The Issue of Language Elitism in Higher Education

The Issue of Language Elitism in Higher Education

Ever wondered how the English language originated and how it has developed over time? Examining the journey, this think piece draws attention to the issue of elitism in our language. Taught by higher education establishments that there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to written and spoken language, this blog dispels some of the myths surrounding the English language. Challenging ongoing prejudices, this article highlights how it’s time to put aside these barriers and free English from its classist constraints.

This article is a long read think piece.

The English language has been around for a long time. When Germanic tribes began to settle in Britain around 1,600 years ago, they brought with them a number of West Germanic dialects. One of those dialects, Ænglisc, eventually became the dominant dialect. Ænglisc over time came to replace the Latin left behind by the Romans as well as the native and local Celtic languages. This is how Old English was born.

English has changed a lot since then. As an example, take a look at how this verse from the Bible (Mathew 8:20) has been translated over the years:

11th century: Foxas habbað holu and heofonan fuglas nest

14th century: Foxis han dennes, and briddis of heuene han nestis

17th century: The Foxes haue holes and the birds of the ayre haue nests

21st century: Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests

What actually is English?

The word "English" being highlighted in a dictionary

So, what actually is English? If we could bring someone from the 17th century to modern-day Britain, would we say that they speak English? You would certainly be able to understand most of what they said, or at least what they wrote. After all, you’ve probably been forced to read Shakespeare at some point in your life. But if you were to talk to that person, would you really both be speaking English?

No. Because, in the strictest sense, neither of you speak English. What you both speak are closely related dialects, which we broadly categorise as ‘English’. But that category is arbitrary – we’ve made it up. Let’s think about computers. Your computer’s spelling and grammar checker has a very closed concept of English. That’s because it has been told precisely what English is by its programmers. Any time you type a sentence, if you input a word that is not present in its code or you do not use the same syntax as it does then, as far as the computer is concerned, what you wrote is not English.

How many times have you looked at that shaggy red or passive-aggressive blue line and thought: what’s wrong with that? You use that word or speak that way all the time. It’s considered incorrect by the computer because what you wrote falls outside of what we have termed ‘Standard English’. Standard English is comprised of a list of accepted words compiled by lexicographers, combined with a set of syntax rules composed by grammarians from an accredited body in your respective region. For the most part, Standard English does a fairly good job of encompassing the way in which English speakers talk, but not a perfect one.

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ English

Unfortunately, we’re not done. Within Standard English, we have further arbitrary tiers such as ‘good English’ and ‘bad English’. Sometimes, a word or manner of speaking that was once considered slang or incorrect is used so much that the gatekeepers of English have no choice but to accept it into Standard English. You’ve probably had at least one person smugly tell you you’re using the word ‘literally’ wrong. Well, the Oxford English Dictionary has finally admitted defeat and included the ‘incorrect’ sense in the official definition of literally. But that doesn’t mean everyone likes it. And so ‘literally’ falls into a very large subcategory of things that count as English but that some people are adamant you shouldn’t use. This is just one aspect of the crusade against bad English.

A sign post with two signs labelled "Good" and "Bad"

You probably also heard the term ‘bad grammar’ at school. An example of bad grammar is the ‘double negative’ (e.g. I didn’t do nothing), which some people will say you must never use. At a more advanced level, you may be told to never end a sentence with a preposition (words like ‘of’, ‘to’ and ‘from’). Thus, good grammar is not ‘the person I gave a book to’, but rather ‘the person to whom I gave a book’. The trouble is, this is nonsense. There is no such thing as bad grammar.

Any modern syntactician (linguists who study the rules behind languages) will tell you that. In syntax, something is either grammatical, or it’s not. There is no in-between. Aspersions about good and bad grammar are entirely arbitrary. Syntacticians’ sole concern is what people actually say in their dialect, and whether such a phrase is possible. An example of a genuinely ungrammatical sentence is, ‘I him have never seen’. Any native speaker can tell you instinctively that this word order is not possible in English syntax. But it turns out that there is absolutely nothing in English syntax that prevents a double negative. In fact, double negatives are actually the standard in many world languages, for example:

Je ne l’ai jamais vu (French)

not him have never seen

‘I’ve never seen him’

Ben onu hiç gör-me-dim (Turkish)

I him never seen not have

‘I’ve never seen him’

As for not ending a sentence with a preposition, that rule was invented in the 19th century by grammarians who saw Latin as the gold standard that English should try to emulate. In Latin, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. In English, you can. Yet those who set the rules tried to tell us that you can’t. Why?

