Saturday 6 November 2010

Code makers and code breakers

Standardised languages are tamed varieties of language. Standards do not exist, in nature: there are no standard trees, standard crystals or standard human beings occurring naturally. Which means that standards must be constructed by someone, somewhere, sometime. Which already tells us quite a lot about the nature of standards.

Descriptive language standards, those showing us what is going on among language uses, draw on real language data, collected from real people, who speak their languages in different ways because they live in specific real times and places. Prescriptive standards, those showing us what should be going on, draw on choice samples of language to establish a code of recommended linguistic behaviour. The code makers, those in charge of standardisation procedures, are of course real people too, in all the above senses. Which tells us why standards of language tend to bear uncanny resemblance to the linguistic habits of people in charge.

Like most institutions, standards are conservative, but need to evolve in order to preserve themselves. Opinions about standards evolve too, and we may sometimes come to surprise ourselves with what we (think we) take as standard. One example is in the replies to this question to Ask-a-Linguist. A coming exhibition at the British Library concerns itself with these matters, including an online collection of samples of current uses of English, to add to their repository of past uses: Evolving English

A standard of language functions like an Operating Instructions Manual. We go through it before use, taking due notice of any actions that may damage the product, and we go through it after use, apologising politely for any unwitting misdemeanours. By doing this, we are also providing evidence that the standard code we’re using doesn’t come naturally to us. Most of us are in fact multi-coded in this way, and switch among codes. If we don’t use the standard, because we don’t want to or because we don’t know it, we’re not breaking a code: we’re following the rules of a different one. We have our everyday language habits, like we have our lounge-about clothes, and we change into formal wear when required. Which leads to the question of why we should be required to wear language uses.

One core reason why standards are necessary is schooling, and the reason for that is that schooling is also a standardisation. What I mean by this is explained, better than I ever could, in a recent post by A Cuban in London. Schooling opens up access to lifestyles that associate with prestige, where you can feed back into peer circuits the good standards of language that you’ve learned to use. Standards cannot survive except through consensual nurturing of this kind. George Philip Krapp put it clearly in his 1909 book, Modern English. Its growth and present use: “Standard English is the customary use of a community when it is recognized and accepted as the customary use of the community.” So you follow the consensual standard not only to prove that you’ve learned (about) it, but also to show what you can afford to wear, language-wise.

Even if you prefer not to show off your possessions, you may one day find yourself doing just that: your own version of your languages may have become standard. Put another way, you can always “wait till your brand of bad becomes acceptable”. This is what we gather from a video clip that a VASTA colleague tipped me about (thank you, Michael, and the student who tipped you!): Whachawdano.

The ability to change language uses, or clothes, according to what particular situations require of us, is an acquired habit. It shows our skills at adapting to our environment, something that we sometimes may have to do instantly. Imagine yourself having a good romp with friends, and suddenly having to answer a phone call from a prospective employer, if you’re of employable age, or a knock on the door from your parents, if you aren’t yet. Imagine the different “yous” before and after, and imagine the codes of language that define each one.

Codeswitching doesn’t seem to be an exclusively multilingual privilege, in other words. I’ll come back to this matter some other day, but next time I would like to say a few things about partiality towards foreign codes of language.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Outsourcing language products. Wednesday 10th November 2010.

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