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And on the Eighth Day: The Struggle for Linguistic Organization

In times of change or crisis, the calls for grammar, order, and God multiply.
Mark Pegrum

Issue #65, January 2004

The Queen's English is daily debased by ill-educated, slovenly users who insist on spreading ungrammatical chaos through all the media outlets available to them.
— Letter to Editor, UK press, 2002

If you don't believe in God, you can't believe in grammar. This is surely one of the most acute insights of Derridean thought, a sensational linguistic conclusion drawn from the death of God, that devastating — and simultaneously liberating — event noted by Nietzsche nearly a century previously. "If," writes Derrida in his Mémoires for Paul de Man, "I had to risk, God help me, a single definition of deconstruction ... I would say without sentence [without elaboration]: plus d'une langue." The typical Derridean wordplay of the final phrase suggests at least two interpretations: either no more of one (single) language, or more than one (single) language. With the end of modernity, there is no longer anything to anchor the play of signifiers, to chain them to their signifieds; indeed there is nothing to chain the signifiers to each other as we witness the rise of a world "without sentence," that unit of grammatical organization so crucial to shepherding woolly meaning towards its teleological realization. You have nothing to lose but your chains, as Marx might say to any oppressed preposition or adverb. Yet there will be no rationalized redistribution of the means of linguistic production: God dies; grammar collapses; meaning disperses into postmodern freeplay.

But not if DTW has anything to do with it. This abbreviation for "Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells" was coined in 1994 by the linguist John Maidment to refer to writers in the gentrified small towns of the London Belt who regularly regale newspaper editors with comments such as that quoted at the outset of this essay. DTW leads an organized life — Maidment suggests that he or she may well have a military past — and believes everyone else should follow suit. That means unequivocally following the rules of grammar. For what could be more effective than good sentence structure in ensuring an ordered society?

Grammar at Home: The UK and the USA

Debates about the importance of teaching grammar, and restoring it to an antecedent, supposedly superior or more pure state are nothing new. Grammar, it seems, like pride, goeth before the fall. Samuel Johnson noted in 1755 that "tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration," while decades earlier, Jonathan Swift had complained that English was declining so badly that "in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar." If we wished to follow this road into the past, we might well eventually, by highways and byways, arrive at the walls of Babel itself.

However, the decline of grammar is rarely seen as an isolated problem. On the one hand, in common usage, the term "grammar" metonymically represents linguistic organization, even language itself, tacitly subsuming areas such as vocabulary and pronunciation. On the other, it is closely linked in the collective imagination to social and moral standards, as a symbol and guarantor of these. The English language debates of recent years, whether grappling with Estuary English in the old anglophone heartland of the UK, or Ebonics and Hispanics in the new heartland of the US, have been concerned with (re-)instating a bulwark of organization against the chaos induced by creeping social change. There is little doubt that for Britain's DTWs and their fellow letter writers elsewhere, frequently in league with the media and middle-class parents, grammatical organization is a key component of a wider program for the reinstatement of more traditional, authoritarian pedagogy and discipline.

The potential effect on governments receptive to such concerns — goodwill and idealism notwithstanding — is well illustrated in the UK by the current Blair administration's National Literacy Strategy for schools, or in the US by the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" Act. Language, along with other key skills, is too important to be experimented with, or allowed to molder in the provinces or backwaters. One-size-fits-all programming, underpinned by new systems of standardized state or national testing, will ensure this can no longer happen.

And yet if complaints about the poor state of English grammar go back beyond Swift, and complaints about linguistic disorganization recall Babel, we might legitimately ask whether there is any real cause for concern. The pendulum swings one way, and it swings back in due course; what is new about the current linguistic cleanup?

One perennial issue which has recently assumed greater significance is that of linguistic discrimination based on what James and Lesley Milroy, in their 1985 Authority in Language, call the "intolerance of optional variability in language." As opposition to naked discrimination based on gender, race, religion or sexuality has increasingly become codified in the law of developed countries, and as social inclusion policies — to wit, the Blairite stance on university admission — have sought to redress class or socioeconomic imbalances, intolerance has mutated into subtler and more easily defensible forms. Discrimination on a linguistic basis can, after all, be attributed to inappropriate educational attainment or unsuitable strategies of communication on the victim's part, in patent disregard of the degree to which language, education and communication are interrelated and nonconformity is hyperbolized in the filtering processes of national testing. And whenever headway is made by leveling or pluralizing phenomena, from Estuary English in the UK to Ebonics/AAVE in the US, their threat is met with (counter-)reactionary force.

Community and individual identities are assaulted by a blinkered focus on standardization. If the back-to-basics move in compulsory education represents a challenge to the more student-centered, multifaceted approaches popular in recent decades - Vygotsky's social constructivism, Gardner's multiple intelligences, the New London Group's multiliteracies, in short, the kinds of paradigms which, along with the broadly constituted communicative approach in language teaching, still largely inform post-compulsory education in the humanities — then the imposition of linguistic control sends out a curfew call on the fragmented, hybrid identities of postmodernism. "In adopting particular norms of speech," writes Deborah Cameron in her aptly-titled Verbal Hygiene of 1995, "we are constructing particular identities for ourselves — and in submitting to other people's linguistic prescriptions we are also submitting to their ideas about who we are, or should be." If the sociopolitical imperative of postmodernism was to give a voice to every Other (whatever the degree of potential or actual co-option of the cultural manifestations of postmodernism by the culture and leisure industries) then those voices are increasingly being trained to sing from a single hymn sheet.

Identities are further constrained by the demands of post-Fordist economies, where language is treated as a product to be manipulated and (as Cameron has said elsewhere) "branded"; employees are instructed to read from scripts or employ pre-established phraseology. Anthony Giddens, Norman Fairclough and others have observed that what were previously seen as naturally developed linguistic and communicative capabilities now seemingly require experts to teach them, and to shape their users. Here, then, the enduring desire for reality to be organized and order to be established through language merges surreptitiously and insidiously with the requirements of a burgeoning capitalist service sector.

Capitalism makes various demands of nation states, but in its classical liberal and neo-liberal forms it chiefly requires night watchmen: governments able to keep social order. These in turn require obedience from their citizens. In both cases, where feasible, consensus has been found preferable to coercion. This principle already has something of a pedigree in the West: it is inherent in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" which, as Michael Billig notes in Banal Nationalism, was circulated not in all the major languages and dialects of post-revolutionary France, nor even in some of them, but solely in the administrative language of Paris. The citoyens of the République needed to understand the expectations of their government as much — indeed, more — than, in their former incarnations as subjects, they needed to understand their king. Openly coercive regimes are highly susceptible to attack; witness, for instance, the end of the ancien régime of the Bourbons. But now the citizens are to collaborate in their own rule, which will be ideological rather than physically punitive. The community is imagined. The panopticon is internalized. And the new order is realized linguistically.

Fast forward just over 200 years. With the new millennium have come the first major barbarian incursions into the Pax Americana established since the end of the Cold War. In a 2001 article, "On the Mortality of Language Learning Methods," Wilfried Decoo asks whether September 11th will lead to "a tighter grip on knowledge," including "the stressing of grammatical rules for correctness." This much we do know: throughout history, when civilized order has been perceived as under threat, people have reached for grammar to secure its foundations. Right now, menaces not only to the USA, which is still smarting from its Ground Zero wounds, but to the whole of the West seem to be everywhere and invisible; one slip of grammar and who knows what the result might be?

Yes, the reports tell us, the terrorists communicated on the internet, as others in their wake continue to do. The net's language is fragmented, turned against itself, the ASCII code eaten from within by the terrorist virus, it's "our" language(s), "their" language(s), rendered entirely unstable. No transformational rules will differentiate subject, object and action, or tell you how devastating the last of these may be. Chomsky, his own changes of heart aside, cannot help; the answer is more surveillance.

And if, since before the days of the French Revolution, governments have disenfranchised dialectal grammars, how much more jealous will they now be of alien grammars? Other languages too effortlessly open up perspectives which, much like the internet, are beneath the radar of today's largely monolingual anglophone elites. In a time of crisis, other linguistic allegiances, even if partial, may appear unpatriotic. This meshes with pre-existing, if cyclical, ambivalences to foreign languages: the UK continues to vacillate between Anglo-vision and Euro-vision as regards multiple language learning, while the originally multilingual USA is home to the Hispanically-challenged US English Movement, an increasingly powerful voice among those seeking to establish English as the official language of the country and to halt what its chairman calls "the drift toward multilingualism." However, as Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and others have emphasized, monocultures, whether biological or linguistic, are fragile. Surely, then, the greater the homogenization — of biology, environment, or language — the greater the risk of (another) devastating viral attack?

Internationally as nationally, perhaps the most commonly invoked argument against a proliferation of languages or dialects is the need for a common, transparent medium for accurate exchanges of information. Languidly seductive to both the traditional right and elements of the traditional left, to those who wish to uphold English standards as much as to those who seek broadened participation in democratic fora, this notion is all too easily transmogrified into an apology for a vulgarized, if not bastardized, for(u)m of Habermas' ideal speech situation governed by communicative rationality. Lyotard's incommensurable language games could not be further away; nor could Derrida's scribblings in the margins of philosophy; nor could the Talmudic-hypertextual trope of the world wide web.

Yet in a very real sense we are dealing with a false dichotomy, since making a choice for a standardized language of communication does not necessarily imply making a choice against more personal, dialectal or creative language; it is possible to choose both. That is to say, in a world which is overwhelmingly multilingual, anglophones might at least consider the possibility of being multidialectal. This means opening up space(s) for broad-based national or international clarity and communication on the one hand, ideally as a collaborative process undertaken in full recognition of the attendant dangers of which the postmodernists have warned us. On the other hand, it means maintaining linguistic spaces for local identity and creativity. In order to avoid the reification of the former, and the ghettoization of the latter (a development sometimes unwittingly supported by postmodernism) it also, essentially, requires the building of bridges between them.

It is apparent that an emphasis solely on standardization leads all too easily to what George Ritzer has called "McCommunication," part of the broader "McDonaldization" of the globe. If we speak the same language, then we share the same manner of looking at the world, right? And that manner is increasingly economic rather than political. Thus, coming full circle, we return to the issue of standardization through education. Certainly, an anglophone state (or for that matter, any Western state) which educates its population to a sufficiently grammatical standard of English, one which is at least convertible to the dominant version emanating from the US and can be subsequently molded and shaped by the brigades of experts in the avant-garde of transnational companies, can expect that the global economic flows of the neo-liberal order will not bypass its borders.

Grammar Abroad: Beyond the Anglophone West

If consensus works better than coercion at home, the same is true abroad. Linguistic colonialism is less tenuous and far more cost-effective than military invasion. It works politically: we're going to bring our valiantly won sense of order to the rest of the world by teaching them our grammar. It works economically: it's much easier to sell T-shirts, films and warplanes to those who speak our language, and understand our values. But the ultimate export is undoubtedly the language itself, the flagship product of the multimillion dollar international ELT (English Language Teaching) industry which propagates Western values through the apparently innocent imposition of approaches such as CLT (Communicative Language Teaching).

Ironically, CLT, the dominant ELT approach for more than two decades, purports precisely NOT to be about grammar. Or rather, it de-emphasizes grammatical accuracy to focus on communicative fluency, and operates through holistic activities which stress the transfer of authentic information and the sharing of experience. It's about self-expression through conversation, self-realization through discussion and, certainly in its constructivist incarnations, about the negotiation of meaning along with the development of student autonomy and empowerment. In these respects, it is deeply antipathetic to DTW. And yet, while its key principles are under pressure in the anglophone homelands, it continues to take center stage in expatriate English teaching. There, strangely, it may be as much a force of oppression as liberation. For in the guise of conveying — or indeed, NOT conveying — linguistic grammar, we are conveying a cultural grammar to the rest of the world.

Tomes have been collectively — and individually — penned by the likes of Robert Phillipson, Alastair Pennycook, A. Suresh Canagarajah and Lixian Jin & Martin Cortazzi about the ensuing, very unequal cultural clashes between the garrulous West and its postcolonial Others, for whom the sharing of ideas and opinions may not be seen as an unproblematic good, nor identity as a project-in-progress to be renegotiated daily in experiential classrooms. Tomes, too, have been written on the relentless promotion of English as the key to modernization, and on the limited topics around which ELT verbosity centers, salient among them shopping, traveling and other modes of spending which posit rampant consumption as a natural concomitant of global citizenship.

