Proper Language

Raised in a traditional Asian household, I was taught to say ‘thank you’, ‘please’, and ‘excuse me’ ever since I was able to speak. Like many other children, I acquired those polite phrases even before knowing what they mean; watching adults being pleased by how children were able to demonstrate courtesy in an early age, to me, is entertaining enough.

I was terrible at determining what was ‘proper’ to say before entering grade schools. When I was in an ancestral worship ceremony back in Taiwan, the families offered incense. My little cousin stood between the memorial tablet and me and refused to move. Traditionally, the only thing that should be in front of the worshipers were the tablet. Thus, I leaned over, “Go somewhere else. We are not worshiping you.”

My aunt’s face turned red as my mother yelled at me with the sternest tone I have ever heard, “What are you talking about?”

I was genuinely confused. Was I not simply telling the truth?

Mother sighed and explained later that to worship people implies they were dead, which is considered very inappropriate to address. I wanted to argue that the term ‘worshipping’ has many implications. After all, only well-respected historian figures can be worshipped in conventional Taiwanese religions. Nevertheless, I remained silent from then on, trying to minimize the chance of speaking ‘improper words’, even when they could have been perceived differently and many grown-ups just choose to interpret it negatively. Looking back, the event has served as a starting point of my socialization. The real game of being accepted through articulating proper language had inevitably commenced, and once you were in there was no turning back. In elementary school, I immersed myself in a variety of public speaking, recital, and writing contests. The unwritten rules to win were to throw in sophisticated words, to emphasize vocal variety, to use as many figurative languages and to cite as many classical quotes as possible. As a student who had been both extremely obedient and had read more literary works in comparison to my peers, I swept through almost every contest, won the prizes, but always refused to re-read my written pieces or to watch my speeches afterwards. Upon all these efforts, I was considered to be presentable and elegant, but those characteristics have never guaranteed of being honest, creative, and constructively critical. The early-age achievements had made me, paradoxically, proud and embarrassed at the same time.

Words and languages embody individual’s thoughts; for me, however, they used to be tools to win over recognition. In other words, they embody opinions of others: those people who could judge my value by using whatever metrics they please, regardless of objectivity. In linguistic study, however, ‘correct language’ does not exist. There is no definite agreement on how “the parts and the functions [of languages] should be analysed and described” (Rosen, 2). Rather, these normative statements are mostly established due to political reasons: Upper classes make the rules, and languages have thereupon become the criteria for class distinction. The post-war English historian Tony Judt has addressed similar points, in which components of languages such as ‘accent’ were ranked according to ‘respectability,’ usually “a function of social standing and geographical distance from London” (Judt, 148). It is indeed a rule developed as early as the formation of societies: Whoever controls the language controls the people, and vice versa.

Though I have arbitrarily, according to my personal experience, come to the conclusion that the so-called insistence on proper language is not absolute and has discouraged independent ideas, I don’t deny delicate wordings. To me, affectionate languages are the greatest invention in the world, and wonderful ideas are usually conveyed in eloquent dictions; I just cannot agree how anyone has the right to define what is acceptable for others. The rejection of beauty, articulacy, clearness, and all sorts of prevalent merits is unnecessary; the point is to recognize the imposed authority and not to oppress others by the pre-determined guidelines. A counterexample for this occurred in my friend’s junior high. There was a group of so-called popular girls who demanded on using the most direct, colloquial languages. For instance, they raised their hands during class saying that they wanted to go to the washroom to change their pad. So far, the style of expressions was harmless; but these people denounced those who didn’t speak in the same way as them to be pretentious and ‘unnatural’  and alienated them. I quite agree with historian Judt: In modern society, people “unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby” (Judt, 151). Truth doesn’t necessarily come from any specific forms of expressions, sophisticated or vernacular. More importantly, the sheer arbitrariness to define what is ‘natural’ for others, the act to demonstrate power through attacking non-followers, has echoed with violence and discrimination around the world, recently or historically.

If heaven exists, it would be a place where people value sincere opinions and know that their power to rule belong to themselves. If I am given a choice between being descriptive and normative, I would pick the latter one. If I ever had children, I would tell them to respect individuals heartily, rather than merely offer graceful lip service. My endeavour with language has unexpectedly led me to the arena of freedom and anti-oppression, and if I could, I would always hold on to the childhood ‘carelessness.’

Works Cited:

Rosen, Michael. “Sorry, There’s No Such Thing as ‘correct Grammar’.” Opinion. Guardian News and Media, 02 Mar. 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Judt, Tony. The memory chalet. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Print.