Fo' Shizzle, Govna!

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In an article on the globalization of slang, the London Observer's Miranda Sawyer notes the fuzzing of class-defining accents in Britain:

As late as the early Eighties, more than 60 per cent of the UK population had never lived more than a dozen miles from where they were born: this no longer holds. Another recent development is that we're all anxious not to appear too posh; even upper-class people speak less correctly than 30 years ago. Weirdly, the middle and working classes used to have broader accents; now there's a linguistic levelling that's taking place across the country.

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  1. How exactly does a group speak “less correctly” than they used to? Doesn’t this really mean that the standards of what’s “correct” language have changed?

  2. No, it means fewer people follow grammatical rules when they speak.

  3. Are not grammatical rules determined by common usage?

  4. Actually it means that most people are not following some rule that some teacher may have taught some of them in the past. Once a ‘rule’ comes to the notice of school teachers to the point that the teacher is preaching about how not following it is ‘incorrect’, that rule is already obsolete.
    All languages, all the time follow rules–otherwise societies would not exist. In most languages some of the patterns that some people speak are frowned upon by some critics (often members of a different class, race, ethnic group, but sometimes just so). Those ‘non-standard’ patterns are called ‘incorrect’ by schoolteachers, and, if the teacher has sufficient authority the students may even believe it. But the decision as to which tiny fraction of the rules of a language get selected to be called ‘incorrect’ is usally based on no objective principles at all.
    This is certainly true for all the famous ‘rules’ of correct English, such as ‘splitting infinitives’, ‘ending a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘they’ with a singular antecendent–Everyone should close their books. This latter has been used by all reputable authors throughout the history of English (including Jane Austen).
    Slang is simply the use of words and expressions that are not used on formal occasions, and whose use is intended to signal membership in some social grouping (such as those under 22 years of age). Some slang words become standard (such as ‘mob’, ‘car’ ‘spacy’), while others remain (at least) highly informal over a thousand years (Chaucer used ‘I guess’ in the same way we do).

    Sorry to preach, but the worship of ‘grammatical correctness’ is a disease of conservatives that some libertarians have taken on without challenging authority the way libertarians normally challenge all other kinds. And there is no scientific basis to the kind of traditional grammar condemnations we see in the newspaper columns.

  5. how typical, mr john, that i would find such a succinct statement of relativism in this forum. when people are allowed to speak a language in any way they like, you wind up with the patchwork mess that the english language is today. the writings of the great thinkers of the past become incomprehensible in merely a few centuries, and the rich traditions they underpin are swept away in favor of rootless radical ideas as fresh as the language in which they are formulated.

    this is not, as some say, inevitable in any spoken language. medieval latin was spoken by educated men for hundreds of years, and hardly a word of it changed. for these men had learnt that a language spoken correctly is more than just a language, but a bridge to the past and its nurturing wisdom.

  6. It’s about fucking time. This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.

  7. “If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do, why, you just might be selling flowers, too.”

    By the way — not to threadjack my own colleague, but does anyone else agree that Higgins and Pickering were lovers? Cukor couldn’t have made the gay subtext any stronger if he tried. There’s even a moment during the “Rain in Spain” sequence where Pickering bends over and playfully butts the professor in the ass. My Fair Lady indeed.

  8. Amen Geoff. And a reminder to all that up until the early 1920s, “potato” had an “e” on the end.

    Please note the word “online,” which began it’s life as the phrase “On Line” before evolving to the hyphenated “on-line.” I have dictionaries containing all three versions. The very fact that language has mutated so much due to social norms indicates that rigid grammar regulation never lasts. Hell, each of us posting on this thread without an informal lead-in address greeting like “My Fellow Posters” or “Dearest Reasonoids” violates the common correspondence practices of just 50 years ago.
    That being said, the lack of vocabulary and elocution skills by the bulk of the populace is inexcusable. Even the elegent profanity of Al Swearengen on Deadwood is an order of magnitude better that the piss that flows from the pieholes of most “intelligensia” these days.

  9. Jesse, I agree. And I think they often had three-ways with thier buddy Bi-George.

  10. How are the rules of language officially changed?

    This issue would be better served by, say, having the to-may-toe and to-maa-toe sides participate in a Texas Cage Match (preferably with chainsaws).

    Instead of a slow change in language, we could have an instantaneous, clear winner, plus the entertainment as a kicker.

  11. Actually, Happy Jack, we may not make any move to change language until we have cleared it with the French government.

