I know the title reads like an undergraduate class on Foucault, but bear with me.
One of the odd experiences I’ve had teaching in Georgia is being annoyed by British English. Before I left the US I rather liked British English – mostly because I liked British comedy, from Monty Python to Whose Line Is It Anyway (the pre-Drew Carey one) to Eddie Izzard. I admit to having had secret, uncharitable thoughts about Americans who used “cheque” or “colour” being pretentious gits, while at the same time un-self-consciously spelling it “theatre” because that was how people in my circle spelled it. But generally speaking, I felt that I had a reasonably good relationship with British English, and I took some pride in knowing more Britishisms than the average American.
As an English teacher in Georgia, though, British English has given me some trouble. Mostly, this comes because every time I try to correct a Georgian’s English, they tell me they’re using the British version. Very occasionally this will turn out to be true – for instance, the British really do say “at the weekend” and “in hospital” – but most of the time it’s just that they’re messing up the (admittedly difficult) usages of English prepositions and articles and other vagaries of the language for which there are few if any reliable rules and it mostly comes down to just memorizing collocations.
In any case, Georgian misapprehensions about British English can hardly be blamed on British English itself, so why has British English begun annoying me? I recently read an article in a British newspaper in which three Americans whose children had committed murder wrote about what it was like having a child grow up to be a criminal, and the selections that were written by Americans were “translated” into British English. This infuriated me, because it struck me as insulting to people who are pouring their heart out about something incredibly difficult and personal to needlessly paraphrase their perfectly understandable words just so they conform to British style. But that’s just one (extreme) example, and I think there’s something deeper going on here.
I think that people, in general, are intolerant of variations in language use because people are vested in the power and privilege that comes from speaking the prestigious variant of their language.
In my case, there is a direct and overt economic threat – in the world of TEFL, British English is the standard and there’s generally more of a demand for British English speakers than American English speakers. In any TEFL environment that I walk into – not just in Georgia, but in of Europe and Asia and Africa – the odds are extremely high that I will be speaking, and teaching, the unusual variant. Many students and teachers that I encounter will view my Americanisms as mistakes, or as a mark against my teaching and speaking ability and my credibility and possibly even my intelligence. They might come to respect me when they get to know me – when they see my knowledge and skills as a teacher – but I’m starting off behind the curve compared to a British English speaker.
There’s also a direct, related threat to my status as a teacher. When students prefer British English to American English – or when they mistake Georgian English for British English – they’re indirectly telling me that they don’t want to learn what I have to teach. They’re telling me that I have to adapt my teaching and my language use to their needs, rather than them adapting to my curriculum. This is particularly undermining for a teacher because the whole point of teaching someone your language is for them to speak your language. You wouldn’t expect a math teacher to count in a different order because his students wanted him to, but as an English teacher I often have to adopt a British accent, British spelling, British grammar, and British vocabulary to accommodate or appease my students and coteachers. This dynamic might be okay for adult students, but for young students, having my coteacher dismiss my corrections as “American” sends a signal to the students that what I say doesn’t matter and that my usefulness in the classroom is limited at best.
I have adapted to these things as well as I can, but hearing a non-British person use British English rather than American – or explicitly express a preference for British English – still hits me harder than I would expect given my general ambivalence about language varieties. And I think it’s because I don’t view someone saying “pop” or “coke” instead of “soda” or “cola” as a threat to my social or economic status in the same way someone saying “lorry” or “teddy” now is.
Bringing this all around to a point: I suspect that when people correct each others’ language, or complain about others’ language, this sort of thing is going on somewhere beneath the surface.
I think that, for instance, when Georgian politicians complain that English is “corrupting” Georgian, or when Americans complain that they have to push 1 for English because of Spanish language menus, what they are really upset about is a lost of social prestige and economic power. The people who speak the dominant language benefit from that fact, and when its dominance is threatened that benefit is also threatened.
In the same way, people who speak a more “educated” or “literary” or “proper” version of a language benefit – they are given social prestige, they are seen as educated, they are more likely to be hired in many cases – and when language changes, the prestige those people have because they speak a particular dialect starts to erode. When abbreviations and phonetic spellings surge in popularity – as they have with the advent of the internet and SMS – people who have devoted a lot of time and energy to learning how to spell English words correctly no longer benefit from that time and energy and no longer gain the recognition that (they suppose) used to come with being a proficient English writer. When mistakes are tolerated, being able to write or speak without making mistakes is no longer prized in quite the same way.
I would be remiss if I did not at least point out that race and class figure prominently in these considerations, in ways that I think are clear. I have a lot of personal stories about this kind of stuff – mostly involving my adventures in adapting to different linguistic norms as I changed from a middle-class and predominantly white school to a poor and predominantly African-American school to a wealthy and predominantly Asian school – but the tl;dr version is that my background has helped me to identify the privilege that I have because of my linguistic toolkit, and to try not to use that privilege as a cudgel to win arguments or bully people on the internet in the way that so many other language peevologists do. Because I have specifically trained myself not feel threatened by American minority languages or stigmatized dialects or language change or simple mistakes, it’s sort of weird for me to suddenly start getting pissed off by something as minor as the use of “cake” and “ice cream” as count nouns. Just something else to work on in my constant quest to reinvent myself.
I leave you with this: