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.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.— Cameron (1995:12)
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.