The Privilege of Proper Pronunciation

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and language lately (privilege is probably going to get its own post: there is just too much to talk about). It all started with Buzzfeed. RIGHT?! I admit to following the click bait to their inane lists all the time, but this one seemed interesting: 17 Misused and Made-Up Words That Make You Rage (Totally unrelated side-note. The author of the list has two ridiculously adorable cats, one of whom is missing one of his front legs, and he makes super cute cat-sized hats out of paper. Follow him on Instagram. There will be a book. I will buy it. That is all.) I liked the gifs used, and holy cow did it resonate with me (and I definitely thought of some to add: “would/should/could OF” because we don’t know how contractions work?! Also, when did VERSE become a verb related to competition? Why do people not know what VERSUS is and means? *rage*) Two in particular really got me, as I’ve heard them on TV with alarming frequency: Conversate and Flustrated. There was a chef on one of the last cycles of Hell’s Kitchen who said “flustrated” multiple times every episode. I would silently seethe on the couch, muttering about people not understanding language.

Then I did what you are never supposed to do on the internet: I read the comments. There was a comment talking about the racist and elitist tone of the article and I was so confused. Racist? Elitist? Those seemed like pretty heavy handed accusations for a relatively harmless post about the misuse of language. But as I read the comment (which was remarkably thoughtfully written given the knee-jerk vitriol people usually spill in comment sections) the author remarked on Conversate and Flustrated specifically. They are part of the African American English dialect (formerly known as Ebonics) and the commenter was reflecting on the problems with saying a dialect is “wrong” or not “proper” and the larger issue of this particular dialect most often identifying a specific race and (often, but not always) socio-economic group. When Canadians listen to Newfoundlanders talk (and sure, there are Newfie jokes aplenty) no one is going to flat out say “I’s the B’y” is wrong, it’s just a different dialect. So how fair is it to say AAE is wrong. Interestingly, according to the comment I was reading, conversate has roots in African Americans trying to fit in and NOT sound uneducated and ignorant (conversate developing from a backwards engineering of “conversation”).

My next thought was how could I – a relatively well-educated, well-read, and inquisitive woman – not know about this particular issue of race and class? My minor is in Anthropology and I pride myself in being culturally aware. And that’s when it hit me. I am from a small town where the vast majority of people are white. Additionally, my experience as a Canadian white woman is very different from any American woman of any other race or ethnic group. This is a culture to which I have had limited exposure. In fact, the times I have heard “conversate” and “flustrated” they were used by black women on American reality TV. AAE is not common among black Canadians – at least in my experience and exposure to Canadian media programming and the black Canadians I have seen in those outlets. I am in no way saying that black Canadians do not face racism and issues of class/socio-economics, but it seems to me that their disenfranchisement in Canada hasn’t led to the educational and economic issues that helped create AAE as a dialect (isolated groups with a shared experience/education/socio-economic level being a closed(ish) system which would create a dialect separate from common language). My confusion about the classist and racist implications of the article was not an issue of blindness, but rather it was lack of exposure to the specific situation.

I am an English teacher, and I know that language grows, changes, and evolves, but there are some rules of grammar and punctuation, as well as rules of word meaning, that cannot just be ignored for the sake of progress. There is logic – albeit sometimes confusing – to language, and rather than accept that people don’t “get” it anymore, I believe it’s important to understand the core systems of language (refer to the “should of/have” and “verse” examples in my first paragraph. Hnnng). But as an educator and an (armchair) Anthropologist, I also believe in celebrating and understanding difference. It’s not about saying a dialect is wrong, but rather learning the different words that can be used in different contexts. Dialects and vernacular/colloquial language have a specific context, just as more professional or – dare I say – proper English does. And isn’t that part of the beauty of our language: how it can express so much of what we feel and who we are? How we can marry the ideas of correctness while allowing for diversity? How we can say “I was shocked and surprised by the situation” or “I was completely gobsmacked” or “You could have knocked me down with a feather” or “Right?! I can’t even!” and whichever version we use is chosen for a reason and specific context? Damn I love language.

Here, have some Stephen Fry, and I’ll stop my pedantic whingeing 😀