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Vernacular EloquenceWhat Speech Can Bring to Writing$

Peter Elbow

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199782505

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199782505.001.0001

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A New Culture of Vernacular Literacy on the Horizon

A New Culture of Vernacular Literacy on the Horizon

(p.363) 18 A New Culture of Vernacular Literacy on the Horizon
Vernacular Eloquence

Peter Elbow

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes a new culture of vernacular literacy that will welcome speech—and multiple spoken languages—for writing. It argues that the existing culture of literacy has been moving for some time now toward this vernacular literacy in which all the different versions of spoken English will be deemed appropriate for serious writing. To support its argument, the chapter considers historical examples that illustrate the tension between divergence and standardization, with particular reference to spoken language and written language. It also outlines three stages in the gradual transition to vernacular literacy.

Keywords:   vernacular literacy, speech, writing, literacy, English, divergence, standardization, spoken language, written language

IN THE LAST chapter I described problems and anxieties that stem from our current culture of proper literacy, a culture that makes writing less available than it should be. The culture rejects spoken language for writing; indeed, it’s somewhat scornful of speech itself—as “vulgar” compared to dignified writing. This culture imposes a more or less single standard of correctness for writing. This is a dialect (“grapholect”) that differs from the easy natural spoken languages used by virtually everyone—even those in privileged classes.

But of course our “current” culture is not wholly current: things are changing. “Correct written language” has been under strain for a while, and this is not just because people make mistakes and copy editors don’t catch them all. In fact our very “standards” for correctness have been changing and getting more flexible. Quite a few teachers and copy editors accept grammatical constructions they wouldn’t have accepted a generation ago. The New Yorker and the New York Times sanction the kinds of talky informal prose that I pointed to in the last chapter.

What’s going on? Things are falling apart. That’s what it looks like to people who are committed to strict standards. That’s what change always looks like when your frame of reference is the previous order of things. But I want to suggest a frame of reference oriented more in the future. This helps me see that our culture of literacy has been moving for some time now toward a very different culture of literacy—a culture that will accept and even welcome spoken language for writing. And not just mainstream spoken English: all versions of spoken English will be considered acceptable for serious public writing before too very long. This means we’ll no longer have a single language for what’s valid for serious writing.

Such a development is hard to believe. After all, authoritative and even progressive linguists like to opine that a single standard is inevitable. Wolfram, Adger, and Christian speak of the “inevitability of dialect diversity and language standardization”:

Whether we like it or not, some type of language standardization seems inevitable. This conclusion comes not just from examining the situation in the United States or in English-speaking areas, but from surveying language situations throughout the world. (115–116)

(p.364) These are recent, progressive linguists. Another one, Janson, says that without a standard, schooling is impossible. “Where there are schools with elementary instruction in reading and writing, there must also be orthographies and other established language norms” (228). How can teachers correct someone’s language if there is no such thing as correct? If a teacher had students who spoke eight different dialects of English, she would have to accept final drafts in all of them—many she didn’t know very well. This is a Wilder West than McWhorter fears. The death of good writing, the degeneration of the English language! Surely human nature itself resists linguistic chaos and seeks some order and standardization—especially when it comes to writing.

Or does it? I’d ask you to consider the vision I’m presenting here, even if only as a hypothesis. For in fact those linguists I just quoted should not have said that standardization is inevitable; they should have said it’s common. To argue for my vision, I need to turn to history. We’ve had a Babel of Englishes in the past and it didn’t kill writing or language or civilization. It won’t this time either. A single standard for written language that differs from spoken dialects is not built into the universe or the nature of language; it’s something that has sometimes emerged. In cycles. Usually it’s been imposed. I’ll look at historical examples of the tension between divergence and standardization, considering first spoken language and then written language.

Spoken Language: Divergence and Standardization

Attempts to Standardize

For one important example of the push/pull between divergence and standardization—and between vernacular language and writing, I’ll summarize the Literacy Story I told about Charlemagne, Alcuin, and Latin (Chapter 5). Latin didn’t diverge much till the end of the Roman empire in the fifth century, but then as it lived on as the spoken language throughout Europe, it began to diverge somewhat into multiple “Latins.” But when Charlemagne conquered his huge kingdom in 800, he brought in Alcuin from England. Alcuin brought in “good Latin” because it came from books; it didn’t have all the “problems” that come from a language being a spoken as a native tongue. Charlemagne mandated it for his whole empire.

From one point of view, Charlemagne’s and Alcuin’s attempt to standardize Latin was a big success. They stabilized it as an amazingly potent international written language that lived on as the only language for serious writing for virtually ten more centuries! Newton wrote in Latin. But from another point of view, Charlemagne and Alcuin utterly failed to stop the divergence of language. People did not change their spoken Latin to make it more like what Alcuin could speak because he learned it from books. The multiple Latins Charlemagne hoped to standardize kept on diverging more and more—as the living spoken languages of most people throughout Europe.

It’s not so easy to curb how people talk. The odd mixture of success and failure set in motion by Charlemagne and Alcuin marked the beginning in European history of a gulf between spoken vernaculars and serious writing.

(p.365) But where Charlemagne’s attempt to standardize the spoken vernacular in 800 was a failure, it’s easy to find some successes. All around the globe, the growth or fanning of national feeling and the imposition of nation states has standardized languages over and over. Part of the success lay in actually killing off thriving local languages (and sometimes the speakers). During the “formation” of France, a number of strong languages were wiped out—many of them with rich literatures (such as that of Provencal, Catalan, Occitan). Of course the current dominance of English around the globe may be killing more languages than local nationalisms have managed in the past—but it’s probably a close contest.

Nebrija, enlisting the help of Queen Isabella in Spain, had more success in standardizing the current unruly version of Castilian—and in suppressing what he thought of as the even more unruly diversity of other dialects throughout Spain (see the Literacy Story, Chapter 8).

Webster wanted an “American English,” but he celebrated it as more single and pure than what people spoke in England—closer to Chaucer and the uncorrupted English that existed before 1066 (see Lepore). He wasn’t offering license, he was offering a new standard. He was very scornful of “mistakes” in the spelling of American English.

In a stroke of linguistic nationalism, Webster makes American English historically antecedent to British English. As Webster says in his Dissertations on the English Language, published in 1789, there is a “surprising similarity between the idioms of the New England people and those of Chaucer, Shakespeare, &c. who wrote in the true English stile” (108).

(Trimbur “Linguistic Memory” 582)

The “English Only” campaign in the United States seems to derive from a potent mixture of nationalism and insecurity—fear of the “alien.” It’s touching when speakers of English argue for purity in language since English is probably the most impure bastardized language there’s ever been. It’s slept with every language it ever encountered, even casually. The strength of English comes from how many babies it’s had with how many partners.

Supporters of “English Only” tend to forget that the United States has already managed to stamp out other languages:

The history of the German language in the United States is an important part of understanding the development of a politics of linguistic unity in that country. At the time of the American Revolutionary War, after all, not all that many people in the colonies were English-speakers. (Some scholars say that English-speakers numbered fewer than 40 percent; others point out that the German-speakers in one state numbered more than 50 percent.) Many German-Americans believed that German would eventually become an official American language; a few people argued that all Americans should learn to speak German; several endorsed the view of Benjamin Rush (a “founding father”) that there should be a German-language national college; hundreds hoped to found a New Germany following the model of New France or New England. In any event, by 1900, there were millions of German-speakers in the United States. German-Americans had (p.366) published tens of thousands of German-language books and pamphlets. The German-American ethnic group was well educated, wealthy, and influential.

