Bad English? Only Bad Politics, Says Rutgers–Camden Professor

Word language

As Rich Epstein explains, most people have been taught what is proper English since their earliest school days. “We hear that there are good reasons for it, but we never hear what those reasons are,” he says.

For instance, he notes, one might assume that it is bad English to say a statement such as “They always be hanging at the park.” “But why?” asks Epstein, an associate professor of linguistics and director of the undergraduate liberal studies program at Rutgers–Camden. “We’d have no idea why it is wrong, and neither do the teachers teaching us.”

The reasons are actually deep-seated political issues, Epstein contends, explaining that the statement is considered incorrect because it is associated with a discriminated minority, African Americans. Whatever minorities say is incorrect, he continues, because the notion of “correctness” isn’t logical; it is instead an insidious form of discrimination and prejudice. “Whoever it is that we look down on in general, such as immigrants, minorities, or poor people, we look down on the way that they talk,” he says. “The group that has the power – basically straight, white, upper-class males, who have always had power in this society – determine what’s correct. Their norms become the societal norms, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that it applies to language as well.”

Rich EpsteinAs it turns out, Epstein says, “They always be hanging at the park” is a very logical statement. He maintains that those who don’t know the rules and history of linguistics might assume that the speaker is trying to say that they “are” hanging at the park, implying an immediate observation. “But it doesn’t mean that at all – and it can’t mean that,” he explains. “It means, in general, that’s what they do. That use of ‘be’ in black dialect has a meaning that doesn’t exist in white English, and is sometimes more complex and subtle than the English we learned in school.”

According to the Rutgers–Camden linguistic researcher, there is actually no one single right or wrong way when it comes to proper language usage; it depends on the context. Simply put, he says, people talk how they talk, which makes sense to others who speak the same dialect. “After all, that is what you are after – to communicate your message to the people who speak the same way as you,” he says.

The many complex issues concerning the politics of language form the basis for provocative and engaging discussions among Epstein and his students in his course “Language, Power and Politics.” The way that he sees it, his job as a linguistics professor is to help current and future English teachers understand how English, its many dialects, and other languages – despite at times sounding incorrect – all follow logical and complex rules. Just as importantly, he says, teachers need to be aware of how attitudes and stereotypes regarding language were founded, and cognizant of these underpinnings when teaching children who are speaking in manners that are traditionally perceived as incorrect.

“If you tell them not to do it, then you are saying that their culture is inferior,” he says. “The kids have a dilemma – do I continue to talk like my parents, and everyone who I love most in the world, or do I talk like the teacher? The teacher means well, but telling them that they speak wrong is not a useful approach.”

Epstein maintains that people should be aware that discrimination due to the ways that people talk is just as prevalent as discrimination based on one’s religion, ethnic background, gender, or sexual orientation.

“The notion of correctness as a political notion is really important for people to understand,” he says. “If more people understood it, the world would be a better place. We wouldn’t discriminate or stereotype people so much.”

A resident of Haddonfield, Epstein is the author of papers and book chapters on the semantics, pragmatics and discourse structures of English, medieval French and Tiipay, a Native American language spoken in San Diego county and Baja California, also known as Diegueño. He is currently researching the use of the definite article in some of the earliest Old English texts, as well as the use of language in current discussions of environmental issues. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Paris, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California–San Diego.

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