Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics

For someone so progressive, Sam Smith is shamefully conservative with language.

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In researching a book on English usage (called Junk English; review coming soon), I came across an article from 2007 by Sam Smith, the journalist, essayist and co-founder of Green Party. Smith’s article is a lesson in how to NOT write about language, as he gets a number of things wrong. One day I’ll write a general post about these kinds of articles, but for now, let’s go through Smith’s post and see where the train goes off the tracks.

The article starts with this:

Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”

Ugh. Like, gag me with a spoon. This kind of comment is a red flag inside a bell inside a whistle telling me that what is about to come is going to be a bunch of pretentious crap about the good ol’ days when people knew how to use The Language (a time which was probably also when Sam Smith was in his thirties; when he was looking forward to his life, not back on it)

A little bit later we get:

I was confronting growing evidence that while what one wrote might be of interest because of its content, how one wrote it was becoming less important. Indeed, in some environments – including government, business and non-profit organizations – writing well seemed increasingly a handicap. A comforting cliche was worth far more than a novel metaphor.

Lost in this shift was consciousness of the relationship between words and thought, words and judgment, words and meaning, words and understanding. But none of this appeared to matter because there were fewer who considered such a relationship necessary or even desirable.

What is the “relationship between words and thought, words and judgment, words and meaning, words and understanding”? Sam Smith won’t tell us because he doesn’t know. I bet he thinks he knows, but it’s probably just the same tired old argument: “without good language, we can’t have good thoughts… hurr durr using good language = having good thinking”. (Spoiler alert: it is exactly that argument)

In the very next paragraph we get a nice dig at the people who Sam Smith looks down on. “To be sure, the collapse of language had been going on for some time and not merely owing to the slovenly, uneducated or weak minded.” These slovenly, uneducated weak minds are to blame for the collapse of language… but they’re not entirely to blame. Well, Smith clearly used his good language to solve this problem then, didn’t he? Give me a break. If language was collapsing, Sam Smith wouldn’t have had a job in journalism that spanned 50 fucking years. Remember the slovenly, uneducated and/or weak minded are not sitting at the controls of publishing industries and newspapers. People like Sam Smith are. Pedant, judge tyself.

Smith spends the next few paragraphs quoting from: 1) a book from the 1920s and 2) criticism of the book from around the same time. All of this leads up to Smith’s moaning about how the language of today is not the same as the language of 1920. In case you were wondering, Smith thinks the 1920s language is better (ok, I was wrong! Sam Smith wasn’t in his thirties in 1920. I did not expect him to go that far back.). The book is about a predominately African American section of Washington D.C. which was doing much better socio-economically in the 1920s than it is today. To reinforce the hard times that have fallen, Smith compares the language from the 1920s book with rap lyrics from P. Diddy and 50 Cent. I’ll say that again. Sam Smith thinks that the collapse of language can be seen in the comparison of standard English from the 1920s to rap lyrics from the early 2000s.

Why? Why does Smith think that P Diddy and 50 Cent represent “the more popular black literature of today”? This is a completely unfair comparison for a few reasons.

First, you can’t just compare language from two totally different time periods and genres. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. A book from the 1920s about a section of Washington D.C. should not be compared to song lyrics from the 2000s which are not even about Washington D.C. The two things are written for completely different reasons. They are doing different things for different people. Hell, it’s not like comparing apples to oranges. It’s like comparing apples the fruit to Apples the computers.

Why wouldn’t Smith compare the 1920s book to a modern book by a black author, such as Cornel West or Toni Morrison or N. K. Jemisin? Oh right, because then it would blow his crappy argument out of the water. Moving on.

Next in line to support the idea that the language has collapsed are a few anecdotes. And not even Smith’s own, but ones he quotes from someone else. Then he really digs in his heels:

Just as hip hop and rap barely use the available and nearly infinite musical spectrum, so they reduce the vast plains of language and the joys and pain of experience to what amounts to an elementary school level linguistic ghetto with a few slurs and obscenities thrown in for flavor.

Isn’t it great when someone shows how out of their league they are? When they prove that they don’t understand the exact thing that they’re talking about? Smith pulls in blues lyrics to support his cause but he was done before he got started. I’m not going to go one on one with Smith over the literary worthiness of rap lyrics. The whole thing is stupid from the start. (I will, however, point you to two freestyles by Black Thought: One Two.)