(Shell 258–259)

This is from an important collection called Multilingual America (Sollors). It took the anti-German frenzy during the First World War to erase the prominence of German in our country. That’s when the many towns and cities named “Berlin” got rechristened “Berlin.”

Patterns in Divergence and Standardization in Spoken Language

In the face of these mixed results about success and failure in the standardizing of spoken language, can we generalize? We can. If we stand back and look at the history of human spoken language—using both a microscope and a telescope—we see a continual tug of war between divergence and standardization. Consider the root process by which languages continue: babies and toddlers learn the language around them. But babies and toddlers always get things wrong: they use the wrong pronunciation, the wrong syntax, the wrong word, and the wrong meaning for a word. But their mistakes are continually corrected toward what’s right—namely, the standard—for that family or group. Divergence is overcome.

But as standard-lovers continually recognize with a sigh, the job of rooting out divergence—that is to say, error—is never done. In Chapter 9 I described Dr. Johnson’s mood of resignation:

The lexicographer finds that the dictionary cannot “embalm his language.” The sharing of language by all classes means that language, like manners, must inevitably be depraved, for example by its use in commerce; and its depravity must spread to all its users…. Having understood that, says Johnson, “let us make some struggles for our language.”

(Kermode 29)

Pesky children don’t just get things wrong; sometimes they say things wrong on purpose. The tug of war between infants and their families enacts a general process that continues after babies grow up. Individuals are a force for divergence while groups are a force for conservation or conservatism and tend to keep individuals in check. And of course the same dialectical tension exists between small groups and large groups.

One might conclude that standardization always wins out. After all, languages hold together and persist. But no. Sometimes the individual or the small group wins. Individuals or small groups who talk “wrong” are usually pushed back in line—corrected, ignored, or not understood. But if their “wrongness” is sufficiently effective or attractive in that context—or if the individual or (p.367) small group has special power or prestige—the wrongness can catch on. The large group gives in and changes its standard to match the small group or even individual. (This dialectic tug of war was a premise at the heart of my 1973 Writing Without Teachers; see 151ff.)

Someone had to have been the first person to use cool to mean “good” or use “villain” to mean bad (it used to be a neutral word for a man). Idiosyncratic usages can infect and take root. No doubt cool-as-good started out as a metaphor, for every new metaphor is a word used with a “wrong” sense. Similarly, some Roman must have been the first person to say he was bothered by a “scruple” nagging his mind or conscience. But he knew that “scruple” just meant “pebble.” He wasn’t talking about pebbles, he was saying that something was nagging at his mind the way a pebble nags when it’s caught in your sandal or shoe.

Those are trivial examples, but languages would never change if it weren’t for the triumphs of deviance or error. If human speakers always pruned away new shoots, we would all still be speaking the language that Adam and Eve spoke in Eden or in the Rift Valley of Africa. (It’s fun to think of Indo-European as just a debased regional offshoot of an earlier “true language.”) Only deviance and wrongness explain the existence of different languages. Every different dialect or language in the world represents a failure at standardization.

It’s time and space that fertilize the roots of wrongness:

  • Time. After fifty or a hundred years, people even in the same village usually talk a somewhat different language. The dynamics are many and interesting, but more often than not, young people are the force for change and elders a force for conservation. Interestingly, the smaller the village or region, the more the language changes. (Janson 234)

  • Space too brings divergence. When people from this village move over to the next valley—or country or continent—their language often diverges from the language they left behind.

Time and space, between them, give rise to different dialects—and then to different languages. In some cases, time trumps space: the home language may change faster than the “colonial” version. When I studied at Oxford in the 1950s, I used to say “I guess,” and people made fun of my “colonial English.” I felt a gleeful satisfaction when I found it in Chaucer.

What we see in this process is just another application of the second law of thermodynamics: what is ordered tends to become disordered. Physicists point out that we can’t create or even maintain order without adding energy. It takes work to keep the socks in order in the top drawer. So in the realm of language, divergence happens unless someone exerts force to impose or maintain standardization.

Sometimes the force is wielded by individuals with power—like Charlemagne, or like Ataturk who imposed the Roman alphabet on Turkey, or like the Korean king who imposed a brand new writing system (see the Literacy Story following Chapter 9). People in charge tend to feel more secure when things are standardized. With authority, they can impose it. Sometimes the force comes from a group—though the group may be spearheaded by (p.368) individuals. The force that spreads English around the world is more subtle—economic and social and cultural. When one tribe or country overruns another, it often wipes out the conquered language—even in those cases when it doesn’t wipe out the people. (Crystal tells the interesting story of why the French conquest of England didn’t wipe out English. See his Stories.)

In our mainstream monolingual U.S. culture, most people assume that we need convergence and single standards. “Without a standard, we couldn’t understand each other. Everything would grind to a halt!” But when it comes to the different versions of English used in the United States, misunderstandings seldom derive from difference itself. When people misunderstand each other’s English, it’s more often a case of psychological interference. That is, people who speak the dominant version sometimes listen to other versions through a stance of disapproval of what they think of as alien and bad English. And people who speak stigmatized versions would sometimes just as soon not be understood by mainstreamers. When stigmatization is not in force, humans usually take dialectal variation in their stride and understand each other without struggle. Most real misunderstanding stems not from speakers who grew up with different dialects of English but from speakers who started out speaking entirely different languages. Speakers of English as a second language sometimes have a very strong accent and a weak command of the grammar. (Literate people like to say, “If you don’t spell right, readers won’t understand you,” but there’s plenty of recent research showing that it’s actually quite easy to understand wildly misspelled writing.)

Even in cultures where fully different languages are spoken (rather than merely different dialects), people tend to learn a good deal of each other’s languages if there’s not too much stigmatization going on. As Mary Louise Pratt argues, bi-lingualism and multi-lingualism are the rule rather than the exception in human communities. George Steiner points out that almost every culture has a “Babel myth”: a story of the gods punishing humans by giving them divergent languages. But he argues that language difference is actually one of the greatest human blessings.

Written Language: Divergence and Standardization

In the case of writing, we can see the same tension between diversity and standardization. But because writing somehow seems so “official”—often supported by the government or the schools—the forces for standardization are often stronger.

In England before 1000 CE,

there were no attempts at creating a common standard for the written language. On the contrary, each writer employed his own dialect, so there are texts in Kentish, in West Saxon, in Northumbrian, and so on…. Even though the writers of Britain probably all knew the strictly standardized written Latin language, they did not try to create anything similar.

This is quite similar to the situation in Greece before the Macedonian conquest, and to some extent also to that of Italy before Dante. Where there is no political unity, the idea of a common standard for a written language is not very close at hand.

(Janson 145)

(p.369) But by about 1000, King Alfred had amassed power beyond his immediate realm and made West Saxon the standard for writing for much of England. Once he’d managed this, scribes from all over England wrote in the West Saxon version of English, and indeed his scribes recopied various existing written texts into this “proper” language. This gave a sense of uniformity; it was an early way of “enforcing standards.” This recopying fooled later scholars into thinking that there was more linguistic homogeneity in England than had actually existed (see Crystal Stories 55).

