Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Political Nature of Grammar

Grammar is typically taught very much as a form of "inside the box" thinking. In other words, there are rules, they're packaged and sold as being fairly linear; follow them, and your writing will improve. However, the deeper truth about grammar is that it's actually extremely complicated, and accurate use (an arguably impossible task) depends very much on who you're reading and why they wrote their grammar guide. Scariest of all, there are actually multiple grammars.

Let me start with my strangest-sounding proposition first, the notion that there are, in reality, multiple grammars. This statement flies in the face of what we grow up being taught, that there is "one" grammar, one way of doing something, and one true way to write. In fact, grammar use is highly political, it's fluid, and it changes with the prevailing values of the dominant culture. You are forgetting, even as I write this, the grammar you learned to set in cement when you were a child.

The reason you're forgetting is because you do not use the grammar you learned as a child. You don't realise it most of the time, but it's true. A great deal of what you learned when you were young is probably still valid, but there are once-important bits and pieces that no longer matter, that no one cares about, and that few people, except perhaps die-hard grammarians and linguists, think are important. In other words, the grammar you were taught to cling to as a life raft on the sea of errant words has been over-written by more recent information, and that newer information was written when you weren't paying all that much attention.

So the concept of multiple grammars starts with the simple fact that there are acceptable ways of saying something and unacceptable ways of saying something. The second aspect to the concept of multiple grammars lies with the inherent politicization of the use of language when a grammar is applied to it; the grammar forms and restrictions determine 'correctness' at the cost of meaning, but if you're representing the dominant voice in society, do you honestly care if a group's meaning is erased by the power of your grammar? No, you do not. Your concern is to make the group learn 'the correct way' to say something.

Unfortunately for those you dominate with your grammar rules, they had their own forms, methods, and ways of saying something, now in the process of being erased by your need to 'correct' them. Grammars then become a method of controlling what people are allowed to say, how they are allowed to say it, and who, ultimately, will be heard. In this way, the deep structure of language is controlled by the very few in charge who are authorised by society to make the decision to approve or disapprove language use.

You begin to see the inherent risk of making it necessary to say something in any one way, when you start to realise how rigid, limiting, and controlling the concept of grammar can be. Grammar is never a value-neutral activity; it always carries with it the danger of oppressing the writer's unique voice, creativity, and style, and replacing it with what you approve of, what the dominant voice in society approves of—this is what makes grammars political. Yet, control constantly slips through the hands of those who seek to manage the unmanageable. The very fluidity of language makes it an impossible quest for lost verb forms to try to tell someone to use the language the way it was used in your Aunt Sally's era.

Further, the disparity between the grammar that is approved by those 'in charge,' and the grammar that is actually used, reveals the divergence between someone's reality and someone's ideal, and that territory belongs to philosophy. Grammar exists in that space very uneasily, and should come with a warning label: danger, you're entering heavily politicized ground! User beware! Just remember that correcting someone carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Who and what are you turning them into, precisely, when you correct their language use? You? Perhaps they'd like to be themselves instead.

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