Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Story of Language

I listened to this course by John McWhorter from The Teaching Company for the second time while on my trip to Ohio and back.  It goes 18 hours, but he is an excellent speaker, so I found I could go hour after hour with him.  Many libraries carry the course, if you want to pick it up.

He spends a lot of time explaining what language is, how it changes, how many there are and what types before he gets into the controversial stuff.  I think that is wise, because there is a lot that needs to be understood about languages, dialects, and creoles around the world before getting into the controversies of Black English.

Which is why I'm going to ignore that and just tell you stuff.

None of us speaks standard written formal English at home or with friends.  I come much closer than almost anyone, because I took that on as an affectation quite early in life and much of it has stuck.  Yet even I am not all that close.  I also make my writing more colloquial than most formal writers would, to bring it more in line with how I speak. Punctuation, in particular is more impressionistic than formally accurate in my writing, creating pauses, changes of tone, and changes of voice as if I were reading aloud. Still, recordings of my conversation are not very close to my written expression. McWhorter gives examples of words that are almost never used in speech but are common in writing, such as "refreshing."  I might say the word "refreshing" with an ironic tone - say, after vomiting. I might say "When will you arrive?" in a semi-ironic tone or to quickly escape from a double-entendre that some of my knuckleheaded friends might jump on.* But  Arrival is a written, not a spoken word.

It is mostly a social advantage to come from a home-dialect that is closer to written standard English.  People think you are smarter, more conscientious, better educated when you are speaking naturally. However, there are also social situations where you will seem pretentious and artificial if your speech is too close to written standard. You could get beat up, actually, which most of us consider a serious disadvantage.  Everyone in America - everyone in any language, actually - has command of a continuum of speech from home-dialect to formal.

Black English is not the only dialect looked down upon.  Most Southern dialects are looked at askance (looked askance at?), though the accent can be used to good effect formally.  Entertainers and politicians (but I repeat myself) use dialects with skill by adjusting the blackness, southernness, Brooklynness, Jewishness, academe, or hispanicness of speech to win others over. It is usually more natural than calculated.

Having command of only the home-dialect, as many urban African-Americans have a command of Black English without much extension into written standard, is a significant disadvantage. This is true not only in America, but everywhere in the world.  There is a prestige dialect which gor to call the shots about what the written standard would be, in Paris, in Asuncion, in Jakarta. In some countries, such as Germany, various regions each have enough juice that they don't always regard other dialects as inferior, just different, but that isn't common.

So McWhorter is not at all in favor of not pounding as much written standard English (and the general American English spoken dialects) into urban black children, same as rural white children or suburban Asian children.  He thinks it is necessary for anyone who has aspirations for life outside one's own community. But he is very clear, as linguists generally are, that Black English is no worse a dialect than any other.  It is not degraded English.  The verb tenses - She be walking - are taken from Celtic forms, mostly Irish and Cornish.  Think Pirate Talk. Arrggh. They have their own nuances and distinctions.  It's not a creole, unless you want to say it's a hemisemidemi creole.

All mother-dialects are nonstandard compared to written standard, but not sub-standard, because  they are oral language, and none is inherently better than any other, though we feel differently about them because of how they fall on our ear. BTW, oral language is real language to most linguists. There are about 6000 languages and only 200 are written, and that is all very recent.  The written inscriptions and even the texts from the earliest days of writing are very artificial by design.  They use language - real language, which is oral - to set something down in record. When the OT records spoken word it is usually stylised court-language or legal language, or storytelling, as in Job or Genesis. The NT is closer to our own idea, but still not very close.  Jesus reports a conversation with Satan in a few sentences that covers 40 days of spiritual warfare.  I'm betting that getting the quotes right wasn't as important as hammering the key points into us. Real spoken sentences leak out, often amusingly, but weren't the norm.  The HT writers were often making declarations, not recording dialogue.

That African-American Vernacular English (to use its other name) sounds less educated and less-standard is a result of history, and the past isn't going away. But we don't have to perpetuate it, and we certainly don't have to make it worse by treating it as substandard.

*"Know your audience,"the first rule of public speaking.


james said...

The closer your speech/writing can be to Standard English, the more widely it will be understood. The extremes won't be able to understand each other very well--esp the creoles. (And there could be a bit of "bar-bar-bar" disdain.) But the extremes will still be able to get the gist of BBC English or American MidWest.

