Apr 19, 2015

I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name

Aditya Mukerjee digs into the problems inherent in having our digital representations of language governed by an elite group whose dues are expensive, comprised of predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly American and Western European members.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has written, ‘The subaltern cannot speak’. They are structurally prohibited from having any dialogue – even an unbalanced one – with the very powers that oppress them. Access to digital tools that respect our languages is crucial to communicating in the Internet age. The power to control the written word is the ability both to amplify voices and to silence them. Anyone with this power must wield it with caution.

The makeup of the Unicode Consortium is available to the public, so there is at least some transparency there. In some ways, this strikes me as closer to how French or German are governed as languages.

I generally imagine that I prefer that there isn’t really a “standard” English, allowing for a flexibility in “correctness” which I feel is valuable to the me as a speaker and as a writer.

Of course, there really is a standard, it’s just harder to pin down because there’s no one organization or website devoted to it. But it’s still there, and structurally just as problematic as the Unicode Consortium, but without any of the transparency. David Foster Wallace captured it in Tense Present:

I don’t know whether anybody’s told you this or not, but when you’re in a college English class you’re basically studying a foreign dialect. This dialect is called ‘Standard Written English. … From talking with you and reading your essays, I’ve concluded that your own primary dialect is [one of three variants of SBE common to our region]. Now, let me spell something out in my official Teacher-voice: The SBE you’re fluent in is different from SWE in all kinds of important ways. Some of these differences are grammatical — for example, double negatives are OK in Standard Black English but not in SWE, and SBE and SWE conjugate certain verbs in totally different ways. Other differences have more to do with style — for instance, Standard Written English tends to use a lot more subordinate clauses in the early parts of sentences, and it sets off most of these early subordinates with commas, and, under SWE rules, writing that doesn’t do this is “choppy.” There are tons of differences like that. How much of this stuff do you already know?

I’m respecting you enough here to give you what I believe is the straight truth. In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE. This is How It Is. You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it’s racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our country uses to talk to itself. African Americans who’ve become successful and important in U.S. culture know this; that’s why King’s and X’s and Jackson’s speeches are in SWE, and why Morrison’s and Angelou’s and Baldwin’s and Wideman’s and West’s books are full of totally ass-kicking SWE, and why black judges and politicians and journalists and doctors and teachers communicate professionally in SWE. Some of these people grew up in homes and communities where SWE was the native dialect, and these black people had it much easier in school, but the ones who didn’t grow up with SWE realized at some point that they had to learn it and become able to write in it, and so they did. And [INSERT NAME HERE], you’re going to learn to use it, too, because I am going to make you.