AUTHOR: Battistella, Edwin L. TITLE: Bad Language SUBTITLE: Are Some Words Better than Others? PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2005
REVIEWER: Simo K. Määttä, Department of Languages and Translation Studies, University of Tampere, Finland
This book provides an overview of the history and current issues related to ''Bad English,'' i.e., the complex question of whether certain varieties and usages of the English language are inherently bad. The author adopts a ''realist position'' which acknowledges the importance of standard language as the basis of the social history of English and emphasizes the fact that educated people should understand this history, including the relations between dialects, styles, and different languages. This position also stresses the undeniable value of language norms and traditions while at the same time acknowledging the role played by variation and innovation in the evolution of language. The starting point is the fact that ''badness'' in language is a phenomenon much more complex than generally admitted; the core of the realist position resides in the understanding of the role of linguistic variation and the constructed nature of the standard (21-22). Indeed, the realist position is aimed at occupying the space between the descriptive (notably linguistics) and prescriptive viewpoints (9, 20).
Bad Language focuses on American English and the linguistic situation of the United States (indeed, Bad English might have been a more appropriate title for international distribution). It explains concepts difficult to grasp in plain yet sophisticated language and with numerous examples; in addition, the phenomena under scrutiny are discussed not only in terms of the current state of the arts but also with a detailed, documented historical overview. The book thus provides valuable insights for scholars and laypersons alike.
Battistella analyzes five domains in which the issue of ''bad English'' has been particularly salient: writing, grammar, vocabulary, bilingualism, and accents. The relativist position introduced in the first chapter is elaborated in the final chapter through concrete examples and a summary and refutation of the most important language ideologies (''images'') and false assumptions discussed in earlier chapters.
Chapter One (3-22) provides an introduction to the phenomenon of bad English and presents the above-mentioned idea of the realist position. While the introduction starts with clear examples, it soon moves towards the more complex issue of descriptivist and prescriptivist points of view. Linguistic science represents the former and has been accused of over-emphasis on relativism, even nihilism, by the most fervent adepts of the latter. (Relativism in a ''paralinguistic'' sense, i.e., not related to the battle of linguistic relativism/determinism but rather as a more general ideology concerning the issue of whether things [and language among them] have a fixed existence or not, a conceptual framework possibly contingent upon an American political context.) In addition, due to the belief that a certain manner of writing and speaking guarantees better chances in life, prescriptivism concerns receive wide support from the general public (11-12). Indeed, ''The treatment of language norms as cultural commodity, as intellectual ability, as moral virtue, and as political ideology provides a strong motivation for speakers to conform to a standard that is associated with perceived refinement, intelligence, education, character, and commitment to national unity or mainstream political values'' (13).
Consistent with the idea that judgments about language are relative, Chapter Two (23-40) deals with the relativity of good writing. Indeed, complaints about bad writing are not new (23-24). The first part of the chapter focuses on the teaching of writing: while the craft of writing is a talent and depends on early familiarization with certain kinds of discourse, it can be developed and taught through ''exposure, analysis, modeling, and practice'' (24-25). However, professional communication values efficiency, whereas college writing instruction often concentrates on grammatical correctness. Again, a relativist position is needed in order to satisfy both needs (28). An overview of the concepts of clarity and directness concludes with the paradoxical observation that ''in one instance, language is bad because it is seen as insufficiently rich; in the other, language is perceived as bad because it is too complex'' (33). Style, too, is relative; for example, the dominant literature of a particular period has influenced the prose style of that era (34). The chapter concludes with the observation that good writing can be defined only through its effectiveness: it is convincing to a set of people in a given situation. Thus, all good writing is controlled, logical, organized, coherent, unified, and clear within a particular topic and to a given audience (39).
Similar observations about effectiveness contingent upon the function and the audience apply to grammar. Chapter Three, ''Bad Grammar'' (41-66) explores two opposing views of grammar: the desire to create a standard English that would no longer change, and the emphasis on changing usage as a basis for the standard. The author proposes that ''linguistically informed usage is the soundest basis for determining standards'' (42). While prescriptive English grammar is imprecise (43), vague, and inconsistent, which constitutes a hindrance to teach it efficiently (46), the tradition of prescriptive grammar has indeed led to prescriptivism, i.e., a pedagogical norm taking as a model the teaching of correct, prescriptive grammar (46-47). This is consistent with the two main features of prescriptive grammar: its alleged basis in extra-linguistic truth, logic, and reason, and its supposed role in guaranteeing the integrity of language and society. The opposite view, which emerged in England as early as in the eighteenth century, emphasizes the importance of usage as the guideline for grammatical correctness (48). Battistella illustrates the latter, inter alia, by presenting the inconsistencies in arguments prescribing the usage of 'hopefully' as an adverb modifying a whole sentence (50-51).