Texan99 said...

I loved the two McWhorter lectures I downloaded from The Great Courses. He is himself, of course, a gifted speaker of standard English, which shows his intelligence, his versatility, and the breadth of his education. Nevertheless, I agree with him that no dialect is somehow inherently superior to another, any more than German could be superior to French. Pidgins start out stunted and shallow, but even they turn into full-fledged creoles by the second or third generation.

I also agree with James that, if you want to be understood by your audience, you speak your audience's language. Few of us have the privilege of being so compelling that others will learn our language just to gather our pearls in the original.

Grim said...

The closer your speech/writing can be to Standard English, the more widely it will be understood.

I'm given to understand that's no longer necessarily true.

Mother-tongue English may not even be an advantage anymore, says Dr Dominic Watt, sociolinguistics expert at the University of York in the UK.

“It’s not necessarily in your interests to be a native speaker of English because you haven’t had to go through the same learning process that the non-natives have. So they’re all on the same page and it’s the native speakers who are the odd ones out,” Watt says. At the European Parliament, for instance, non-native speakers complain to the Anglophones, “Can’t you just speak English like the rest of us do!”, says Watt.

Grim said...

You might say that was an issue of native speakers varying from "standard" English, but read the article more and you discover that actually there are many variant forms that aren't necessarily understandable to people from standard English(es). Chinese English may be widely understood by hundreds of millions of people who wouldn't get something put in standard (American) English, and vice versa.

Thus, there are international forms that are stripped-down, and thus non-standard -- but more widely understandable.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting information! As I work with professionals from other nations who do not always understand the many idioms I use, I see this. Most recent: the Russian doctor who though my "falling between two stools" had something to do with feces. She was...puzzled. We also had to instantly-monitor our language when our two sons arrived from Romania. One in particular had very lttle English and is not nimble of thought in general. I work with patients from foreign countries and with Sudanese refugees, so there is a lot of being aware involved. Yet even I, who would be well up the bell curve on taking such care, forget it very quickly in social situations.

Stripping down and simplifying when adults have to learn a new tongue is what language does. It is why Persian is simplified in terms of endings and tnses - it has had several periods when adults had to learn it, and they change the language.

Germany is an excellent example for us. Americans learned a type of formal Deutsch in school and from courses, and that was reinforced because it was the version used on TV and in the newspapers. Other Germans had entirely respectable dialects they are quite proud of that they spoke at home. But if they wanted to do business with tourists, they needed to use the same kind of German the Americans might now. Now they just learn English, of course.

Now we are in those shoes, eh? What usually happens in such situations is that the home-dialects are used less and less for public duty in favor of simplified standard English. They thus become ever-more distant from the standard. Accents get stronger, not weaker.

Grim said...

..."falling between two stools"...

That's good.

Once in China, a fellow teacher asked me how I liked lunch -- some sort of dish made out of stomach and intestines. I shrugged and said, "Well, it's offal."

She looked so hurt. "It's awful???"

james said...

An example

Thomas Doubting said...

Stripping down and simplifying when adults have to learn a new tongue is what language does.

It's probably why English dropped so many of the inflectional endings our Germanic ancestors and relatives have, and why we're the only Indo-European language that doesn't have grammatical gender.

Also, just on the topic of "pure" languages, more than half our vocabulary is from other languages.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ TD - Yes, and the specifics are the Danes and other Vikings who came to settle, not just rape and pillage. Their own language was close to ours and had its own endings, but adults don't bother with those nuances. The Normans coming in sealed the deal.

Grim said...

"...more than half our vocabulary is from other languages."

Only measured by numbers of words. By frequency of use, the majority of Modern English is derived from Old English. "As a statistical rule, around 70% of words in any text are derived from Anglo-Saxon."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

See also the Swadesh List for English

james said...

"We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Thomas Doubting said...

AVI, I can't remember the book at the moment, but I read McWhorter on that phenomenon. Sounds like you have as well. And thanks for the Swadesh List link; I hadn't heard of that before but it's a very interesting idea.

Grim, you're right, but 30% foreign is still not all that "pure."

Personally, I find grammatical gender to be a pain. Neither Japanese nor Chinese has it and they get along perfectly well. I'm glad the Vikings pillaged and burned ours.