Hey, Weird Al: Congratulations on Not Having a Language Disorder!

Oh boy. It’s no fun to be The Guy Who Takes Umbrage at a Novelty Song. So let me start by saying that, all things considered, I couldn’t be happier about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s recent viral resurgence. “Tacky,” his upgrade of Pharrell’s cloying “Happy,” is blue-chip parody pop: lively, goofy, subtly acerbic. (Subtext: you know what’s really tacky? Songs like “Happy.”)

But among my language-wonk friends–i.e., most of my friends–one song has risen to the top of this week’s Weird Al heap. “Word Crimes,” a spoof of “Blurred Lines” that decries common language abuses, has been shared on my Facebook feed, Tweeted at me, praised all over the Internet, and forwarded to me by elderly family members. “You’re an English teacher! You’ll love this!” And I almost did love it. Whoops.

I was midway through “Word Crimes,” bopping along to the Gayeripped rhythm track, nodding in agreement with Weird Al that “irony is not coincidence,” when my wife, a speech-language pathologist, sat next to me on the couch. She listened as Al berated his hypothetical word criminal:

“You dumb mouth-breather.”

“You write like a spastic.”

“Go back to preschool. / Get out of the gene pool.”

“Just now you said you ‘LITERALLY couldn’t get out of bed.’ / That really makes me want to LITERALLY smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.” (Nice split infinitive, Al.)

My wife frowned. “I bet my students would love being told to ‘get out of the gene pool.'”

Some background on Mrs. Seminar Table:

  1. To this day, she adores Weird Al with neither shame nor irony. Often she reminisces warmly about seeing him perform live at the Ventura County Fair. A Weird Al concert. At a county fair.
  2. She works in an urban public school district, providing speech services for children who contend with a variety of socioeconomic disadvantages and cognitive impairments. She knows as well as anyone that poor language skills do not correlate with laziness or a lack of intelligence. They correlate with poverty and disability.

Yes, “Word Crimes” might be intended to tweak those who misuse language carelessly. But it also ends up taunting those who misuse it involuntarily. It punches down, not up.

Imagine you have a language disorder. Reading has always been a trial; even opening a book fills your stomach with self-doubt. To assemble a paragraph of coherent prose gives you a headache, so to bother with cosmetics like “its” vs. “it’s” seems silly. Your whole life, people have seen your writing and thought, “Lazy.” And: “Uneducated.” And: “Stupid.” One day, “Word Crimes” pops up on your Twitter timeline. “Okay, now here’s the deal,” Weird Al tells you. “I’ll try to educate ya.” What’s your response?

Now try the same thought experiment, except this time imagine that you grew up speaking Nuyorican or African-American Vernacular English.

This is where a few folks with language disorders or non-standard linguistic backgrounds might pipe up and say, “Hey, I wasn’t offended!” Fine. I admire your equanimity. But I’m not saying that “Word Crimes” will or should anger everyone who has difficulty reading and writing standard English. I’m saying that it adopts a view of language that has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm.

In “Word Crimes,” Yankovic takes a classic prescriptivist stance. There is one way to speak and write English, he implies–the standard way. To deviate from that norm (a norm that remains normal only because white bourgeois dominance persists) is to advertise your ignorance, your idiocy, your incurability. “Oh, you’re a lost cause,” Weird Al sings, harmonizing with himself.

But he’s just joking around, some might say. Or more astutely: Isn’t the song actually satirizing the speaker himself and, more generally, mocking the excesses of grammar cops? This could almost be true. But “Word Crimes” never implicates its speaker as an object of satirical critique. Neither the lyrics nor the video alert us to the presence of an unreliable narrator. And so we can only assume that the song wants us to align ourselves with Weird Al, smirking and snickering and, with some mixture of amusement and anger, shaking our heads at how badly the unwashed masses butcher PROPER ENGLISH.

