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Linguistics - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Jan. 23rd, 2005

07:31 pm - Linguistics

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We've been having the old prescriptivist/linguist debate on the notesfiles all day. Here's the guts of what I wrote on the topic. There were a lot of other voices in this debate so I apologize if some of the context is lost. I just wanted to archive what I wrote since I spent so much time writing it all and it'll get purged from the notesfiles within a month.

I've started saying "needs done" and "anymore, [positive implication]" regularly and not flinching. Champaign-Urbana has fully absorbed me.


This construction is not a regionalism. It's simply not English.

Millions of highly educated speakers of (some of) the midlands dialect(s) of English who use this construction with regularity and consistency would disagree.

It is not Standard American English.

There are IMSA students (notesfile regulars even) who use this construction regularly in their daily speech. You can't tell me you really think these people are dumb or that they failed middle school classes.

It could be considered an error that a print publication's editors did not catch this use of dialect and correct it into Standard American English as per the policy of the paper. But editorial errors are not the same as language/speech errors. The author/editor of that headline was not failing to communicate in English, simply failing to select the appropriate dialect.


What defines this "Standard English" that people keep talking about?

It is sort of a platonic ideal. But basically it is "the dialect spoken by the national media".

Some countries have an official government sanctioned national dialect (e.g. France, Germany) but the US does not. We rely on the consensus of the national media to define the standard de facto dialect.

Dialects in general are fluid with fuzzy boundaries. Everyone has what is called an "ideolect" which is their own personal and unique dialect which may be a collection of rules from various dialects and used with varying frequencies in varying situations. Dialects describe trends among speakers rather than strict absolute binary boundaries.


This debate about language being logical or not is actually going in slightly the wrong direction.

Language and dialects ARE logical. Dialects follow grammatical rules. Those rules are different than the rules used for other dialects. That is why they are different than just randomly throwing words into meaningless slots.

"The TV needs fixed."

This isn't a matter of throwing a RANDOM part of speach into the verb slot. It is a simply replacement of the "to be done" form with the "done" form. In this dialect "done" serves the same grammatical role that "to be done" serves in other dialects. This isn't a free-for-all of throwing random words into random places. Speakers of the "needs done" dialect follow the rule of using that construction regardless of how well they did in school. It is a general regional trend.
If you're interested in the "logic" of human languages, in the ways that languages consistently change over time and vary over space, in the ways that dialects form and influence one another, in the interplay between dialect and social identity, I'd highly recommend grabbing an introductory Linguistics text and reading it through.

You might be particularly interested in the topic of "code-switching" which describes how people change the dialect they use based on the context of the conversation. Most people have a local dialect as their first language and they later acquire something like Standard American English as a second language/dialect which they are able to fluently switch between based on context and audience.

There's been a LOT of study done on this stuff and it's all very accessible. It isn't a bunch of ivory tower mumojumbo but actual descriptions of actual human language in actual situations.

Generally it is a speech error to choose the wrong dialect for a given audience because doing so weakens a person's authority or comraderie with that audience. It would be very wrong for a national newspaper to use a regional dialect, not because the regional dialect is inherrently "wrong" but because the regional dialect isn't the best way to communicate with a national audience. It is less of an error for a regional newspaper to use a regional dialect. And it is not an error at all for regional speakers to use the local dialect when communicating with each other.

When one of our peers speaks in their childhood dialect to us (which he always does) we all understand that person. That person is also "marked" as speaking a little more "rural" than we're used to. If they don't mind being so marked (it may be a matter of pride or social identity) then it was not an error for that person to choose that dialect. It is the dialect in which they are most fluently able to express themself. There is nothing inherrently "wrong" with the dialect itself; the dialect itself follows rules as consistent as any other; and it is completely and consistently intelligible to it's native or fluent speakers. Failure to use the local dialect in its native region may even have negative social consequences (such as being seen as pretentious or judgemental or having lost one's roots).


It should also be noted that as far as a linguist is concerned, there is not formal difference between a language and a dialect. The difference is entirely based on cultural recognition of a given set of rules as a "language" or as a "dialect". The differences are usually very tied up in nationalism.

As they say: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."

So perhaps it will be easier to grasp how a given dialect can be "correct" even when it is contrary to the "standard" dialect if you simply think of each dialect as mutually intelligible but different languages. Both languages have overlapping but different grammars. Each grammar is complete and equally expressive. Speakers of one can understand and speak to speakers of the other.

Some full-fledged languages are mutually intelligible. A speaker of Norwegian and a speaker of Danish can understand each other even though the Dane would be hardpressed to speak like a Norwegian and viceversa. I can understand a southerner but I'd be hard pressed to speak like one because the difference isn't just in the drawling phonology but also in the actual grammar of that dialect, a grammar that I have never acquired.

Some dialects are NOT mutually intelligible. There are variants of African American Vernacular English that I would be hard pressed to understand. There are "dialects" of Chinese that are completely non-intelligle to speakers of other Chinese dialects. They would be called separate languages if they were in Europe but cultural pressure, nationalism, and a shared writing system cause them to all identify as "Chinese".


The key to realize is that no one will ever have the "perfect standard" as their native language. The grammar that we acquire as our first language is always going to be a regional dialect.

It is perfectly reasonable for a culture to try to create a standard to facility national communications. But there has to be a recognition that all speakers of that standard have to be trained to do use it and will always be speaking it _slightly_ less naturally than they would speak their originally acquired language. The "standard" is always a "second language". And just like any second language speakers, there will always be slip ups and mistakes that "mark" the person as a non-native speaker. In this case there are NO native speakers of the "standard" because language always changes over time and space. You can not hope to stop this.

Comments:

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From:skywind8
Date:January 23rd, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC)
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Fascinating. That's the first time I've heard a clear description of rural language differences that made any sense. It explains SO MUCH as regards social acceptance and recognition. (Rural is the area I'm most familiar with, but I've seen it in other categories too.)

I've also seen new variations emerge when a bunch of people from drastically different backgrounds live together for several years.
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From:nomadwolf
Date:January 23rd, 2005 06:57 pm (UTC)
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That was a good discussion to watch. I wish I had more time to attempt to participate, but alas, no. Well, good apart from the attacks.

I'm not a big fan of the guy (now), but I'm still envious that he (says he)knows Mandarin, and I haven't gotten too far at all in my "studies"... ;( Some day, I hope.

Dixie Chicks -- Home -- Top of the World (6:01)
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From:boannan
Date:January 25th, 2005 06:07 pm (UTC)
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someday, you should get a PhD.
after the porn career, of course. :)
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 25th, 2005 10:13 pm (UTC)
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Oh I definitely will. I probably won't get a PhD until I'm closer to 40 but I will get one.

I made a promise in 6th grade that I can't reneg on. :)

I suspect it'll be in something like anthropology rather than linguistics.
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