Our mother harassed us constantly about the way we talked. And she stressed that we would never be able to get a job or rise in the world if we didn’t speak perfect English.
The family dinner table was hell for us. We were constantly forced to perform, demonstrating our perfect English diction, our table manners and our ability to engage in flawless conversation with adults. The point was to practice displaying and confirming our newly acquired class status, and receive criticism and correction.
Our mother, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants to New York, was the first generation in her family to attend college. She deliberately got rid of her own New Jersey accent, spoke with good diction and grammar, and she looked down on people with accents, imperfect English, and/or bad grammar. To her, all of those meant low class, just off the boat, uneducated, or all three.
Our mother also basically dumped her Italian heritage, pretended to know no Italian, and corrected people’s grammar constantly – not only ours but that of others. And for her, I suppose it was effective. She eventually married a rising star, my father, who became a corporate executive, sent us all to Ivy League colleges, and moved to a very wealthy Connecticut suburb, where she still lives at age 101.
Language as a Class Indicator
At this point, I will not talk at length about my own very conscious and irreversible downward mobility, which shames and pains her to this day. I will say, however, that I became a union organizer and activist, raised my children in inner city neighborhoods, and don’t speak or write perfectly. In fact, as a union organizer, I consciously acquired a Boston working-class accent, dropped my “r’s,” and learned a lot of slang. Classic youthful protest and class rebellion, I suppose, and my own way of using language to blend into the class I wanted to join. Or, as they say, rags to riches to rags in three generations.
As a result, I guess, I learned a lot along the way about class, accent, grammar, and the ways different classes police themselves and each other through language. The “American Dream” and upward mobility are wondrous things in some ways, especially for my mother’s post-World War II generation, who were able to move up with the rising postwar economy, as my parents were.
Use of language, accent and grammar are weapons people use to distance themselves from and put down people whom they deem lower in class.”
My mother had a powerful obsession with rising from the working-class/lower-middle class to what she felt was the upper-class. This probably originated in her early years working as a secretary on Wall Street, where she met captains of industry and financiers and wanted to be like them. It worsened when my parents moved with my father’s job to London, England, and were immersed in the vicious, rigid British class structure and the mores of the English upper-class, as they saw them. The English, with their accent, seemed the pinnacle of classiness.
A Passing Phrase
My mother embarked early on a deliberate strategy of rejecting not only her ethnicity and family, but the class from which she came and from which she was determined, from an early age, to rise. A main tool in this climb was her skill with language – with accent, diction, vocabulary, grammar, syntax. She has been able to “pass” as an upper-class WASP, or at least an upper-middle-class Protestant. Language, for her, was a weapon, and she raised us with language as an instrument of torture. Learning a new class language and style was not much fun. It was an abusive, cruel, self-denying process, not only for her but especially for us, her kids.
It was only as an adult that I began to understand the connection between all of this behavior and the larger society. Now that I have worked among many classes and kinds of people for a number of years, I can see how this works in society as a whole. Use of language, accent and grammar are weapons people use to distance themselves from and put down people whom they deem lower in class.
The Language Police
So often I have had to watch people make fun of those with less than perfect English, either because they are immigrants, and English is not their first language, or because they did not learn perfect grammar in school or at home, or both. Language – accent, vocabulary, diction, syntax and grammar – seem neutral but are real markers of class. And the language frontiers of class are policed ruthlessly by self-appointed “language police,” often to humiliate, ridicule and shame those with less good English.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great lover of the English language and its clear, correct use. But the folks who make fun of slang, bad grammar, or just the English vernacular are not just standing up for good English. They are also parading their own better-educated, higher-class position and reinforcing class distinctions between themselves and others.
The English of poor people and/or working-class people, and the many regional variants – the vernacular – are often music to my ears. And yet, as someone who has worked with adults in labor education, job training and adult basic education for almost 30 years, I also understand the importance of learning “good” English in order to get a good job and rise in a career, let alone go to college, the universal ticket to the middle-class. It’s essential. Language is the key to rising from your class roots and is the gatekeeper for college and career. But learning “good” English and policing its use are two different things.
Enforcing Class Distinctions through Language
One thing I learned about the connection between my mother’s efforts and the world-at-large: The pressure my mom pushed on us about how we spoke, was abusive, in the same way that upper-class folks’ ridicule of others’ use of English is abusive. It is designed to hurt, and to aggrandize the abuser. Her “grammar policing” was a microcosm of the ways our society polices class membership and class distinctions through language.
It is probably no coincidence that I became a radical, a labor activist, and an adult educator. I feel strong empathy for new immigrants, not only for how hard it is to learn English as an adult, but for how much abuse they often take about their language and accents from those with “better” English. And I cannot stand it when people make fun of the typical local Boston accent – a classic working-class accent that is sadly becoming lost. Those accents and sayings are part of a real, healthy and vigorous culture, and one that is being homogenized by the media and ground out by pressures from more educated folks with more class advantage.
Reinforcing one’s “superior” language or grammar skills, by making fun of people’s accents or grammar, or even spelling, is hurtful. Those wounds run deep, and I have spent my life in some small way trying to help heal them in others. Standing up for and speaking out about the language of ordinary people is a significant part of class struggle. Language matters, too.