But then with the French conquest in 1066, England lost this standard form of written English. Norman French became the language of everyone in court or government circles. The many people who dealt with people in either realm had to learn it. But most English folk didn’t live in court or government circles and went on talking the vernacular English of the time. And some of them wrote, despite all the official and literary writing in French that went on:

From around 1200 and onwards, people wrote in English again. However, the texts were quite different from those produced before the Conquest. There was no standard language any more: the fairly uniform spelling and grammar based on West Saxon speech that dominated in the tenth and eleventh centuries had disappeared altogether. Instead, each author seemed to write and spell more or less according to his own spoken dialect. For a period of about 200 years, there were again many written dialects, just as in the earliest period of written English.

(Janson 155)

This diversity stares us in the face if we want to read Middle English literature. We see very different forms of English if we read Chaucer (from near London), Henryson (from Scotland), the poet of Gawain and the Green Knight (from the north), and the poet of Piers Plowman (probably from the South Midlands). Linguists can see from Middle English texts—hear, actually—what region of England or Scotland the writers called home. But many nineteenth-century scholarly editors changed many Middle English texts to conform to an alleged “standard”—which again helped people forget how much diversity there had been in written English for such a long time (Roger Wright 3).

But it’s not till the eighteenth century that we get the most powerful, pervasive, and conscious imposition of standardization in written English. This was the age when dictionaries were born. And with them, for the first time in English history, came a powerful ideology of prescriptivism. As the historical linguist, Hope, writes, prescriptivism is

not in itself a linguistic process…. [It’s] “language-external”: a cultural, ideological phenomenon which plays itself out in language…. Prescriptivism … has been highly successful as a social ideology while failing to account for linguistic data. (51, 54, my emphasis)

But isn’t this a perennial human tendency?

No. It’s true that humans (prey to insecurity) have always been tempted to ridicule or even scorn people who speak differently. The Greeks called non-Greeks “barbarians” because their talk sounded like bar-bar-bar-bar. In our culture, many people can’t seem to get tired of laughing at Brooklyn or Bronx speech. Nevertheless, prescriptivism is different because it insists on a moral (p.370) dimension in the disapproval of “wrong” language. Till the eighteenth century in England, there had never been such a widespread deeply rooted moralism about “bad language.”

This is the period when we see a huge flowering of metaphors of uncleanness, corruptness, and immorality for wrong language. Well before Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary, Ben Johnson wrote: “Wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is. It imitates the public riot” (quoted in Kermode 28). (See Richard Boyd’s research on nineteenth century-handbooks where scholars talked about “grammatical monstrosities” and “contemptible miscreants.”)

Till the eighteenth century, there was no consistency in spelling and very little consistency in written grammar (even Alfred’s monolithic Anglo-Saxon wasn’t fully standard). But with the eighteenth century, those who cared about language wanted to make English not just regular but noble and good—and that meant that it should be like book Latin. (I mentioned some of these attempts in Chapter 9: don’t split infinitives because they are not split in Latin; add “b” to dout and “d” to amiral to make them sound like Latin.) Yet the English language and English literature flourished before the eighteenth century—without benefit of standardization. (It may well have flourished less in the eighteenth century!)

Eighteenth-century Scottish rhetoricians laid down guidelines for the proper use of English, and these took firm hold throughout England and the United States. (Eighteenth-century Scotland saw a flowering of rhetorical studies that focused on English writing. Prominent figures were Hugh Blair, George Campbell, and Alexander Bain. Till then, rhetoric—part of the medieval trivium—had focused mostly on ancient Greek and Latin and medieval sermons.) Thomas Miller points out that the native language spoken by these influential rhetoricians, Scots or Scottish, was ridiculed and scorned by literate English people as forcefully as some people have ridiculed and scorned Black English.

Miller suggests that the linguistic and cultural defensiveness or insecurity of these learned Scots scholars might have given them the drive to establish an aggressively proper standard for rhetoric and language (Miller, chapters 3 and 4). I cannot resist sensing a parallel between this influential language work coming from Scotland and Alcuin’s importation of “good Latin” from England to central Europe (thanks to Charlemagne): the most fiercely imposed standards often come from the margins. In Alcuin’s time (800), England was the wild margin of the European universe; in the eighteenth century, Scotland was the wild margin of the cultivated English universe.

(p.371) The greatest example of standardization in writing comes from China. Because of the size and power of the various early empires, a standard form of Chinese characters has been used from the Shang dynasty around 1200 BCE (more fully standardized in the Han dynasty around 200 CE) through to the present—and this throughout the largest country in the world, and also for many centuries in Japan, Korea, and much of southeast Asia! Chinese is not the oldest form of writing, but it’s been used the longest, most continuously, and by most people. This is a case of standardized writing used by people who spoke a huge diversity of spoken languages (though of course literacy was relatively rare among these millions and millions of people).

The standardization of writing in China involved not just the form of the visual characters but even the language or dialect used:

Until the early 20th century, all dialects of Chinese were written in a [single] literary dialect that dated to the late Old Chinese period, about 1100 BCE to 100 CE. This meant that literate Chinese wrote in a way they themselves did not speak. This form persisted, in part, because of the Chinese civil service’s power in creating and maintaining the written standard for some 2,000 years.

(Schmandt-Besserat and Erard 16)

In the 1950s, the People’s Republic made a remarkable move that might have ended this massive standardization when it decreed that pinyin or Roman letters could be used for writing. This would have permitted speakers of the eight or more very different versions of spoken Chinese to write their dialect or language. A number of leading figures argued for this policy and it’s presumably what Mao intended—till he changed his mind and turned against his own suggestion for changing Chinese writing entirely into pinyin. Instead the government decreed another massive standardization. All use of pinyin throughout China must conform to the dialect or language of Beijing and the north. Everyone who wants to use pinyin for Chinese (and now this means everyone who wants to use a computer for writing) must spell out their words in that one dialect (Potunqua). (For more on Chinese, see the Literacy Story in Chapter 16. DeFrancis tells this story well and in detail.)

So What?

What can we conclude from these stories? It’s clear that as humans use language, there is a recurring and repeating tug of war between divergence and convergence—the kind of thing we see in families, groups, communities, (p.372) regions, and nations. (Bakhtin was struck with how language moves from diversity to conformity but conformity leads back to diversity: “Every utterance participates in the ‘unitary language’ (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the centrifugal, stratifying forces)” [272].) Divergence is the norm in both spoken and written language (thanks to human carelessness and to the second law of thermodynamics). But standardization is somewhat more frequently achieved with writing than speaking. But it’s not always achieved.

So the linguists I quoted earlier were wrong when they said that standardization is inevitable in spoken language, but they might feel more justified if they applied their judgment to writing—where standardization seems to have better odds. The very stories I just told all describe the eventual imposition of a single standard for writing: the power of the early emperors in China led to a single system of written characters throughout that vast land; Charlemagne’s importation of Alcuin in 800 led to a single standard for writing in Latin throughout Europe; King Alfred’s dominance in England in 1000 created a single standard for writing in England; the powerful eighteenth-century prescriptivists managed to impose a far more narrow single standard for English writing.

So should I give up my vision of a coming divergence in written English that welcomes different spoken versions of the language? I decline. (Surprise!) Instead, I insist that to some degree, the stories also support my vision.

  • They show that standardization is not inevitable. Standardization is not built into the way humans use language. There were long periods of divergence—periods that sometimes followed an imposed standardization. Linguistic divergence and multiplicity—the lack of a single standard for writing—is also normal. So I’d say we are now in a period when it’s getting increasingly normal to have a growing diversity of forms of English writing.

