Writing the endless oral sentence (2)

by Terence MacNamee

Coming back to architect Patrick Stewart’s Ph.D. thesis in one long sentence, a debate has been going on for a long time about conforming to standard language.

In fact, since compulsory universal education was introduced in the 19th century, the powers that be have been trying to get youngsters to speak the official language in a standard way and to write it in a standard way too. First, the idea was to eradicate all other minority languages and dialects, and replace these with the official language. Much more recently, educators have started saying: all right, you can keep your own language or dialect – but here in school you are going to learn the standard, official language.

To be sure, this has advantages. As Walter Ong pointed out, although every dialect is consistent with itself and not “wrong” or “incorrect”, the standard language is a grapholect, a dialect based on writing, with resources more highly-developed than any spoken dialect, and therefore very useful for life in modern literate society. “It is bad pedagogy”, Ong said, “to insist that because there is nothing ‘wrong’ with other dialects, it makes no difference whether or not speakers of another dialect learn the grapholect, which has resources of a totally different order of magnitude.”

The trouble is that the grapholect, as Ong admits, isn’t just another dialect. It is the dialect of the powers that be and is associated with their values. What’s more, it eats up spoken dialects and their rich tradition. It monopolises public discourse, and restricts other dialects to the kitchen table.

It’s great that everybody learns to express themselves in the standard language. The trouble is, if it’s not your language, you lose yourself, you cease to be yourself, you become untrue to yourself. Speaking and writing the standard language, you may get a hearing in public, but it won’t be you that is speaking any more.

And that, I think, is Patrick Stewart’s point.

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