The n-word is this: nonstandard. To use this word is to validate the idea of a dichotomy: on one side what is good and acceptable, and on the other side what is aberrant, and unacceptable. Everyone who has been trained in linguistics — and lots of people who haven’t, but who think clearly — will tell you that this way of talking about language is a misrepresentation. It is misleading, and it validates a lot of divisive and discriminatory ideas.
Every human language is suited to its community of speakers, and every language evolves as the needs of the community evolve. The idea that speakers of Language A are better able to express themselves than speakers of Language B is based on a lot of false assumptions about the way language works. As linguists we bemoan the general lack of open-mindedness when it comes to the way people think about language.
But we are ourselves to blame, at least in part, and we are to blame because we do not practice what we teach.
At the annual conference for sociolinguists this past October, I set out to count the number of times I heard academic linguists use the words ‘non-standard’ and ‘standard.’ When I raised the subject (why are we using these terms which feed into the very inequalities we are examining?) the expressions I saw in response were irritated or clueless. The excuse I’ve heard and read in any number of peer reviewed article goes like this: The ‘standard – nonstandard’ contrast, erroneous as it is, is too deeply ingrained to change.
To this I say: bullshit.
The usage is ingrained because the underlying ideology is rock solid. It’s too ingrained, we can’t change it: this is a rationalization, and a lazy, self serving rationalization, at that. Of course it’s going to be hard to break the habit. A Google search for the string “non-standard English” nets 2,830,000 hits; “standard English” gets 2,960,000.
The idea that some languages are bad and some languages are good is perpetuated every day. By us. And here’s a simply solution: stop using the word. Stop using both words. Bann ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ from your mind; take the time to express the concept you’re reaching for in other terms.
The sentence ‘non-standard languages are stigmatized’ is a tautology.Any academic worth her salt should be able to see that, and find a way to express the idea hiding there. And if not, if we can’t give up these terms, there’s little hope that we’ll ever be able to make people understand what’s wrong with them. Or to stop using them. Or stop acting on them.