  • They show that it takes strong force (usually political, sometimes military) to squash the inevitable human linguistic tendency toward divergence. In our present culture, I don’t see any political or military force waiting in the wings that might forcibly impose uniformity or help maintain our current and crumbling single standard for correct writing. Teachers and copy editors have tried their best for quite a while and they haven’t managed to stem the tide of diversity in written English.

  • The stories show that richly expressive language and the best literature we have ever known can all flourish during times of diversity in written forms of English. Think of Middle English literature and especially Chaucer; think of Shakespeare who also wrote in a time of diversity in grammar and spelling.

World Englishes

So what can we look forward to? I will soon turn to the main argument of this chapter: that in the United States we are moving toward a new divergent culture of vernacular literacy with no single standard for writing.

(p.373) But first I must try to do justice to a process of mass convergence. English—spoken and written—has taken over more and more of the world, helping hasten the death of quite a few languages and undermining many more. As we might expect, this doesn’t happen without the imposition of force. In this case the force can seem subtle (Isn’t it charming? People just seem to want English!), but of course it’s all being driven by obvious economic and political force. More and more countries and individuals are feeling they must take on English to survive. It’s a frightening and tragic prospect. One can read of parents in certain Asian countries having doctors cut a small ligament in the tongues of their babies in the belief that this will help them learn to say English words better. One of the big battles in quite a few nondeveloped countries is between authorities who favor immersing children in English in the earliest grades and other authorities who argue (rightly, I believe), that children will learn better—even learn English better—if they do lots of their schooling in their home language.

Wagner’s (1993) research in Morocco shows the ease with which multiple literacy can be achieved…. This finding is particularly striking since French and Arabic differ radically in lexicon, syntax, and script. This provides support for the interdependence thesis (Cummins 1979): that learning to read in any language produces skills that are transferable to any other language, thus making it easier for children to become biliterate or multiliterate…. [I]n an era of economic globalization and cultural heterogeneity, multiple literacy (rather than language homogenization) appears to be spreading rapidly.

(Bernard 27)

And even though spoken English is playing a huge role in the drift toward massive homogenization in human language, this is not, in fact, a case of standardizing English. The results of this worldwide Englification are notably unstandardized: not English but Englishes. (Recall how Latin evolved into Latins in the early centuries of the Common Era and finally gave rise to all our “romance” languages.) The vast majority of speakers of English in the world are African and Asian and don’t have English as their first language. The linguist, Liesel Hibbert, argues that Black South African English is emerging as its own new standard, different from British English (35). (She also calls attention to the weaker cultural and political status of African American Language in our country.) There is a growing movement around the world to prefer teachers of English who are not from the Anglo-American “homelands” and don’t have English as their first language. Local teachers not from the metropole are sought because their speech is closer to what is used in that region. The authority on world English, David Gradol, writes that “[l]arge numbers of people will learn English as a foreign language in the 21st century and they will need teachers, dictionaries and grammar books. But will they continue to look towards the native speaker for authoritative norms of usage?” (“The Decline of the Native Speaker” 68). His answer is No.

So it doesn’t seem as though a highly standardized spoken English will blanket the globe in the future (especially with the wild freedom on the internet). And it’s instructive also to look at the past:

(p.374) The original Lingua Franca was a variable Romance mode loosely based on mid-medieval Catalan, used among the maritime peoples of the Western Mediterranean. The name [lingua franca] arose because the Catalans were often called “Franks,” perhaps pejoratively at first but eventually without such connotations. The virtue of the lingua franca in its original context lay precisely in its versatility and flexibility. The very last thing to be useful there would have been any kind of “setting and maintaining of standards.” It evolved in unregulated colloquial circumstances to fulfill a variety of non-academic functions in practical contexts, and the idea that there should be some kind of standardized variety of the lingua franca could hardly have arisen.

(Roger Wright 8)

But with written English around the globe, it’s more tempting to see standardization on its way. Publishers and large institutions and states can often impose a standard, so the differences between the various global written Englishes are smaller than those between the spoken Englishes. Standardization is certainly a strong trend in the publication of scientific research. Still

I’m not sure English per se, in its global circulation, is a “killer” language that leads to linguicide. I have no doubt, as Robert Phillipson makes clear, that English is involved in “linguistic imperialism,” but my sense is that its circulation and uptake is complicated and typically results in “non-standard” Englishes (national varieties and other hybrid forms) beyond the control of the Anglo-American metropolis. If anything it’s this kind of English beyond metropolitan control that marks the present moment. To my mind, it’s more a matter of how people are taking up English inventively for their own ends.

This is from an email from John Trimbur (November 2010), who has long been engaged in work in South Africa and other non-U.S. sites. There are lots of small differences—but not too small to cause difficulties. Microsoft Word will check your spelling for something like a dozen varieties of written English. Even between close linguistic cousins, the United States and Britain, there are significant but confusing differences in spelling and punctuation (like what goes inside and outside the quotation marks). Even newspaper headlines show small but ear-catching differences in grammar: “Brazil have suffered a defeat at the hands of Camaroon.”

But there are larger differences too. Most of these are born of pressure from the strongly divergent spoken versions of English. Valerie Youssef is just one of many scholars around the world who insist that “Standard English” is not owned by the British or Americans. There are other standards: “[T]here is a similar level of variation between British (BSE) and American (ASE) as between Caribbean Standard varieties and the metropolitan models” (46). It’s quite common to hear people in various regions using the word “standard” for their version of English—even in the written variety. (For more on how “world (p.375) English” is not a simple, singular story, see Crystal’s English as a Global Language, Graddol’s English Next, and various works by Suresh Canagarajah.) There’s a simple brute question lurking here: Who owns English? But it doesn’t lurk; it is the title of numerous books and articles and of a special issue of TESOL Quarterly (Spring 1995).

So the story of global English is paradoxical. From the largest perspective it’s a story of massive convergence; but looking closer, we see a failure of full convergence or standardization at the center. And if I am right in what follows, the United States might help move things toward multiple written Englishes within a single nation.

In fact, a well-known linguist is now making a far more startling prediction. In a recent book, Nicholas Ostler argues that English will decline and no longer be the main lingua franca for the globe: “English is likely to go the way of Persian, Sanskrit and Latin and, over many hundreds of years, inevitably die out” (McCrum 6). His book is called The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel. (He is a reputable linguist whose 2005 Empires of the Word was critically acclaimed.) His claim is of course arguable, but he supports it with facts from linguistic/political history. He points to the decline of other dominant lingua francas like Persian, Pali, and Latin. Latin should have triumphed with the development of printing in the fifteenth century, since Latin was deemed the language for all serious writing and most literate people of all languages read Latin. But in fact printing led to the decline of Latin because of the growing market for novels, romances, and pamphlets in vernacular languages—fueled by a growing middle class of newly literate people.

Ostler sees the same fate for English over time. He argues that long-range technological developments will lead to machine translation that is good enough (not perfect), so that people won’t need a lingua franca to get the commercial and cultural advantages they now get from using English. He sees a culture where mother tongues will flourish. He ends his book saying, “Thereafter everyone will speak and write in whatever language they choose, and the world will understand.” In an interview he says:

(p.376) At the moment, English-speaking groups are very much in their ascendancy, but there is only one way to go from an ascendancy…. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of the incompatibility between languages [right now] is going to stand in the way … for long…. [English dominates only as a lingua franca. [It] will be there as long as it’s needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children … [which is required] for long term survival of a language.

