Sunday, June 12, 2005

Applied linguistics

A rough-and-ready distinction posits two branches of linguistics: descriptive and prescriptive. Following the descriptive approach one tries to observe and record the details of actual usage, including such pronunciation devices as the glottal stop (for which there is no letter in English), and such grammatical constructions as the double negative. Only after this inventory is complete (if then), can one attempt a prescriptive approach, separating features regarded as standard from those labeled as substandard.

Some academic linguists, proclaiming "leave your language alone," hold that one should never go beyond the first realm, the descriptive. One can observe language usage, but not prescribe it. This empiricist purism ignores the fact that ordinary users do in fact seek guidance on standard usage, seeking to internalize the rules that have been presented to them. These careful users recognize that social and economic success is often linked to one’s ability to master accepted standards of English usage. Academic linguists, in their egalitarian insistence that all forms of language are on the same footing, are not being helpful in this regard.

At the other extreme is the Miss Fittich approach (named after a legendary high school teacher). Fittich has no need to listen to what her pupils actually say; it suffices to lay down the law. It is revealing that prescriptivists of this type commonly m i s h e a r street language. Once in the course of discussing the common New Yorkese expression "I could care less," my prescriptivist interlocutor insisted that the phrase must be "I couldn’t care less." He held that no one could actually say what people did say, employing a filtering mechanism that replaced the heard word "could" with the "correct" term "couldn’t." The rationale for this picturesque New Yorkism (which I sometimes use myself) seems to be as follows. "If I made an effort I could reduce my level of caring even below the almost undetectable level that I now observe-—but why go to the trouble?"

With their insistence on enforcing a single norm, prescriptivists are too dismissive of nonstandard English. They ignore its expressive power and capacity for generating social solidarity. Prescriptivists stereotype the usages they disapprove of by ascribing them to laziness and inattention, missing the point that these expressions often reveal a logic of their own. Take, for example, the deletion of the final s in "fifty cent" found among some African American speakers. This practice has a parallel in such well-established expressions as "twenty head of cattle." In German the word Mark (referring to the currency that has just been retired) is invariable, so that one says "eine Mark" and also "zehn Mark." Evidently, in the alternative system the final s is considered redundant, as plurality is already indicated by the number word. Students, chafing under correction, may not have available to them such a sophisticated defense, but they are aware that the are being patronized.

Inasmuch as linguistics is, or should be a science, it ought to be possible to discuss these issues dispassionately. They tend, though, to arouse strong emotions, reflecting the fact that, rightly or wrongly, we are often judged by our use of language. We can persuade or not, obtain a job or not—depending less (in many instances) on the content of our discourse but how we say it. I remember once attending a brilliant lecture by the historian John Pocock. My friend Warren, who attended with me, could not accept it because of the speaker’s strong New Zealand accent.

There have been a number of flash points. One occurred forty years ago when the long-awaited Third Edition of Webster’s International Dictionary (the "big dictionary") appeared. Provocatively, Philip Gove, the editor-in-chief, had included an entry on the word "ain’t," without labeling it substandard. Prescriptivists unleashed a torrent of criticism. They failed to observe a key point. While some dictionaries, such as the famous endeavor of the Académie Française, are prescriptive, others are descriptive. We can purchase a dictionary with admonitions on "correct" usage—the Random House Dictionary and others provide such guidance-—but not every dictionary is obliged to offer this feature.

At all events how is one to deal with this matter in the classroom? One approach is diglossia, a linguistic term referring to the ability to distinguish two distinct forms of a language. Students who use nonstandard forms such as "fi" for five and "I can’t get no satisfaction" (features that loosely belong under the category of Ebonics) must be told that these are appropriate in some contexts but not in others. Following the diglossic perspective, one should gradually build up a sense that there are two registers of English. Call them formal and informal, if you wish.

At the end of the 1920s, Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s minister of education, addressed the issue when he restructured the curriculum of Italian schools. At that time standard Italian (based on Tuscan) had not progressed as it has since, and many young people could only understand their regional dialect. Gentile stipulated that the first few grades of instruction would be only in the dialect; then the pupils would be switched to standard Italian, again used solely. In practical terms the two would remain distinct, and of equal dignity. But matters did not work out that way.

I had some experience of this matter when I worked in an office in Rome at the end of the fifties. The educated people I knew there regarded southern dialects (which could be heard in the influx of poor people who had come after the end of World War II) as picturesque and amusing. But those who spoke in this way were only suitable for such menial jobs as plumber, washerwoman, doorman, and chauffeur. They could not be considered for professional employment. There were other cultural markers, allied to language. I remember once asking one of our secretaries, a highly educated woman, if I could give a check to the coffee boy. She explained to me that "they" (loro) were not accustomed to such things. We both knew who "they" were. Faced with this social reality, Gentile’s experiment failed and was abandoned. It had not removed the stigma of the southern dialects, which remained "terrun," of the soil.

Today some Italian-Americans in the US cherish such expressions, which are diffused by the TV series “The Sopranos” and other sources. At the same time, these Italian-Americans reject Ebonics lingo. But there is no practical distinction between the two.

Of course there is nothing special about the double standard of Italian-Americans in this regard, for it seems that most people have trouble consistently maintaining a value-neutral stance. By and large, the "dialects" (or whatever they may be called) cannot compete for status with the standard language. So it is that well-meaning teachers from time immemorial have sought to replace "bad" language with correctness. They lay down standards, which they hope their pupils will adhere to 24/7. There is some evidence from England that this technique is more successful with girls than with boys, and that over time the girls, who are more likely to use standard English, will remold the speech of their boyfriends and husbands, or at least some of them.

And yet popular culture, latterly particularly with hip-hop, keeps propagating nonstandard forms. Many young people soak up the idea that it is "square" (nowadays often termed, oddly enough, "gay") to insist on standard language. So this would seem to be a losing battle. Or is it? Slang terms age quickly, and a deviation from standard English that seems hip now, will become square later. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that as people get older they begin to drop the dated slang, and use standard English more and more. This process parallels the experience of the immigrants, where the older generation clings to the language of origin, while younger people go over to English.


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