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The Truth About Language

A rash of columns has broken out recently in our local newspaper on some aspect of the English language or, more to the point, the Texas language. David Lyons gave us advice on how to talk Texan; David Arkin offered his perspective and was “fixin’” to say more but ran out of space; one of the many Nancy Wilsons in Huntsville weighed in with her 10 cents worth; and Paul Ruffin contributed to the discussion by talking about a strange stinging hymenoptera that lives in Mississippi called a “wast.”

The Nancy Wilson column was the most recent. Nancy points out, for instance, that Texas is a non-adverb state. Although I have not been in Texas as long as Nancy, I have long felt that adverbs, or at least adverbial forms (the “ly” thing), were more ornamental than functional. I came to Texas after spending 30 years in Alabama. Alabamians, like Texans, have communicated adequately for years without adverbs. I believe adverbs are rare in most parts of Georgia and almost nonexistent in Mississippi.

Nancy speaks of “…nitpickers who are sticklers for correct grammar.” Herein lies the major defect in Nancy’s reasoning and the reasoning of all the others who are “sticklers for correct grammar.” Actually Nancy might have an excuse that many others don’t have: she is a francophone. She knows she is a francophone and offers no excuses or apologies for it. I feel confident that she does not take it personal when I mention it. Nancy speaks beautiful and very fluent French. In France there is The French Academy (Académie française), a group of folks very much like the United States Congress but quite a bit smarter, who actually pass laws about what is “correct grammar” and “correct” everything else about the French language. Therefore, the French-speaking people can make pronouncements about what is “correct” because there is a duly constituted body to decide what is “correct.”

There is no such body anywhere in the world to do the same thing for the English language. I cannot emphasize this too strongly. This lack of governmental oversight does not keep well-meaning folks from making strong pronouncements about what is “right” and “correct” as it relates to the English language. University English teachers are the worst offenders. They have taken it on themselves to dictate “correctness” in English for the rest of us. Some get quite pompous about it. No one appointed them to this task. No one elected them to this high office. They just decided to do it.

Even those who compile dictionaries don’t presume to dictate what is “right” in terms of “meaning” and pronunciation. For instance, the Editor-in-Chief of the New World Dictionary says, “No lexicographer, at least in this country, has been given a mandate either to permit or to disallow any usage.”

If English teachers and dictionary makers don’t have the right to decide “what is right,” who does? We does. We the people. You and me, common folks though we be. We decide by how we use the language. This is the American way. It’s democratic.

So if we want to say, “The PO-lice raided the MO-tel, folks in the south will understand what we are talking about and respond accordingly by avoiding that particular MO-tel. In English there ain’t no right and wrong—just effective and ineffective. “Whoa,” you say. “What’s this effective/ineffective stuff?” Pretty much what it says. We speak to other people to influence their behavior. I might say to wife, Lynn, “Please, honey, buy me an ice cream cone.” I want to influence her behavior. I want an ice cream cone. She will likely say, “No, you fat slob. Eat this carrot stick.” As you can see, my message was ineffective. I didn’t influence her behavior in the manner I intended. On the other hand, if I say, “Hoooney, if you buy me an ice cream cone, I’ll take you to Spain next Thursday,” I’ll probably get an ice cream cone. That’s the difference between effective and ineffective. (There are several control issues involved here which are unrelated to language, hence will not be discussed at this time.)

So if you are talking to an attractive Texan of a different gender and say, “I’m fixin’ to go down to the MO-tel. We might could go together. I’d drive real slow so folks won’t think we’s in a rush”-- if that communication is successful, i.e., effective, we don’t really care what the English teachers think about it, do we?