Grammar: What Purpose Do These Rules Really Serve?

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As the debate rages on concerning a "national" language for the United States, cultural identity--including many languages indigenous to North America as well as those brought from beyond our borders--is at risk of being forever lost. One has to questi

Every day in classrooms across America, children and adults alike are instructed in the fine art of grammar, the speaking, usage, and writing of the English language in its "proper" form. 

"Between him and me is what you really meant to say," you can hear an instructor of Standardized American English (SAE) saying, " . . . not "he and I."   But, what makes one word choice "correct" while another is not?   In a word, PRESCRIPTION

Whether you label it "tradition," "standards," or just "the way of educated individuals," it boils down to one group of people establishing the "proper" way to communicate for another.   And from the anthropological, linguistic perspective, it’s just another means of establishing societal dominance and class distinctions, and most often results in accomplishing little more than erasing cultural identity.

Linguistic Perspective

Since the establishment of linguistics as a formal field of study (and sub-study of anthropology) in the late 1800s by individuals like Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and Franz Boas (1858–1942), the realities of how language is supposed to function within a given society versus how it actually does, has brought two very revealing linguistic truths to light. 

Firstly, people everywhere are far more interested in making themselves understood than adhering to formal rules (a means to an end.)  Consider the current use and growing prominence of Spanglish).   

And secondly, given the fluid and ever-evolving nature of language, no prescription could ever set a permanent standard for language–any language.  (Compare: In the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400) double and even multiple negatives were the prescribed "standard":  "He never yet no villainy not said," and "There never was no man no where so virtuous."–Canterbury Tales.)

While there are many points of contention among linguists as to the value of establishing culturally-fixed linguistic standards, even present-day linguists like Noam Chomsky, one of the most outspoken advocates of a standardized form of American English, has acknowledged that the constant infusion of common vernacular (slang, foreign phrases, dialectic variations, regional adaptations) could never actually be separated from American speech. 

One of the most obvious reasons for this is that English is not–and never has been–a single language but a conglomeration of many–French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, German–to name but a few. 

And when considered that each culture that influences the English language also adds to it the societal concepts and ideals of their language–its social constructs and abstract reasoning–it quickly becomes apparent that the English language is in actuality a highly complex communication system created by the commoner, for the commoner–not the elite who seek to control that communication and the people who use it.

Native Language

In recent years, numerous languages and regional dialects have come under cultural attack by those supporting a standardized version of the American English language–Ebonics, Appalachian, Creole, Gullah, and Mexican (Spanish), to name just a few. 

Many intellectuals even suggest a relationship between intelligence and one’s ability to use Standardized American English exclusively. 

This follows a five-century history during which countless Native American languages have ceased to be used (with the state of Oklahoma among the tops five centers of the world where languages are vanishing quickest), of the 50 native languages in common use in California a century ago, only two are currently being taught in school, and a growing number of families immigrating to the United States are finding no environment friendly to their native language

And all this against a backdrop where half the world’s languages have been lost in just the past 500 years, and nearly 7,000 languages are believed to have disappeared during the 20th century alone due to "standards" imposition.

Do these points argue against a standardized system dictating the "proper" way to speak and write as a member of American society?   Many would say no. 

But beyond fulfilling one’s obligation to the societal "norm," what purpose does it actually serve when so relatively few actually apply it in the everyday world? 

Might it pay to know Standardized American English?  Undoubtedly so.  Perhaps much in the same way that it pays to know how to drive a car whether you own an automobile or not. 

And there can be no denying that the educational system, business world, as well as government and legal systems hinge on it.  But should one class or sector of society decide for all the rest the proper way to communicate?  From the anthropological perspective–certainly not.  History shows that it ultimately accomplishes little more than to perpetuate social stratification and class distinctions, and disintegrates individual cultural identity.  How can this benefit a nation?


Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

Language Shock, Michael Agar

Clashing Sides in Cultural Anthropology, R. Welsch

Images via


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