On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.

21 Jun

I have substantial linguistic privilege. I moved to Australia at an early age, I’m good at learning from the kind of lessons that teachers are used to teaching, and I went to a very ritzy private school in Melbourne. Plus, I like language and it fascinates me so I put a lot of time and energy into it. Consequently, I read, write and speak in ways that our culture values highly. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my writing style has prestige and no marks of gender or race.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. I won’t give up ‘jargon’ entirely, because I think there are concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent,1 but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning how differently people can express themselves, and how to understand that.2

These days, my speech sounds just like a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly unnecessary anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international3 speakers of English — being better at reading/writing than speaking/listening or having a lot of vocabulary but not knowing the pronunciation or even having Standard English in terms of grammar and vocabulary and everything but just having an accent.

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use – how a language is usually used – rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use – eg how grammar teachers think it should be used) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but just prefer a more casual style, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible.4“Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable. I can’t talk to my grandparents any more, and all I have to show for it is writing like an upper-middle-class white man. Language is steeped in love and pain, pride and anger.

I want to make a commitment to clarity and accessibility when I am writing for a broad audience, especially in work against oppression.5 But I want others to make the same commitment, and it means more than just cutting out academic language. It means writing across generations, across cultures and subcultures, and in ways that are easy to pick up, if not immediately obvious.

I’ll be talking more about inclusive language in upcoming posts, focusing on analogy and metaphor.

Notes

1. Julia Serano, discussing the term “cis”, says

it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. […] Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia also says: “‘Academic’ is a way of dismissing us for evolving a vocabulary of our own”.

2. Silentmiaow’s videos really changed how I thought about expression: ‘In my language‘ and ‘If you can do X, why can’t you do Y?

3. I say “international” rather than “English as a second language” (ESL) because English is a first language for some of these speakers; rather than “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) because I don’t like “diverse” as a euphemism for “other”; rather than “non-standard” because the ways of speaking I am referring to are standard in some countries. But “international” is inadequate too, as some Indigenous people who speak English as a second language might have the same experience, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been in a country for generations. It’s all a bit more complicated than I made it, but I do think “Standard Australian English” is tied up with ethnicity, race, nationality and the idea of who is “native” to a language, which is less simple than it might sound.

4. The idea of “inessential weirdnesses” as defined by Class Matters seems useful here. The article talks about how alternative cultures can be more baffling and alienating than mainstream cultures for someone who is outside of both (in this case, it’s alternative professional middle-class culture versus mainstream professional middle-class culture, but the same could be said for young anarcho punk slang English versus prestige English).

5. Dense academic text will still appear on this blog, because I post things that are written for elsewhere, and besides, according to WordPress statistics no one is reading this.

> Read earlier draft (without footnotes)

I have substantial linguistic privilege. My strong aptitude for systems of representation, normative learning style, and academic focus on language, combined with an upper-class education in Australia means I can read, write and speak in ways highly valued by hegemonic culture. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my style is prestigious and unmarked for race or gender.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. There is some ‘jargon’ that I won’t surrender, because I think there are certain concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent, but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning to accept radically different modes of expression.

These days, my speech is indistinguishable from a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly obscure anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) and my laughable gaucheness quite imaginary, but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international speakers of English — having a lot of lexical and sometimes syntactic competence (vocabulary and grammar) that isn’t matched in standard phonology (pronunciation).

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but prefer a more casual register, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The (denotative) dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the (connotative) implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible. “Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable.

We come back to this, a commitment to clarity and accessibility. I can apply my knowledge of language here to consider what this means in practice, make rules in a language I understand to make it more understandable: I can use my linguistic privilege to subvert itself. Here’s a start:

  • I will use verbs in the active voice — “The rose signifies their relationship” instead of “their relationship, signified by the rose”.
  • I won’t make verbs into nouns — “Power intensified” instead of “the intensification of power”
  • I will use more common (usually Anglo-Saxon) vocabulary instead of more obscure and literary (usually Latinate) vocabulary — “truth” instead of “veracity”, “loving” instead of “amorous”.
  • I will avoid sentences with more than one clause.
  • &c
  • (unfinished – I decided to practice by editing this post)
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5 Responses to “On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.”

  1. AC Monday 21 June, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    Hey thanks, this was really interesting to read.
    I checked my email while studying and you linked to yr blog from the profem group. Studying fail, but whatever.

    Use of language is something I think about a lot, but probably cant express very clearly in a comment on a post written in your usual very well written style (of course)

    I always feel frustrated that my english isn’t better than it is, for a first language native speaker, (that’s comparing myself to my friends), although of course i’m privileged in that english has been my first language and my full culture immersion growing up. Hah, but I have this theory that the more I learn of other languages (spoken languages that is, esp Indo) the more I forget of bits of English. Like there’s a specific part of my brain for languages and words keep pushing each other out. Maybe that’s just as I get older.

    It’s true that Aus culture totally priviledges some forms of academic language over others eg/ we are all supposed to understand medical / scientific language (perhaps especially from medical soapies on tv) but baulk (sp?) at words from other, less socially sanctioned, linguistic paradigms (makes sense?) For example, reading a medical textbook vs. judith butler. I guess the point is, people generally value learning medical textbook language / scientific language for its own sake more than academic feminist / queer language, but that’s another story.

  2. nix Wednesday 23 June, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    thanks for your comment over on my blog – i’ve really enjoyed reading yours so far!

  3. Maxine Thursday 8 July, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    You really should start submitting some of these personal essays for publication. I’d love to see them in print x

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Housekeeping/I am elsewhere « State of Emergency - Monday 12 July, 2010

    […] last post, on nationality, class and linguistic privilege, has been re-published at The […]

  2. links for 2011-05-11 « Embololalia - Thursday 12 May, 2011

    […] On nationality, class and linguistic privilege. « State of Emergency I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The (denotative) dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the (connotative) implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible. “Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.) (tags: english.language academia race class trans australia privilege) […]

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