Letters to the Editor

The English language in peril?

Readers sound off—in impeccable English—about our article on grammatical diversity.

Now I’ve heard enough to completely disregard solicitations from our class fund-raising solicitors. I have heard repeated comments that the faculty had turned far left in the years since I left Yale, but the poppycock in the lead story in your July/August issue (“Why ‘Bad’ English Isn’t”) is either tongue-in-cheek or outrageous, and I’m afraid I believe the latter!

To pretend that all English is equivalent is asinine! There are syntax and grammar rules so that people can communicate clearly and effectively. The fact that some people don’t follow the rules of proper English does not validate their misuse of the language. Rather it indicates that they are uneducated. The justification of regional differences may indicate colorful interest, but it doesn’t make it good English. It’s like saying that any interpretation of history is correct. Facts are facts and words have meaning! The attempt at equivalency appears to be the new chic on campus, but it doesn’t make it correct or add to understanding. Rather it tends to push a political agenda unrelated to the subject matter. It belongs in the Land of Oz, not in a serious academic environment.

Hank Conlan ’57
Carmel, CA

For the benefit of those reading these letters who did not read the original article, we should note that rumors of the death of standard English at Yale are greatly exaggerated. The Grammatical Diversity Project is only one research project at the university. Further, the goal of the linguists behind the project is simply to document variations in spoken and written English and to demonstrate that these variations have their own grammatical logic and structure; they also remind us that languages that have become standard were once, too, just dialects. Perhaps our headline (“Why ‘Bad’ English Isn’t”) was more provocative than the research itself.—Eds.

As a writer and a New Yorker, the fun and flavor of not-strictly-grammatical idiomatic expressions has long been a part of my writing and my life, from “you ain’t got nothin!” to, of course, “fuggedaboutit.”

But I think we need to draw the line at labeling any kind of corruption (in both the neutral and not-so-neutral sense of the word) of spelling or grammar “dialect” and equivalent to “language.” At a time when one of the rare economic advantages American students have in the global marketplace is better use of standard English, do we really want to subject our language itself, and especially the way it’s taught, to politically correct, relativistic fragmentation and deterioration?

As native English speakers (and Yale graduates), I think our task is to defend the fundamental language and let its offshoots, as they inevitably will, take care of themselves.

Michael Eric Stein ’75
New York, NY

As a former foreign-language teacher (Russian), I was fascinated by comments on localisms in our daily speech. A native Bostonian, I soon developed a flat standard accent and vocabulary during my varied travels, both here and abroad. Upon returning home, I’ve been able to transition effortlessly back to “tonic” (soda), or “elastic” (rubber band), etc. I likewise morphed back into my Boston accent whenever talking with unilingual natives.

However, imagine my surprise when, as I was returning to Boston on a flight from the South, a fellow passenger remarked that I was slipping gradually into my enunciation of birth as we neared our destination! How’s that for linguistic osmosis?

Edward L. McGowan ’56
Roslindale, MA

You’re going to make the door open to “bad” English? Fine by me.

L. J. Horwitz ’73
Cleveland Heights, OH

I was disappointed but not surprised to see that Yale, in its inevitable quest for diversity, inclusiveness, and political correctness, has decided to throw the English language under the bus. The university is funding a task force whose mission would appear to be the dumbing down of the language into some kind of lingua franca that lets everybody have their own grammar and lexicon. The Tower of Babel redux.

When I attended Yale back in the Stone Age there was a second language requirement for all students. I don’t know if the requirement still exists, but if it does I suppose demonstrating proficiency in Appalachian hillbilly, New Orleans Yat, or Gullah can now satisfy it. These dialects have many lyrical and culture-laden values that are meaningful and important in their natural environments, but are not particularly useful beyond them. They certainly cannot communicate with each other using them. This is presumably the reason why the head of the Yale team concedes that everyone probably ought to have at least a rudimentary command of “elite” English as well. It is useful if they want to get a job, apply to a decent school, or talk to someone not from their home holler.

Some estimates suggest that nearly 300 million Chinese either speak English or are studying it. You can bet they are not learning a Chinese Pidgin English dialect from eighteenth-century Canton.

