Friday, 30 May 2008

prescriptivist pop

Marina of Hot for Words (who I've mentioned before) stars in a music video by JamesatWar parodying the "bad grammar" in pop songs.

I'm trying to see the funny side of this, but I can't. This is just plain snobbery aimed at people who don't use the same language JamesatWar does. It borders on offensive since a lot of the language in pop music, the sort of language that the song is parodying, is African American Vernacular English. The native language of a large number of Americans, which is slightly different from your own - that's "bad grammar." Being creative with words in a song to create interest and rhymes - that's "bad grammar."

I could get all literal and comment on some of the inaccuracies (in' for ing isn't as simple as leaving the last letter off words) or silliness (no idea what a singular verb is?) or offensiveness (never changed ma verbal habits since I was three) but I've had enough. I'll just leave you with a selection of the lyrics.

take the last letter off the end of words
now you're talkin' wit' some bad grammar
I ain't pullin' tricks with my linguistics
I'm jus' talkin'
I don't use no syntax
I ain't got no idea what a singular verb is
I'm worser at superlatives
and I don't ever use no double negatives
baby it's alright now don't be skurred
it's all the latest craze to mispronounce some words
like instead of "that right there"
we would say "that right thurr"
and we won't even spell it right

baby girl
when I took my english class you know I barely passed
listen baby girl
got no proper verbal skills
but I be wearin' grillz
listen baby girl
I ain't gotta talk the talk
to make ma record pop
so that's why baby girl
when I'm talkin' it seems impaired
yo ma gramma ain' no prodigy
my strongest suit isn't morphology
it's hard for people to be understanding me
never changed ma verbal habits since I was three
so listen baby girl
before you make another sound
make sure you're on par
cuz listen baby girl
we talkin' with some bad gramma'


WordzGuy said...

re: "g-dropping" ... an unfortunate name, since what's being dropped is, uh, nothing; a velar n is being replaced by a (more-or-less) dental n. Couple things about this:

It's an interesting example of lexical diffusion; virtually everyone says some some words this way. As one of my profs put it, we all say readin' and writin', but some of us don't yet say pronouncin'.

Some dialects do add a final -g to words under certain (probably intervocalic?) contexts. In the US, this is often parodied by talking about Long Island, with the -g pronounced. This pronounced -g is s still reasonably common in UK dialects in the north--if you've ever heard an interview with Paul McCartney, for example, you'll hear him distinctly pronounce -g's in the middle of words like singing. I worked with a woman who was from the north in the UK, and she had the fascinating habit of not only pronouncing a velar consonant at the end of words, but of devoicing it, all German-style: sumfink for something. (She exhibited some other very cool dialectical phonology, as you can see.)

Not that this is entirely relevant to your post. :-)

HotForWords said...

Goofy.. I understand that you felt offended by the video.. but there is such a thing as bad grammar. Grammar has certain rules so that there is not any misunderstanding between people communicating.

I DO agree that language does change over time... as I see the definitions of words change over time through misuse.. and you could argue that grammar should be allowed to change as well.

So it's definitely an interesting topic worth discussing.

The lyric, "The way I are" is an example of bad grammar.. and the song was meant to be a fun song, not poking fun at anybody.


goofy said...

Thanks for your comment.

I disagree that prescriptive grammar is necessary for understanding. Prescriptive grammar is not about clarity, it's about social norms. Prescriptive grammar in English arose in the 18th century because it was decided that English was corrupt and needed to be fixed. In addition, the middle class wanted guidance in how to speak "correctly". I recommend Ronald Wardhaugh's book "Proper English" for a good overview of the rise of prescriptive grammar.

Calling something "bad grammar" is not (usually) a complaint that something is unclear - there is nothing unclear about double negatives, for instance. Calling something "bad grammar" is social differentiation: you don't speak like me, so you're not part of my group.

HotForWords said...

Don't you think there have to be SOME rules in language? Otherwise you're almost creating a new language.. and then does that new language follow rules then as well?

goofy said...

Yes, all languages have rules. One of the aims of linguistics is to discover what the rules are - by examining the evidence, not by making assumptions about what the language should be.

The rules of "proper grammar" are a small subset of the rules of a language - just that part that we have some control over and can try and change.

stokesjrj1 said...

I agree with Marina, How words are used\misused can have a profound impact and consequences in a persons life.

goofy said...

"How words are used\misused can have a profound impact and consequences in a persons life."

That can certainly be true, but it's not what the Bad Grammar video is about. The Bad Grammar video is about making fun of some singers because the language they use in songs is not the language that other people like.

