Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

Linguistic snobbery, elitism, and slavery

Confession: I’m rather elitist.

(I haven’t blogged in a while, so I’m not sure whether it’s generally bad form or simply cliché to start out a post with “Confession: Something-Moderately-But-Excusably-Bad-About-Myself.” It’s accurate, though, so it’ll have to do for now.)

If you’ve ever tried to get help finding something at a supermarket in the less prosperous area of a city, you’ll be well aware that “American English” is hardly a clear, homogenous language, perfectly able to communicate abstract ideas between any two fluent speakers. That is to say, people from a slightly different subculture likely have a terrible time trying to understand what most of us would see as normal speech.

“Hi, I’d like to know if your home and kitchen department carries the small metal spouts used for pouring liquor out of bottles in restaurants.”

(blank stare)

“Ahem. Do you know if you have any of the spouts that go into liquor bottles?”

“Uh….whaddaya want?”

“They should be in kitchenwares. A little rubber cap with a metal tube coming out of it, about this large.” (holds fingers 3 inches apart) “They go into the tops of bottles; they are used to pour alcohol.”

(Turns to coworker) “Say, we got any uh….them corkscrew things left?”

“Uh, no, not a corkscrew. I need the small metal spouts that attach to the end of liquor bottles and are used to pour.”

“Well we got popsicle makers on aisle three. Maybe four. Over there.”

“Fantastic, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. Do you know what I mean by a pour spout?”

“Did yuh ask sumbody from the meat department?”

(utter amazement)

Inevitably, the language-within-a-language barrier carries with it rather severe connotations of poor education, low literacy, and ultimately lower intrinsic value. It’s wrong, no doubt, but I still end up accepting it as a matter of course.

Which brings us to the topic of slavery.

The most recent incarnation of legalized slavery was, of course, race-based: grounded in ethnic prejudice and a social Darwinism that was neither sociable nor particularly Darwinian. So it’s understandable that we view all slavery throughout history as essentially the same. But of course history has other ideas.

I don’t think a day goes by without coming across some long-winded comparison between the evils of American society and the debauchery of ancient Rome. There’s always something we’re doing that happens to look just like what Rome was doing before it collapsed. Strangely enough, the construction of aqueducts bringing water to impoverished people isn’t one of the great evils which led to Rome’s downfall, but we will dispense with that discussion for now.

Slavery in Rome was bad, right? At least we haven’t sunk that low….or maybe we’ve rebounded since the Civil War. Kudos to us. But slavery in Rome had nothing to do with race; it was generally a combination of citizenship, debt, and the ability to speak Latin fluently. Of these three, language was the most important.* Free men spoke Latin; people who didn’t speak Latin weren’t free men.

I’m afraid I don’t have anything uplifting, convicting, and poignant to say about the way we view other people. Surely Jesus wouldn’t make value judgments based on dialect….but last I checked, I’m not the Divine Logos Incarnate, so that’s hardly a fair comparison. Considering that the Great Artifice of Capitalism depends on a degree of self-interest at the expense of others, value judgments are pretty much unavoidable.

It makes good, logical sense to look down on people whose grasp of language is dramatically less refined, simply because it’s the fastest way to evaluate someone’s background. It makes so much sense that almost all of our society’s classes are directly or indirectly tied to language and dialect. Passable vocabulary but poor grammar and a Hispanic accent? Ah, you must be part of the menial labor immigrant class (in many ways comparable to the life of a slave in the heart of Rome). Ghetto dialect and truncated syllables? You’re part of the welfare-dependent class, regardless of the color of your skin. Stereotypical “hic” accent with an apparent inability to internalize abstract thought? You belong to the class of citizens whose pride over their “freedom” exceeds their awareness of what freedom entails….and you probably deeply appreciate NASCAR.

Maybe all those comparisons to Rome aren’t completely off-base. Am I a horrible person for pointing all this out? Yeah, probably.

*Note: my first inclination is to wildly cite sources for everything I say…probably an artifact of hours on end checking students’ papers for proper APA, MLA, and Chicago style. Perhaps more importantly, it greatly annoys me when people from religious circles make assertions about history that are utterly, plainly wrong, so that adds to my tendency to want to cite. But I’m trying to be less aggressive and at least a little less academic, so I won’t cite anything. If you come across something that sounds questionable, please ask.
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4 responses to “Linguistic snobbery, elitism, and slavery

  1. bzirk 2013/03/23 at 10:40

    I’m a fan of yours. I just found out. (Sorry about ending that with a preposition. I couldn’t help myself).

  2. violetwisp 2013/03/28 at 20:29

    That’s interesting, and kind of weird. As I’m living in a Spanish-speaking country and my Spanish is atrocious, I think I’ve become less of a linguistic snob (although I suspect I never reached your heights, for obvious reasons). Anyway, I have to point out that bzirk didn’t finish his sentence with a preposition, as ‘found out’ is a phrasal verb. Second time this week I’ve been this pedantic, but it annoys me when people mention there’s even a perceived problem with ending sentences in prepositions. 🙂

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/03/28 at 22:20

      I’m sure anyone’s linguistic snobbery would be greatly muted if they had to live in a country where they didn’t speak the language fluently.

      Good catch! Clearly, my grammar skills need re-honing.

      Hanging prepositions and split infinitives are two of the unnecessary taboos English picked up from its co-opting of Latin grammar back in the 16th century.

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