By Jake Davis

Last week, I mused on Steven Pinker's critique of a New Yorker article on descriptivist and prescriptivist ways of thinking about language. Pinker came out swinging against that simplistic dichotomy, which is fine and dandy, but I had some qualms with his take on "standard English" (to wit: comparing the tacit rules of language to traffic patterns is a category mistake). Today, I want to talk about how we talk, and what that says about us.

People are brought up within a specific cultural environment, taking its imprint into their bodies—where you're from and how you come to know yourself wires your brain—and enacting its common codes as their habits, trains of thought, manners of speaking. These things, among them tacit rules of language, are in a real sense enfolded, engraved into the flesh. To say that a person ought to talk according to a standard that is not their own is far more alienating than telling them, for instance, to use the metric system. It is to say that those of us who didn't come from the right milieu must remake our sense of and capacity for self-fashioning. We must become what we were not, in terms we would not use.

At least, if we want to prosper ’round here.

Anybody who’s struggled to disentangle all the likes knotted into their speech after a California childhood knows how difficult it is to remove a single word, much less syntactical patterns. Besides, they are intimate indications of a person’s background: the lingering y’alls in a former southerner's worn-through drawl indicates to anyone with an ear for it where they’re from. To recognize dialect and accents—to appreciate the pompous way the guy your friend is dating always uses shall instead of will—is to recognize a linguistic territory, geographic or socioeconomic or affinitive or otherwise. And the range and variation of each contributes to the overall richness of language as a whole: each differentiation swells the sense of words and the ways they signify.

Still, there’s something compelling about the notion of a “standard English.” This shouldn’t be convincing on the face of it. What’s gained if we all converse or write precisely alike, noting with obsessive care the pedantries of long-dead, only ever partial, savants? What’ll we lose if we don’t?

Language lives and floats on the breath of those who speak it. It is continually being remade as it is exhaled from humid, living lungs, and, being caught up with the formative experiences of speakers’ identities, it comes to reflect the broader trajectory of the mouths that speak it. A lot of the shrillest warnings about language usage faltering merely indicate a shift in dominant trends, even if those issuing them would tie that shift to a decline in civilization. And disparaging specific patterns of speech as uneducated, ill-suited for high paying work, or essentially different—when in fact the only difference they signify is the history of the person that would say them—is lame. There is nothing, as Pinker says, inherently wrong about one manner of speechifying, so long as it makes sense. (Fine, this is notalways the case; more on that next week.)

What does this leave those of us who’ve grown fond of our Fowler, our elementary styles, our usage manuals, who are invested in aesthetics, in really getting down to the right stylings of linguistic awesome? It leaves us the flow of language use, past senses coursing toward future ones, and that is a turbulent current. But it is something, if you know how to fathom it. Mark twain, motherfuckers.

Stay tuned for the final installment of this series, coming at you next week.

Image: A Niagara of Alien Beauty