  12. I agree that vocabulary must adjust to the times, and language is, by its very nature, an evolving aspect of humanity. However, there is a direct proportion between the objectivity of definition and objectivity of interpretation. Take, for example, modern interpretations of the constitution, and compare those confusions to the clarity mathematical proofs.

    The roots of grammar are defined by logic. You must have a thing (subject) that’s like (adjective) that does (verb) in a way (adverb) to something else (object). Rearrange this up and down, fine. I am not going to quibble over a comma or care about spelling, so long as I understand what is being said.

    The true intention of obfuscating jargon or slang is not to create clarity, but to sap it.

  13. Baylen- now you’ve done it. Unless you can explain the history of those laws, I’d suggest you better buckle up. 🙂

  14. What a surprise that the guy who can’t find the “Shift” key is a prescriptivist.

  15. Brad, everything I said applies to adults. Thanks to public ed children are fucking idiots and incapable of consistancy.

  16. how typical, mr john, that i would find such a succinct statement of relativism in this forum. when people are allowed to speak a language in any way they like, you wind up with the patchwork mess that the english language is today. the writings of the great thinkers of the past become incomprehensible in merely a few centuries, and the rich traditions they underpin are swept away in favor of rootless radical ideas as fresh as the language in which they are formulated.

    No shit, Mr. Gaius. Hear, hear. Some people even refuse to use capital letters when they type, apparently out of some pointlessly “non-conformist” individualistic caprice.

    True story: I know a guy who does this all the time. My general impression is that the guy is highly intelligent and has some interesting things to say. However, he has abandoned the time-honored convention of using capital letters to make it readily clear that one sentence has ended and another has begun. As a result. it is difficult for me to read, much less retain, anything he writes that’s more than a paragraph in length.

    It’s a shame. He is yet another exceptional thinker whose writings have been rendered incomprehensible — only he has done it to himself.

  17. Oops, how embarrassing! I thought I was addressing gaius marius rather than his satirical counterpart, biggus dickus. That’s because b.d.’s post seems to be playing it utterly straight rather than over the top — which is rather out of character for b.d. and seemed completely in-character for g.m.; how odd. I assumed it was gaius before I even read the sig.

    My apologies, Mr. gaius marius. Although I hope you might consider what I wrote.

  18. Holy crap, Stevo, I got punk’d too!

  19. There are a lot of things that I do not capitalize out of a general dissent. I do not capitalize “internet,” because I consider it a medium not a place. I do not capitalize “christian” or “catholic” because they are adjectives not derived from place names.
    At one point we were told that the word “Millennium” should be capitalized, like it was an official event, like the Olympics.

  20. Hold on, Jeff, being derived from a place isn’t the only justification for capitalizing a proper noun. Consider for example:

    – Libertarian Party

    – Pleistocene Epoch

    – Jeff

    I agree with you on “Millennium,” though. And it really annoys me when people capitalize “Federal Government,” as in “These regulations are issued by the Federal Government.”

  21. For some reason, I tend to capitalize “Government.” I almost always catch myself and write it with the small ‘g’ it deserves.

  22. Damnation! my one comment a year and it gets hijacked!!

  23. Stevo- I agree with you, but “catholic” is an adjective used as a name. I don’t count that as a proper noun. For me it falls in with discriptives like “caucasian” or “vegetarian.”

    It would be cool if adjectives could be subbed for names. One could introduce themselves as “Hi, I’m Fat.”

    I have a problem with epochs being capitalized as well. Ages and Periods too. Just like millennium.

  24. Since taking German in high school, i have the terrible habit of capitalising all my nouns. i usually catch it, but now and then something slips thru

  25. yo wassup wid all dese rules of grammar? don’t be forsing yore rools on my, yo, or i jus mite bust a cap in yo sorry ass.

    youse guys is disrespectin me. Ya know what i likes ta do wid smart-ass guys what gots no respect? i likes to make dem go fer a swim in lake Mishegan in seemint overshoos.

    bad . . . grammar . . . overload . . . error . . . error

    [apologies to The Simpsons for that last part]

  26. Govenment wants you to think it is important enough to capitalize…

  27. There is one really good reason to know the rules and be able to apply them in both writing and spoken language that I haven’t seen anyone address – communication with non-native speakers. This is extremely important in today’s international and multi-cultural society.

    When you learn a foreign language, you learn the rules of that language first. It takes a lot longer to learn all the subtleties, slang, and idioms. When speaking to or writing for a non-native speaker, unless they are particularly fluent, your communication is vastly improved if you eliminate slang and idiom, use simple words, and above all else, follow the standard rules.

