American Culture

Review – You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity

Author: Robert Lane Greene
Publisher: Delacourte Press: New York, 2010

by Samantha Berkhead

It’s plausible to argue that lingual differences have caused more discrimination, conflict and cultural controversy throughout history than race or religion ever did. From the Hindi-Urdu bloodshed in India to the Balkan Wars, history shows that tolerance for different languages both within and without national borders is hard to find.

Robert Lane Greene, an international journalist, speaker of nine languages and M.Phil from Oxford University, takes on several interlocking topics and forges them together to show why certain people speak the way they do.

For the average nonfiction author, synthesizing millennia of politics, history and economics (among many other unlikely factors) into a simple explanation of contemporary language would be a daunting task. Yet Greene’s linguistic elucidations never become muddled or obtuse. That alone makes the book a marvel, even if the reader somehow finds nothing else about this book interesting.

You Are What You Speak not only gives a didactic presentation of the history of today’s languages; the book also explores the various schools of thought centered around language. The number of viewpoints on language may even surpass that of actual spoken languages themselves.

Some speakers of a given language even discriminate against speakers of the exact same language for not speaking or writing well enough for their own lofty standards.

At the lowest levels, these “sticklers,” as Greene semi-affectionately names them, cherish their grammatical and syntactical education so dearly that to see anyone else butcher the language hits as hard as a stab in the heart. In fact, some readers of the book may grimace at the sight of each occurrence of the serial comma Greene insists upon in his writing.

At the highest levels, sticklers become autocratic or dictatorial rulers bent on creating a nation-state with one language to be utilized by all.

Yet these sticklers of language and grammar fanatics–even such notables as E.B. White and George Orwell–convinced their language is falling apart, forget one very important point Greene proves again and again–languages never decline or worsen. They evolve and change constantly at the same rate its speakers do. A language is not what a minority of stagnant prescriptivists say it should be for the rest of time–it is made up of the words coming from those speaking it every day of their lives. It is, as Greene says, a cloud and not a box.

You Are What You Speak is at once anecdotal and evidential, educational and engaging. Greene gives a fascinating perspective on the way each individual ought to look at language.

As Maurice Druon, permanent secretary of the French Academy, said: “Lack of respect for language reveals a lack of respect for everything.”

Sam Berkhead lives in Rochester, NY when she is not studying journalism at St. Bonaventure University. She is the news assignment editor of the Bona Venture, her school’s newspaper, and writes music reviews and newscasts for WSBU, her school’s radio station. An Italian minor and attempted self-taught speaker of Russian, Sam is most passionate about linguistics and cross-cultural acceptance.

2 replies »

  1. Two of the most intelligent people I know rely on spoken language because they are illiterate…one spoke mainly a minority dialect and yet was able to play with words and have incisive wit in a way that amazed me. Clever language users ‘morph’ according to situations they are in and people they are with. Sticklers miss the point , you need to play the ‘game’ of language and not insist on one rule/one culture for all contexts. And Green is right, language does what it is needed to. I always think of the example of ‘youse’, the attempt to create an informal second person plural , because the need is there.

  2. Greene gives a fascinating perspective on the way each individual ought to look at language.

    So he’s a philosophical prescriptivist?