Playing with language is what poets and songwriters do. I don't see how this can possibly be bad. Is "The Way I Are" going to make kids not understand what a singular verb is? The notion is ridiculous.

alexander said...

I totally agree with goofy.

the whole grammar thing has been discussed in great length in several threads over at marinas website.

I think the crux in these discussions is that neither one of the parties participating in the discussions starts off by (roughly) explaining what they mean by "grammar".
to linguists, grammar is completely descriptive, hence there simply is, and can't be, "bad" or even "wrong" grammar.
I reject the view that grammars are, or should be, prescriptive. those are textbook grammars which linguists have no interest in, this is not what linguists refer to when they're talking about grammar.


einzelsprachlich said...

How anyone with a love of language could deplore the "bad grammar" of rap lyrics is beyond me.

Really, imagine the harvest of delights future philologists will reap from dialectal variation in Anglophone hip-hop alone. Imagine the monographs (I'm thinking "The East Coast Particles")!

No doubt it'll fascinate them the way Archaic Greek lyric does us today. (One word for anyone who doubts the comparison: Archilochus.)

annuddermale said...

language is alive and changes daily ...cultural experiences, media, economics, education, etc. all influence language..."google" wasn't recognized as a verb until 2006.

yet there have to be some basic rules for communication, and there IS bad grammar...over time i suppose bad grammar may become accepted enough to be considered the norm...that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, simply that enough people have come to use it that it is considered acceptable, such as the word, "ain't"...

if for example, as i've often seen, you say "excepted" instead of the correct "accepted," you may be able to communicate, but that doesn't mean you are right...

but you are exceptional...

Long live Language!

Anonymous said...

yo goofy, your right. if one is discussing language from the position of linguistics, anthropology or any social science field a judgment of "good or bad" cannot be applied to languages. one has to acknowledge that the language that an academic is expected to use and be evaluated by is not the codex that all languages be compared to. as an anthropologist i would never think of going to a cultural performance and arrogantly correcting someone's manner of dress or behavior. that is what speech is, cultural performance. for me as an anthropologist it is an issue of cultural relativism. the english language cannot be placed into a hierarchy with the queen's english dominating from on high, fucking colonialist attitudes. what is being discussed is the validity of two different cultural performances. both should be respected.


michel said...

Grammar = from french grammaire science of the use of language from latin gramma letter of the alphabet and from greek gramma same meaning.
Bad = supposedly celtic related to cornish bad: foolish, stupid, insane; and to armoric bad: stupidity. The earliest sense of bad in english is related to evil and wicked.
"The way I are" is bad grammar in the sense that the words in its lyrics are stupid. Ant they?
And even if language is alive and even if poetry is necessary to life, there is no life nor poetry in the lyrics of "the way I are": "baby if you strip you can get a TIP". Just bad grammar = stupid words....nothing to do with "prescripive grammar".
On another side Marina's spoof is funny. Funny from fun as in "make fun of". Fun is or celtic or scandinavian two senses: or oddity, frolic or pleasure, delight, desire. Marina is funny: unescpected and delightfull.
Timbaland's lyrics are bad grammar.

zmjezhd said...

All languages (and dialects) have grammatical rules. AAVE has rules, but they are different from Standard US English. Geoff Pulllum was interviewed on the radio shortly after the whole Ebonics controversy erupted (transcript). One interesting grammatical feature of AAVE is how aspect is marked in the verbal system (e.g., the difference between the simple progressive he trippin' and the habitual he be trippin'. More often than not, non-native speakers mistake differences in grammar as lack of grammar. Anybody who has ever tried to imitate a different dialect successfully knows this from experience. Try speaking AAVE to a native speaker on the phone and see how long it takes to trip up and make a mistake (grammatical, phonological, etc.) revealing yourself to not be a native speaker.

komfo,amonan said...

To: J@W et al.
From: The African-American Community
Re: Bad Grammar

that's why we've been having so much trouble selling records. We'll try doing it your way from now on. Thanks.< /snark>

That was painful to watch. I couldn't get through it. "Take the last letter off the end of words"? From where else does one remove the last letter?

Once we establish that Nelly's pronunciation of there is wrong, how do we figure out whose is right? Oh wait-- nevermind, I've got it now.

Oh, and good to know that pronunciation differences are now a part of 'grammar'. Their ideas intrigue me and I'd like to subscribe to their newsletter. Sigh.

michel said...