(McCrum 6)

Divergence: Looking Forward to a New Culture of Vernacular Literacy with No Single Standard for Writing

If we narrow our perspective and look at written English in the United States (perhaps also in Britain, Canada, Australia, and South Africa), it seems clear to me that we’re involved in a process of divergence. I’ve described various historical periods when there was no single standard for correct writing, and people wrote in their own spoken dialects of a language. It’s my contention that we are moving toward this situation here—toward a new culture of vernacular literacy.

No one can predict the future and this is obviously a vision, but if it sounds hopelessly and idealistically impossible, notice how moderate it is when compared to the vision by Ostler—someone far more linguistically learned than I. Where he sees people all around the globe writing and speaking their mother tongues without any need for a lingua franca, my vision is mild: merely that all the various versions of English will be considered appropriate and sanctioned for serious writing; and that as readers, we’ll all accept and be able to understand each other’s Englishes “well enough.”

I see three stages in the gradual coming to pass of this new vernacular culture. In the first stage, mainstream White spoken language will be considered acceptable for generally literate writing—but not school and academic writing. In the second stage, mainstream spoken language will be considered acceptable for school writing and academic discourse. Only in the third and final stage will nonmainstream and stigmatized versions of English be acceptable for all serious writing. There won’t then be a single standard for good or correct or valid writing. This entire process will obviously be slow, but it’s happening quickly compared to the centuries it took for the vernacular languages of Europe to become sanctioned for serious writing.

The First Stage: Mainstream Vernacular Language Is Accepted for Serious Writing

We’re already immersed in the first stage of divergence—where mainstream spoken language is starting to be acceptable for generally literate serious writing. If you look at the best lively published writing, you might be tempted to say we’re already there. But I’m afraid that only a minority of literate but nonprofessional writers are finally “getting” what many good professional writers have been doing—finally catching on that they too can use the kind of informal spoken language found in Krugman, Menand, and Dowd when they need to write committee reports, grant proposals, and business memos. But it (p.377) won’t be so long till most people realize they can use vernacular spoken language in all kinds of generally literate but serious paper documents. Already for a good many people, the question is no longer “Is this too informal or speechy to be acceptable?” but rather “Will this informal speech-inflected language be right for these particular readers in this genre?”

People writing business memos to unknown readers will probably not choose to be as chatty as we saw in the passage from Safire in the last chapter (“I spell it tchotchki. Do I need a lawyer?”), but they might well use spoken language like Krugman did in defining “Currency [as] pieces of green paper with pictures of dead presidents on them.” Larry Sommers (former president of Harvard) once began a paper on finance by declaring “THERE ARE IDIOTS. Look around” … (MacFarquhar 48).

And of course we see even now that when people write letters to the editor, magazine articles, or committee reports to colleagues, they sometimes realize that it’s rhetorically appropriate to use even Safire’s chattiness. More to the point, newspapers and magazines will print that language without cleansing it. So at this first stage, the single standard for good serious writing will seem significantly relaxed.

But it’s crucial to acknowledge that in a real sense we’ll still have a single standard. The speech that has begun to “infect” writers in the New York Times and The New Yorker and other mainstream sites is mostly mainstream speech—a version of standardized White English. Prejudice, racism, and classism die slowly.

The Second Stage: Teachers and Academics Will Begin to Accept Mainstream White Vernacular Language

This has already started too, but it may be slower to finish. I’ll look at school writing first—the writing students are asked to do.

Naturally, many teachers in the early grades have long invited young children to use the language they speak for writing. And for the last few decades or more, a substantial movement of teachers in kindergarten through second grade have been inviting children to write before they read—which is an explicit invitation to speak onto the page. In addition, many high school and college teachers of writing—especially many who identify with the field of composition—have taken a progressive stance toward language and writing for quite a while. Sometimes the stance is ideological. But more often it simply grows out of pragmatic concrete goals: trying to encourage students to want to write so they write a great deal; trying to help students grow to experience themselves as writers, not just students who write assignments for teachers; and hoping to elicit writing that’s lively and interesting and personally invested—so it’s not such a pain in the neck to read. If you really want these goals, you have to fight some rigid rules and accept or invite spoken language. I can add to this number many teachers who have conservative standards for final drafts but nevertheless invite spoken language for exploratory draft writing. So I’d guess that perhaps a majority of teachers in the United States—at least if they are writing teachers—invite spoken language on the page at least in certain ways.

There’s another significant movement or mood among quite a few high school and college teachers of writing: a particular interest in “creative nonfiction.” This (p.378) lively but vaguely defined genre has grown prolifically in all kinds of publication sites. Teachers want to teach nonfiction but make it livelier and more interesting by inviting some of the techniques from fiction. Many teachers love this genre in itself, but there’s something else: a teacher who assigns creative nonfiction is assigning exactly the kind of writing that students can see published every day of the week on op-ed pages in many newspapers around the country. Many published examples are no better than what skilled students can turn out, so teachers can help students imagine getting something published. And perhaps the most striking feature of creative nonfiction is that it opens the door to very personal writing. If you call it creative nonfiction, you don’t have to apologize for allowing students to use “I” and write personally. It’s an approach that often brings out some of the best student writing and helps them enjoy writing and grow as writers.

Let me turn from student writing to the writing by teachers and scholars: “academic writing.” (I pass over a substantial amount of fiction and memoir and op-eds that academics now write. It’s remarkable how many academics have published memoirs.) The second stage of inviting vernacular language into academic writing will take longer. Scholars and researchers have tended to be conservative about linguistic standards for writing. What could be a more perfect and trivial prohibition of speech in writing than the ban against contractions. We all say “can’t” but in much academic writing we must write “cannot.” This tiny prohibition can serve as a symbol of where we are in the process of change. The prohibition is gradually being loosened, and yet it still has force. In some quantitative research from 1987, Chafe and Danielewicz compare the use of contractions in various kinds of writing and discover it was near zero in published academic pieces (“Properties” 93–94).

Some academic copy editors have given up trying to remove the taint of speech in ways I illustrated in the previous chapter (correcting “having no sense of” into “lacking a sense of”). Very gradually, the rest will come along. Before too long, academics will finally learn to exploit comfortable, vernacular language to make even their academic and scholarly writing clearer, stronger, and livelier. We already see this kind of writing coming from a good number of tenured senior and respected faculty members with a secure reputation in their field. I’ve noticed this even in some scientific writing. It’ll be slower with academics still trying to earn tenure—especially as institutions make tenure harder to get.

The flurry of academic publication in the language of deconstruction and postmodernism not so long ago had a nontrivial effect on academic language. This writing was as far from vernacular speech as possible, yet such a striking explosion of writing in a wholly new language helped break down the notion that there’s only one right dialect and register for academic writing.

But in all these developments, we’re still talking about a slowly growing acceptance of mainstream or White vernacular language.

The Third stage: Nonmainstream and stigmatized Versions of English Will Be Acceptable for All Serious Writing

This change will seem most momentous. Many people cannot imagine a culture of literacy where stigmatized versions of English are acceptable for serious writing—for example, in business writing, academic writing, and mainstream (p.379) published nonfiction. But I don’t think it will be too long till serious texts of all kinds will be written in Black English and various forms of Latino or Caribbean or West African or Indian English. Not only that; most mainstream readers will take this kind of written language for granted (despite some nostalgic regrets).

