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.

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