One colonial remnant, one part of our inheritance of loss (apart from extractive institutions that have become the malaise of this republic) is the English language. It sticks like soot and dry ash in almost every mouth I know, including my own. There seems to be something so sacrosanct about the language in our collective conscious that the speakers are lauded with respect and admiration as soon as they produce the noises - the hisses and hums, squeaks and pops - from their mouths that we associate with English. If Sapir and Whorf are to be believed, and language does influence thought, then the effect of English is colonising. And the colonisers are able to command what linguists term ‘prescriptive grammar’: the rules dictating how people ought to speak.

I am certain you have met these individuals across your various adventures and soirees or maybe like me you’ve been held up in a corner an asked to defend your phonology: SHED-ual , ga-RAHJ, rama-DHAN. Or maybe you’ve been among those admonished and berated for writing the word cool on social networking sites thus: k3wl. Even stranger still, maybe you’ve laughed at an upload concerning a misspelled sentence turned it into a double entendre: “Fries, Burger, Cok.”

Those of us doing the lambasting are, of course, the same english-police that come up with prescriptive grammar rules such the wildly popular (and completely nonsensical) “Do Not Split the Infinitive”. For this dictatorship Captain Kirk made a horrible mistake by saying the mission of the enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before” what he should have said according to these dictators and editors was “to go boldly where no man has gone before”. This rule is a clumsy analogy to Latin in which you cannot split the infinitive since it is a single word as in the root verb facare meaning ‘to do’. Alexander of Macedon couldn’t have split an infinitive even if he tried. But in English this rule, littered across all style guides and manuals, is both useless and purposeless.

Another famous yet pointless rule is “Never use a double-negative” and ergo Mick Jagger should not have sung “I can’t get no satisfaction”, he really should’ve sung “I can’t get any satisfaction.” This ‘rule’ is not really a rule in any sense of the word but is merely historical accident transmuted into dogma. The dialect in the south of the England in the 17th century used ‘can’t any’ instead of the ‘can’t no’ used in the north. If the capital had been in the North ‘can’t no’ would’ve been in proliferation and standard use.

Language, generally speaking, is an admixture of four basic components: grammar or the assembly of word phrases and sentences, semantics or the content and meaning, phonology or the sound of the words and pragmatics or the context in which the language is used. And English language, like any other language, is an original wiki; a grassroots phenomenon which aggregates the contribution of hundreds of thousands who invent jargon, slang, idioms, metaphors - new ways of expressing their thoughts; using k3wl or Gr8 to express happiness or satisfaction or creating run-on sentences as I may have done considerably in this piece just to add some post-modernist flair to the editor’s chagrin.

If we do have such a thing as the ‘freedom of speech and expression’ why does it not extend to freely create language to best express the lighting in our minds? After all there is absolute consensus on one mystery of the brain; its (technically) infinite ability to generate sentences - think about it, using squeaks, hisses and pops we can write and talk about an array of different topics and relay information to each other. Some leading linguists at MIT have even presented a solid thesis concluding that humans are born with universal grammar (UG), that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the brain. There main evidence for this: a poverty of the stimulus (POS), the fact that natural language grammar is unlearnable given the relatively limited data available to children learning a language, and therefore that this knowledge is supplemented with some sort of innate linguistic capacity.

Prescriptive grammar and phonology therefore become another tool for dominance and control, a creating of artificial hierarchies where none organically exist; where status and civility are directly correlated with expertise over these rules and the “Received Pronunciation of Standard English” - spoken by less than one percent of the English speaking world. In truth, there is nothing special about a language that has been chosen as a standard for a given time or place. Language changes in its use from social setting, circumstance, people and surroundings it encounters. it forms its own sophisticated and complex rules within the culture and sub-culture it inhabits; rules fit for its own contextual use and its own pragmatics. One such complexity comes in the form of African-American English or Ebonics where you can say “he be working” which is not an error or a bastardisation of standard English, but in fact conveys a subtle distinction from “he working”. “He be working” means that he is employed; he has a job. “He working” means he happens to be working at the present moment. This is a tense difference which is made in African-American English but is not made in standard English.

It is therefore only the semantics and the pragmatics of language that should be considered and the language-games of the elite, all smoke and mirrors and no substance, should be ignored.

As my concluding statement about the uselessness of prescriptive rules I offer these two pieces: The first is the opening lines of from Jane Austen crown jewel Pride and Prejudice. The second are the closing lines of perhaps the most important novel of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

They read thus:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”


“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Both of these writers will lose points from English teachers and grammar-lords because both of them are grammatically incorrect. In fact, Joyce entire last chapter has absolutely no use of commas, apostrophes or periods.

Once we have read them can we understand what a travesty it would be to edit them? More importantly, can we understand why they still live on?