In the eighteenth century, incorrect usage was considered a reflection of the low moral standards of the speaker (63). On the other hand, the triumph of the prescriptive doctrine today is largely due to the persistent belief, originated in the twentieth century, according to which using language correctly is a key to economic success. This is not true, the author suggests: many excellent language users are indeed economically challenged (62). The chapter concludes with the observation that it is important for educated people to know standard grammar, and that it is even more important for them to understand the social history of English from which grammar emanates and to acknowledge the limitations of standard grammar (65). Indeed, an analytical and critical knowledge of standard grammar is needed (66).
Chapter Four (67-100) deals with ''Bad Words'': offensive language, slang, and political correctness. While many believe that profanity has increased in the media, concerns about offensive language are not new (71). The analysis of cases such as the definition of derogatory racial epithets in dictionaries and the legal doctrine of ''fighting words'' (72-77) shows that the issue of offensive language ''is not a simple matter of propriety or impropriety but rather involves effects, intentions, rights, and identity'' (77). Indeed, bad words are a social construction (78-84) having to do with cultural values such as the emphasis on public decorum in Victorian England and frontier America or the penetration of coarse language into the public sphere as a result of soldiers returning home from the Vietnam war. Offensive language, too, is relative: the offensive character of language depends on place, time, situation, person etc. (83).
The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to slang (84-90) and political correctness (90-100). Using the example of the different meanings of the word 'cup' in standard English (as opposed to, e.g., to the slang word 'cool'), the author refutes the argument according to which slang vocabulary is undesirable because of its imprecise nature (88). Indeed, slang per se does not destabilize language; rather, it destabilizes ''the assumption that mainstream norms are shared by everyone'' -- this is precisely the reason why slang has such a strong capability of constructing identity (89). Politically correct language, on the other hand, should not be treated as merely a political issue: indeed, its existence reflects the fact that language change parallels social change. In addition, while certain new terms aim at being inclusive, others consist of euphemisms calling attention to groups (99).
According to Battistella, the 1950s critique on relativism in grammar has been replaced by criticism according to which relativists today deny fixed meaning in language, which, according to these critics, leads to ''a view of truth as whatever supports liberation and social transformation.'' Thus, the critique of relativism is today related to the rejection of objectivity in postmodern literary theory (95-96). Critiques of political correctness therefore consider it as thought control, nihilistic relativism, accommodation of cultural victimization, a distraction from real social problems, and leading to unclear, imprecise, and unspecific language (96). However, as George Lakoff and others have pointed out, the American right has its own euphemisms and ideological language policies (relativism, on the other hand, is associated with the American left) (95). In conclusion, while slang, offensive language, and political correctness all have ''the ability to disturb the comfort level of the mainstream'' (99), they also function as markers of cohesion within subgroups (100).
Chapter Five, ''Bad Citizens,'' (101-123) deals with the role of language in the birth and the ongoing construction of the American nation. It includes an informative political history of American English (102-105), a brief overview of policies towards Native American languages (105-108), and an account of the failure of teaching deaf children oral language rather than American Sign Language (108-110). The last part of the chapter focuses on the history of the attitudes and policies towards the languages of the immigrants (110-113), particularly bilingual education (113-119) and the English-Only movement (119-123), with numerous examples from relevant research and court cases.
In the United States, language unity has been promoted for the sake of national unity and economic productivity, with the idea of resolving social differences and building inter-group understanding, and the fear of political disunity and potential violence. The author concludes that although there has been progress for instance in the revitalization and preservation of Native American languages and the teaching of American Sign Language, ''the perception of foreign languages seems to have changed little since Theodore Roosevelt's 1917 statement extolling language as the symbol of national unity'' (123).
Chapter Six, ''Bad Accents'' (125-148), considers not only pronunciation issues (''Broken English,'' 127-130) and attitudes towards (the pronunciation of) regional dialects (130-136) but also the Ebonics debate (137-147). While ''broken English'' is seen as contaminating, confusing, and a barrier to success (128), attitudes towards regional dialects are governed by language ideologies relating dialect to people's character and abilities, as research has often shown. In fact, Midwest dialects are perceived as more neutral, which is reflected also in the fact that many American companies base their telemarketing operations in the Middle West (133). Dialects perceived as rural Southern or working class New York, on the other hand, carry the most negative connotations (134-135). But dialects cannot be just social disadvantages, otherwise they would disappear. Rather, as Labov's study on dialect variation of Martha's Vineyard shows, dialects continue to function as markers of identity in spite of the increased exposure to the standard (136).