  28. Ya’ll might be interested in checking out the BBC’s voices project:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/

    They also include archives to show how accents in areas in the UK have changed in just a few decades. For the true Henry Higgens nerd in all of us. 🙂

  29. While it is true that some of the principles of grammar are definable on a ‘logical’ basis (such as some, but not all of the parts of speech), that is only a tiny fraction of what grammar is all about. You can’t decide on a logical basis whether the adjective goes before or after the noun (or, for example, in French, either, depending on the adjective). How can you decide on a logical basis whether the verb goes at the end (as in Latin) or at the beginning (as in Biblical Hebrew) or in the middle (as in Chinese or English)? In French the article agrees with the noun in gender and number, in English it doesn’t, and in Latin there isn’t an article at all–are you going to say that Cicero couldn’t think logically?
    Then there’s tenses–English only has two tense endings (past and present, with present only available for third person singular subjects). Latin had six tenses. Chinese has none at all (in the sense that the verb changes its form). Which is correct? Which is logical?
    So, if you can’t judge between these choices on any logical, rational, a priori basis, how can you morally condemn those who use a different pattern? This isn’t ‘relativism’, because the rules of grammar of a language aren’t moral principles. They’re more like principles of dress. You may disapprove of people wearing ties, or not wearing ties in some particular context, but don’t try to defend your opinions from first principles–there aren’t any. The significance of ties is a historical accident. This doesn’t mean that one should wear a tie to a swimming pool, or go naked at a wedding (depending on the wedding 🙂 ), but only that we’re dealing here with social conventions, not moral absolutes.
    I don’t want people to stop talking the way they do, nor to stop assessing others on the basis of the way they talk–I just want people to recognize the arbitrary basis of most of these opinions.

  30. Are not grammatical rules determined by common usage?

    My band recorded a song about this a couple years ago.

    Download available (1st song on list) via:

    http://www.farceswannamo.homestead.com/download.html

  31. if you can’t judge between these choices on any logical, rational, a priori basis, how can you morally condemn those who use a different pattern?

    How about judging them on the ability to actually make yourself understood? I don’t care how people talk on their own time, but if they’re talking to me I expect them to be clear. That’s what grammar is for. It has nothing to do with logic or reason. And yes, rules change over time, but only at the acceptance of the majority of people.

  32. What a surprise that the guy who can’t find the “Shift” key is a prescriptivist.

    LOL!

    “yo wassup wid all dese rules of grammar? don’t be forsing yore rools on my, yo, or i jus mite bust a cap in yo sorry ass.

    youse guys is disrespectin me. Ya know what i likes ta do wid smart-ass guys what gots no respect? i likes to make dem go fer a swim in lake Mishegan in seemint overshoos.”

    Other dialects of English, including those you’re trying to emulate, have rules of their own. It’s hilarious to me how often people try to immitate other dialects while violating the grammatical rules of those dialects.

  33. How about judging them on the ability to actually make yourself understood? I don’t care how people talk on their own time, but if they’re talking to me I expect them to be clear. That’s what grammar is for. It has nothing to do with logic or reason. And yes, rules change over time, but only at the acceptance of the majority of people.
    While clarity is nice, what you find clear are people speaking with the same rules you use, so you understand them. There’s nothing sacred about your rules, and there is no majority of people with similar enough rules, just speaking about ‘English’–do you mean American English? Which one? Canadian English? One of seventy or so British Englishes? How about Aussie English? Kiwi? South African? Indian? West Indian? What’s clear to you isn’t clear to Tony Blair or Apu from the Simpsons. And while you may think your dialect is God’s there’s no basis whatsoever for that claim. Certainly it isn’t what Shakespeare spoke. Or the Queen. Or George Washington. All of whom were/are convinced of the perfection of their particular dialect.

  34. There ain’t nothing unclear about this sentence.

  35. The problem with rules like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” is that they’re rules promulgated by late 19th/early 20th century academic elites educated in Latin, where such a rule is correct. Since English is not rooted in Latin it makes no sense. Generations of schoolchildren have struggled since, and happily have finally discarded it.

  36. I believe the argument was, as “biggus” alluded to, that Latin was a perfect language since it went centuries without changing. Of course, that’s because it had no native speakers — when it had been a native language, it changed enormously over time.

  37. How about the Cockney rhyming slang? Like, “peaches and pairs” for stairs.

  38. So, Bob, you’re a big fan of “Where you at?” In this instance, not only is the irrelevant rule you scorn discarded, but a language inefficiency is created. The absence of a verb weakens the question. “Where are you?” is far more powerful.

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