It’s a strange thing about grammar that it seems either to send people to sleep, or into fits of self-righteous fury. I suspect that there’s a link between the two reactions: many of us can’t help but switch off when we find ourselves listening to or reading another rant about how the non-literal use of “literally” is literally the worst thing ever to have happened to humankind.
I came across another example of the power of grammar to generate heat in Trinidad recently. The Ministry of Health has been trying to raise public awareness about the Chikungunya Virus under the following header, featuring the exhortation “DON’T GET BITE!”:
The inevitable social media grammarstorm which followed featured the kind of outrage that only a nonstandard participle seems to be able to generate, along with the usual examples of McKean’s Law (“any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error” – see also Muphry’s Law), such as the following, from a Facebook commenter:
“and they wonder why our children can write a proper sentence far more for a proper essay – dialect is not a language – we speak ENGLISH in Trinidad and Tobago”
Of course, “don’t get bite!” or, as several other commenters pointed out, better perhaps “doh get bite!”, is a perfectly normal, natural way for many Trinbagonians to express the relevant suggestion. The slogan was clearly an attempt to use distinctively Trinbagonian language to get the message across to as many people in the country as possible (though I’m not convinced about how helpful the actual advice is — I haven’t worked out how to avoid getting bitten in the 7+ years I’ve been living here). Whether it was successful is clearly debatable — though, from the amount of discussion it managed to generate, I suspect it has been more effective than many similar campaigns. Perhaps someone at the ministry knew about the power of grammar to generate debate.
The various adverse reactions, contending that much Trinbagonian speech is “not a language”, are certainly wrong. These grammar police seem to believe that the kind of language which is found, say, in soca songs, or on the streets on J’ouvert morning, is as wild and wassy as some of the wining and grinding which might accompany it, and that it is unconstrained by the kinds of grammatical rules to which more sober and upstanding languages like (standard) English are subject.
“We have one big bad stink truck on de road”
Even in this snippet, there is evidence of grammatical rules. Would the song have been such a big hit had Bunji switched the order of the adjectives around a bit? What if he had sung:
one stink bad big truck
Or how about:
one bad stink big truck
If “dialect” is so lawless and rule-free, surely getting on bad with a couple of adjectives shouldn’t be a problem. But, of course, neither of these sounds right, and it’s not just because of my terrible editing. The reason is grammar. Just like all languages, the language of soca is constrained by rules, in this case, rules about the order in which adjectives must appear before a noun.* These are not rules which are taught in school, or which prompt end-is-nigh blustering. In fact, most people are quite unaware of such rules until they are pointed out. It is this sort of grammatical rule that most linguists are primarily interested in. The pleasure of studying grammar comes not from lambasting people for errant apostrophes, though perhaps we would score a few more viral video sensations if, like Weird Al, we did that.**
The antipathy matters because providing crucial public health information in mother languages is a very good idea. This point has been made recently in Jamaica, where many have rightly pointed out that information about Ebola should be given not just in English, but in Jamaican too.***
Grammar matters and it’s everywhere, whether you’re in a classroom or on the road, and whatever the grammar police might have you believe.
* This Slate article gives a nice description of some of the findings of linguists who have looked at the rules governing the order of adjectives in English and other languages around the world.
** There are already many good take-downs of Weird Al’s Word Crimes: check out posts by John McWhorter, Stan Carey, all things linguistic, Language Log, and some excellent suggestions for teachers who could use the video to help students think critically about language and grammar.
*** Signed languages shouldn’t be left out either of course. For those interested, see this website which I worked on with T&T’s Deaf Empowerment and Advancement Foundation, providing accessible health information to the Deaf community.