Despite the naïve pretensions of utopic meritocracy held by many of the era’s commentators, we now know that the early twenty-first century was one marked by intense inequalities in its inhabitants’ well-being and life opportunities. Indeed, in many ways this era’s incredible rise in inequality called into question the widely-told narrative that humanity and society were making continual progress in the betterment of the human condition.
Institutions that provided what passed for advanced education at the time were among the many areas of life where this increasing inequality was felt by many. Numerous individuals struggled to gain access to these institutions. Although we criticize the working conditions of these establishments today especially for their disregard for the mental wellness of the workforce, they were viewed by many people as a welcome alternative to other forms of labor more common at the time.
Prior to this era, positions in these institutions were reserved only for those from the most powerful classes. It was quite common for these institutions to be staffed mainly by pale-colored men from wealthy, prestigious families often with long familial traditions of being educated at and then holding positions in the same academic institutions. The slow expansion of educational opportunities to the lower classes coupled with a rather feeble awareness of the need for diverse representation in the area of education meant that the educational institutions of the early twenty-first century were beginning to look for their students and scholars in places besides the halls of elite academies located in the favored regions of rich nation-states.
However, this change was not welcome by all, and the educational institutions of the early twenty-first century offer an enlightening glimpse into how elites responded to the lower class’s encroachment on to the academic territory that they viewed as their birthright.
Needing to avoid association with their highly criticized forerunners, who would have simply complained of things like the lack of “good breeding” among their colleagues and students, the elites turned their attention to language in order to mount resistance against the lower classes. Criticisms of language, they believed, would allow them to indirectly undermine the academic credentials and even adult human status of their students and colleagues who, not having grown up in the elites’ gated communities, would be unable to produce the necessary shibboleths to satisfy the elites’ “high standards”. Interestingly, numerous individuals who were themselves previously excluded from these institutions saw their opportunity to gain power and thus fashioned themselves in the language practices of the elites, adopting not only their language but their prejudicial attitudes about the lower classes’ language.
One publication, the Chronicle of Higher Education, which many at the time regarded as a forward-thinking source of news about these educational institutions, served as a willing venue for elites’ classist caricatures, complaints, and propaganda concerning their colleagues and students of lesser social standing.
The illustration below, which appeared in an article at the Chronicle in the year 2014, provides an excellent representation of these elite’s attacks on the language of those they believed to be inferior to them. It features a rather crude representation of earlier humanoids from which the modern species of humans evolved. This strategy was used to tie the language of the lower classes to earlier forms of humans thought to be less developed and thus less cognitively capable of providing and receiving education in these institutions. Interestingly, although these elites would undoubtedly have engaged in the fashionable practice of explicitly rejecting ideologies such as racism, the graphic nonetheless bears a strong resemblance to racist portrayals of the first member of a racial minority who served as leader of one of the more powerful nation-states of the time, the United States of America. This visual representation then demonstrates how tightly related dehumanizing ideologies like racism and classism were in these earlier periods of human history.
The man in the picture is using a number of phrases that seem perfectly meaningful to today’s reader. Thus, the attitudes the picture expressed to its early twenty-first century audience need some clarification.
Although dictionary-makers and editors of the era had thoroughly described and detailed the meaning of irregardless, elites at the time arbitrarily refused to acknowledge its meaningfulness and legitimacy. As a result, elitist members of institutions dedicated to advanced education insisted that their colleagues’ and students’ use of this term was cause for complaint. A writer responding to anonymous letters sent to her under the pseudoynm “Ms. Mentor” commiserated with another elitist stating, in the third person, that “Her senses… are daily assaulted by verbal infelicities and ungrammatical excretions”. Ms. Mentor, however, was aware that the lower class’s language use had always differed from that of the elites. She wrote the following in the third person:
The issue, she believes, is not the barbarism of the current age. Every age has suffered from those who refuse to conform to standard English, civilized usage, or proper Latin. In the past, such characters were indeed called “barbarians,” from the belief that they were actually saying “bar bar bar bar bar,” instead of sounding like human beings.
Now the barbarians disguise themselves more cleverly. Sometimes they cloak their grammatical or syntactical sins in a robe of local color, pretending to be “folks” blending in with the natives—who really do not, wherever they are, use “y’all” as singular. It is plural, as are “you’uns” and “youse guys,” both of which make Ms. Mentor shudder.
