Word Crimes. I love the general response to this song. For a long time, I’ve been that person who corrects everyone else’s spelling and grammar, both online and in person. Some of you may remember passing me notes in lectures only to have them returned with proofreading marks all over them. I would like it to be known that I never intended to be hurtful or imply stupidity when doing this (although it’s always tempting to write, “You can’t even [spell, use apostrophes, capitalise],” when dealing with people I don’t agree with online), but I realise now that sometimes people are offended and I come off as condescending and/or cruel. As someone who has always loved the sometimes seemingly arbitrary rules of the English language, it has taken me a long time to understand that some people just don’t get it, and just don’t care.
I’ve been interested for a while now in the social aspects of ‘correct grammar’ and what it means for different people. This has coincided with my increased interest in feminism.
As a teacher, I feel responsible for critically examining why I teach certain things as well as how, and I want to be prepared for questions like:
- “Who cares?” (about grammar, spelling, syntax, etc)
- “Why?”(do we have to do it this way, do you insist on this, does it matter)
- “Shouldn’t you be encouraging my efforts instead of tearing them down?”
- “Why can’t I use language my own way as a subversion of cultural norms, or to make a point, or to express my creativity and independence?”
Okay, I’ve never been asked the second two, but I wish students would ask them more often than the first two, and they are the questions I tend to ask myself.
Basically, what I have become uncomfortable with is the shaming of people over the language they use. Those of us for whom ‘correct’ language requires very little thought need to consider why. We need to acknowledge the privilege that comes with living in a society that values the way we speak and write over the way others speak and write.
The first argument that comes to my mind when people ask “y dey kant rite da way dey want” is, “because you sound like an idiot.” I made a short (25 second) video designed to get students thinking about language, where I use that argument. As I’ve come to understand the way we, as a society, use language to shame fat people and lgbtq+ people and people of colour and women and so on and so forth, I’ve decided that it’s not okay to use language to shame people who don’t use language the way we want them to, just as it’s not okay to shame people who don’t look or act or love the way we want them to . People use ‘txt’ language all the time. People say “them lot” and “yous.” People write “apple’s 99c” and “are friends r going too there house.” We understand them. Seeing and hearing these things make me cringe. I know they’re ‘wrong.’ But what right do I have to say that those people are inferior for writing or speaking that way? They are communicating; it’s what we do. Language evolves and those ways of speaking and writing are no less valid than mine or anyone else’s.
In Shakespeare’s time, spelling was not standardised. Even now, that word, “standardised,” has two acceptable spellings. Here in New Zealand, we officially use the British “-ise,” but in schools, the American “-ize” is also acceptable, as long as the student is consistent (i.e. not using -ise and -ize interchangeably, but using one or the other in all work). And let’s be honest, English is confusing: we always use an apostrophe to show possession (Emma’s cat, the cat’s tail) unless it’s the word ‘its’ (its tail, not it’s tail). We write connection but complexion. Bow and bow do not rhyme, but gruff and tough do, and bough rhymes with bow but not bow. Or tough. Also, all of these poems exist.
Anyway, back to “Weird Al” Yankovich’s Word Crimes.
First of all, isn’t it interesting that the word ‘crime’ is used here to describe what is simply a departure-from-the-generally-accepted, yet so many people still make excuses for rape, just like Robin Thicke in the song that Word Crimes parodies?
Okay, now I love the song up until the first insult, at about 1.03 – if you don’t know when to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer,’ you were raised in a sewer. ( A sewer as in effluent system, not someone who sews). As a self-professed lover of language since childhood (in the early 90s) and someone who has been teaching English since 2008, I was quite embarrassed to discover I’d been using the word ‘less’ when I meant ‘fewer’ in 2011. But no-one had ever taught me that, so why should I be embarrassed? By that stage I’d been through kindergarten, primary school, intermediate school, high school and undergraduate study at two different universities, and read thousands of books of all kinds, from picture books to fantasy to literary classics to academic textbooks and everything in between, and I’d never picked that up. Just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you weren’t ‘raised right.’ In addition, this insult implies that homeless people are inherently stupid. Now that’s stupid. (I originally wrote ‘fuck that shit,’ but after reading this article, I’ve decided I will no longer suggest raping things I don’t agree with.)
I love the next few seconds (explaining that “I could care less” means it’s possible to care less, so therefore you do care somewhat), but then the name-calling starts. “Don’t be a moron.” “Show the world you’re no clown.” “You dumb mouth-breather.” “You write like a spastic.”
“You’re a lost cause.” Wow. What I hear when he says that: You don’t use language the way I think you should, so you have no value as a human being.
Then there’s more shaming based on ‘how educated you are.’ It’s only acceptable to write words using numbers if you are seven. Not five, or six, or eight. Just seven. You, as a person, are unacceptable if you write “n00b” or “b4” and you are not seven years old (or your name is Prince, because, you know, celebrities live outside of the real world and have a free pass to do whatever they want). If you finished second grade you must know everything. Everything you will ever need to know about language should be in your head by the time you are about eight years old, depending on what country you live in (Year 2 students in New Zealand are generally 6-7 years old). Oh, by the way, if you didn’t finish second grade, it’s okay, you’re allowed to be stupid (because I get to say who’s allowed to live a certain way and who isn’t.)
“Go back to preschool. Get out of the gene pool. Try your best to not drool.” Have you ever critically evaluated these statements? You are not educated enough to be around me. I don’t want more people like you in the world, so you shouldn’t reproduce. Anyone who can’t grasp the complexities of a confusing language must have problems with basic physical functioning, and people who have problems with basic physical functions are all imbeciles. What? Your logic hurts.
Side note re: Violence (“that makes me literally want to smack a crowbar through your stupid head”). Now the words here are actually okay. When we see and hear things we don’t like, it often makes us feel frustrated to the point that we want to lash out. And the song describes that: “…makes me […] want to…” It doesn’t actually promote violence against people who aren’t speaking (or acting, or living) in a way we agree with. I just wanted to bring up the point that the violence described is not appropriate in any circumstance, and especially not over the misuse of the word literally. Violence as a solution is over-represented in media, language and in our lives. I just want it to stop and thought it was worth bringing up here.
I love language. Language is an indicator of culture (and by that, I don’t mean “Golly, you misspelled ‘definite;’ you are so uncultured,” I mean that the language we use, especially when we’re not thinking about it, says a lot about the way we, as a culture, think, and what we value, and how we define ourselves and others). I value effective communication and I think that educating people about language and metalanguage is awesome, but I think we can do it without resorting to insults and devaluing people.
Now, I appreciate Yankovich’s parodies. He’s a clever man. He interacts critically with pop culture in a way that highlights the ridiculous, which I’m a fan of. I don’t like all his work, but nor do I disapprove of it. Just like everybody else, he uses language his own way. We all need to be more aware of how the language we use can shame or objectify others.