Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Preaching To The Other Choir

Sometimes the choir is actually the toughest crowd to preach to.  John McWhorter, as all actual linguists do, argues persuasively that much of what we call proper grammar is artificial, pettifogging nonsense.  He also makes the case, which I have heard made before, that Black English is a dialect, like any other dialect of English, and is not substandard any more than Middle English was a substandard version of Old English. There are situations in which one would not use it, especially in writing.  But that is true of all oral dialects of English, all of which are different from written forms, especially in formal situations.

I will run through bits of those arguments later, though others can do it better. At the moment, I am only noticing the irony, the curiosity, that a great deal of McWhorter’s prospective audience are those most likely to be reluctant to agree with him.  Who reads about language, and usage?  People who learned and mastered the rules in school and have continued to be attentive to the speech and writing of others.  The people who are attuned to noticing a split infinitve are those most likely to be reading a book telling them that avoiding same is a ridiculous rule.  It is those of us who take care to pronounce letters that others “sloppily” omit who would be most likely to pick up something by McWhorter, who confronts us with the fact that the written version of a language is not the “real” one and the oral forms degenerate – though that sentiment is common in all places where there is a written form.  It is precisely those people, African-American or not, who would never say “aks” or “She my sister” even in casual speech, who are being given very solid reasoning that these forms are not any worse than dialect forms that are regional.

They are after all readers, most prone to regarding the written form as the standard. They might also resent being told that a skill they have put some effort into is less important than they were told.

A linguist’s audience on these matters is the set of readers most likely to disagree with him.  That’s a tough choir.  I was long part of it.  When I first read about transformational grammar and Noam Chomsky in college, I can still recall the feeling that this was all a mere dodge, an elaborate attempt to avoid having to learn the rules.  They just couldn’t hack it – weren’t smart enough or hadn’t been properly trained or had grown up in the wrong part of the country. Ebonics? Pah! Patronising nonsense.

But there just isn’t any way to logically sustain those points of view.  The changes that have happened in languages around the world, throughout history, are the same sort of change that brought us Black English.  The same forces that freeze written forms, sometimes for centuries until they are not recognisable without special training, or grant prestige to certain dialects, are the same sort of forces that caused us to impose the rules of Latin – a Real language, doncha know – on English for no good reason whatsoever*.

The written form is not the Real Language.  And those of us who speak and write English, with its horrendous spelling, should be more aware of that than others.  We dislike seeing oral English written on the page as it is spoken.  It just looks wrong.  But that is evidence that writing is the artificial form, not that the oral forms are wrong.

Rule of thumb: if you are a reasonably intelligent native speaker of English and are puzzled about a usage rule, it’s artificial.  You may want to put in the effort to remember (or find) the rule, just as one monitors all communication for clarity, expressiveness, and beauty. “William and me went to the store” is correct in French, and there is no reason English might not increasingly move toward that in the future.  Yet at present, it will jar many of your readers or hearers, interfering with your credibility and temporarily interrupting their ability to follow you.  Use the rule, but know that its days are numbered.  The supposed rules of agreement are already inconsistent in English, so we can’t fall back on certain forms being “more logical.” No language is logical, and it is even less so to apply rules of Sanskrit to Hindi, or Classical Arabic to Moroccan Arabic.

I would have preferred to tell you something else.  I would have preferred to tell you that it’s all about declining standards, laziness, and the world going to hell in a handbasket. But it just ain’t so.

Next, we will speculate on where English, written and oral, might be going.

*Quai substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi, numerum et casus.


Kurt said...

I'm sure I've mentioned it before in a comment here or perhaps someplace else where you comment--Maggie's Farm, perhaps--that one of the books I found helpful to assign when I was teaching writing courses was Joseph Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace now published (in a longer version) as Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

One reason I recommend that book is that Williams has a very liberating chapter about usage where he talks about the amount of folklore that passes for usage rules (much of it perpetuated by Strunk and White). Williams' approach has its own oddities, but I found it very useful as a way of thinking about the differences between style and a lot of prescriptive usage rules which reflected the biases and social situations of the people prescribing them more than anything else.

sykes.1 said...

If you want to assimilate into the middle and upper classes, you must speak and write their dialect, "standard English." Ebonics or any other working/underclass dialect won't cut it. It doesn't matter how arbitrary its rules, standard English is the only path to success in America. If someone won't learn and use it, they deserve to fail.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Do you apply that to Southern English, Appalachian English, Western English, and Upper Peninsula English as well?

The social reality is that Black English is considered the least favored, and there is certainly no point in black parents sacrificing their children on that altar just to prove a political point. And Black English is more distinctive in most ways.

But there just isn't any oral version of English that is Standard English. Newscaster/speechmaker English is intentionally formal, and different from the way that everyone in the country speaks. I come from a group that has a lot of writing influence in its oral forms, and that has some prestige. (Though there are versions with more.) It is fair to use that. It is not especially fair to intensify it by by protecting my advantage by demeaning others.

You don't find it offensive when someone makes fun of people who have a southern accent as if they are dim?

sykes.1 said...

Yes. The point is not fairness, but success in the current society.

Teachers who encourage these dialects are abusing their students and should be dismissed. The point of education is to allow children to reach their potential. Putting them in a dialect cage is one of the more serious forms of child abuse.

james said...

What, no respect for the King's English? :-)

The way I learned it makes sense: Creole or dialect merely describes the ancestry of a language; you can do philosophy in any language. Most English dialects around the world were spread by English imperialists, and therefore they are creoles or other modifications of that dialect. (British isles excepted, of course). When during the war it was found that American Midwest survived lousy shipboard loudspeakers(*) more intelligibly than the other dialects it gained an ascendency that has since become worldwide, and is the new "imperial" language (an empire of media this time).

A natural consequence is that BBC-English and American Midwest are intelligible pretty much everywhere English is spoken, because they're more closely related to the local English language than the local variant in one land is to that of another: e.g. Liberian English as related to Vietnamese English.

It isn't just a matter of a language being favored; it makes excellent sense to master either BBC or Midwest because they're more widely useful.

(*) At least so I was told. I should probably look up the history of broadcasting with an eye to ancestry and dialect sometime.