THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS STANDARD ENGLISH by Rebecca Boggs Roberts
I have, I must admit, a giant crush on the English language. I am embarrassed to say it is the only language I know fluently. But English is extraordinary. We English speakers have stolen, borrowed, invented, flipped, adapted, coined, misused, repurposed, and dreamed up so many words for so many different contexts that we now have the Swiss Army knife of languages: ready for anything you can imagine and everything you cannot. It’s not just the words of stories that I love – I love words in any context from graffiti to poetry to jingles. That is why I write. That is why I read. That is why I listen, and sing, and laugh at corny jokes. And when I see real virtuosos, people using English to the full extent of its wondrous capabilities (Geraldine Brooks, Barack Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda) I just stand back in slack-jawed awe. Why am I so in love with words? Some English words are just plain fun to read and hear.
They roll around in your mouth in unexpected ways and make you smile just to say them. Other words are all about the meaning. They are so perfectly specific, that when you find exactly the right one, it feels like a magic trick.
Words don’t need to be rare and polysyllabic to have unique connotations. Why is SLEEPY adorably cozy while TIRED is cranky and sad? Why does something that brings JOY sound lovely, but predictable, while a DELIGHT is something you enjoyed more than you expected to? Why is GRAVEYARD so much creepier than CEMETERY?
And if you can’t find exactly the right word, go ahead and make one up! That’s completely okay in English. I use words now that didn’t exist when I was growing up, and I’m not just talking about things that hadn’t been invented yet, like GOOGLE and EMOJI. Someone out there was the first person to use STAN and SUS and WOKE as an adjective. In my house, the weird little snort/snore/growl our old dog makes is a SCHNURFFLE. I have never written that word down before, although I say it regularly. I just invented its spelling, right this instant. I have that power, and so do you.
You can also use English words any way you want to. We don’t have an official committee trying to preserve our language in amber as others do. English usage is constantly changing. That’s what makes it so versatile. And here’s a secret: It has always been that way. The folks who clutch their pearls and decry the decline of standard English while pining for a perfect past when everyone spoke and wrote exactly the same way are nostalgic for a fantasy. That time never existed. Anyone who gets wrapped around the axle because you used DECIMATE as a synonym for DESTROY and not “to reduce by one tenth” is not showing you how smart they are, they are showing you how pedantic they are. At the risk of beating my earlier Swiss Army knife metaphor into the ground, I may use the corkscrew to open wine and you may use it to clean your toenails and it’s all okay. We all get to choose how we use the tools. Did you notice, a few lines up, I ended a sentence with a preposition? And yet, this paper did not burst into flames. We all survived. English is going to change whether you like it or not. So you might as well like it.
And do you know who innovates the most in English? What group drives linguistic change the fastest and the farthest? Teenage girls. It’s true! What’s more, it has been true for centuries. It was teenage girls in the 1500s who got rid of words like “doth” and “maketh”. Teenage girls are the reason we don’t say things like “mine eyes” or address each other as “ye”. Today, linguists estimate women drive 90% of change in the language.
Words are endlessly adaptable. This is not to say that words are trivial. Quite the opposite. If we all have access to this amazing multi-use tool, and the ability to use it however we want, that is real power. You can use words to create beauty, to invent stories, to change minds. So use them wisely and well. Words matter.
Rebecca Boggs Roberts is the co-author of The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World. Her day job is Curator of Programming Planet Word, a new museum of words and language in Washington, D.C. She still can’t believe she gets paid to play with words.