According to Rolling Stone, when Yankovic appeared earlier this week on The View, one of the hosts asked him if “Word Crimes” was inspired by his 11-year-old daughter’s verbal misadventures. “No,” he replied, “my daughter is fairly literate. We raised her that way.” What he doesn’t seem to get is that being raised “literate” is not the same as being taught to use standard English. That being raised “literate” doesn’t cure, say, dyslexia. And that sometimes the only victim of a “word crime” is the accidental criminal, who has done nothing wrong.

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9 thoughts on “Hey, Weird Al: Congratulations on Not Having a Language Disorder!

  1. Pingback: The Seminar Table
  2. I could not agree more. I listened to it and cringed, thinking about all the children and adults I’ve known in my career who work 10 times harder than those around them just to get words on and off a page. It’s a really nasty song.

    1. Hi Lyn–Thanks for reading! And for your well-informed perspective. Funny, isn’t it, that when you have direct experience helping people who struggle (often heroically) with language, you tend to see aggressive, uninvited grammar policing not as a quirky hobby, but as a form of violence. That’s why I was so affected by my wife’s response to “Word Crimes.” She knows, in a way I can only try my best to understand, that it’s deeply wrong and harmful to equate language skills with overall intelligence.

      1. Thanks for writing it, Garrett. I’ve already linked several people to the article who mistakenly thought I’d like the song. You put it better than I ever could. Not only that, I have a daughter with dyslexia and a daughter with a genetic disorder which causes developmental delay and who drools. I’m a fairly easy going person, but this type of ignorance shocked even me.
        Keep up the good work!

  3. As an adult dyslexic I am on both sides of this argument.

    On the one hand I am all for people being more accommodating and understanding about language differences. It would make my professional life a whole lot easier if people didn’t look down on me if I misspell something or need twice as long to read a page of text.

    However, myself and many people like me also see a direct benefit from improved grammar use in those around us. And anything which helps to inform a wider audience about their and there or your and you’re is doing me a service.

    Those rules are the only reason I can write and read the way I can. When people deviate from them it adds yet another barrier to my comprehension. Not only is it difficult for me to parse words with numbers or inappropriate apostrophes but a misplaced your instead of you’re can throw me so much that I lose all sense of the sentence.

    I, personally, don’t feel insulted by the video. But I know people who have genuine problems with literacy which far exceed my own. While the video itself may not affect them negatively the dismissive and sometimes outright hostile attitudes which it represents are harmful to all of us.

    I suspect that the combination of the video and the discussions it has raised will both be positive for people with specific learning disabilities if only because it is an area where awareness alone can make a significant impact.

    1. Hi Lizzie–I don’t have much to add to this beautiful comment, except to thank you for writing it, and to say that I find your nuanced perspective on these issues admirable and persuasive. I’m especially fascinated by your insight that adhering to the usage rules of standard English helps you both to read and to write. I hadn’t thought of that angle before. And really, I give my enthusiastic endorsement to any method that allows you to write as elegantly as you do.

      Thanks again. In all seriousness, I much prefer your comment to my post!

  4. As a person who has struggled his whole life with dyslexia and who prides himself on overcoming it (mostly) I initially enjoyed the song and video but I also found myself cringing at the lack of tact used in the second half of the song. It seems to me though there is a current trend of intentionally mutilating the English language. I am one of those people who cannot, in good conscience, text someone something like “c u ltr” or “got 2 b going” (in fact writing that figuratively killed me). I find myself annoyed at peoples Facebook posts and Tweets that are so riddled with grammatical inaccuracies that you wonder if they ever actually took an English course. Then I take a step back and realize that trends come and go and these people will eventually tire of trying to find new and annoying ways to spell words with numbers. It has also occurred to me that this trend is a symptom of the age we live in. Texts are meant to be quick messages to our friends and family and we are too darn busy to spell out the whole word “you” so we substitute the much more efficient “u” and Twitter has a character limitation so in order to get our whole thought across we need to find creative ways to shorten it up. As for the numbers for letters phenomenon I blame the movie “Seven” or “Se7en” as it appeared on the packaging. That’s just my two cents though.

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