Smith comes close to what really might be different between 1920s D.C. and 2000s D.C., but it doesn’t have anything to do with language, so he skips away to the language of white people in D.C., which apparently is also in dire straits (Side note: why doesn’t he compare the language of white people in 1920s Washington D.C. to lyrics from Dire Straits? Because the people in Dire Straits are white. That’s how this language discrimination game works.).

Smith throws out some stats about how people are reading less literature than they did in the early 1990s and 1980s. This is supposed to support the argument that “America is losing its literacy” but it fails to take into account many factors. First, “literacy” means “novels, short stories, poetry and plays”. So what if people are reading slightly less of those? If people in the 1980s and 90s wanted to read, those were pretty much their only options, besides non-fiction works such as newspapers. Today people have many more things they can (and sometimes must) read, such as blogs, social media, online newspapers, email and texts. Your average person today might not be less literate than a person from 1990, but more literate, or rather hyper-literate since they are able to operate in so many different written forms, each of which require a different style of writing. Also, people today might have less time and energy to read literature when they have to work more demanding jobs for less money and benefits. Reading novels and plays is hard. It requires focus and exertion. With the state of society today, do you really blame anyone for wanting to sit down at night and veg out in front of an episode of CSI? Finally, how long is the average novel today compared to the 1980s and 1990s? It might just be me, but they seem to be getting longer and longer. That doesn’t mean they are worse, it just means that it takes longer to read them so you can’t read as many in one year.

From here Smith goes on to claim – without evidence – that people are being taught to use a “declining number of words” for their success in the workplace. I’m not entirely sure what he means by this – whether it’s a smaller vocabulary, fewer words overall (or shorter texts), or both. He doesn’t explain what he means either. He just says that there is an intent to “reduce reality to as few [words] as possible”.

But this is where the argument enters the Twilight Zone. Smith says that we don’t give enough credit to words (whatever that means) and that “Too many believe that we can use unreal language and still have real results” (whatever the hell that means). It’s something to do with politicians and power brokers leading us into the Iraq War and the environmental crisis through verbal parodies of reality… or something.

It’s pretty clear that Smith has fallen into the language discrimination trap. It goes like this: “I don’t agree with person/group X. They don’t speak or write like me. I speak and write correctly because I really care about language and I know what language is Good Language. But I may be alone. There seems to be more of them than me. Does anyone care about language as much as I do? Explaining the problems with person/group X would be complex. But cutting them out because of the language they use is easy. I don’t even need to be correct or cite evidence – I can just cherry pick anecdotes! Therefore, their language is the cause of this problem. If people would just write and speak like me, the world would be a better place. Also, I’m old now and starting to realize that the world will move on without me and this is keeping me awake at night.”

I’ll leave it at that. I don’t know why language is so troubling for people to wrap their heads around. But Smith’s article shows that even progressive people can hold discriminatory (and baseless) ideas about the ways other people speak and write.

Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

3 thoughts on “Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics”

  1. I agree with you 100%. What is it about linguistics? Why is it always the poor relation? If people like this were making basic mistakes about maths, or history, or physics, they would be treated as idiots.

    1. I’ve thought about the same question and I think comes from two places. 1) Language is a very personal part of who we are and people (for some reason) feel the need to want to make other people act like them – meaning they want other people to speak and write like them. 2) People learn the rules of Standard English (because no one grows up speaking that variety), but they make the mistake of thinking that those rules should govern every other variety of language. Or they just over apply the rules without thinking about it. I mean, part of this second one is also a superiority thing – “I learned the rules. The rules are good. Everyone else should follow the rules I learned.” But you’re right – we don’t see people making fundamental mistakes with other subjects. Then again, people have been (at least passively) studying language since the moment they were born, and language permeates everything we talk and write about (wow, that sounded better in my mind – just looks like the most painfully obvious idea ever when it’s written out). So if there’s something you don’t like about a song or book or group of people, one of the lowest hanging fruits is often how the language of that thing you don’t like differs from your language. But that not a bad thing! Having different varieties of language is what makes the whole system great. Different strokes for different folks.

      1. I agree entirely. I don’t even object to teachers telling people not to write ain’t or end a sentence with a preposition, as long as they tell them that people will discriminate against them if they do, not because these are somehow markers of a speaker’s stupidity.

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