For all its essential dryness, grammar is a deeply emotional subject. However little most of us would like to sit through a sixth-grade English class diagramming subjects and predicates, many people — especially at places like Yale — practically leap at the opportunity to splice any split infinitive that comes their way.
Some governments, it turns out, have a similar urge. In Singapore, an initiative called the “Speak Good English Movement” has been in place for 10 years, and this past Tuesday, reported the Associated Press, the Singaporean government announced efforts to revive and intensify the program. Its main target is a Singaporean-English creole called Singlish, whose strong Chinese influences can sometimes give it a Google Translate-like charm: “Borrow me five dollar can?” Fearing that Singlish corrodes “proper” English, the Singaporean government has taken down signs that employ it, decried sitcoms written in it and rigorously trained primary school teachers to root out its influences. Rather than a list of specific changes, the government is simply asking that people speak “global” English, the language that wouldn’t sound out of place in London or San Francisco: “In this country, the weather is very warm,” not “Dis country weather very hot one.”
But the problem with commanding someone to speak “good” English — as opposed to, say, French, with its venerable Académie — is that there isn’t actually anyone with complete authority to say what is, or isn’t, grammatical. Split infinitives, for instance, were considered largely unobjectionable until a small gaggle of English critics launched a crusade against them in the 19th century. The ultra-correct, semi-unforgivable way to answer a phone — “It is I!” — is in fact nothing more than an eccentric attempt to make English follow the rules of Latin, an approach which made sense to Classicists 300 years ago and just about no one else.
A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a professor — a published and somewhat renowned author — that mentioned how the room, “due to it’s size,” felt a little cramped with the large number of attending students. A minor typo, certainly, but one that made me think about the authorities of English, and what, if any, responsibilities surround grammatical usage at a preeminent university.
After all, speech has historically been a major indicator of both education and the status that comes with it — “ain’t,” a contraction whose origins are shrouded in mystery, may or may not be grammatical, but it certainly doesn’t sound educated. Yet I’m not sure that many of us want or care to sound educated. Feelings towards those who do inclines towards extremism — “grammar freak” turns up 56,800 results on Google, “grammar police” gets 124,000, while “grammar Nazi” weighs in at 212,000. I don’t understand how censuring the individual use of “they” (“Each person needs to pick up their own trash”) is reminiscent of genocide, but I do think it’s indicative of a profound cultural discomfort with completely “correct” English. Nitpicking over apostrophe placement begins to sound as reactionary as Harold Bloom’s feelings about slam poetry.
As culture democratizes, as electronic communication favors different language patterns and as elitism grows more and more untenable, I wonder if the gap shrinks between, say, the speech patterns of a Yale graduate and a person from the same region with no high school diploma. Education probably does have something to do with whether or not someone knows the word predilection, but I feel that most people’s predilection to actually use it is about equally low. Most of our idioms come not from poems or literature but rather from music, and while we might sprinkle our iPods with the odd Bach sonata or Shankar raga to appear cultured, we’re mostly listening to what everyone else is listening to.
Ultimately, I almost feel bad for the government of Singapore. Its attempt to make Singaporeans’ English more “global” may actually be making it less so. Not only is the government asking its citizens to conform to an indistinct, hardly agreed-upon set of rules, but it is also asking them to conform to rules that many native speakers reject outright. Global English has become less the strict forms of Strunk & White and more the free-flowing grammatical compromises of the text message and rap lyric. Just think of Latin, which by the time the Roman Empire fell was written and spoken as two virtually separate languages, or Arabic, whose sixth-century case system is taught to students but long gone in all of the myriad spoken dialects. As such shifts occur, as the language of communication changes, how is a government, or a university, to respond?
I don’t have an answer; instead I offer a Singlish proverb. “Got eye see no tarzan!” — which means, apparently, “to have eyes, but be unable to see the large mountain.” I let you be the judge of that.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.