Interestingly, readers in Ms. Mentor’s era would have viewed her use of the term barbarians as hyperbolic and playful. Nonetheless, her elitist contemporaries would have shared her disdain for the lower classes and their language which is visible in her discussion of “the natives” and their language forms which “make Ms. Mentor shudder”. However language experts have long recognized that these forms simply served the much needed purpose of referring to multiple addressees in a language that at the time was named “English” and which, for some historically mysterious reason, had failed to adopt a universally accepted pronoun to serve this function.
Clearly, Ms. Mentor and other writers like her helped to persuade elites at the time of the legitimacy of their belief that the language of their regions’ lower classes — and by extension the lower classes themselves — had no rightful claim to participation in these institutions. Interestingly, despite their attempts to keep the lower classes at a distance, Ms. Mentor and other elites expressed a strong ability to speak on their behalf. In the paragraph above, she wrote that they would never use y’all to refer to only one person despite the fact that the historical record shows that language experts of her time had documented this use of the word.
Seeing very little chance that they would ever regain full control of the institutions that they viewed as their birthright, the elites resorted to seeking out ways of molding their lower-class colleagues into facsimiles of themselves, however imperfect. The reader who wrote to Ms. Mentor sought advice on how to “constructively correct” the language of his superior. Ms. Mentor’s advice reflected the paternalist attitudes of the elites of her era as well as of earlier times. Claiming to have consulted “experts”, Ms. Mentor gave her elite readers advice for molding the language of their colleagues.
Model correct English, with the hope that the listener will absorb the correct form, the way toddlers do. One might gently say, “When will you send the forms to Ashley and ME,” with a meaningful emphasis on ME.
Ms. Mentor’s view of the development of language in children would have been disputed by language experts even at the time and is clearly flawed according to our current understanding of how children learn to use language. Regardless, Ms. Mentor and other elites advocated engaging in the type of “language teaching” behaviors that elites at the time practiced with their young children. It is unlikely that the fact that these practices were ineffective in manipulating children’s grammar, let alone adults’, would have any relevance to Ms. Mentor and her contemporaries. Rather, the real purpose of their “corrections” seemed to have been to infantilize their colleagues who used language differently than they did.
Reading these primary historical sources helps us to understand the ways in which elites in the early twenty-first century used complaints about language to disguise their classism to avoid accusations of their prejudice. Classist elites during this time viewed themselves as the last of a dying breed of intellectually and linguistically superior beings who were forced to bear the burden of listening to the communicative attempts of their less developed colleagues and students. These beliefs tended to make elites ignorant of the value of the lower classes’ ways of using language and quite resistant to any language change, however useful, which ultimately rendered the elites obsolete even within the halls of the academic institutions they felt they were the rightful heirs to.
1. Although officially disputed by all of the most reputable sources at the time, it was widely believed by people of this era, especially the elites, that the skin pigment melanin was somehow connected to individuals’ intelligence. In addition, male genitalia was thought to be in some way connected to intelligence as well. Thus, those working and studying at institutions of advanced education tended to have pale skin and penises. When, in the twentieth century, it became widely unfashionable to explicitly link penises and pale skin to intelligence, the elites focused their efforts on attempting to connect language with intelligence.
2. The term shibboleth derives from the sacraments of a religion popular in several parts of the world during the era. It alludes to a story in which members of one group of people assessed the identity of strangers by asking them to pronounce the word shibboleth. If the stranger pronounced the word in a different manner (sibboleth), then the person would be recognized as an outsider and subject to all of the punishments that comes with this status.
3. “English” was named after a particularly pale-skinned ethnic group that inhabited an island near the Afro-Eurasian continent. Although the language was at one time associated with these people, in the early twenty-first century the name was merely a relic. By that time, large populations of the language’s speakers lived on every major continent making the inhabitants of the island a rather small minority in those that used the label to describe the language that they used and shaped.
4. Our research has never verified that Ms. Mentor consulted with any of the many experts on language of her time. Indeed, the suggestions she attributed to these “experts” seem little more than the classist attitudes of her fellow elites.
Delightful and witty!
I’m a trained linguist (BA, with distinction), married to another, and professional manipulator of our language (two decades practicing law), so I try always to remember that our language is a tool we created for our own purposes. It’s like the response to a grammatical “correction” on the playground years ago: “Hey, Asshole, I don’t speak English; I talk American. You know what I fucking mean; shut the fuck up.” Eloquenter words ain’t never been spoke.
That’s entirely beside the point, though, init? The point is, classism (like sexism and racism) is alive and well in our society — so I damned sure want my children to be completely comfortable using the language of the ruling class (in addition to such other languages, dialects, and registers may suit their purposes).
After all, language is not just ANY tool, it is the most powerful tool any of us has yet IMAGINED.