

Tone policing, which is similar to derailing and minimizing the speech of marginalized people, is seemingly harmless but correcting grammar or spelling in the middle of a discussion is just as derailing. It’s ignoring the message to school someone on how to make the message clearer despite the fact that the message was understood perfectly well. Similarly, insisting that everyone learn how to speak and write in flawless standardized English if they want to be seen as “good” immigrants only shows that language purity is very easily and often unknowingly used as a tool for oppression. 

Too many people — including teachers, academics, editors and writers — believe things like slang and African American Vernacular English are abhorrent, not realizing that the latter has its own, distinct grammatical and syntactical rules (which often are more complex than that of standard English) and the former is a perfect way to see the language in flux. This dismissal of dialects spoken predominantly by people who are lower-income and/or BIPOC shows how language is used to not only dehumanize people but also to further dominate them. Insisting that standardized English is synonymous with “correct” English totally ignores the fact that not everyone has the privilege (or ability or even interest) to be able to learn the absurdities of this language. School systems across the world are not uniform and, often, only the wealthy can afford to ensure that they receive a top-tier education. And even those who do afford the best teachers may not always be able to take advantage of them. Developmental and learning disabilities are a reality and able-bodied, neurotypical folk don’t really make life easier by policing speech. Language purists seem to think that everyone is given the same opportunities and is born with the same abilities to take advantage of those opportunities. If an able-bodied person had that same belief, they would rightfully be called ableist; if a white person had that belief, they would rightfully be called racist; if a cishet man had that belief, he would rightfully be called sexist. 

Additionally, regional dialects of English are seen as “wrong” by these language purists, who fail to recognize that everything outside of the Queen’s (standardized) English is a regional dialect. I notice that the same people who think AAVE is “ugly” have no problem with dialects predominantly spoken by white people, such as the various British dialects across that kingdom. Have you ever heard the Yorkshire dialect, where words are dropped and “us” is used in lieu of “me” while “were” is used instead of “was” (and vice-versa!)? No one says that’s ugly or incorrect — it’s just accepted as a regional quirk, but South Asian English, which follows the rules of standard British English and uses a lot of British colloquialisms but also throws in a lot of its own that sound “funny” to Western ears (for example: “That’s a great click” means “That’s a great photo”), is often laughed at or even infantilized as being “cute” and “silly.” It’s not a coincidence that the dialect spoken by people of colour according to standard is less accepted than the one spoken by mostly white people and against standard rules. If that doesn’t clearly illustrate the racism and classism (and ableism) in language purity, then I don’t know what else could convince you.

There’s no strict style guide for language. There are only suggestions to help you clarify what you’re trying to say. The next time you have the urge to correct someone’s spelling or grammar without being asked — even if you think you’re doing them a favour — just don’t. Stop and take a minute to ask yourself if you’re really interested in helping this person or if you’re just wanting to show off your privilege. Chances are, if you feel the urge to correct someone instead of asking for clarification, then you understood them perfectly and just want to indulge in some subtle racism and/or classism — and honestly, we don’t need any more of that nowadays. 

Sarah Khan is a Toronto-based editor and writer, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency, and raging intersectional feminist killjoy.

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