Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Word Court: Impeach the judge

Recently, Barbara Wallraff ("The Judge" of Word Court) asked readers to complain about the language of servers in restaurants. Let's be clear: Maybe she thought this was a cute little chance to air some gripes about usage, but she's inviting those with enough disposable income to go to a place where their every wish is to be delivered by others to bitch about those others, who don't generally earn a living wage, get health care, and depend on anonymous charity from those they're serving. (Bonus points for a complete syntactic tree of that sentence, gentle readers! And you can choose your syntactic framework.) Somebody who hatches this little project has never spent real time on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, I suspect.

This week, Wallraff published a batch of gripes. First, though, she tries to assuage an angry restaurant worker by promising to publish complaints from staff about patrons. (Yeah, that'll make it right.) Of course even that response to this person is insulting and ill-informed:
But tell me this: If language is so unimportant, how did I manage, using nothing but language, to enrage you?
Bait and switch much? Can you really miss the distinction between usage norms (what the writer found unimportant) and the content of a newspaper column? Remember, Wallraff writes newspaper columns about usage, presumably for a living.

Examples of most "hated" expressions include wilful misunderstanding of intent: "Do you want your change?" (I often leave exact change plus tip.) "How's everything so far?" (This reader assumes the question indicates that things are going to get worse.) Being called "hon" or "honey" annoys some. (Tip: Go to fancier restaurants if this bothers you, or move north.) So, these aren't really 'usage' matters in the normal sense, but rather about routine bits of discourse in a particular setting. We might joke gently about the nurse's use of first person plural or something, but hating these familiar dialogues at Denny's?

Enforcing usage norms is about the exercise of social power. Rosina Lippi-Green wrote a whole book, one often and enthusiastically endorsed here since the beginning of this blog, describing how language is used to subordinate and subjugate. Here's a quote from another source:
The social function of [grammatical rules] is not arbitrary. Like other superficially innocuous ‘customs’, ‘conventions’ and ‘traditions’ (dress codes included), rules of language use often contribute to a circle of exclusion and intimidation.
— Cameron (1995:12)
Compared to housing or job discrimination, this is a trivial example, but Wallraff is encouraging the most ignorant kind of behavior, with a nasty classist stench to it: Where else can you openly encourage people to denigrate the people who are serving them? If you move back to the U.S. from Italy, Barbara Wallraff, I hope you don't go to restaurants where the staff realizes who you are or what you've written. Spitting in your soup is likely to be the least of it.

How ill-informed and how counterproductive can public discussion of language get? Let's take action: Drop the CapTimes a line (here), asking them to replace Word Court with a legitimate language column. Jan Freeman's The Word would keep the journalistic tone but could inform people rather than propagate the crudest misunderstandings about language. In a university town, Nathan Bierma's On Language would be a natural, too.

Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London & New York: Routledge.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London & New York: Routledge.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I haven't been to Denny's in years, but we were just at Baumgartner's in Monroe (yep, the famous cheese sandwich) and quite frankly, I enjoyed hearing yet another variety of English spoken by the servers there. They were friendly and service was great (not to mention the food) and so who the hell cares how servers speak? Let's elect new leaders in this country instead of wasting time posting complaints about language use.

I had a friend who went to beauty school after burning out in social work and she was appalled at the "grammar" her fellow students used on the basis of "what will clients think? Who wants to get her hair done by someone who says 'ain't?'" My response was "People who also use 'ain't' get their done as well."

Mr. Verb said...

Mmmmmmm. Baumgartner's Cheese Store. I recommend the limburger on pumpernickel. (Seriously, it's great.) Toss in a couple of Hubers (on tap, blocks from the brewery) and you'll appreciate how the servers talk even more.

Saying 'ain't' is pretty hard for me to connect with the ability to cut hair competently.

Adam Ussishkin said...

Ah, Baumgartner's! I've never had a bad sandwich or bowl of soup there, and one of my favorite things is to get a good dose of that Wisconsin dialect; it's one place where I'm sure to hear it (another would be Marcine's, in Blanchardville). Plus the mural on the wall of the beer vs. the wine is pretty high art, in my opinion.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, they have soup? I go straight for the cheese sandwiches.