In our present culture, when people imagine such a development, many of them will see nothing but carelessness and disregarded standards. The sky is falling. It’s what McWhorter laments. Lynn Truss is another disaster-monger in her Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

I don’t want to pretend that this change is right around the corner; it’ll take a good deal of time. But I’d guess that within two or three decades it will be clear that that’s where we’re headed. Let me point to signs even now that it is coming.

We are starting to see more and more respected publication of works with stigmatized versions of English: Black English, Latino/Chicano English, Spanglish, Caribbean versions of English, Hawaiian versions of English, and Australian indigenous-inflected versions of English. Lots of mainstream readers read books like The Color Purple, Push, and Blu’s Hanging. And as publishers know well, mainstream readers are not the only readers and buyers. Starting as early as 1974, Geneva Smitherman wrote columns in Black English for the academic English Journal (see “Columns”). Rotten English is an anthology of published writing in mostly stigmatized versions of English (see Ahmed). In Appendix II, I have a tiny sample of published writing in nonprestige nonstandard versions of English.

As mainstream writers start to use more of their mainstream vernacular speech in serious writing, this will give, even now, speakers of, say, Black English a bit more linguistic wiggle room in their writing—for the interesting thing about mainstream spoken English is how much more plural and variable it is than “correct writing.” Let me quote again the linguists on the multiplicity in what we call mainstream spoken English:

If native speakers from Michigan, New England, and Arkansas avoid the use of socially stigmatized grammatical structures such as “double negatives” (e.g., They didn’t do nothing), different verb agreement patterns (e.g., They’s okay), and different irregular verb forms (e.g., She done it), there is a good chance they will be considered standard English speakers…. [I]f a person’s speech is free of structures that can be identified as nonstandard, then it is considered standard.

(Wolfram, Adger, and Christian 12)

There are powerful consequences in this negativity principle: if you avoid certain no-no’s, you have a great deal of leeway or freedom. Remember the research by Geneva Smitherman and her colleagues on essays for NAEP tests (I mentioned it in Chapter 16). They found that writing with styles and rhythms of Black English actually raised the scores—as long as it avoided Black grammatical constructions.

So as we continue down the present linguistic path—as our culture loses the fear of mainstream speech for serious writing—more space will open up (p.380) for nonmainstream speech in writing. But there will be a significant period of time during which speakers of stigmatized languages will have to know how to avoid certain racially sensitive grammatical features if they want to be read by lots of mainstream readers. In other words, we’re moving fast toward a situation where speakers of mainstream English won’t have to avoid their spoken vernacular for serious careful writing; and speakers of stigmatized Englishes will have some leeway for their spoken vernacular, but they’ll still have to be careful to edit out certain taboo features of their syntax and lexicon.

Further acceptance of stigmatized vernaculars will occur as more good writers in those languages get an audience of mainstream readers. We already see plenty of this in works where stigmatized language is restricted to the mouth of a character. Then gradually, narrators or “authors” use this language. First in fiction and poetry, and then more slowly in some “literary nonfiction.” It’ll take a while for more serious nonfiction. Alice Walker has been a prime mover, but someone like Junot Diaz shows where things are going. There will be a gradual increase in the (presently small) number of mainstream readers who read works that are not so easy or inviting. A prime example is offered by the Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett. As you could see from her poem (p. 326—where she makes fun of taboos against vernacular language), she writes in a version of English that’s difficult for mainstream U.S. and British readers. But she is committed to her language (like Dante) and her regional readers, so she forgoes some mainstream readers. Her work is good enough to make many put in the extra effort. I foresee that as this loosening process goes on; we’ll find more writing by speakers of nonmainstream Englishes who have not till now written much or thought of themselves as writers. Some of what they write will be very good and will win over more readers—especially when it is published by mainstream publishing houses.

A New Wild West

But it is above all on the worldwide web that more people will gradually find writing in stigmatized versions of English that they want to read. It is on the web and in email and chat rooms that we see a new Wild West where there are no official sheriffs with badges—no institutionally sanctioned people enforcing correct written English. On the web, the line between “spoken language” and “written language” is hard to find. Of course, conventions and fashions grow up, but (except at certain sites) there are no filters to enforce a standard, single or not: no publishers, editors, copy editors, and teachers. Anyone can write any language and any version of English. Jason Epstein, an important figure in the publishing world, writes that

[d]igitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares space with Aunt Mary’s haikus.

(“Publishing: The Revolutionary Future 4)

(p.381) With no one imposing any standard for correct writing—and no institutional power or teacher power—we get a naked rhetorical open space. It’s a space where power is rhetorically based, the power that emerges from the confrontation between writers and readers. Of course, there are a few favored regions and sites and blogs on the web. If you can get yourself well placed, you have a better chance of being noticed and perhaps read. Prestige, reputation, and even friendship will still play their role. But they are not opposed to rhetoric; they are part of any rhetorical space. We like to read what is written by friends or people we admire. But these limiting factors have no damping effect on the rest of the web, which stays wide open to anything from anyone. The opportunity to write what you want and put it out there helps people become braver about working on their writing. People are putting unbelievable amounts of writing on the web. This opportunity moves people down the path toward becoming better writers.

There are other cultural practices that cooperate with the web in starting to break open literacy. Rap music and hip-hop language gain large audiences and are used in writing by more and more people. Black Planet is a social media site aimed (mostly) at African Americans and is the site of a lot of AAL. (See Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture by H. Samy Alim—and also Alim, Baugh, and Smitherman.) Poetry slams have become amazingly popular and they represent some interesting crossings: between text and speech; and between poetry as “high culture” and poetry as “people’s culture.”

But even though writers get to write whatever they want in this rhetorical open space, by the same token, readers get to ignore whatever they want. There may be no single standard for correct language, but that doesn’t mean readers will read anything. In short, the absence of a standard doesn’t mean no standards—no judging, no criteria, no caring about quality. People judge every time they decide to read or not read, and when they judge, they use standards or criteria—conscious or not. On the web we see plenty of blabbing—“garbage” if you prefer. But we see plenty of good writing and plenty of judging by readers of what to read.

It was just this kind of open space for naked rhetorically based power that I set up in 1973 when I laid out the guidelines for “teacherless classes” in Writing Without Teachers. I was troubled by the power of teachers to impose on students their institutional and unilateral criteria for good and bad writing. It seemed to me that the criteria I saw many teachers and institutions using were deeply flawed. I wanted a space where writers confront readers across a space without institutionally sanctioned criteria. And I laid out specific ways for readers to respond to (p.382) writers with a kind of naked empiricism: instead of mimicking teacher responses (how good or bad? what’s wrong or right? how to fix it?), to make careful accounts of what the written words caused to happen in their minds. The writer’s job is to write; the reader’s job is to give what I called “movies of the reader’s mind.”

As we finally get to this third stage and the standard falls away—mainstream correct language—the concepts of “correct” and “wrong” will lose any meaning as a standard for writing. People will stop calling language correct, incorrect, or wrong. But they will continue to call writing good and bad. Readers will look for writing that is clear, well thought out or rewarding to read—or at least that does a needed job well enough—and be annoyed at writing that lacks those and other virtues. But writing can have those virtues no matter what version of English it uses. So we will still have plenty of “standards”; we’ll lack only a single standard for acceptable language.