Although nowadays few may follow the somewhat fatalistic line of the German Romantics on cultural specificity, much less the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, it might be argued that the superimposition of not only a linguistic but a cultural grammar of communication — for we are not talking about a co-existence of equals — amounts to a vandalism of the cultural and personal histories of other people(s) and an erosion of their purchase (not to put too fine a point on it) on their own shared values and perceptions. Meanwhile, standardized English tests from IELTS to TOEFL serve as the legitimizing filters of this cultural grammar, representing a formidable nexus of language and power, determining as they do Other paths of access to further education, superior employment opportunities and economic advancement ... and thence to full consumer status.

Other Futures

One of earliest grammars of a modern European language, as noted by Skutnabb-Kangas, is Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana. It was published in Salamanca in 1492, that symbolic double whammy of a year when the Moors were finally driven from the Iberian Peninsula, thus consolidating Western European sovereignty over its own territory, and Columbus landed in South America, opening up new horizons for that sovereignty. A pivotal figure in both events was Isabella, Queen of Castile and Aragon, to whom the Gramática is dedicated by its author on the grounds that "language was always the companion of empire; and, as such, followed it, so that together they took root, grew and flowered, and afterwards fell together." Little has changed in the interim, except that the world is today dominated by the most powerful empire in history, one which, if in denial of its own role, is (al-)mighty beyond the wildest dreams of Isabella, and which speaks ... English.

And yet, as Derrida has shown us, every code contains the trace of other possibilities, other ways of being, other modes of organization and disorganization. Language is not only a means of control but of resistance, of "writing back," as Pennycook puts it, against a dominant culture. When the Inquisitorial screws are tightened, when grammar is enforced at home and particular cultural paradigms are promulgated abroad, increased linguistic insurgency may be both a cause, and an effect. If linguistic standardization stifles personality, reifies debate and supports capital, it may also be subverted into a supra-regional mode of organizing resistance to — organization. Moreover, English need not be a blunt instrument wielded in the service of a single regime of truth, but can equally be a conduit for flows of alterity, especially if, as literary advocates from Chinua Achebe to Salman Rushdie have argued, it can be (re-)claimed in the name of counterhegemony, as individual and regional Englishes are clawed out of the anglophone monolith. Spanish gave rise to Spanishes; so too, English gives rise, in the face of countervailing forces, to Other Englishes, both within and beyond the core English-speaking countries. A grammatical solution exists — can only exist — in perpetual tension with grammatical dissolution.

Perhaps the negotiation of language and meaning will again come to complement grammar in anglophone educational systems; and it is conceivable that we could support variant dialects as well as collaborating on standard language forms. Maybe the spirit of communicative language teaching will leave us open to hearing what Others have to say, or choose not to say, whether in our tongue(s) or theirs; and it is not impossible that we could learn to import as well as export grammar, concurring with the conclusion of the recent large-scale Nuffield Inquiry in the UK that "English is not enough." Then, indeed, there would be plus d'une langue, in Derrida's second sense of more than one (single) language — with any (single) language of communication at regional level existing in parallel to, and shaped by constant contact with, other dialects and languages. This might unleash some of the liberatory potential heralded by the deconstructive line of thought running from Nietzsche to Derrida and beyond.

The situation, then, may not yet be as bleak as the foregoing pages have suggested. Nevertheless, it could be. There is an interest, whether invested in certain nation states or multinational companies, in promoting the myth of an Adamic grammar. An unsettled DTW, the unwitting mouthpiece of larger forces, asks: if, before Babel, there was just one language, why not again? In times of change or crisis, the calls for grammar/order/God multiply.

God? Yes, maybe Nietzsche's pronouncement was premature. God, after all, has never expressed His will solely through the ministrations of queens — whether Isabella I of Spain or Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Rather, God is in the detail of their language(s). The Queen's Spanish. The Queen's English. God is in the grammar.

Mark Pegrum is a lecturer in applied languages at University of Dundee. He would like to thank Catherine Meyer and Véronique Wechtler for comments on his translation of Derrida from the French, and Linda Hartley and Bea Saenz-Rufo for refinements of his translation of Nebrija from the Spanish.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Pegrum. All rights reserved.