Saturday, 26 July 2014

Some languages are more languages than others


Our ways of speaking and signing naturally evolved to serve our needs. This means first, that such ways must be bound in time and space, because so are we. This is why we use different languages and why we use the same languages differently. And second, that there must be agreement about how we speak and sign, because random sounds and gestures don’t make sense. In other words, there must be standard ways of sounding and gesturing, shared among those who share our times and spaces.

But there is a problem. Two, actually: what do we mean by “standard” and what do we mean by “same/different language”? Let’s see.

A standard, loosely defined, is a set of rules. Rules, in turn, are of two kinds: descriptive rules, which emerge from our observations, for example the rule that water boils at 100 degrees C given constant pressure; and prescriptive rules, which impose a specific conduct, for example the rule that you should stop your vehicle when a traffic light shows red. Descriptive standards, those mentioned in the first paragraph, tell us what goes on, whereas prescriptive standards tell us what (someone thinks) should go on. ‘What goes on’, however, does not readily associate with the word standard, as far as linguistic uses are concerned, because this word’s own everyday use has come to evoke mostly what someone has decided is meritorious and/or worth adopting: the word standard signals prescription rather than description. Would you say that colloquialisms, or slang, or dialect, or similar instances of actual language use are “standards”? Linguists would, because the job of linguists is to observe and describe how we use our languages. If you’re curious about how linguists go about doing this, by the way, have a look at Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff’s book, Linguistic Fieldwork, which gathers together a set of the most lucid (and entertaining!) reports I’ve read on this topic.

A language, in contrast, doesn’t have a definition, loose or tight. When we talk about languages, we’re likely to have no idea that we’re talking about figments of a collective imagination. Attempting to define “a language” is about as straightforward as attempting to define “a nation” – which, incidentally, might explain why these two labels keep each other such good company. But this hasn’t deterred some of us from claiming that certain uses of speech and sign *are* languages, which is equivalent to claiming that other uses are not.

Bestowing (non-)language status to linguistic uses results in identifying “languages” with specific varieties of them, those that (someone thinks) should be used. The process consists of two steps. Step 1 puts together the word standard and the names we give to languages, to get things like, say, Standard English – capitalised and all, for added effect. A Standard Language is a set of prescriptions of “good” use, where the word good can mean whatever we wish it to mean, including prestigious, respectable, correct, desirable, or even pretty, as Kellie Rolstad notes in Rethinking Academic Language in Second Language Instruction: we’re heirs to “centuries of an approach to language study which has been largely of an esthetic nature.”

Step 2 then omits the qualifier as redundant, to get things like, say, English. This is why those of us who enrol in, say, English learning courses aren’t told which English we’re going to be taught, or whether that English will serve the purposes for which we enrolled. This bit of information is deemed irrelevant, because only the Standard Language *is* a language. So much so that we have different names, in all of our languages, to refer to those languages which (someone thinks) should not be called languages, like patois, Mundart, gíria, argot, vernacular, calão, dialect, all disparaging in various degrees: just look up the meanings and synonyms of these words in any standard dictionary. Disparaging to their users, of course: I’ve argued before, for example here and here, that labels about language uses are labels about people. As if only “good” (or pretty) people deserved to be called people?

Since we know that there is a difference between the rules of physics and traffic rules, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be told that the same difference applies to the rules of our languages. We could then start seeking answers to a number of very interesting questions. For example, which criteria select a linguistic use as a language, when and where? Such criteria can’t be linguistic, because linguistics has no say in winnowing practices of this kind. So what are they, and how are they evaluated? Why are these criteria used for selection and why should there be a selection in the first place? And, not least, who mandates language spokespeople to champion language causes?

Understanding why there are standards and standards, and why all linguistic uses have standards would also allay disquiet about language policies, at home and in school. Our language choices matter, don’t they? That’s the next question I ask.


© MCF 2014

Next post: The languages that matter. Saturday 23rd August 2014.

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