Robert Lane Greene

You Are What You Speak

Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity

Delacorte Press 2011

New Books in AnthropologyNew Books in CommunicationsNew Books in LanguageNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Sociology July 11, 2011 Chris Cummins

Isn’t it odd how the golden age of correct language always seems to be around the time that its speaker was in high school,...

Isn’t it odd how the golden age of correct language always seems to be around the time that its speaker was in high school, and that language has been going to the dogs ever since? Such is the anguish of declinists the world over, pushing the commercial success of language-bashing stocking fillers.

But what’s the real reason that we get hung up on greengrocers’ apostrophes and the superiority of certain language forms over others? Robert Lane Greene‘s premise is that for those who hold up the standardised variety as the one true voice, the authority of the prestige language is not about words and rules, but about the perceived superiority of the people who use it. Hand-wringing over glottal stops and ‘ain’t’ contractions obscures attempts to define ‘us’ and distance ‘them’, and is a tool to support class, ethnic, or national prejudices.

Lane’s new book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity (Delacorte Press, 2011) gives an overview of these traits and then focuses on situations in which linguistic policy has had huge political consequences or where civil unrest is manifested in language laws. We learn about the imposition of Afrikaans and the riots that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid, how Ataturk imposed a whole new way of using Turkish on his people, and why Catalan nationalism is back on the boil.

I talk with Lane about small things like prepositions as well as weightier issues such as the oppression of minority groups and why George W. Bush’s southern accent may have done him a few favours. We touch on people’s deepest insecurities about the language they use and how bemoaning the loss of the glory days is a popular sport in language as in many other domains. We talk about Arabic, Catalan, French and Hindi. Lane busts a few language myths for us – not least that there is no such thing as a truly primitive language – and expands on his book which gives a comprehensive tour through history and politics across time and space. All this is done from the standpoint of languages and the societies that speak them.

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