Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Attitudes towards language uses

Discussions about language uses rank among the most fiendish I’ve witnessed, short of physical aggression. Try? Just ask anyone, anywhere, any day, what they think about anything that’s been nagging at you lately in your or someone else’s (or their!) use of a word or a phrase, or whatever, in any of your languages.

Do pad yourself emotionally against the outcome, because attitudes towards language uses are attitudes towards language users. However we may have persuaded ourselves otherwise, languages and their uses do not exist without people. The whole process in fact follows a neat circular path. We start off with more or less (un)friendly comments about how people sound and look when they use their languages, including those languages that we don’t understand, such as throaty, lippy, twangy, lilty, teethy, or beautiful and ugly. We then associate these people-features with the languages that people speak, and we complete the process by concluding that whoever speaks, say, an aggressive language must be an aggressive person/people too. The supposedly descriptive labels that we go on using don’t need to make sense, by the way – including labels found in clinical settings, as this (now archived) post at Clinical Linguistics, What on earth does ‘Guttural’ mean, anyway? exemplifies.

Why the label-mania, I wonder, and the mostly hard feelings that go with it? My suspicion is that it all stems from two things. First, the top regard in which we tend to hold ourselves. Not all of us got official entitlement to pontificate about linguistic goodness and badness, of course, but the trouble is that so many of us feel entitled.

One book that I read some time ago, Beneath the Dust of Time, gave me a historical clue to why this is so. Jacques R. Pauwels reports, among other things, the hubris pervading the names that we give to our tribes, including the big tribes we came to know as “countries”. Pauwels quotes Mircea Eliade’s essays on ancients myths and religions, where it is noted that “archaic peoples believed virtually without exception that they themselves inhabited the center of the world”, and adds that “alternative names for the rather trite ‘center of the world’ were ‘navel of the earth’ and ‘place where gods descended on earth’.” In addition to assorted peoples’ names informing us that they have been chosen by assorted deities, we find that the Franks are the ‘brave people’, that the name of the Etruscans means ‘human beings’, and that the Huns are, simply, ‘the people’. Some of these labels concern the peoples’ languages: the root of Slav means ‘those who can speak a language’ (their language, that is), and Arab refers to ‘those who speak an understandable language’, whereby everyone else probably is, as the Ancient Greeks put it, a ‘barbarian’.

We may well wonder who’s whose barbarian. In 1580, Montaigne explained, in his Essais, that “chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage”, tellingly in an essay titled ‘Des Cannibales’. G. Bernard Shaw later rephrased Montaigne’s line, in his Caesar and Cleopatra, to have Caesar seek forgiveness on behalf of those who commit Britannus-like faux pas: “he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature”. Small wonder that, in our cyber-age, even supposedly aseptic IT tools, like internet-based concordancers, go on reflecting human prejudice: try the recently launched Wording for results of input like “Y are” or “Z are”, where Y and Z stand for nationality/language names and profession names, respectively (tack för tipset, Daniel!).

The second reason behind our readiness to opinionate about language uses draws on the (mis)understanding that there is a single “lawful” way of using a language, whether you’re monolingual or multilingual. (Monolingual) teenagers and (multilingual) language learners stand out as the usual suspects. What happens in practice is that your uses pass muster if they match either the uses of your interlocutors, or uses that they can recognise, and so relate to. It’s not so much that we all have our own (private) standards, it’s mostly that we take it for granted that if you and I are using the “same” language, we’re both supposed to make ourselves intelligible in it. I’ve talked about intelligibility before and I will come back to it some other day but, next time, I’ll have a couple more thoughts to offer on the tribulations of those barbarians who insist on being multilingual in a world designed for monolinguals.

Meanwhile, though, I have a goodie for you: see whether you can guess which language deserved this encomium from one of its native speakers:

“The XXX language is, decidedly, imperial in its virility, in its tuneful orchestration, in its fabulously inexhaustible contents, in its gently enticing appeals, in its riveting and beguiling seduction.”

Could be any, right?

© MCF 2012

Next post: Braving monolingual worlds. Saturday 7th April 2012.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

You speak so, therefore you are so.

Seneca is credited with stating that “Where the speech is corrupted, the mind is also”. He chose to speak his mind from the perspective of corrupted rather than pristine speech, following the time-tested strategy of steering attention away from what we might be doing, right or wrong, by calling attention to what others are doing wrong. Such choices are generally meant to entail that we are doing things right, and that we therefore have the right to proffer comments about what is right and what is wrong, because we know the difference.

“You are what you speak” matches popular You-are-what-you-X generalisations about people’s identities – including those of people we’ve never met in our lives. Speech-wise, the causality that is inherent in these assertions may not always be straightforward (you are so because you speak so, as the title of this post suggests, or you speak so because you are so?) but our linguistic signals go on eliciting rulings about us. This is one argument I develop in an article dealing with clinical assessment of multilingual children, but which applies to language uses across the board. The point I make there is that “Whether linguistic and cultural behaviours are intentional or not, they project images of the user as belonging (or not belonging, or wishing to belong) to a particular social group, which in turn prompts personal judgements about the user and associated linguistic responses from the interlocutor, including a clinical interlocutor.”

Equally popular is the idea that it makes sense to speak of degenerate vs. unsullied uses of language, which draws on the assumption that languages can suffer injury. On this assumption, languages are identifiable objects (containers?) with a life and possessions (contents?) of their own. Our job as users is to pick and choose from within these carefully preserved preciosities the dainty morsels which will hopefully do justice to the dainty intellects we wish to project as we express ourselves linguistically. Seneca dixit.

