Letter to the Editor: There are clever ways to manipulate language

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Reading Gloria Endres’ last op-ed was like reading the tale of two English teachers. Even the way her article was formatted helped distinguish two sides of the understanding and teaching of the English language. She begins by describing the influences of language, culture and time on the evolution of English to its present day. Her tone is gracious and appreciative of the varieties of English spoken regionally in our country and around the world. She uses Do You Speak American? (actually a subsequent companion piece to a PBS documentary) as her reference. 

But then she takes a turn in the second half of her piece. She likens the changes in English to the invasion of barbarians that hastened the end of the Roman empire, and praises modern technology to help “prevent our language from slipping away.” I don’t know how she reaches that conclusion (I remember when “text” was a noun, now it can be a verb). She concludes her piece by informing the reader about her use of sentence diagramming as a method to “protect grammar from abuse.”

I came away wondering where Ms. Endres stood. The first half of the op-ed appears to meditate on the dynamic nature of English. She takes on a “descriptivist” tone. Then she ends with a solid “prescriptivist” stance, firmly believing that English should remain static and standardized (these two rival views of language are explored in the wonderful documentary Endres references). In my view, not knowing where to stand is perfectly fine, but phrases like “preserving our language” and protecting the language from “abuse” from what Endres seemed to refer to modern-day barbarians had the frightening whisper of nativism.

When I moved to South Philadelphia many years ago and started teaching, I couldn’t quite comprehend why some students and colleagues added the “s” to “you” (as in “yous guys”). After some thought, the added “s” (called a “morpheme”) is an efficient way of referring to more than one person. Sure there are places in written English where “yous” might not be appropriate, but I wouldn’t call the clever manipulation of language by diverse elements of society barbaric.

Robert Rivera-Amezola