The English language and classism

There is inherent classism in English that has been around for a very long time. When the Normans conquered Britain in 1066, they brought with them a new language – Old French. The Normans formed the new ruling class, and French became the political and legal language of the kingdom. For a while, the languages remained separate. The peasants carried on speaking the Germanic-based Old English, the lords carried on speaking the Romance-based Old French. But the two inevitably began to mix, as the English-speaking majority incorporated the administrative language into their own tongue. Anglo-Norman was born, becoming what we now call Middle English.

You have probably noticed in English that we often have two or more words for the same thing: fatherly, paternal; folks, people; forgive, pardon; buy, purchase; belly, stomach; hearty, cordial; and so on. On the left is the Anglic word, on the right is the Norman equivalent. Which sounds more ‘proper’ to you? If you answered ‘the right one’, you’ve opted for the upper-class words. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is clear that in English there has long been a correlation between class and the words you use.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and this problem still persists. Although now it’s much more evident in the grammar rather than the words we use. Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be taught from a young age that there is a right and wrong way to speak. The ones who attend private schools are blessed with greater resources and smaller class sizes, and their sole aim is to secure a place at a top university. Closer attention is paid to ensuring that their English is in line with classic English literature and current academic standards. The end result is students achieving higher average grades and rocking up to university with a healthy preparation for the work ahead.

For State schools, the number one priority is to get as many students as possible to grade C in the minimum number of required GCSEs. Talented students who are guaranteed to achieve that are a lower priority. In order to excel and get closer to achieving their potential, many will require a lot of self-study. Most will not have the benefit of someone to look over their shoulder and ensure that they’re writing in perfect, polished English.

A tall circular building

Universities are making a big effort to balance out their student intake. It was not long ago that more than 50% of students at Oxbridge came from private schools despite constituting less than 7% of the student population. State-educated pupils now make up 69% of offers to attend Oxford University (if we include grammar schools and exclude international students from the overall total). This is a step in the right direction, but what has not yet changed is the culture of these institutions once students actually arrive.

In my first week at Oxford University, I received an email from my professor outlining good essay practice. Near the top of the list was this:

“Many students appear to have a poor understanding of the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’. Compare these examples:

1. The student chose the chair which was red

2. The student chose the chair that was red

In the first example, the colour of the chair is supplementary information and immaterial to the student’s decision. In the second, the student chooses the chair as a direct consequence of it being red.”

This was a grammatical point I’d never heard of and I thought it was really interesting. Towards the end of my time at Oxford, I went back to find that email to show it to a friend. When I found it and re-read it, I realised that there was almost nothing useful in the whole document. It was just guidance about formatting and minor grammatical points which I mostly knew already. Not a word about how to formulate and structure an argument.

Wooden blocks with letters on them that spell "imposter"

Many new students suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ at Oxford – the feeling that they don’t belong. There are many reasons for this, not least the copious number of black-tie balls, insistence on using archaic terms like ‘rustication’ (suspension) and ‘battels’ (fees), and refusal to remove homages to slave-owners and colonialists. But amongst them is also the fixation on the way we should talk and write.

Should you be using double negatives in an essay? No. But that’s not because it’s too colloquial, it’s because it can sometimes be unclear what you mean. And that is the aim of writing – to convey your message clearly and accurately. But that cuts both ways. If you understand what a person is saying, mission accomplished. Whether they used ‘which’ when in standard English they should use ‘that’, or ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ is completely immaterial.

Putting the prejudice to bed

Some universities are already implementing change.

The University of Hull released a policy recently saying that requiring a high level of proficiency in written English is “homogenous, North European, white, male, and elite”. They added that they would be encouraging students to use a “more authentic academic voice… that celebrates, rather than obscures, their particular background or characteristics”. The University of Arts London released guidance for staff saying that tutors should “actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication”. You will know when there is a genuine problem with someone’s use of language, because you will not understand their point. In all other scenarios, we need to put this prejudice to bed.

It is time for all institutions, employers – and everyone – to adopt this attitude. The Crystal Mark standard is an excellent resource for those who want advice on how to make their English as accessible as possible.

I began this article with a slightly long-winded history of the English language. I did this for two reasons:

  1. To explain why classism is so deep-rooted in English.

  2. To show that language has, is and always will be uncontrollably evolving.

Through every stage of history, there have been people who have dug their heels in and declared that any further alterations to the language are abominations and must be stopped. They have always failed. Shakespeare used over 1,700 words in his plays that had never been recorded before, and you still use them today. No one was able to stop him from shaping the English language, and no one can stop the people of today from doing the same.

Has this article changed the way you think about the English language? Let us know on our socials!

Written by James Baxter

Published: 6th May 2022

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