Saturday 27 August 2011

Languages and beauty contests

Asking for judgements from mirrors, mirrors on the wall is not exclusive to jealous queens obsessed with their looks. Real-life nobility, clergy and commoners also find plenty of opportunities to enquire about the aesthetics of their languages, so that they can then devise ways to plague themselves and everyone around them about their findings.

Needless to say, linguistic beauty is as elusive as its fairy tale counterpart. We are not told, for example, what the original jealous queen looked like, we are only told that she was beautiful. Which means that we don’t know what exactly is it that made her beautiful and, therefore, what exactly is it that the mirror is going on about.

Linguistic mirrors pass similar obscure judgements. Take language X, for example. Whether we know the language or not, when we say that it is a beautiful language because it is the language of love, we’re not judging the language: we’re judging love, because we do know that love is a beautiful thing. Language Y, in contrast, is a language of war, and hence ugly. Or conversely, of course. Some people love the smell of napalm any time of day.

Statements such as these seem to imply that speakers of language X and language Y spend their linguistic lives basking in beauty and ugliness, respectively. If true, this would mean that multilinguals in those languages might have an expressive edge over monolinguals or multilinguals in other languages. Multilinguals in general, however, switch language in order to mind bedchamber, barracks and other business appropriately, not aesthetically.

Such statements forget that any language can be put, and is put, to any use which it is called upon to serve. As the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson wrote, in his 1959 book On Translation, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they can convey.” In other words, we can express ex-aequo beauty and ugliness in any language, which means that no language beats another in the contest. The same is true of words: you can have a look at this Lexiophiles post, Discriminating words on aesthetics grounds, to appreciate the election process – and you can participate in it too. The bottom line is that it all depends on where you choose to look for your evidence.

Image: © Nieve44/La Luz (Flickr)

When we say that some languages are beautiful and others aren’t, what we’re saying is that we’ve now joined the ranks of fellow well-behaved mirrors. We can now be relied upon to reflect judgements about languages which derive from love, war, and other things that have as much to do with intrinsic features of those languages as a shopping list or a fairy tale. Whether Miss Language is indeed the fairest one of all on its own merits is irrelevant: the reason why the mirror knows best is that we’re looking at it blindfolded.

Languages that we take to be beautiful are desirable languages, perhaps on the persuasion, or the hope, that the ruling mirrors will thus approve of their users too. But languages come in varieties, and varieties are played by ear, not by looks. Mastering Miss Language may mean little if you don’t heed its sidekick, Mister Accent: the desirability of languages swells and fades along time, but accent beauties seem never to go to sleep. Beauty contests turn ugly when you find your job application, or yourself, rejected not because of what you have to say in your languages, but because of the way you have to say it. I’ll leave this for next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Accent cosmetics. Saturday 10th September 2011.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Breaking rules, or making them?

Developments in technology shape the way we think about uses of language, as I’ve noted before. They naturally shape those uses too. We once developed telephone-, telegram-, television- and telefax-appropriate language, for example, in the same way that we’re currently developing language uses which fit the cyber-goodies on offer in the communicative market.

All of this means change, a word which, unlike the word development, often carries quite negative connotations, particularly when applied to language. Discussions (fights, rather?) about language change belong right there with politics, religion, football, and other allegiance-arousing topics that make us blow our tops off on short notice – or inspire us to produce masterpieces like Taylor Mali’s poem Totally like whatever, you know?, here in a video animation by Ronnie Bruce.

Language changes because it has to. If it didn’t, or couldn’t, or shouldn’t, we would have no use for it. Children teach us this, not just because they’re apprentice users of language and so naturally probe it in their rookie ways, but mostly because they probe it to make use of it in the world in which they’re growing up, which is different both from the world of the adults around them, and from the world in which those adults grew up. We mostly dismiss child ways of using language on account of the overall cuteness of child-like behaviour, reassuring ourselves that our adorable little ones eventually grow out of “it” to join our own humdrum linguistic fold. But then they don’t, and morph instead into teenagers, who, apparently by definition, do not so much use language as maul it.

Teenagers are routinely blamed for all sorts of woes betiding language uses. This includes intriguing claims that they may wield power to destroy the languages that they so (mis)use, no less. If you read Portuguese, you can check out one example of this, in a (now archived) warning that Grafia alterada utilizada por adolescentes pode comprometer futuro da língua portuguesa (‘Teens’ orthographic changes may jeopardise the future of the Portuguese language’). The piece is about the apparently lethal combination of adolescence and mobile technology, where new keyboard-friendly spellings spell (literally) the doom of the august Portuguese language as a whole. You can also read my response to this piece of logic, Adolescentes, telemóveis e a língua portuguesa (‘Teenagers, mobile phones and the Portuguese language’), where I argue that what’s going on is a quest for making Portuguese usable through a medium which is new to it.

In recent years, teen language uses have been the object of extensive study, notably by Scandinavian scholars like J. Normann Jørgensen (Love Ya Hate Ya), and Anna-Brita Stenström and colleagues (COLT – The Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language), who also reported on Youngspeak in a Multilingual Perspective. What these studies show is that teens do with their language(s) exactly what everyone else does too: they adopt those languages that serve their needs, and adapt them to whatever matters to them, here and now. Languages like smsing and txting are native languages, as it were, to a new generation of human beings.

I don’t see significant differences between what happened to languages when the printing press came along their way, and what teens (and the rest of us) go on doing with our languages: it’s all about making new, unwieldy little print symbols fit what we want to say. Printed forms of language, now as before, test our abilities to tackle the multimodality of representations to which languages lend themselves, making it clear that representations of languages are not the languages that they represent. Kay O’Halloran and Bradley Smith’s new book, Multimodal Studies, tells us all about this.

Being multimodal, like being multilingual, draws our attention to patterns of language use that we’ve neglected in favour of monolithic views of language. Standardised uses of txt are emerging, from the languages which use txt, as surely as they did for other printed forms of language. No one is breaking any rules, because there are no rules (yet) for what is going on: we’re witnessing the birth and growth of rule-making instead, as it is happening. The added twist is that emerging cyber-friendly rules concern printed forms of language, which we’ve learnt to associate with formal uses, but cross over to represent chatty, laid-back uses. We are learning to print as we speak, which was the whole point of developing printed language in the first place.

Next time, I’ll talk some more about standards, those that we’ve somehow come to associate with beauty – and ugliness.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Languages and beauty contests. Saturday 27th August 2011. 


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