The Breakfast Table

Jesse Sheidlower and Dennis Baron

Dear Dennis,

The last few weeks have been good ones for popular discussion of language. Monica Lewinsky’s father is suing a TV show for using his daughter’s name to refer to a sex act; a woman chosen to run one of the world’s largest law firms has decided to refer to herself as “chairman”; and Senator Jesse Helms used the delightful word “floccinaucinihilipilification,” the longest word in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in a letter to President Clinton.

I hope we can talk about some of these issues this week. But the one thing that’s been most striking recently is the response to an “On Language” column by Margalit Fox in the New York Times Magazine. Ms Fox, filling in for William Safire, wrote about a common “language myth”: that some dialects are intrinsically better than others.

Ms. Fox, citing various linguists and explaining things quite clearly, said that negative reactions to nonstandard dialects are the result of social factors, not linguistic ones; the dialects–whether “ebonics,” Brooklynese, or Peter Jennings’–are just as regular and logical as any other variety of English.

To us, as linguists, this is familiar and noncontroversial. I had thought that Ms Fox’s presentation would be viewed by the general public as noncontroversial as well, but I was mistaken: The letters column last week had no fewer than six angry letters, calling us “intellectual diddlers” and “well-paid academic theorists” who “confine” our “victims to minimum-wage jobs.” It was even implied that considering dialects to be linguistically equal was a “pernicious threat to common sense, logic, science and our basic political freedoms.” (Who knew?)

It would seem that the writers of such letters themselves lack common sense, or at least the ability to understand simple language. Ms. Fox was very clear that languages were considered equal “on purely linguistic grounds,” and that value judgments were “socially determined.” The linguists who spoke in favor of diversity were certainly not advocating the abandonment of language teaching, just a better understanding of how language works.

It’s too bad that a genuine effort to spread this understanding has to meet with such hostility, don’t you think?