[Update--Helmut at Phronesisaical has a very interesting response-post to this one, addressing issues of national language and the implications of productive disruption for intelligence.]
(Thanks to Woman of Color and KC Sheehan for your nods and comments on my earlier post on Akeelah, which inspired to go back and elaborate on some points I wasn’t able to touch on in the original post.):
There is a phenomenon wherein minorities (linguistic, ethnic, cultural, or otherwise) find it useful or necessary to prove themselves by exemplifying a hyper-correct mastery of the dominant language or culture. We see this, for instance, in the virtuosic use of language by such “minority” authors as Nabokov and the Malaysian-Chinese Li Yongping 李永平 (who take pride in their mastery of English and Chinese, respectively, which far exceeds that of most “native” speakers of the languages).
Part of this is clearly pragmatic—the need overcome prejudicial assumptions by demonstrating that one is not only as good as, but even more orthodox than, the putative hegemonic norm. There is, however, empirical evidence indicating that, under certain circumstances, these sorts of marginal figures actually have an advantage in mastering a dominant language. For instance, a few years ago Nonie Lesaux published an interesting study demonstrating that, under appropriate pedagogical conditions, young children who are not native speakers of English can actually learn to read faster and better than their native-speaking counterparts. As Lesaux explains, these ESL students are
much more tuned into language than the other kids. In many ways, they were doing a lot more work around language than the monolinguals, for whom language is much more unconscious.
A similar phenomenon, meanwhile, is arguably at work in Doug Atchison’ Akeelah and the Bee (2006), as we see, over and over again, the three young minority protagonists—Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable), Javier Mendez (J.R. Villarreal) and of course Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) herself—appearing before tables of predominantly white judges and demonstrating their near-perfect mastery of standard English spelling.
While it is uncertain whether any of these three children speak other languages (and the film certainly does not imply that they do), it is nevertheless clear that, in addition to being ethnic minorities, all three children hail from cultural-linguistic backgrounds which set them apart from speakers of standard American English.
[It is unclear whether Dylan or Javier themselves speak Chinese or Spanish, though it is suggested that, at the very least, their parents do. Akeelah and her family, meanwhile, all speak English, but it is an English inflected with African American accents and “slang,” which Akeelah must consciously unlearn in order to succeed at the highest levels of spelling bee competition. Similarly, to return to the examples of Nabokov and Li Yongping, while the first language of the author of Lolita was, of course, Russian, the Chinese-language novelist Li Yongping was actually a native speaker of Chinese--though as a Chinese-Malaysian currently living in Taiwan, he is arguably twice displaced from the traditional center of Chinese culture.]
At the same time, an artifact of this emphasis on hyper-correct linguistic mastery is that it easily comes full circle to a transformative, catachrestic misuse of the language in question. At a pivotal point in the film, for instance, Dylan intentionally misspells a word which he knows well, to the consternation of his father and the astonishment of the other observers. The film makes clear, however, that this misspelling was actually not a mistake at all, but instead was an assertion of a kind of hypercorrectness which transcends literal correctness. Similarly, in Javier’s first spelling bee competition in the film, he is asked to spell “rhesus”—which the judge pronounces “reese’s,” as in “Reese’s peanut butter cups.” Javier initially seems confused, asking the judges to repeat the word (twice, I believe), and then to use it in a sentence. After hearing the sentence, he suddenly perks up and says, “Oh, you mean ....,” proceeds to pronounce the word correctly, spell it without any hesitation, and concludes by flapping his arms and making hooting sounds like a monkey. At first, one might read this pantomime as an instance of Javier acting up and making a fool of himself, but in reality he is essentially making a monkey of the judges themselves (i.e., a young Hispanic boy instructing his white elders on how to pronounce their own words). (In this double-edged use of the monkey pantomime, one is reminded of Gate’s discussion of usages of the trope of the trickster monkey in African American literature in his classic study The Signifying Monkey).
Finally, these questions of linguistic orthodoxy are a crucial element in Akeelah’s relationship with her mentor, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), an English professor on leave (on “sabbatical,” as he euphemistically puts it) from UCLA. Dr. Larabee makes very clear from their first meeting that Akeelah must be on her best behavior with him, including the use of only proper and correct English. The implicit message here is obvious: in order to succeed in American society, it is necessary to mimic and master the language which has been designated as normative. After a ninitial rebellion, Akeelah agrees to his terms, but has a wonderful response late in the film when, during a falling-out between the two of them, he criticizes her for using the word “dis” in complaining that he is “dissing her.” Without a word, she walks over to the well-used OED, turns to the “D’s,” and begins to read aloud: Dis… transitive verb… dissed; dissing… to treat with disrespect or contempt…” Akeelah then turns back to Dr. Larabee and, with what is perhaps the faintest of smirks, informs him that “new words are added to the dictionary every day.”
The scene arguably doesn’t quite work, since the dictionary explicitly labels “dis” as a slang or deviant usage. However, Akeelah’s broader point is, nevertheless, correct—that language is a living organism, and that many variants which begin as deviations subsequently become normative.
[An interesting twist on this can be seen in the recent controversy over the inclusion of the word “scumbag” in the NY Times crossword puzzle—that avatar of hyper-correct mastery of written English. As Jesse Sheidlower discusses in Slate, the problem lay in the fact that, although the OED itself only dates the word back to 1967 (with 1971 as the first instance of the “despicable person” sense), the word was actually used as early as the 1930s to mean “condom.” This earlier meaning (together with the NY Times’ own explicit policy prohibiting use of the term) escaped the attention of the crossword puzzle editor, legendary word maven Will Shortz. One intriguing question raised by this incident, however, is whether a word is obscene if it is explicitly being used in an acceptable sense (the puzzle clue in question was “scoundrel.”)]
On the topic of linguistic orthodoxy and hyper-orthodoxy, Timothy Billings has an interesting article coming out in Shakespeare Quarterly on Shakespeare’s French, and specifically on process by which the French dialogues in “Henry the V” have been repeatedly edited and corrected based on a gauntlet of assumptions about the bard’s mastery of the French language and his intentions in writing the play. Was the French bad because Shakespeare simply didn’t know French, because he was deliberately having his characters speak poor French (in some cases they were not presumed to know the language, though in other cases they were native speakers), or was it intended as a kind of self-conscious burlesque? What role should subsequent editors play in correcting or preserving these “mistakes”? And, perhaps most intriguingly, if one assumes that some of these “mistakes” should remain in the English versions of the play, what should be done when the entire play is translated into French?