This ain’t easy. Being ordered around by languages, I mean. Some of us go through our entire lives cringing at our own ways of using our own language(s), native languages included, because we apparently do things that “the languages” do not allow us to do. Assigning decision power of this kind to “the languages” is of course a good way of skirting the issue that whatever evaluative benchmarks we’re using are man-made.

So, who are you, and who’s telling on you? For users of foreign languages, the benchmark is commonly taken to be a “native” standard, but it turns out that even claiming nativeness won’t do: natives also get judged by their primi inter (not so) pares, other natives. If you read Danish, have a look at the Lexiophiles post Lyder din dialekt begavet eller bare underholdende? (If you don’t, no problem, the page has a link to an English version, ‘Does your dialect sound bright or just funny?’). Or check out G. Bernard Shaw’s Preface to his Pygmalion, where he says that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” In Act 1, in turn, Henry Higgins claims that he can place a man’s accent “within two streets” of London. Big Brother may be watching you, in other words, even on the street where you live.

The fear of the judgemental ear/eye, or shyness before it, may well be the reason why some of us avoid using our foreign languages. We know we don’t do it like them because we’ve been told so, time and again. Some of us don’t mind speaking foreign, though – or have no other choice, because we do have something to say and those to whom we want to say it don’t speak our languages. One example of this prompted an inspiring comment from Rebecca Helm-Ropelato, about an interview in English given by Italian show-biz man Roberto Benigni a few years ago: Speaking in a second language. Rebecca warned me that the video links at this post no longer work, unfortunately, but she sent me a link to another interview of Benigni speaking in English (grazie!!) – where, besides, both interviewer and interviewee start off giving evidence that we can *both* talk about different ways of using a language *and* have loads of fun about it, without injuring either “the languages” or anyone’s feelings.

This is easy. Using civilised tones to talk about our differences, I mean. Not mistaking difference for inability, I also mean. Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis once said that “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you”. Neither are other ways of using languages – or other languages, for that matter. Everyday things and everyday behaviour are not everyday to everyone. Next time, I’ll try to explain why so many of us think that they are.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Attitudes towards language uses. Wednesday 28th March 2012.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Languages lost and languages regained

Healthy individuals may lose hold of their languages, a process that is sometimes called language loss, or language attrition – which is not the same, by the way, as so-called language death.

We may lose our languages for a number of reasons, including perceived lack of prestige of a particular language, or lack of (willing) users of it around us, all of them having the lack bit in common: lack of use. I mean “use” in the sense of meaningful use. Talking about a single vs. several brown cows in order to introduce the grammatical concepts of singular vs. plural, for example, or about the same ruminants jumping over the moon in order to introduce prepositions is not meaningful, so the languages that we learn in school as “language subjects” don’t count for what I want to say here. Languages learned in this way cannot be lost, because they were never acquired: they are lost from the beginning.

I’ve talked before about how children may lose their languages because of less than ideal input conditions. Let me add here a couple of additional factors. One of them is that multilingual families may live in places where none of the parents’ languages are used, like my family did as the children were growing up. In our case, mum and dad were the only input providers. In our sporadic visits to our respective home countries, our children used to gape in incredulity at their realisation that Swedish and Portuguese could after all be spoken by “everybody” around them, as they put it.

One other factor is that parents use, well, parental-kind of language, and therefore dated language – which is true of any cross-generational uses of language, whether each generation uses one language or more than one. In my family, we parents had as little contact with child users of Portuguese and Swedish as our children did, so none of us had any idea about what the trendy youth-speak of the day was. Our children, whose peer-nurturing in their home languages was proceeding exclusively through home-made cross-pollination, learned about it the hard way, through scoffs and guffaws from visiting and visited peers at the aaancient!!! metaphors, idioms and turns of phrase that they had inherited from us. Chapter 9, ‘A new language: intruder or guest?’ in my book Three is a Crowd? reports in detail about this. If you read Swedish, have a look also at Lena Normén-Younger’s post on a related topic, Vad gör Du när någon skrattar åt dina barns svenska? (‘What do you do when someone laughs at your children’s Swedish?’).

Children, however, may have the good excuse that they are still learning their languages and that, in time, they’ll get over whatever linguistic glitches they’re stumbling over. What to say, then, of fully grown-up individuals who give similar signs of dwindling language skills? It happened to me, for one. Given the away-from-home-country kind of globe-trotting which characterises my family, both of us parents were naturally unaware of trendy adult-speak in our respective languages too. What we heard and read, back in Sweden and Portugal, on radio, TV, newspapers and all around us, at times struck us more like foreign-speak than native-speak. My case was compounded by being a stay-at-home mum while the children were being born, which meant that my Portuguese ended up fluent in baby-speak only, for a significant number of years. I literally lost the ability to construct complex things like full sentences, for example, or to avoid using jingly language peppered with diminutives and/or augmentatives.

I was, in short, using my supposedly “native language” like an imbecile, and I didn’t know I was. I do know one thing now: I wouldn’t have wanted to have my Portuguese language skills clinically assessed at that time, as little as I would have thought it fair to have my children’s linguistic proficiency assessed through a single language, either Swedish or Portuguese, as they were growing up. All four of us were using our languages inappropriately for our ages.

We got over it, all of us, to regain our languages whenever we got the chance to use them beyond the restricted contexts to which they had been limited. To me, observations such as these are evidence of two things. First, that the process of learning to use your languages goes on throughout life. Languages remain alive if the uses that they serve remain so too. And second, that your languages will be more or less well-oiled at different times in your life. Languages come and go as and when we need them to do so.

Nevertheless, like my children, I was also judged (and laughed at...) by my peers on account of my linguistic inadequacy. The way we express ourselves through our languages seems indeed to count as a reliable gauge of what we are. I’ll leave this matter for my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: You speak so, therefore you are so. Saturday 17th March 2012.


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