Newspeak & Political Correctness: Considering Linguistic Relativity in the Context of Excluding Words from the Lexicon
While many of us are rigorously taught to avoid using “Me” at the start of sentences, a wealth of literature, popular media, and art exist to blatantly contradict this rule. From the popular hashtag #meandtheboys to classic songs like ‘Me and Bobby McGee‘ (Janis Joplin), or the plethora of works titled ‘Me, Myself, and I’ (see the tongue-in-cheek ‘Me, Myself, and Irene’), or even YouTube’s famous first upload, Me at the Zoo, it’s obvious that “Me” is well-entrenched in the English language as a subject pronoun. You can begin sentences with it. Right?
Well, yes and no. While the easy answer of “No” is very clear-cut in Standard English, English languages offer significantly more nuance. To answer that question, I’ll look at the rules used in Standard English as well as some of the colloquial information behind why it is sometimes very appropriate to begin a sentence with “Me”.
Modern Standard English
Modern Standardized English – Standardized English most notably includes United Kingdom Standard English (Think BBC English/Received Pronunciation) and General American English (e.g. Hollywood English). Standard English follows pronunciation, grammar, and spelling prescriptions, typically defined in the 18th century, and occasionally updated to include new words, spellings, and variations.
In Standardized English (SE), simple sentences are typically composed using the SVO structure “Subject Verb Object”
- Sam ate oranges
- I eat apples
- The dog bites the man
- The man bites the dog
In each of these cases, the subject, who is acting out the verb on the object, is placed at the front of the sentence.
This structure also appears in more complex sentences.
- Christina traveled by bus to go to the grocery store, where she purchased 12 red apples
- Tom likes reading antique English tomes of considerable length, but George finds them boring
In each case, the subject is placed before the verb or at the start of the sentence.
Subject Pronouns vs Object Pronouns
A pronoun takes the place of a noun or Proper Noun in a sentence. Pronouns are divided into three categories.
Subject Pronouns – Used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence. Who is performing the action? We baked the cake to give to him, so it’s his cake.
Object Pronouns – Used when the pronoun is the object of the sentence. Who is the action about? We baked the cake to give to him, so it’s his cake.
Possessive Pronouns – Used when the pronoun indicates possession or ownership. We baked the cake to give to him, so it’s his cake.
I = a subject pronoun:
- Sam ate cake
- I ate cake
Me = an object pronoun, used as an object or receiver for the object.
- The dog bit me
- The cake is for me
You can use Me at the start of the sentence when it makes sense to put the object receiver before the object, or when you have another differentiator, or no object. These sentences are very rare in Standard English.
Colloquial English offers significantly more variation in grammar, rules, and “proper” usage. English speakers utilize a rich array of dialect, colloquialisms, and English variations. Some of these include non-standard usages of words like “Cool” which have become standard in colloquial for most of the English-speaking world. While non-standard for “Standard English”, many forms of colloquial English have rules and grammatical structures every bit as strict as those used in SE.
“Me” is commonly used as a subject pronoun in many forms of colloquial English. However, because “Me” is an informal pronoun, used to refer to the speaker as the object of a verb or preposition, it can only be used by the narrator or speaker.
Some examples of Me in colloquial speech:
- “Me, I like oranges”
- “Me and Christina are going to the grocery store”
- “Me and my family went to the movies”
- “Me? Yes, very hungry”
It is important to note that these examples are never correct in standardized English. But colloquially and in informal speech, they are both common and extremely well used. You can read “Me” at the start of sentences in literature dating back to the 1800s, typically used to denote a “less cultured” dialect.
Each of these examples can also be restructured to be acceptable in standard English:
- “I like oranges”
- “Who, me?”
- “Yes, I am very hungry”
- “Christina and I are going to the grocery store”
- “My family went to the movies with me”
English Isn’t “Standard” English
Stigma and Non-Standard English – Today, most of the world associate’s accents, dialect, and other forms of non-standard English with ignorance, low intellect, and lack of prestige. Persons speaking variations of English, such as Creole English or African American Vernacular English are perceived as uncultured and uneducated. This perception may date back to British customs (Dating to pre-1600s) of adopting the English vernacular spoken at court, leading the wealthy to speak differently from the rest of country. No matter the origin, the pressure to speak without accent or variation has remained strong over the previous 4 centuries. Yet, speaking a standardized version of English has no impact on one’s intellect, “class”, or capabilities.
Modern Standard English (MSE) is one, limited, and often relatively bland expression of the English language family. It is the English for those who want to be understood by as wide an audience (as is) possible. It’s also the English for those concerned with fitting themselves or their brand into classical definitions of prestige linked to standardized speech. However, it is far from the only, the most interesting, or the correct form of English.
“It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed.”A. Burrell, Recitation. A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891
Many forms of colloquial English are in fact, very correct, with their own grammatical rules, constructions, pronunciations, and variations.
So, while you would never use “me” to refer to a subject in Standardized English, it would be perfectly acceptable to do so in colloquial speech, as well as in some of the many variations of English such as African-American Vernacular English, Dublin English, Jamaican English, etc.
One could also argue that, even under the guidelines of MSE, it would be morally reprehensible to condemn the vast body of literature and art using “me” as a subject pronoun because of “incorrect grammar”.
Take Thin Lizzy’s 1971 rendition of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. Singer and guitarist Phil Lynott rewrote the latter half of the song, integrating his own native Hiberno-English (variant, Dublin English) alongside ample bardic license.
Now some men like a fishin’Thin Lizzy
But some men like the fowlin’
Some men like to hear,
To hear the cannonball roarin’
Me, I like sleepin’,
‘Specially in my Molly’s chamber
But here I am in prison,
Here I am with a ball and chain, yeah
The inclusion and even the embrace, of English dialect, colloquialisms, and pidgin add richness, context, flavor, and vocabulary that would, otherwise, be sadly lacking. The addition of “non-standardized” English adds context and depth.
Of course, standardized English has its place. Academia, journalists, medical professionals, and governments must strive to ensure they are as well-understood as possible. This necessitates relying on a standardized form of language which can be taught to and understood by most, if not all. Both have their place, and it is up to the speaker to decide when to use them.