Is spelling ability Yale’s new litmus test for social class?
For my grandmother’s generation, teeth were a good enough giveaway. Access to orthodontics in this country is, like most things all-American, stratified. Unless a child’s parents are committed corporal integralists (Christian Scientist or otherwise), a crooked pair of pearly whites has, historically, been a humble upbringing’s smoking gun.
At Yale, a new indicator may be emerging.
In e-mail correspondence between undergraduates, “definately” is quietly overtaking “definitely,” and “seperately” is, separately, making a run of its own. “It’s” is a popular possessive, and “its” an increasingly popular contraction. Earlier this year, I was privy to a series of internal e-mails in which the editor in chief of a prominent campus publication exhorted her staff to “Come help out at the freshman bizarre!”
In the opposing camp, a grassroots movement of self-identified grammar crusaders has sprung up to turn the tide. United by their publicly professed punctiliousness, 232 of these William Safire wannabes have joined “The Society for the Appreciation of the Subjunctive (and Other Such Grammatical Antiquities)” on facebook.com. There they post, for public consumption, their musings on the relative merits of the future perfect tense. If asked her favorite author, a certain breed of Yalie might tell you that it’s a close call between Mr. Strunk and Mr. White.
This crusade wouldn’t be worth discussing if it weren’t so self-conscious. But it’s no coincidence that 50 members of the facebook.com subjunctive society are also in “I Went to a Real Public School and I Still Got Here.”
At Yale, the traditional American indicators of social status have been erased. The parking lot — that great high-school diorama of vehicular purchasing power — has been relegated to somewhere invisible on Science Hill. Though Calhoun residents may feel like they got stuck in the tenements, there are no posh addresses here; we all live in Yale dorms. And there is no divide between Ritzy Country Day and Teen Pregnancy Central; we all go to private school now.
Enter spelling and grammar. In adverse circumstances, these skills can, of course, be learned through individual ambition and hard work. But when they exist as part of a person’s birthright, they are the probable fruits of a certain upbringing: books in the home, access either to good public schools or private education, and parents who have both the linguistic ability and leisure time to read aloud to their children. Good public schools usually require an expensive house. Reading aloud is easier when mommy doesn’t have to go to work.
Spelling ability has therefore become a badge. For some, it is proof of good breeding. For others, it legitimizes earned entry into the echelons of the Highly Educated.
English majors and the armed knights of the subjunctive crusade may retort that they simply love English and want to see its richness preserved. But this aesthetic argument slides very quickly into love of “proper” English — which itself slides very quickly into an elitism which is more social than linguistic. Ultimately, it matters little whether the phrasing of the argument is aesthetic or social. The crux is in the value judgment. Is there any substantive difference between degrading other people’s English for being “crude” and degrading it for being “low-class”?
The spelling litmus test of background is, of course, an imperfect one. Dyslexics form a notable and legitimate exception. Typos, as distinct from misspellings, are the inevitable byproduct of an information age. E-mail shorthand represents a useful and intentional form of language abuse. In a broader trend, as text has gone electronic, the marginal value of words has decreased. And, just as we have all met pampered white boys whose simulated ghetto-speak would make you swear they’d grown up in Compton, certain people who know otherwise might take a perverse pleasure in committing sins of the keyboard.
But, for the most part, after excluding typos and letting dyslexics off the hook, inaccuracy in spelling and grammar is like crooked teeth. Whether we like it or not, it is thought to reveal something about who we are, where we come from and — if taken to its logical conclusion — our parents’ annual incomes.
Daniel Weisfield is a junior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.