linguistics

Recommended Read

Ghomeshi, Jila. Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010. [ISBN-13: 978-1894037-44-0]

If English is going to hell in a hand basket, how is it that there are so many rigidly prescriptive grammar guides in bookstores? I sometimes wonder about this when hunting between such guides for books like this one. In Grammar Matters Jila Ghomeshi points out that this public appetite for grammar guides, word-of-the-day email subscriptions, punctuation-related Facebook groups, and so forth actually demonstrates that the general population has a rather strong interest in language and in getting it “right.” And this appetite belies the idea that a general ignorance and disregard for correct language use somehow has the entire English language on the ropes.

Ghomeshi reminds us that warnings about the imminent collapse of English into babel have been with us for hundreds of years (pretty well dating to the invention of the first guides to English usage) and that the apocolypse doesn’t seem to have struck yet. To be sure, the language has changed in those hundreds of years—languages change as time ticks past, just as they change from one place to another, one job to another, one neighbourhood to another, and one playground to another. We tailor our language to our needs, and we each draw on several varieties of a language as we wander from one place and time to another.

I have one English I use with friends, another I use at work, one I use with small children, and another I use to write to my member of parliament. One of these is not better than the others—each has its moments when it’s the best one to use. Yet as Ghomeshi writes, “While we don’t freely express judgements about people based on their race or socio-economic status, we not only feel free to do so on the basis of the way they sound, but feel smug while doing so.”

This practice seems to stem in large part from two erroneous assumptions: (1) that standard English is innately better than other forms like AAVE or txting and (2) that those who use other forms do so because they don’t know how to use standard English. It’s my suspicion that this disapproval of nonstandard forms is oftentimes due to the declaimer’s discomfort at their own inability to understand other Englishes.

Does this mean, then, that there should be no standards whatsoever? Not at all. Ghomeshi recognizes the value of a standard dialect of English, offering as it does a broadly shared form of the language that, in its breadth, has the potential to be easily understood by all sorts of English speakers in all sorts of places. And she recognizes, too, that not having a knowledge of standard English can be, fair or not, a real barrier to social and economic opportunities.

Okay, but does this mean we can’t form opinions about our own language preferences? Again, no. Ghomeshi simply reminds us that that is all they are—preferences and not some intrinsically superior form of the language. The perennial charges that some forms of language use are lazier, less elegant, or unclear are all handily dismissed by Ghomeshi with examples galore of how these charges just don’t hold up to scrutiny. As she writes, “When someone declares another person’s language to be unclear and imprecise, what is implicit is that it is unclear and imprecise to them. Such statements obscure the shared responsibility we have for achieving understanding.”

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Well, it’s pretty busy in Word Blog land, which is why I haven’t been quite so diligent about posting new entries. I’m taking courses in digital publishing and scholarly publishing these days, and showing up for work, too, so there hasn’t been as much time to hang out here. When I finish these courses in early August, I’ll be the fancy holder of a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University and also  have a little more free time to throw around.

In the meantime, since I’m reading Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought at the moment, I thought I’d share this intriguing TED talk with you. Enjoy!

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The Prodigal Tongue

by Heather

Recommended Read

Abley, Mark. The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008. [ISBN-13: 978-0-679-31366-3]

Take a moment to be astonished at how much English has changed in the 600-odd years since Langland wrote Peirs Plowman:

In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne, I schop me into a shroud, as I a scheep were; In habite as an hermite unholy of werkes Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;

Or how about the difference 1000 years can make? Here’s a passage from Beowolf:

Him þa ellenrof  andswarode, wlanc Wedera leod,  word æfter spræc, heard under helme: “We synt Higelaces beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama.  Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes…”

It really is amazing how much English has changed. And if you think it’s hard to suss out Langland’s words, think about how much harder it would be for him to understand ours.  While his spelling is a little unconventional to our eyes and a couple of his words rather tricky, we can figure out most of what he writes. Consider, though, if Langland tried to make sense of words like sashimi, Hawaii, email, doppelganger, genome, NATO, or pizza.

In The Prodigal Tongue Mark Abley gives us a peek at what the future of English might look like. He explores the ways that English is evolving in Asia, where it’s spoken by a couple of hundred million people and more are learning it every day. He considers the phenomenal rate at which new words enter English from other languages, especially in cosmopolitan cities like L.A. where, according to U.S. census information, 57.8 percent of people speak a language other than English at home. The appetite among young Japanese people for new English expressions is driving rapid and radical change in the Japanese language and gets a chapter of its own. Add to these discussions chapters on how hip-hop, technology, and science fiction are affecting English and you have one of the most interesting books about words that I’ve read in the past year. I highly recommend checking this one out.

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Recommended Read

Kenneally, Christine. The First Word. Toronto: Viking, 2007. [ISBN-13: 978-0-670-03490-1]

Who spoke the first word of human language? When was that first word uttered? What did that speaker say and why?

Linguists outlawed these questions in 1866 when the Société de Linguistique of Paris declared a moratorium on the topic of how and when language first arose. Scholars who explored these questions were roundly accused of being disreputable, of being engaged in a fruitless search that could only lead to purely speculative answers.

These scholars were shunned by the international linguistics community, their papers seldom seeing the light of publication. It was only in 1990, with the publication of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom’s “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” that the moratorium really lifted. To be sure there had been scholars publishing on the topic before, but the debate that Pinker and Bloom’s paper  occasioned opened the floodgates for studies on the origins of language. The late twentieth century was the moment when anthropology, linguistics, primatology, physiology, computer modelling, neurobiology,  and genetics had together reached a critical mass of knowledge that would allow us to begin tracing our way back to the origins of language.

Christine Kenneally tracks the rise of these studies and the tantalizing clues they’ve given up about the origins of language. [click to continue…]

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