One of the reasons teachers often comment more on incorrect language than other problems is that these comments are incontestable. When teachers tell students that a certain reason is unpersuasive or that a paragraph should be cut or moved, they cannot help but know that plenty of their smart colleagues might well disagree. An assertive student might argue with those responses. But when teachers point out mistakes in grammar and spelling, the teacher is no danger.

When many cultured literate people contemplate what I describe, they will fear for the death of good language, good writing, and clarity. Or else they’ll settle for the cynical response: “So what else is new? The world has always been going to hell.” But the English language and English literature didn’t suffer during the various medieval and Renaissance periods when there was no single standard for correct written language. Shakespeare did pretty well with a fairly unsettled language. We will see plenty of good writing in the new culture of vernacular literacy.

What Will It Be Like in This New Culture of Vernacular Literacy?

I want to look at what can happen when people don’t have to worry about the kind of language they use. Consider LaJuane. Early in the high school year—while he was still dominated by the feeling that writing means correct grammar—he wrote this:

(p.383) I Realy Injoy the sport. I like Hiting and running. We had a great team and great year. I would like to encourage all to play the sporth.

This is the kind of play-it-safe defensive writing that students often produce. LaJuane had doubtless been corrected over and over for wrong grammar and other mistakes.

But when his new teacher responded to this paper, she didn’t make corrections; she invited him to forget about right and wrong and use whatever language came easily to mouth and mind. She just asked some questions. When he revised, here’s what he came up with:

When the halmut toches my Head my body turns Like doctor Jeckel and Mr. Hide. I become a safage. And there’s no one who can stop me when this happens. My blood starts racing my hart pumping. Like a great machine of power. And when the football moves that’s the time for me to move and get that quarterback. And anyone who get’s in my way is asking for problems.

(Christensen “The Politics of Correction” 20)

Lajuane’s teacher helped him realize that he could exploit speech or a speech-like process of talking onto the page—instead of trying to “write writing” or use correct language.

Here’s a poem that was written as a nonstop freewrite in a workshop run by Pat Schneider’s organization, Amherst Writers and Artists. The author is Robert Hastings, ten years old at the time.


  • It is life.
  • It grows from the ground.
  • It is ground up like meat.
  • It gives him a sharp and good feeling,
  • that gives me a sharp and painful anger.
  • He rolls it like a red carpet
  • and licks it like a lollipop.
  • My anger gets deeper
  • as the smell gets worse.
  • As he smokes me
  • I get hotter and hotter. (32)
(This was published in Schneider’s chapter, “Writing to Empower the Silenced” in her book, Writing Alone and With Others. For more about Schneider and the organization, see Chapter 7. You can find lots of other good writing by (p.384) children in publications of Teachers and Writers Collaborative, an organization that sends writers into the schools to help children write imaginatively.)

Here is a passage from a long prose memoir written by a mature adult, Estelle Jones, who spent most of her life as a domestic servant. Having been the child of sharecroppers in South Carolina in the first decade of the twentieth century, she went to school somewhat irregularly and only to the third grade. Her fifty-six page manuscript is one long paragraph, handwritten closely, single spaced, on lined paper. It can be a little confusing to read (especially with all the dialogue), so I put a somewhat copy edited version of it in a box afterward.

…. what i always want to be it was a nurst. but you had to have too years of schooling or more. now I am old I still want to be a nurst. now back to this baby which is a Boy. he is about eight. my madam one morning say Estelle I say yes. she say I deside for you to work part time with a friend of mine I say o. she say dont you think that will be good. I say yes if you say. well she say the lady could pay half and i pay half of the money I say I see my madam say I will call her now make arangement to when you start because my children are older enough now to help and i dont need a made all the time. this was a part of the job i would not have but I went alone with my madam. because i work on a job or I dont work but too people and sharing money i never would have that kind of thing too hard as it is. my madam say as she going to phone she turn back Estelle you will work for the lady morning wont you. I say no well when she say. I say afternoon my madam say no I want you to work for her morning you go to her at 9:30 to one thirty then me afternoon. but I say no I work for lady afternoon you morning. my madam say you are not being fair to me I say what is fair she say I had you first so I can say when you to work. I want you afternoon I say I go to lady afternoon my madam what about my dinner I say what about that lady dinner. now my madam want to no why I want to give lady afternoon. I say so when I finish working I can take bus like all other girls and go to Paterson. come back next morning 9:30. my madam sit down say I am no place now. You see my madam no and had it all plane. if I work for lady morning at my madam I would have made breakfast wash dishes clean House all that before I left. then go to other lady nine to about too then come back after noon clean house again cook wash iron dinner for company and no rest. again I almost left my job but the deal diden went through on both of those job it wash iron clean house cook take care children. I would leave the house to work but with all my cloth. I dont mind working on no job if I can make extra money for my self but not something some body fosting me to do. so I diden work for the lady. (Unpublished MS)

(p.385) In our present culture of proper literacy, with its single standard for correct serious writing, potential writers tend to get this message:

First you have to learn to write right. Once you learn to do that, then we’ll find out if you can write anything good.

In the culture of vernacular literacy, the message will be more like this:

Write whatever you want and however you want. Use any kind of language—including your spoken language. You’ll find that it’s easy to put your words down. You can write just for yourself. But it’s also easy to get words to readers by photocopying, emailing, or putting them on the web. Nevertheless, if you want many readers to read what you write, you might have to learn to write better than you do now. You might want to revise (p.386) and perhaps get feedback. Still, there’s no telling what people will like to read on the web. If you put out what I or other “experienced writers” call not good enough, some people may read it and like it and even reply—perhaps even many people. But whether or not they read or respond, the main thing is that you get to write it and put it out for others. And if you do this, you’ll be learning to be a writer and getting better at it.

And teachers? What will we do in a world where there is no longer a single standard for correct written English—where it’s legitimate to write in any version of spoken English? Our plight will be dire. We’ll have to learn to tell the difference between writing that’s right and writing that we judge good or effective.

There are stages in learning to do this. First we’ll have to learn to ignore all issues of correctness and give feedback on the content in a piece of writing—the thinking, plot, imagery, metaphors, rhetoric—paying no attention to whether the surface conforms to the conventions of the dialect we call correct, edited “standard” written English. Some teachers have learned to do this, but many still have trouble.

In our culture teachers often feel obliged to “correct errors”—even though that’s the least satisfying or interesting part of our job. So speakers of stigmatized languages tend to get too much “error correction” and too little help with the substance of their thinking. This is sometimes a problem for mainstream students too: too much red ink leads them to be preoccupied with error and to compensate by writing oversimple wooden language.


What will be trickier for most teachers will be learning to give useful feedback on the style in a piece of writing—once we say that anyone’s vernacular spoken language is okay. But at least we’ll no longer be trying to serve two masters: correctness and quality. We can put all our attention on quality. The tricky part will be helping students decide whether they want to experiment with code meshing or hybridity—and how to use it skillfully. (See the box on this topic on p. 330 in Chapter 16. Suresh Canagarajah—with his eye on World Englishes and the international scene—explores the widespread and effective use of hybridity and code meshing in general. For lots on code meshing, see Young and Martinez.)

Let’s stand back and look at the main substantive criteria that most teachers use in evaluating essays of any sort:

Are the ideas good or interesting? Is the thinking sound and the reasoning persuasive and more or less valid? Does it do the job required by this occasion and genre? Is the organization effective? Are the sentences clear and strong?

(p.387) The important point here is that all these goals can be achieved brilliantly in any version of English! Teachers will learn to focus their attention on the substantive criteria and teach them, and give students feedback on how well they meet them.

