Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ghetto grammar

The linguistic fall-out from last week's riots continued yesterday with an article by Lindsay Johns in the Evening Standard proclaiming that "Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice". While Johns' work in Peckham with disadvantaged young people has to be applauded, he's got a very narrow view of street slang and has prescriptive form - this article on supposed "gang slang" and this on "proper English" being cases in point (and covered here on the blog last November).

While Johns talks a lot of sense about the power of language and the need to unlock potential in inner city teenagers who might be stereotyped and demeaned for their use of certain varieties of English, he's also unwilling to accept sound linguistic arguments about code-switching and sets up something of a straw man argument with his attack on what he calls "cultural relativism":

Some educators take a position of cultural relativism. They assert the legitimacy and value of street talk, or at the very least, the importance of teaching young people to "code switch" - how to differentiate in which milieu it is socially acceptable.

I have no time for such an approach. In my experience, young people find it very hard to code switch. Text-speak, poor grammar and street patois routinely pervade the essays I set them, let alone their conversations with me.

The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find any linguist or educator who doesn't argue that a mastery of Standard English is a prerequisite of a good education. Who are these cultural relativists that Johns is referring to? It smacks of the right wing arguments about the "PC brigade": some nebulous and sinister cabal of liberals and lefties hell-bent on messing up everything about young people's education with their crazy commie views. They don't really exist...

Secondly, code-switching is not that difficult for young people. They do it all the time. But only if they have another form to switch into. That's essentially the point that Johns is missing. The young people he works with - if they have as poor a command of Standard English as he claims - don't have a problem with slang: they have a problem with basic literacy. To lay the blame for these young people's inability to write and speak clearly at the door of street slang and those people who don't condemn it out of hand is a very weak argument.

Blame the education these young people have received so far. Blame the system that values grades above individual achievement. Blame racist and classist stereotyping of young people. Blame the young people themselves for messing around, bunking off and generally taking the piss; but don't blame slang.

Such an argument is made weaker by the seemingly arbitrary list of features that Johns gathers as markers of this "ghetto grammar":

an inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as "innit" and wilful distortions like "arks" for "ask" or tedious double negatives

Like so many other arguments about accent, slang and non-standard English, the list just serves to flag up a few personal peeves. A quick look at the comments after the article shows that there are plenty of others happy to jump on the bandwagon and list their personal dislikes in language use. And again, this is part of the wider problem. So many of these features are just down to personal prejudices and individual taste. I don't really have a problem with ain't and innit - perhaps because they're forms that I heard being used around me from quite an early age - but I bristle when I hear feds or po-po for police. So what? As William Labov showed in his studies of New York speech, the post-vocalic "r" (farm, park, card) was often viewed as a marker of upper-class speech , while here in Britain it's often been associated with rural accents and given much less prestige (Drink up thy ciderrrrr, ooo-arrrrrr). There are different ways to pronounce things and different words we like or dislike, but these aren't sound principles on which to build the "rules" of a language.

In many ways, Lindsay Johns adopts a Bernsteinian approach to language, talking about restricted and elaborated codes, and that's an interesting and valid angle, but in other ways he adopts a prescriptivist approach that undermines his wider argument. I can't argue with his desire to increase the linguistic skills of the young people he mentors, to increase their articulacy, self-esteem and employment prospects, but to blame street slang for where they are now just seems plain wrong.

(Edited on 13.11.15 to fix broken links)


Emma Bertouche said...

I like your argument in this post. The influence of language on today's youth and vice versa is of great interest to me and I have wrote several blog posts on the subject myself.

I was wondering if you would consider a guest blog around language used by younger generations from myself?

If not I still very much enjoyed reading this and will be back to read future posts.

John Cowan said...

All you Brits use a restricted code anyway, by American standards. And we are way over-elaborated.

Dan said...

@ Emma, yes sounds like an idea. Email me via this page and we can think about a plan:

@John Cowan, eh?