Authority, Language Standards, and Literature

Hamish Pottinger

We like to think of ourselves as living in rather open-minded and inclusive times. And we are, in some ways; it seems that ‘minority’ cultures have never been so visible and their position in society such a popular topic of conversation. Debates surrounding cultural appropriation even regulate how we take an interest in these cultures. There is also an effort to maintain an inclusive view of the English language; we almost expect the news headlines to be read to us in a Welsh accent, or that we might be persuaded to switch banks in broad Brummie. The reassuring voices of Huw Edwards and the enigmatic Howard from Halifax reflect a belief that there is no ‘correct’ way to speak.

letters in abstract on a white background
Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash.

But there is a correct way to write, and it is very rigid. What would you put if you were sitting an exam – cos or becauseWee or smallLikkle or little? Despite our acceptance of the various ways of speaking in the UK, we insist that everyone must conform to a standard in writing. As Oxford’s own Deborah Cameron puts it, to not follow these rules would suggest the “deplorable result of some users’ carelessness, idleness or incompetence”. This is hard to argue with – imagine opening a CV and reading:

i done loadsa bankin jobs b4 n i got xperience in diffrent managerial positions n i woz actually employe of da monf free times runnin so im definately gna b gr8 @ natwest

Of course, this does not mean that alternate ways of writing are always “deplorable” – we like to giggle at the idiosyncrasies of Twitter, an aw the hings Scottish people dee tae change their spellin oanline. Throwing a in your stage name will probably increase your credibility as a rapper.  But to write this very article in those styles would be far from natural – as if I, the author, were being purposefully difficult in order to prove a point.

So, convention dictates that you can put your variety of English into writing, but not in any serious way. Should we grab our pitchforks and threaten orthographic mutiny? While that does sound fun, removing writing standards is unlikely to be productive or even possible. The point here is not – you will be relieved to know – to cause trouble by dredging up prescriptivist/descriptivist tensions, but to show that there is meaning in deliberately eschewing language standards, as there is when visual artists and fashionistas break the conventions of aesthetics and haute couture. And while we are unlikely to accept CVs written in Cockney slang any time soon, the creative freedom of literature can provide a loophole through which voices can be heard and taken seriously.

Of course, there is Robert Burns, whose status as a great poet is not in any doubt. Singing his Scots-language poem Auld Lang Syne is an international tradition on New Year’s Eve. Many present-day Scottish poets continue to use Burns-esque spellings to emphasise not only the Scots voice, but also to appeal to certain prestigious elements of the Scots language; that its literary tradition predates the standardisation of English altogether, and that this long history validates the authenticity of the language. People do not seem to mind this and rather enjoy imagining Highland cows and hardy fisherman as we hear the voices in writing.

Despite the countless challenges facing Scots speakers, it does help to have your language associated with a literary giant. Without a written history, languages tend to be viewed with a stigma that can warp one’s understanding of an entire culture. The various forms of Jamaican Creole would fall into this category, with famed historian David Starkey calling them, live on air: “wholly false, a Jamaican Patois that has been intruded in England”, representative of an apparently infectious culture for which the “violent” and “destructive” behaviour of white youths is to blame. I urge you to (re)watch the video to see that these comments, made with heartfelt anger on Newsnight in the wake of the events of August 2011 and the shooting of Mark Duggan, have not been misinterpreted or ‘taken out of context’.

The languages (for there are more than one) that Starkey was referring to have been heard in the UK since just after WWII, and soon after they made their way into print. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is mostly narrated in a reader-friendly Trinidadian Creole, which is contextually and linguistically similar to Jamaican Creole. Selvon began writing his novel in standard English, but quickly felt that the characters – arriving in the UK from Trinidad – and their feelings of vulnerability, homesickness, detachment, and disillusion needed to be expressed more directly. It has been a hugely influential work, famed for its representation of the migrant experience of the Windrush Generation through an authentic voice, rather than from the distance that standard English would inevitably create. But in order to create this voice, the author had to break the rules of writing.

In a postmodern world, a book like The Lonely Londoners does not seem as daring today as it was in 1956. But in everyday practices, alternate ways of writing are still aggressively criticised, as are their authors, often slated for being petty, stubborn, or uneducated. Fights break out online when African American English (AAE) is used in written form. Facebook users who do so are made to prove they are not just stupid, and when they do, are interrogated: is it such a big deal to have to write in ‘proper English’, so we can all understand? Frankly, yes it is, because mutual understanding is not mutually fair. Who has to make themselves understood in a multilingual society? Those who decide which forms of language hold social currency are those who have power in the first place. This is why, if you could only speak an Indigenous language in Australia, the US, or Canada, your professional and social life would be limited to the small community that understands you. If the two languages being used are very close to each other, then who is expected to conform to who? Although AAE is generally intelligible to those who have heard it enough in popular culture, there is a tendency to feel threatened by its use as what is called an ‘in-group’ language – a language that community members use to identify themselves as a specific group.

