linguistic anthropology

Can language be “good” or “bad”?

In an episode of “I Love Lucy,” Lucy starts using a lot of big words. When Ricky asks her what language she’s speaking, she answers primly: “The language I want our child to learn: Good English.” She then goes on to say, “Funny thing, when it’s spoken correctly, you don’t even recognize it, do you? You know, I had no idea how sloppy my speech was until I started reading this book.”

“Good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “correct” and “incorrect,” are all common ways of evaluating language. But those of us who study language — especially linguists and linguistic anthropologists — don’t use them.

Why don’t we use them? Because we agree that the study of language should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, the study of language describes how people actually do use language, rather than making judgments (prescribing) about how people should use language. We value empirical approaches to language. And “good” and “bad” are the opposite of empirical; they’re value judgments.

How do we evaluate language, then, if not in terms of “good” and “bad”?

Instead, we make two kinds of distinctions:

Grammatical or ungrammatical?
“Grammatical” isn’t a question of punctuation or spelling, as you might have been taught in school. Instead, it’s a question of what can and can’t be said in a particular variety of a language.

In my dialect of English, “cot” and “caught” are pronounced differently. That means it’s ungrammatical for me to say aloud, “I cot the ball,” but when I hear it from other English speakers, I understand it. Similarly, “Here’s you some chicken” is not grammatical in my native dialect, but it’s grammatical in other dialects. “He a student” isn’t grammatical in my dialect, but it’s perfectly grammatical in many others. And “I’m standing on line at the museum” is perfectly grammatical for me, but speakers of most other dialects of English judge it as ungrammatical.

Standard or non-standard?
This is a judgment that compares different language varieties. A standard language is a variety that is codified and widely accepted as the most suitable for formal writing and speech. The vast majority of world languages are not standardized, so we can’t make this judgment at all. However, there exist clear differences between standard and non-standard varieties of English.

Saying “on line” where other English speakers say “in line” is non-standard. Saying “Here’s you some chicken” where other English speakers say “Here’s some chicken for you” is non-standard. Saying “He a student” where other English speakers say “He’s a student” is non-standard. But — crucially — none of these things is ungrammatical in its own language variety.

These two types of judgments share a key point: different doesn’t mean worse or wrong. That’s why scholars of language are so committed to descriptivism. All languages are equal, so characterizing some as “good” and others as “bad” is misleading at best.

All scholars of language agree on a few additional points:

1. All language varieties are equally complex.
Children learn their native variety with equal ease, regardless of the variety in question. We perceive some languages as harder to learn than others — but that has to do more with the degree of difference from our first language than anything else.

2. All language varieties are equally useful for communication.
Many non-specialists also argue that standard forms of a language are better for communication. But this simply isn’t true. In fact, many non-standard forms of English make even subtler distinctions than the standard. For instance, Black English, or African-American Vernacular English, includes a more subtle system of tense and aspect than Standard English.

3. All language varieties can communicate any referential proposition.
This one’s simple: any idea can be expressed in any language.

4. All language varieties are structured and rule-bound at every level.

  • They’re structured at the level of sounds. I consistently differentiate “cot” and “caught” while you may not.
  • They’re structured at the level of word formation. some varieties of English consistently differentiate “[I] run” and “[he] runs,” while others never do, but no variety of English has no structure.
  • They’re structured at the level of syntax. There’s no dialect of English in which “A is student she.” is grammatical. In some dialects of English, “Here’s you some chicken” is always grammatical, and in others, it’s not.

Those who claim that non-standard varieties “don’t have any rules” don’t recognize that all varieties are equally bound by rules. It’s just that the rules are different.

Why does it matter?

Consider the many pronunciations of the word “fourth.” There’s the standard pronunciation, and then there’s “fawth” and “fawt.” Sure, they’re different, but they express the same idea. They both express it equally well, and they both follow the rules of their respective variety of English. All the same, you might have different reactions to them — you might think that one sounds more “classy” or “educated” or just plain “correct” than the other.

Judgments about “good” and “bad” language are never just about language. They’re frequently connected to judgments about people’s intelligence and professional competence, and that means they have real personal and professional consequences.