Stephan F. Newhouse ’69
Vero Beach, FL

Local color is wonderful, and as Mark Twain demonstrated, helps to create literary characters. I used to supervise a carpenter from Missouri who always told me, “It might could rain today.” It was perfectly clear what he meant. But I was puzzled on a visit to Boston when a coffee shop employee asked me, “Do you want regla?” She finally explained, scorning my blank-faced ignorance, that “regla” meant coffee with cream.

I enjoyed your story and its many examples of regional dialect, but when I see general illiteracy on college campuses, I despair for the future of our language. It is possibly the most colorful and expressive language in the world today, but let’s teach our students the difference between “color” and “accuracy of meaning.” Let’s hope a nuclear scientist doesn’t get us all blown up some day by making a simple grammatical mistake. I remember a cartoon of a soldier dragging in a dead horse by the tail and his officer shouting at him, “I ordered him SHOD, not SHOT.”

Allen Jamieson ’48
Sacramento, CA

I read with interest your article “Why ‘Bad’ English Isn’t.” As a self-published author of scholarly literature, the expression that most spoke to me was: “Ain’t very many people read your book.”

William McGaughey ’64
Minneapolis, MN

In olden days atrocious grammar

Was spoken with guilty stammer,

Now speaking prose,

Anything goes.

(after Cole Porter)

Such a relief! Since what used to be called “good English” now amounts only to grammatical prejudice, we can dispense with teaching English at all levels. This will save billions when we sorely need it.

Tom Kirshbaum ’63
Flagstaff, AZ

In a lifetime of interacting with people from every corner of the country, I cannot recall hearing any of the examples in the article, except for the use of “so” for emphasis. Dialects such as these may have sociological or even linguistic value as cultural identifiers, but I would posit the following: the primary role of language is communication. If I cannot understand the message in a statement with triple or quadruple negatives, or with multiple contradictory verbs, then that language has failed. So at the risk of being labeled a grammar discriminator, I encourage the (hopefully continuing) teaching and adoption of a standardized English with a high degree of clarity and grammatical consistency.

Ira Weinryb ’67PhD
Gwynedd Valley, PA

Hockey is hard work

Those who criticize Yale’s recruitment of junior-league hockey players (Letters, July/August) might be a little less stressed if they were better informed. A teenager who can endure a 72-game regular season, innumerable hours of practice, and grueling bus trips; live with a host family in a strange city for five months of the year; have the discipline to study independently to compensate for irregular school attendance; resist the temptation to turn pro for big money so that he can go to college; and meet the Yale admission requirements is a real asset to the university.

Joseph S. Sample ’45
Billings, MT

Conflating Yale and Yale-NUS?

I am a Singaporean graduate of Yale College who is currently based in Singapore. I am writing in to make three key points about Yale-NUS College (“Q&A: Rick Levin,” May/June).

First, Yale has done a poor job of communicating with the media and other parties about the exact relationship between itself and Yale-NUS, resulting in media groups not reporting on Yale-NUS accurately. I have read several misleading articles about Yale-NUS.

Second, a number of alumni and current Yale students I have spoken to who are from Singapore believe that the Yale-NUS endeavor is reducing the attractiveness of Yale among top high school students in Singapore. Why choose Yale when the average person in Singapore believes that Yale-NUS is offering a Yale degree? While you may know better, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford begin to look more attractive to potential students who would otherwise have to spend energy and time explaining to just about everyone, including people from other Ivy League schools and even to some uninformed Yale alumni, that Yale-NUS is not synonymous with Yale.

Finally, I understand that graduates of Yale-NUS will be allowed to become international affiliates of the Association of Yale Alumni, the same status given to Yale World Fellows. Even if the students from Yale-NUS turn out to be of Ivy League quality, that is not the point. Gaining entry into AYA upon attainment of a bachelor’s degree should rightfully only be reserved for Yale College students.

Sarah Ong ’11

Boom years

Nice presentation of data [about the number of degrees awarded by each Yale president] in your July/August issue (“Degrees of Influence”). But why do you say “explosive growth” in recent decades?

The six presidents in the last 50 years, beginning with Brewster and ending with Levin, averaged 2,754, 2,464, 2,654, 2,820, 2,827, and 3,035 degrees per year.

