Language and Privilege

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:

This entry was posted in Deep Thoughts at 3AM, Linguistics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Language and Privilege

  1. Pingback: ჩემი სამყარო

  2. gvantsa96 says:

    I agree. I come across this problem quite a lot at school.


  3. Benjamin says:

    This is an amusing blog post considering that the blogger regularly use nitpicking and complaints of the use of English on almost every opponent especially when the argumentation of the ordinary topic is hopelessly lost and the opponent is Georgian who don’t have English as his mother tongue.

    You seem to have a lack introspective abilities or a living in an alarming state of self-delusion or lack of memory.

    Your most interesting post enlightening my point was when you were scolding and mocking the Georgian use of the term Limonadi. It was not correct since you had an other idea of what the correct Lemonade receipt was for an ordinary american. The Georgians seemed to use far too little lemon. This written by someone from a country where people call their version of Limonadi “soda” or “soda pop” even though the actual soda disappeared from the actual drink a hundred years ago.

    The scolding and mocking of Limonadi was also intentionally made to raise the bloggers own true american prestige at the cost of the low level Georgians he unfortunately have to meet. Only later you found out that quite many civilized European countries also use the equivalent of the term Limonadi for most of their sparkling soft drinks. Many times for the reason that several bottles still contained citric acid the way lemon was originally used.

    But it seems you have grown up a bit, relaxed and understood that Georgians are not in general underdeveloped evil retards. Congratulations. And if they were. americans were not the right ones to educate, scold and mock them since quite much is lacking in the american cultural development.

    About the topic of this blog post itself. It is as always written in a very shallow perspective where you as usual are unable to see the other perspective. How Englishmen are regularly humiliated for their use of their language by loudmouthed bullies speaking English the American way. In the US 4% of the books are translations from other languages. The truly civilized countries have rather 40%, ten times more books translated. The few that are translated to American English are unfortunately heavily americanized. Films are remade rather instead of being shown with subtitles. This is a very sad self indulged attitude. Still you think it’s natural to promote the export your books and films to other nations like Georgia. Americans don’t listen to others but want others to listen to them. In every kind of relation or dialogue this is a horrible practice. The ones who are supposed to listen feel bad and naturally quite soon take a negative attitude towards the US and Americans in general. It’s sad because very much american is really, really great. But you brought it onto yourself.

    Read the following link from NYROB and you would understand the problem of the relation between English and the amercian English in a deeper way. It’s in fact you americans that translate English books to “american”.


    • panoptical says:

      I approved this comment because it is a perfect example of the asinine bullshit I put up with from internet trolls all the time, not because it has any actual merit. Given the fact that nothing this individual wrote about me or my blog is even close to being accurate, I’m going to assume the assertions about Americans and books and whatnot are also complete and utter nonsense, and ignore them.

      However, for anyone who is interested, here is my lemonade post, and here is my TEDxTbilisi talk in which I tell the same story. Feel free to judge for yourselves whether this comment represents a fair assessment of my statements and attitudes about language.


  4. I frequently explain to Georgian students the differences between British and American vocabulary and pronunciation, usually presenting the British version as an amusing variant (come on, [tiuzdi] instead of [tuzdei]?). I’ve also brought up the football/soccer problem in every class.


  5. itstartedinoxford says:

    Hi! I absolutely love your blog. It’s the first I’ve seen regarding Georgia with such an insightful approach. I’m sort of in the process of creating the same, but it’s taking a lot of planning and bringing myself out of the situation to create a constructive piece of writing about my time in Georgia. It’s overwhelming to say the least so kudos to you and your well-written posts!

    This post amused me, I have to say. It’s interesting for me since I’m about as English as they get (I’m from Oxfordshire, lived in London blah blah) so I love to hear the impact of teaching here from an American perspective. I don’t know any other British people teaching here, so for so many Americans here to have to teach in British English is hilarious. I teach a girl, 8 years old, who lived in the US for a year when she was 5. She speaks well but writing is an issue. It’s not easy communicating with her in my accent when she’s used to American accents so I make sure to break everything down so she understands how it sounds in both my accent and an American accent.

    As for the conflict of accents, I hate to say but everyone in the UK hates American accents. We’re real snobs about it. I’m forever amused at how Americans speak (a good friend of mine here is from Colorado) and sometimes even we have a communication issue! I’ve noticed myself speaking in a different way too, I have to use more textbook English than I would naturally as my working-class British background is full of weird idioms and comparisons.

    Anyway thank you for your blog, it’s brilliant!


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