Battistella's discussion of the Ebonics debate concentrates on educational aspects, which, as ''the consequences of the dialect,'' should be the key issue (140). In conclusion, non-standard language, such as African-American vernacular English, is often characterized as bad English (147), reflecting assimilationism, i.e., the idea that the standard language, cultural, and social values are based on the speech of certain mainstream groups (148).
Chapter Seven (''Images and Engagement'') consists of a consolidation and review of the common objections to the so-called bad language, a summary of the key ''images'' of language, and examples of language awareness projects which show what modern linguistics can do in schools and communities. Three assumptions underlie the divide between good and bad language: ''standard language is a delicate organism or a fragile artifact,'' ''language is primarily a tool for social efficiency and economic advancement,'' and ''language variation is a threat.'' From these premises, seven misconceptions arise: 1) language reflects intelligence and nonstandard language reflects unclear, incorrect thinking, 2) nonstandard language indicates weak character, 3) nonstandard language corrupts language and moral standards, especially those of the ''innocent,'' 4) in order to have one's voice heard, standard English is needed, 5) a common viewpoint cannot exist without a common language, 6) society is divided by language differences, and 7) ''descriptive linguistics is a permissive, nihilistic discipline'' (150). After having refuted these misconceptions, the author explains the persistence of these views by metaphors: ''the ease with which views of language are framed by metaphors'' (154). The most prevalent images seem to be represented by five metaphors: ''language as a living organism, language as an artifact, language as capital, language as nation, and language as thought'' (155). These images ''reinforce majoritarian assumptions about the motivations and attitudes of different groups'' (157).
The remainder of the chapter focuses on the role of linguistics. ''For many people, linguistics is English made hard,'' Battistella states (158). Indeed, language questions are not taken seriously in America and linguists should be more involved in language debates, assuming the role of a public intellectual. And there is actually a long tradition of linguists cooperating with schools and communities; examples of such projects are presented on pp. 159-161. In conclusion, the failure of naïve notions of good and bad language is due to mistaken premises about language and speakers (162). Successful language policy, on the other hand, ''will balance tradition and appropriate innovation, (...) be well-informed by history and research rather than by metaphors about language and misconceptions about speakers.'' Rather than simply evoking authority, intelligent language use entails the explanation of choices from among the various principles available (163): ''it is attention to the history of the language and the relativity of usage that must be the goal'' (165).
Battistella's book provides valuable insights into the predominant language ideologies of today's U.S.A. The historical reports accompanied with several examples of scholarly writing, political speeches, court cases, etc. are particularly informative and provide useful resources for students, scholars, and laypersons alike. Equally interesting is the explanation of images of language (term used by Battistella to account for language ideologies) using the contemporary theory of the metaphor. The attempt to redefine linguists' role in debates about language is also particularly fruitful.
The book raises many intriguing questions for further inquiry and exploration. For example, if the dominant kind of literature of a particular era influences the prose style of that time (34), what is this dominant literary genre of today's America? In fact, are dominant genres of today literary or technical, oral or written?
As mentioned earlier, one of the book's main merits is that it explains complex concepts in a straightforward yet quite comprehensive manner. This is visible also in the way the monograph is structured in sections about bad writing, grammar, words, citizens, and accents. However, this organization is sometimes a constraint -- for example, it is not entirely clear why the Ebonics debate is primarily a matter of accents. And while the difficulties of defining the concepts are evoked, for instance, for slang, offensive language, and political correctness, the very notion of accent -- a contested concept par excellence -- is not questioned.
Clear oppositions make clear arguments. However, binary oppositions occasionally masquerade the complexity of certain phenomena. Thus, for example, the antagonism between the concepts of usage (48 and passim) and prescriptionism seems somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, the fact that the 18th century rhetoricians quoted in the book refer to a ''good'' usage of the best authors (in a way reminiscent of the French 17th century doctrine of good usage; see, e.g., Vaugelas 1647) seems to indicate that there was a close link between usage and prescriptive grammar. Thus, it appears that usage is a contested concept whose meaning has changed over the centuries.
While Bad Language is a valuable resource to anyone interested in language ideologies, the politics of language, interpretive sociolinguistics, and language policies, its focus and framework are entirely American. Indeed, the classification critiqued in the previous paragraph becomes somewhat more justified withing the specific context in which language issues in the United States are evolving.
de Vaugelas, Claude Favre. Remarques sur la langue françoise utiles à ceux qui veulent bien parler et escrire. Paris: Veuve J. Camusat - P. le Petit, 1647.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Simo K. Määttä (Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, 2004) teaches in the French program of the Department of Languages and Translation Studies at the University of Tampere, Finland. His research interests include language ideologies, discourse analysis of law, interpretative sociolinguistics, and text linguistics.