Earl Peters ’52
Ithaca, NY

Not to get too lawyerly, but it all depends on what “recent” and “explosive” mean. In 1933, Yale conferred 1,182 degrees. This year it conferred 3,355, nearly three times as many.—Eds.

Our daily bread

As someone who has never met a baked good she didn’t like, I loved the article on Yale’s bakeries (“The Bakery in the Basement,” July/August). Some of my best Yale memories include the fresh breads and treats out of our dining halls. I remember plump bagels for weekend brunches, moist breakfast breads, fragrant challah, generously sized cookies, decadent brownies, rich cakes, and airy pastries. When I come back to campus now as an alum, I can’t wait to try an old favorite or sample a new treat. The work ethic, caring, and teamwork of this team shows clearly in its products. Thank you to Keri, Pedro, Rusty, Curtis, Edna, Rhonda, Gary, Karl, Bonnie, and everyone else who works to create and deliver these delectable treats while we all sleep!

Wendy Maldonado D’Amico ’93
Providence, RI

A Winters tale

Thank you so much for the wonderful and fascinating article on Yale wrestling coach and fitness pioneer Izzy Winters (“The Original Celebrity Trainer,” Old Yale, July/August). What a remarkable life!

I always look forward to Judith Schiff’s stories; they are the first item I turn to in each issue. Thank you for bringing Yale history to life!

David Wecht ’84, ’87JD
Pittsburgh, PA

Gifts redistributed?

I read with interest your article describing the diversion, dilution (substitution for general funding), and the redistribution of individual residential college endowments (“Residential Colleges Share the Wealth,” July/August). How nice for the other ten colleges. How unfortunate for the students of JE and Pierson. You did not address three aspects of this situation that immediately came to mind: ethical obligations of administrators under agreed terms of prior gifts and to those donors, reaction of prior donors, and possible reaction of future donors.

Professor Friedrich Kessler vigorously taught us that promises should be performed subject only to extreme exceptions. In more than a half-century of attempting to see that this guidance is observed, we have encountered too many cases where boards of eleemosynary institutions, and administrators and faculty, have attempted to divert gift funds from an agreed use. Administrators perhaps rely on gift language giving the institution the right to change use of endowment funds under circumstances in which the “cy pres” doctrine would apply; but it would be surprising if this agreed authorization for changes contemplated changes for no more reason than a change of policy.

Aggressive fund-raising for enrichment endowments for each of the colleges might be a better solution than raiding the established endowments of the first-to-benefit, notwithstanding this might reduce control of the administrators by cannibalizing gifts to the unrestricted endowment.

Every purpose-designated gift is at risk if a change to a redistributionist policy will so easily justify diversion of funds. I have read that a generous gift pays the tuition for School of Music students. Should they not now be anxious about being so preferred?

Charles W. Thomasson ’52, ’57JD
Corpus Christi, TX

We asked Elizabeth Stauderman ’83, ’04MSL, director of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communication, for a reply. Her response is below.—Eds.

“Yale is scrupulous in honoring any and all restrictions placed on gifts by our generous donors, past and future. No funds designated to support programs or students in one college were reassigned to other colleges or students. Unrestricted central funds were redistributed among the colleges to try to ensure that the educational, social, and extracurricular opportunities and experiences of students in all 12 colleges are comparable.”

Seeking low-income students

Hilary Appelman (Letters, July/August) complains that Yale admits too few students from poor families. However, the numbers Ms. Appelman quotes—“70 percent of students at America’s most selective colleges come from the wealthiest quarter of American families”—do not demonstrate a specific admissions bias for high family incomes per se. Since faculties, such as intelligence, that lead to economic success are highly heritable, successful people tend to have able children from genetic inheritance alone and selective colleges properly select able children. However, there are surely some failures in equity.

In my tenure on the faculty at Yale, I served twice on the Yale College admissions committee. From a blue-collar family myself, I was sensitive to what I perceived as too few students at Yale from modest economic backgrounds. Hence I was pleased to find that concern shared by the admissions staff, who told us of their considerable efforts, though not as successful as they hoped, to address the deficit of applicants from low-income families. While such broad problems are not necessarily solvable by a single institution, I know that Yale has addressed seriously the problem of economically biased admissions.

Robert K. Adair
Sterling Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Hamden, CT

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