Dear Komfo,
"Take the last letter off the end of words"?
Well sometimes words don't have an end. Let's see for exemple the word "a". You can't take off the end of the word a, can you? So in fact the phrase you cite is not incorrect, nor a pleonasm, you take the last word off the end or when there is a end....
Now about grammar, of course phonetic and phonology are part of grammar.
Now I'm not sure you realy think that because a minority can develop a specific culture, and because a poet can use his "licence poetique" this has something to do with "The way I are".
I'm sure Timbaland himself does not think his lyrics where ment to be a piece of "ebonics" literature. By the way, what is he saying: "I ain't got no money..." Is he serious? You really think this is a serious piece of poesy? Thius lyrics are easy, catchy fun. It's ment to be sung and danced. It's a masterpiece of course but not a grammar masterpiece. And in fact saying it's bad grammar could be considered as a compliment!

bulbul said...

How anyone with a love of language could deplore the "bad grammar" of rap lyrics is beyond me.
Can I get an 'amen'? Can I get a 'hallelujah'?

but there is such a thing as bad grammar
No, there is not. But there is such thing as dialects. Once in a while one of them is elevated to a position of prestige and that's more or less OK. What's not OK, however, is to insist that this prestigious variety is the only correct one and all others are mere corruptions of that only proper good and holy language.

and you could argue that grammar should be allowed to change as well.
What's that? Oh no, it's the ghost of Alfred the Great! And boy, is he pissed at what we've done to this wonderful language with our progressive tenses and great vowel shift...

goofy said...

michel: "The way I are" is bad grammar in the sense that the words in its lyrics are stupid.

No, "bad" does not mean "stupid". "bad grammar" means "incorrect or faulty grammar". All the features mentioned in the Bad Grammar song are features of nonstandard English dialects (or simply features of conversational English).

"I are" is perhaps referenced in the Bad Grammar song with the line "I ain't got no idea what a singular verb is". So using "I are" instead of "I am" in a song to create a rhyme and also to create a striking phrase that listeners will remember means I have no idea what a singular verb is? You can't even say "I ain't got no idea what a singular verb is" without knowing how to use singular verbs.

michel said...

I was going back to the etymology of "bad" and noticing it could be more than "wrong". Bad grammar could be or wrong, or evil, or foolish. If you break a grammatical rule you can be wrong (regarding a certain set of rules, and maybe right regarding another set of rules). You can also be "evil" in the sense of moraly responsable of going against rules established by the society (regarding the set of rules on you imposed). Being evil can be justified. Ethicaly because a higer necessity impose you an obligation of desobedience, or because what you are describing now on your last post: creation what I called "licence poetique". When thug in Paris broke the rules of french speaking "verlan" (reversing the words)they stated oposition against a society and fraternity among other members of their community. Note that "bad" has being reivindicated as a quality by many musicians who tried to both desobey and create. Then you can be "foolish" you don't know the rules, you don't know you are breaking them you are not "moraly" or "ethically" responsible of being "wrong".
In my mind Timbaland is not aware he broke any rule, nevertheless he is "bad".

The main question is: if you had to teach children what lyrics will you use? Some "wrong" lyrics can be "right" according to another set of rules can be nice using them adding diversity. Some "wrong" lyrics are just "wrong" can be used as an example of what has to be avoided. Some lyrics are "evil" and can be used as models of what is eloquence. Then some lyrics are "foolish" and have little use (for teaching). The points you made in your last post are interesting maybe "The way I are" has some eloquence.

goofy said...

michel: I think Timbaland was aware of what he was doing when he called his song "The Way I Are". I don't see how he couldn't be aware that "The Way I Are" breaks a rule.

Etymologically, "bad" might come from a word meaning "stupid" - I don't know. But that's irrelevant to the current meaning of the word.

michel: "The main question is: if you had to teach children what lyrics will you use?"

I don't think so. This has nothing to do with teaching children. I think the main question is: What's wrong with playing with language in a song?

sosaut said...

I used a hockey analogy over at HFW website, which may or may not be helpful, was mentioned: "Prescriptive grammar in English arose in the 18th century because it was decided that English was corrupt and needed to be fixed." Gary Betman & the NHL Hockey bosses decided to fix the game of hockey at the NHL level. So they standarized some rules to try & make hockey more palatable to the American market,(jury is still out on that) but Hockey still looks like Hockey because of the structure of the game, not the rules. I grew up playing street hockey without referees to enforce rules & it worked. Played for hours. Floor hockey now (no refs.) & we don't sit around discussing rules before the game. It's competetive & a lot of fun, but wouldn't be witout respect for the structure of the game. When the importance of the result increases ie. leaque points or international tournaments, the need for officiating on an agreed set of rules gives the referees the right to call an infraction, handing out an appropriate penalty, but it would wreck the game if every, or even most infractions were called. The unforgivable ones such as "offside" are not penalized harshly but are called every time. It is agreed upon to stop... & resume play, offside looks different in different leagues & in some, doesn't even exist, but the game is still recognizable as Hockey & is even played in the desert by our troops. How can you tell I'm Canadian (hockey to most of us defines life) The argument of Good & Bad grammar can be like arguing over good & bad hockey, at least for me, a good game isn't based on whether the rules were followed, but with how much heart (Spirit) it's played.
If these discussions don't scare a few people off from learning to use english better, may as well take up hockey & practice that, as none of us will be perfect at it either anyways.


