In the age of internet and social media, a lot of people spend their time online. Newspapers often publish articles online before or instead of printing them. Much of the social lives of the younger generations will have been formed online, a medium for socialisation very different to that of our older generations. This is true in a broad sense but is crucial when considering language.
Prior to the age of internet and social media, much of a child’s socialisation took place using spoken forms of language, with a shift towards texting in the years preceding the emergence of social media. Personally, my childhood was in the spoken language era but my teenage years marked the move to written language.
One issue I had not considered until recently was how this shift to written language and spaces such as social media would affect relationships between language and power, namely how variation is much more acceptable in spoken language than written language. The shift to social lives occurring through writing raises questions about how those using the “standard” form of the language are treated compared to those whose language was quite far from recognisable as standard. Sadly, I only considered this issue when I was confronted with the answer.
When reading an article online recently, I looked at the comment section and found a comment thread where the original comment was written in non-standard English with many “mistakes” (the kind a teacher would correct with red pen). In responses to this many people were either only correcting the mistakes, or worse again, deciding based on these mistakes that the opinion in the comment was not worth engaging with. The comments about the language in this comment were decidedly more hostile, personal and aggressive than the bulk of comments responding to divisive opinions.
This got me thinking about how common it was to come across parallel situations, and I was easily able to find other articles where the same thing had occurred. What I found particularly interesting was that while some of these kinds of error-laden comments are confusing to read, the majority are still comprehensible. So why aggressively attack the commenter on their language errors?
The answer to that question ties into language history, specifically the history of language standardisation – fascinating stuff that I cannot do justice in a short article. I’m instead going to flag up a few of the main points that answer my question:
- We suspect/theories support the idea that language originally developed as a means of communication between individuals and only a small portion of modern grammar systems are necessary to ensure intelligible communication; the vast majority has no bearing on our ability to understand one another. This raises more general questions about why we enforce rules that are irrelevant to understanding one another. In the example above, if the errors being made by one language user did not drastically impair their ability to be understood, then why make that the focus of the criticism?
- Languages are often seen as spoken/written forms that are not understandable to someone who speaks a different language. However, if I speak a dialect to someone who speaks a similar dialect, both of us should be able to understand one another. Language/dialect distinctions are not purely theoretical, but often incorporate factors such as political impact of being able to tie a group of individuals to a language (and the power one can claim with that link compared to the lesser power associated with a dialect).
- The language used by the mass media, in education, in the legal system and in procedures relating to being a citizen, started out as (and sometimes still is) the language of the elite and became the standard form through dictionaries, grammar books, formalised legal/political systems and relevant documents and education systems.
This language belonged to a tiny minority of the population. The rest spoke different languages/dialects and in many ways still do. It’s highly unlikely that the language you use in your home is the same as what you read in the newspaper and that the language you heard outside of the classroom would make it past a teacher’s pen without being edited in red squiggles. If that sounds like a world you live in, you have (re)discovered language variation. Your variation does not quite fit with the standard.
If this sounds a bit unfamiliar then you probably are a member of the tiny minority whose language is the one recognised and reinforced by the State. Practically no-one naturally sounds like a grammar lesson or writes like an official document. So again, why react so virulently to the non-standard use of language in the comment, especially given the vast majority of the other commenters also don’t naturally write/speak in the way the article was phrased?
For most people reading this article, the slightly formal style is not posing a problem to understanding the content. But this article is probably being read by educated individuals. The interesting thing about education is that it’s easier to access when the language taught in the classroom is closer to the language you encounter elsewhere. When you have to learn not only the subject matter but also the language variety of the educational context, that makes success in education that bit harder (and that’s before getting into how language standardisation interacts with socioeconomic status and maintenance of power by elites).
When I first read a comment along the lines of the example used throughout I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see language being used as a marker to shame an individual and discredit their opinion. However, once I had noticed that one comment, I started to notice them everywhere. The most disappointing was to see that it was not just anonymous internet users but friends commenting about how other social media users should “learn to use punctuation” and (amusingly, often incorrectly) commenting “its*” or “their*” on statuses, events and so on.
I spend a lot of my spare time with a group of people who like to consider themselves well-informed. There is an expectation that homophobia, racism and so on are not tolerated – and often not only that you would behave in a certain way, but also that you’d encourage others to behave better too, by spreading petitions, volunteering with campaigns or sharing thought-provoking material online.
I found it disappointing that these people didn’t see how language is a tool used in discrimination (not just online – language policy has very real impacts for “real” people), and that by making those (so so unnecessary) comments, the internet goes from being an equaliser to making literacy and use of standard language necessary to be able to use social media. How many times can we expect someone to have their content ignored and their typo made the only focal point of what they wrote before they get disillusioned?
If you can see why liking more comments made by men than women is wrong, or why being less likely to click on articles written by someone of colour is wrong, and that these trends indicate tendencies that don’t go away once you close down the screen of a laptop, I find it hard to swallow that you can’t also work out why jumping on non-standard language forms or language errors isn’t also a behaviour worth “checking yourself for”.
One final thought:
Dear standard language police
As someone, who, probably also used to correct what i saw as incorrect language (a side-effect of a good education) I can assure you that linguistic theory can teach you the error of your ways and you two can move on and find more fulfilling ways to spend your time with the additional benefit of not using language to (even if unintentionally) discriminate against others
Yours in good faith.
PS Yes the punctuation and spelling are wrong in this letter thats the whole point and you still understood it didnt you?
Caitriona O’Brien is a Trinity alumnus currently pursuing a Masters in linguistics at Oxford.