Surface features

Of course these too must be faced. The surface of writing is what readers see first—especially if they don’t approve of it. So even after we’ve attained vernacular literacy, writers will still need to copy edit for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (This is the process I used on the passage from Estelle Jones earlier in the chapter.)


There is a huge psychic investment in spelling in our culture, and that makes it difficult for many people to think rationally about it (see Kress). Many people get upset—even angry—at deviations from “correct” standard spelling. If I try to suggest a literacy where multiple spellings are acceptable, I find people throwing up their hands and envisioning total anarchy. They have trouble seeing the difference between “wrong spelling” (which will no longer be a meaningful concept) and random, careless, variable spelling that does in fact needlessly distract or annoy readers. For writing to work well, the spelling (like punctuation) should help readers perform the text in their minds. And most people will continue to make lots of typos that will need correcting. Think of careless emails where people don’t bother to fix all the confusion sown by careless fingers.

For most nonmainstream versions of English there is no official orthography. But conventions grow up—especially with the increase of publications in alternative versions of English (like AAL and Hawaiian Creole English). I don’t know how spelling decisions get worked out between copy editors and authors who write in nonmainstream versions of English. Perhaps different writers or publishing houses use somewhat different spellings. But consistent spelling within a text will spare readers from needless distraction. (The Academie Francaise has begun to sanction alternative spelling with a number of words.)

(p.388) Grammar

Even when readers don’t object to different versions of English, they can still be annoyed by grammar that is needlessly random and careless. But this is a tricky matter. For inconsistent grammar and register can be conscious and effective. Teachers will have to think about whether the student is deliberately using some hybridity or code meshing or even benefiting from unconscious but effective accidents.


In this coming culture of vernacular literacy, literate readers will no longer insist on calling punctuation wrong when it violates rules of our present grammatical tradition. They’ll assume to start with that the punctuation represents the writer’s directions for how to hear or inwardly perform the text. So if those directions lead to incoherence, readers will understandably object. In short, in this brave open new world, writers will still need to guard against carelessness or bad punctuation choices—if they care about getting readers, and not all writers do.

Imagining the Future

Readers have always felt free to like or dislike various writing styles. (“I hate stream of consciousness novels.”) But when they say, “I hate that style,” they don’t usually think of the style as illegal. This is how it will be with versions of written English—most of them deriving from various spoken Englishes. Some readers will say, “I hate that version of English,” but they won’t have any feeling that it’s illegal or not valid. The gradual dissipation of prejudice doesn’t mean (p.389) the absence of strong preferences. A few vernaculars will be hard for many mainstream readers, but in the absence of prejudice, most will be read fairly easily by most English speakers. Think of how many readers even now like to read rap—which is often not so easy to understand.

So much for readers, but what will it be like for writers? Here’s a little mini-drama of a writer who wakes up in this brave new world:

How wonderful. When I want to write something, I just open my mouth and write down whatever language comes out. I talk through my fingers. It doesn’t matter what brand of talk-language I have—whether it’s Texas hill country English or Hispanic/Latino inflected English; it doesn’t matter how I choose to spell the words. What I put down will count as officially correct for writing. Hooray! Writing is a piece of cake!

Months pass while her excitement leads to lots and lots of writing. But then further reactions gradually emerge:

Uh oh. There’s a big problem. Writing is a piece of cake. But what if I want someone to read what I wrote. In this new world, readers see my talk-language as perfectly acceptable and comprehensible. But they usually stop reading after only a few minutes. And if I can persuade them to tell me honestly why, they say things like, “This is unclear,” “This is disorganized,” “This doesn’t do the job that’s needed.” “This isn’t very interesting,” “This isn’t carefully thought out.”

Oh dear. I can use whatever language that comes out of my mouth—but I still have to make it interesting, clear, and thoughtful? I have to make it fit the context? That’s hard. I thought writing was going to be easy.

Still, things are better than they were. I used to have to get my writing correct and get it good. My struggle to get it correct often undermined my struggle to get it good. Now I can forget about correctness and use whatever language comes easily and naturally. I can concentrate on the more important and interesting goal: making it good. I can put all my attention on how to get my writing smart, strong, clear, interesting—and pleasing—to readers.

But let me turn my focus away from the individual experiences of writers and readers. What about the culture as a whole? I’m writing this book because I have a vision of the democratization of literacy and especially writing. This was what pulled me to Writing Without Teachers, but the vision wasn’t yet clear to me. Now, however, I see us already moving toward a culture of literacy where more people feel empowered to write. Many people have long experienced themselves as excluded from the networks of power that are bound up with literacy. This is changing. And as more people take up writing, we will benefit from a richer palette of writing. Shakespeare and other Elizabethans enriched the sixteenth-century palette of writing in English, and the same thing can happen again.

The Long View

I ask you to consider the possibility that we’ve been going through what is really a brief historical interlude during which the forces of standardization in written language have been peculiarly strong. The eighteenth century brought (p.390) us a climactic frenzy of standardization and prescriptivism, and with it an unusual resistance to spoken language for correct writing. In fact, the very concept of “correctness” in language was an invention of the eighteenth century. Before then there were various ways to complain about “bad” written language—calling it incoherent, hard to understand, or too high or low in register for the occasion. But people seldom invoked the standard of “correct” and “incorrect.”

When we think of how long it took for Dante’s Italian and the other vernacular spoken languages to become acceptable for writing, the eighteenth century was just yesterday. And now we’re entering a new period of change. Our unusually strict standard is dissipating—and much more quickly than in Dante’s era. With the internet, literacy is on the road toward accepting various versions of spoken language. Globalism is somewhat loosening the grip of many nationalisms. It’s tragic how English is undermining so many languages, but in the process, English is getting more multiple; people around the globe are taking more control of the version of English they need; and those Englishes are more and more inflected by the spoken language.

In most historical periods, schools have had the job of trying to hold the line against change or “degeneration.” In multilingual and multidialectal societies, teachers have traditionally manned the front lines in this battle. But it’s pretty clear that teachers don’t have a prayer of stopping this remarkable process we are going through now: linguistic divergence and the dissipation of a single standard. My suggestion, on the contrary, is that we teachers now help move the process along.

I’m not asking teachers to invite or reward careless or bad writing in itself. (One exception: many people cannot actually freewrite or talk onto the page for early drafts without a little help in being careless—in stopping themselves from correcting.) The goal is good writing, and that takes enormous care. But we teachers can now create more space for more good writing by inviting more versions of English. We can empower more students to write well by opening the door to the various spoken languages they know best. For the time being, however, in our present culture of proper literacy, if we want to help our students prosper in most of the classrooms and jobs we are trying to prepare them for, we also need to help them learn to do whatever is necessary to edit out the grammatical forms that trigger mainstream readers to declare “error.”

People in our present culture will continue for a while to confuse writing in spoken dialects with bad writing. But even though we teachers cannot legislate cultural values directly, we can do so indirectly by inspiring more good writing in different vernacular spoken languages—writing that people will want to read. Think of Dante.

I don’t see us so far away from a world where everyone can say

I have something I want to write. I find writing easy, but I find it very hard work to get my thoughts and words clear and strong. I’m sure I’ll be frustrated trying to craft it till it’s good—and even copy edit. But I’m looking forward to the work because I know that the medium I’ll be using—the clay I’ll be trying to shape into something I love—is my own language.