sorry, I like your premise...but In Hockey, The idea of the game is known. ie score. But if you are trying to get your Idea across to someone else, they need to know your rules of conversation ie Grammar.
Without some kind of rule/grammar there is no way to know what is meant. [?]

sosaut said...

Hockey ...score.
Succesful communication is like scoring.
Depends on the point of the communication as well. ie could be a two way conversation... or a one way, ie. I talk (sing) you listen.
Argument, debate, description, warning etc. are different styles of communication (expression) using language structure. Failure to communicate can be anywhere from disasterous to funny, but as aLx says the structure (grammar), it's in your head. It is put together there. Strategies to get it out are only succesful through practice & coaching. What helps you put your thoughts together & express them...?
Rules, if strictly adhered to, limit poetic expression & in the case of music, limit rhyme & rythm.
It's not just recently that lyrics have had so called bad grammar.
In the desert you can remember your name, cause there aint no one for to give you no pain very popular song by "America". That line has bugged me for years, but I'll sing it when it's on the radio.
If I'm preparing a legal argument (and nobody should trust me to do that) I'll have to stick strictly to the proper grammar recognized by the court (to score).
I'm not one for situational ethics but the more versed in language one is, the more able one is to communicate in different situations or cicumstances, context is key to recieving or giving in good conversation.
For me, a Canadian, Hockey can be played in almost any situation or with any number of people, heck I've played hockey on desk with pens as sticks & a bottle cap as a puck, no discussion of rules & if the opposition were a french canadian with no english skills, we could have a lively game with not a word said & no arguments.
I guess you could say inherantly I have a knowledge of the rules but the rules adapt to the game, not the game adapt to the rules.
I think the different forms of grammar are that, different & not deficient. Should we look down on someone for not conforming to our Idea of what good grammar is... no, can we coach them to communicate more effectively... yes.

bulbul said...

Succesful communication is like scoring.
How, exactly? And, more to the point, who's the ref? Or is there none and I get to chose which goals count and which don't?

Strategies to get it out are only succesful through practice & coaching. What helps you put your thoughts together & express them...? Rules, if strictly adhered to...
But this is not about what is normally understood as grammar (morphology, syntax and now even phonetics and phonology). This is about pragmatics and that's a whole different game which has nothing to do with 'bad grammar'.

If I'm preparing a legal argument ... I'll have to stick strictly to the proper grammar recognized by the court
I suspect we have here another example of how the word 'grammar' is misunderstood. Also, courts are in business of settling disputes and interpreting the Law. While both of these tasks often involved discussing the fine points of language, cours do not care about
'proper grammar'. In fact, when dealing with a jury, you'd often find that using 'bad grammar' (a.k.a. a different dialect) can be to your advantage and help you connect with them.

sosaut said...

communication: scoring just denotes success. Winnng, losing not the point. Refs. would be ones who'd only be neccesary to judge textbook grammar, hey, I know analogies break down if you dig too deep, but they help me. Who's to say how many points a goal is worth, & does it matter who wins, but attitude, how you play the game is what's important.
What some have said here is that looking at different as deficient is wrong. That being said, I take way too long to write out this stuff because in my left brain thinking, I'm trying to be logical & thinking too much about the "rules" I had learned as a kid. If I'd been educated in, or naturally used my right brain creative side & developed that, this would be easier & less boring.
I'm not saying rules are bad, but the rules don't make you bad if you break them although if you break them too bad, thats bad. Penalty is total misunderstanding.
I grew up as a kid with some teachers that thought that anything less than "King James" english was not acseptable english. "KJ" had the Bible translators bring the language of scripture to the common people. Thou couldest not educate the peoples today in "proper" english from the "KJ" version, which was a "lower" form of english, the language of the commoners in "KJs'" day.
As Marina says, Jamesatwars' song is meant to be a fun song, written & performed in the spirit of a Wierd Al parody, who while making fun of, pays hommage to the victim "so called" of the verbal jabs. I understand that Wierd Als' song "Smells like Nirvana" caused a spike in Nirvanas record sales.
Thanks for reading & responding, sorry to take up so much space. cheers:-}