Freedom of speech has been in the news quite a bit lately. In the context of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in France, such freedom relates primarily to the content of the message. Freedom to say what you want to say—about religious figures, politicians, the State, demographic groups…

But does this sentiment also apply to How people speak? Which language they are using? How they use that language? If they choose to say “ain’t” or “y’all,” or varieties like “Konglish” (see previous post on The Konglish Accent Tag)?

Figuring this out is an important task for the Citizen Sociolinguist. So, to explore, I sourced my Twitter friends:

 Is “Freedom of Speech” only about WHAT we say? or does it include HOW we say it?

A super-smart, zesty response came back from @nelsonlflores:

 @brymes Language policing should be reframed as an assault on freedom of speech!

What does this mean? What are examples of Language Policing as an assault on Freedom of Speech?

Here are some types of open, unconstrained, language policing mentioned by twitter friends or in stories told to me over the years:

Policing Language Code, as in, “English Only”:

  • Saying “Speak English!” to someone speaking another language when, for example, riding on public transportation.
  • Calling out to school-children speaking Spanish in the halls between classes: “Hey—English here!”

 

Policing Language Expertise, as in, “That isn’t even English”- or – “That is not Standard English”:

  • Describing “double-negatives” as “illogical” and thus “ignorant.” (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)
  • “Correcting” grammar in a way that impedes communication: Useful example provided from @joannaluz:

@nelsonlflores @brymes unlikely source: an ep of Masters of Sex depicts housewife correcting nanny–“ask” vs “aks”–as deeply violating — later the nanny deliberately uses “aks” in moment of defiance

Policing Language Boundaries, implying, “That is not Appropriate,” often done by authority figures:

  • Ignoring requests from someone younger until they follow with “sir” or “ma’am”
  • Ignoring what someone says, appearing not to understand, repeatedly saying “what?” when they sound “non-native” or simply different

 

These examples are about immediate acts of face-to-face language policing—hurtful to an individual, but momentary. However, the consequences of these acts of language policing, gradually, may significantly chip away at Freedom of Speech.

What? How? How do perhaps repeated slaps on our communicative freedoms like “speak English!”, “That’s not proper!”, or even simply passively waiting for an address term like “sir” or “ma’am” affect more substantive issues of Freedom of Speech?

This is how: The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

When we are worried about how someone is mixing English and Korean and Spanish, or sounding “ignorant” or “uneducated” or “disrespectful” in their diction, we might be missing out on what these people—who speak in a different way—have to say. I suspect we may also be missing out on an unfamiliar point of view.

The how and the what of Freedom of Speech are inseparable.

What do you think counts as Freedom of Speech? Is this freedom only about content? Is it also about how we say things? Have you experienced Language Policing that threatened your own freedom of speech? Leave your comments here!

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