I connected most with Elbow’s piece. Scintillating at the edges were a number of notions that I thought would be interesting to unpack, especially among our mixed crowd of composition and creative writing teachers. Firstly, I like his assertion that “Standard Written English is no one’s mother tongue” (emphasis in original). This may seem like a very basic tenet of writing pedagogy, but it struck me for its Saussurean implications. Essentially he is differentiating langue and parole, right? It’s kind of funny thinking of SWE as a signifying system that no one adopts naturally, yet to which we are beholden – or, perhaps to Elbow’s chagrin, chained, by the “deep links between language, thinking, culture, and identity.”
“People can’t learn to write well unless they write a great deal,” notes Elbow. “And with some pleasure.” I agree. The pleasure or satisfaction of articulating oneself is crucial to the development of one’s writing. I remember going through the obligatory writing curriculum (freshman year course, junior year course) in my undergraduate institution with one dominant feeling: apathy. I wrote with middling proficiency, technically clean, but careless and meandering in my organization and rhetoric. I don’t think these courses changed much of my behaviors or attitudes. Only by writing (and reading!) a great deal more over the years, for leisure and otherwise, did the boundaries and conventions of SWE take shape before me. One has to derive some small amount of pleasure from the act. How can we nurture or kindle such a feeling, when by nature it needs to sprout on its own, unforced?
Elbow’s anecdote about his mother’s hope that he would absorb an English accent is laughable – and all too relevant amid the other issues he evokes. We seem to have internalized a hierarchization of mother tongues in the English language. The refined intellectual voice in our collective imaginary tends to speak the Queen’s English, instead of Standard American, much less a Southern drawl or a nonmainstream dialect with ethnic associations. This seems quirky at first, then chilling. Elbow feels indignation over his perceived “acquiescence” to SWE when copy-editing. For native speakers of nonmainstream English, the stigmatization is doubled and pulls in two different directions. One must acquiesce to access “the written language of power and prestige,” even if this power structure derives from and persists because of historical and systemic oppression (“a culture that has been trying to wipe out my culture and . . . my core self”). On the other hand, one can never be fully subsumed by the privilege of prestige English or SWE, by default. A conundrum.
At least Elbow believes that nonmainstream dialects have parity – or “this is something that most linguists agree on.” But what about everyone else? There are writers out there who champion so-called stigmatized dialects. I’m thinking of Junot Díaz, jazz poetry, etc. But no amount of creative work could fully subvert this centripetal force of SWE, right? And as much as Elbow wants to promote dialect equality and harness the energy of the unconscious, I was underwhelmed by his proposed copy-editing techniques. Was it just me?