Dethroning the King’s English: YPU holds debate on “proper” English
Harvard Professor Sunn m’Cheaux visited the Yale Political Union on Tuesday night to discuss the imperialism and oppression rooted in the rules surrounding the formal English lexicon.
Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer
King George III died 202 years ago. Why do we still try to talk like him?
Professor Sunn m’Cheaux, instructor of Gullah at Harvard University’s African Language Program, asked this question to the Yale Political Union on Tuesday, when Yale’s most politically inclined met in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to debate the value of a standardized way of speaking English and the effects of excluding and stigmatizing “non-standard” lexicon.
“It’s not the King’s English, it’s the King’s Agenda,” remarked m’Cheaux, asking members to consider the real reason behind why people might feel that they need to speak a certain way to get a job or be treated normally.
Why is it, m’Cheaux asked, that educators feel the need to correct others on their dialect? A Brit and an American may say “tomato” differently, but if both understand the information being transferred, why is there any need for change?
For m’Cheaux, the answer is simple: the ruling elite benefits from a system that forces others to conform to their dialect, giving them the “home turf advantage.” Everyone else must adapt to survive in a linguistic system not made for them, he said during the YPU debate.
Looking back to colonization and the slave trade, m’Cheaux asked audience members present at the YPU debate to recognize the violent history of the King’s English, and how oppressors used language to separate people who were subjugated from their history, solidarity and culture.
m‘Cheaux claimed further that this violence still exists within society today, and that through correcting the language of those around us, we perpetuate that violence and internalize that inequality.
“The King’s English is a Trojan horse for racism, sexism and imperialism,” m‘Cheaux claimed.
m’Cheaux explained that he was not looking to kill the King’s English. In his mind, it is already dead. Since most modern speakers use grammatically incorrect phrases like “shouldn’t’ve” or “y’all” in their speech, he asked, why are certain dialects arbitrarily deemed improper?
He added that when Noah Webster, a lexicographer buried in New Haven, published his first dictionary, a multitude of words and phrases were dramatically changed from British English, calling into question the validity of standardizing the language in the modern age.
m’Cheaux asked that Yalies embrace diversity of speech and that they evaluate and understand their own biases. With this, he said, one might leave behind the shadows of imperialism and slavery.
“Language is freedom,” m‘Cheaux said.
Sean Pergola ’24, called the debate “fascinating” and a “model debate” for what the YPU should be. m’Cheaux said he was “impressed” and “inspired” by the quality of the debate.
Pergola noted the candor of the speakers and their ability to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
“The guest was really interesting,” Arya Nalluri ’24, a member of Yale’s Progressive Party, told the News. “I feel like this is a topic I hadn’t heard much about.”
The Yale Political Union was founded in 1934.