More specifically with regards to writing, the highest forms of English – think legal documents, newspaper editorials, academic texts – contain endless rules and conventions. And the more of them you know, the more valued your writing becomes, and the more power you wield with your words. So there is also an imbalance of access to valuable language which might favour, say, a well-educated Prime Minister like Boris Johnson, whose everyday insults include: “great, supine, protoplasmic, invertebrate jelly”. This does not mean that those who write fyah, canny, or doin do not know how to spell fire, can’t, or doing – of course they do. It is perhaps more to do with an awareness and a rejection of the authority which ‘correctness’ represents.

Strange though it may sound, there is very much a colonial dimension to the authority of language standards, hence the fact that ‘the Queen’s English’ is the highest form of communication in various countries across the globe. Selvon’s varied use of grammar and vocabulary in The Lonely Londoners has indeed been described as an act of literary decolonisation. Nevertheless, it almost entirely conforms to standard spellings and it is not particularly difficult for non-Creole speakers to read passages such as this one:

“Harris is a fellar who like to play ladeda, and he like English customs and thing, he does be polite and say thank you and he does get up in the bus and the tube to let woman sit down, which is a thing even them Englishmen don’t do. And when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black.”

The social value of correct spelling presents a difficulty for Caribbean Creoles; writers may want to reject the written conventions of the coloniser, but to do so inevitably looks sloppy or trivial, which is perhaps why Selvon punctuated his novel well and used the spelling thing, rather than ting. This was not of such great concern for Linton Kwesi Johnson (often referred to as LKJ), a dub poet whose spoken songs were popular in the UK, predominantly in the 80s. He writes in a much more visually striking way that incorporates the sound of Jamaican/London Jamaican Creole. In a first-person letter to the narrator’s mother, this time a voice is given to the victims of police brutality, who we might consider the children of Windrush Generation, and all spelling rules go out the window: Mama, mek I tell yu whe dem dhu to him (‘Mama, let me tell you what they did to him’). If you found my translation here useful, the value of this kind of nonstandard writing to its writer seems self-evident; we really are talking about a different language that does not look right in standard English.

But it does not stop there. We notice that something else is going on when LKJ writes dem lick him pan him hed / but it tuff like led (‘they hit him on the head / but it was tough like lead’). Why write hed, tuff, and led, when they do not alter the sound of head, tough, and lead? In these cases, the standard would serve just as well to represent a typical Jamaican/London Jamaican voice. We have now gone beyond sound and have reached pure spelling rebellion, as un-rebellious as that sounds; tuff is symbolic of the fact that the language being used is not standard English, but something else.

If this all sounds like sociological waffle, then perhaps it could be framed more logically; if you know how to spell correctly, but choose not to, you have done so for a reason. Kids at school do not write Jeremy was here. on their desks. Graffiti is a transgressive act, so we use transgressive language – Jez wuz ere – appropriately. Again, wuz indicates no sound change. While teens do this to undermine the authority of the school, LKJ appears to do so in order to undermine that of the dominant culture. In a way, it seems almost absurd for LKJ’s narrator, lying in his cell in Brixton after lashing out against the violence and oppression of the authorities, to pen his letter using the conventions of that authority, the same authority whose violence and oppression dates back to when the prisoner’s ancestors were piled into boats and, having survived the passage, made to work on plantations in Jamaica.

Again, I emphasise that the elimination of language standards is a much greater, more complex issue. But, as I hope I have shown, the inner workings of these standards are not neutral. Power structures, upon which all of this is based, are now the topic of daily conversation among young people and no longer the preserve of impenetrable academic texts. Within these conversations it is generally recognised that we have a long way to go to improve certain power imbalances, as the recent explosion of dialogues on institutional racism and police brutality have shown. Fittingly, I leave you with the poem from LKJ, as relevant today as it was in 1979.

Listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson read his poem on The Poetry Archive >>
Read Sonny's Lettah on the Poetry By Heart website>>

This blog was originally posted on Hamish Pottinger's website and is reproduced here with his permission.