Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I might could say something. But oughten should I?

Last weekend I found myself talking about linguistics more than usual. I was in a college town away from home making new acquaintances and explaining to most them what I'm studying. One nice fellow made the common joke "Oh well then I'll be careful with what I say." I laughed and assured him that he misunderstood what most linguists do. I told him that I'm not a grammarian. I'm not a high school English teacher. I'm not a copy editor. I'm not a pedant. Well I try not to be a pedant.

"In fact" I said to him "I'm probably your biggest advocate. I cherish the view that language is what people do with words. Not what they think they're supposed to do with words." He gave a nod (halfway between "cool!" and "really?") then the discussion turned to mountain biking.

Another conversation with someone later in the weekend stayed on track a little longer. This fellow grew up in Massachusetts then moved to Tennessee. No marker of either region in his speech. I was very disappointed with him and I let him know. "You could have one fascinating blend of accents" I told him. "But you sound like a broadcast posterboy." He laughed and told me that his mother was from Colombia which I jokingly told him made his story all the more tragic.

Our discussion of Southern speech brought up the writings of Richard Mitchell. He spoke in agreement with Mitchell's claim that unless you can organize your words you can't organize your thoughts. I wasn't comfortable in going along with this claim but neither did I want to attack a new friend's sensibilities. So I asked if this was a strict or relative Sapir-Worfian view he was promoting. We agreed on relative before continuing.

But I held my tongue when he made one statement that I would have had to tear apart if I addressed it. The claim that education in the south is atrocious because of phrases like "mighta could" corrupting the minds of the students. "How can they teach anything if they can't apply any rules to their language?"

I understand that this phrase conforms to a standard that many people do not respect. I think the standard should be respected but I understand the role of register and decorum. Know your audience and do what you can to preserve your credibility with them. If you lose their respect it helps to understand what might have contributed to that.

But I must say this again and again. Language that ignores your rules is not ignoring all regulation. It simply heeds other regulations. All language has rules. Some people think certain dialects are rebel dialects due to the following types of reasoning:

They only ignore rules because they don't know them.
If they ignore certain rules they must hate authority. So they will ignore all rules.
Give them an inch and they'll take a mile.

These are basic complaints common to prescriptivists. When a linguist offers evidence of rules the argument relies on a history of laziness. 'Well they might have some rules now but the change came about because of laziness and ignorance.'

At some point in my conversations I have to sit back and wonder how much to "correct" these ideas. I have a bad habit of trying to show when I have information that counters any claim I hear. If the claim is a threat to equality or justice maybe I should be a little more brash about asserting it. But is it possible for me to be a vigilant defender of language variation without being a jerk too?

1 comment:

  1. When I get back from Zihuat we're going to talk about what your definition of "language" assumes... I'm not snidely suggesting anything here, but I do continue to wonder whether I may somehow communicate while consciously disobeying existing rules and not creating new rules.

    But, I guess if it's either accept what you say or bowl a drunken 112...

    (consider, for example, what is communicated in elipses?)



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