So I probably should not have been so surprised by my reaction to this person yesterday:
She’s bilingual, German and English. We were discussing grammar, she arguing for a prescriptive viewpoint while I countered that grammar arises as description and should be treated with that in mind. Somehow, we moved into the expanding vocabulary of English (much larger than that of any other language). I said I loved that aspect of the language; she said it leads to lack of understanding.
“Imagine you were standing on a street corner in Harlem—now, I have nothing against them, in fact, I love the way they use the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary… ”
I started to say something, but held my tongue. I did not want to call her on what I was hearing as a racist comment, but my dander was rising. Still, I was extremely uncomfortable being pulled into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy by her remarks.
“ …but imagine you say to a ten-year-old you find there, ‘All men are mortal.’ The kid would not know what you are talking about.”
I was starting to get ticked off, and really should have stopped her right there. However, I wanted to give her a chance to make her point.
“On the other hand, in Germany, if I said the same thing—in German, of course—any child would know exactly what I meant.”
“First of all,” I responded, “if you said ‘We all die’ in Harlem, the kid would understand you completely. What we have is simply more ways of saying things. All you are doing is using the fact of a large vocabulary to denigrate those who don’t have as great a grasp of the extent of it as you do. That’s not really fair, and is the type of thing people latch onto for arguments for the reality of class distinction.” I was trying to remain calm, but I could feel that I was close to losing my cool.
“That’s not true. I respect them completely.”
Suddenly, I lost it. She clearly did not respect them, and was trying to use language as a means of showing herself better.
“Stop!” I raised my hand, palm out like a traffic cop. “I can’t continue this conversation.”
“Why not? I love the way they use…”
“Stop! I’m hearing tinges of racism, here, and can’t go on.”
I turned and walked away, nearly shaking, suspecting I had overreacted, but sure I would have ended up yelling if I had stayed to talk longer.
Were I a better person, I would have explained that, first of all, I did not like being drawn into her “us” against some “them” out there, simply because she and I share a skin color. I would have asked her if she would have broached her example to an African-American. That might have opened her eyes to what she was, in fact, saying. Unfortunately, as Bob Dylan wrote in “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.”