What do Santa Claus, unicorns, and Standard Language have in common?

I can’t remember if it was morning or afternoon, but it was definitely one sunny day in December. And I can’t say which year it was either… maybe 1996? Give or take 3 years. In any case, I was a child. My mother and older sister had left the house to “visit Santa” – a phrase I now know to mean “shop for Christmas presents (AKA hard work)”, but at the time understood to mean “visit Santa (AKA the most exciting thing ever)”. My request to join them had been met with a blunt refusal, and so I sat, in a state of quiet despair, for what might have been the rest of the day.

I can’t remember at what moment – if it was indeed a single moment – I found out  (spoiler alert!)  Santa isn’t real, but there’s no denying I once believed he was. With four older (and, at the time, wiser) siblings, the truth about Santa was surely hard to avoid. But maybe I believed in the Santa Myth for as long as I did just because I wanted to believe, for the magic of it all, perhaps for comfort and familiarity, and, you know, so my parents would keep giving me presents…

Today, approximately 20 years on, I rarely get Christmas presents, and it is a different myth that has inspired me to pursue a PhD; not one involving Santa Claus, but a myth nonetheless.

Writer Lippi-Green calls the myth The Standard Language Myth1. I think Kellam Barta’s TEDx talk speaks to this myth brilliantly, so I’ll let him do the talking:

This myth is actually very unlike the Santa Myth because, unlike the Santa Myth, it is rarely considered to be anything but absolute truth, even by adults. I mean, it’s perfectly fiiiine to talk however you want at home or with your friends, but if you want to get anywhere in life/be taken seriously, you really ought to speak properly, you know? Hm.

Most people, knowing that Santa Claus is imaginary, would nonetheless be comfortable in sharing their knowledge about who he is and what he does. Santa Claus – Saint Nick to his mates – lives at the North Pole, gets around in a sled, knows if you’ve been good, rewards you with presents accordingly, defies the laws of physics, says “Ho ho ho” a lot… But even though we can list all of these ‘facts’ about Santa Claus, we know he is just a myth, and we live our lives accordingly. We know that if we want presents under the tree, someone’s going to have to go shopping. We know that if someone doesn’t get any presents, it is not simply because they didn’t meet Santa’s criteria for ‘good behaviour’, for there is no magical Gift Giver, and no prescribed good/bad, naughty/nice criteria against which to objectively measure worthiness.

So instead of the question Who is Santa Claus and what is he like?, consider the question What is Standard Language and what is it like?

Lippi-Green reckons “non-linguists are quite comfortable with the idea of a standard language, so much so that the average person is very willing to describe and define it, much in the same way that most people could draw a unicorn” (p57)An answer to the question What is Standard Language? might include comments around grammar structures (verbs ‘agreeing’ with nouns), vocabulary choices (‘no slang’), pronunciation (‘don’t be lazy’). The answer might include comments about who uses Standard Language, how and where it’s learned. It might include words like ‘proper’ and ‘correct’. Are these ‘facts’ about Standard Language much the same as ‘facts’ about Santa Claus and the presents he gives? Despite the Santa Myth, we all know that, in reality, gift giving (including what to give and how to wrap it) should be (and unavoidably is) dependant on the situation: who the giver is, their intention, who the receiver is, their relationship.

Consider for a moment who uses ‘proper’ and ‘correct’ Standard Language. Are they not the same (privileged, powerful) group/s of people that get to define the details of the myth in the first place?

1 Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s