Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Listening to Prescriptivists

Lauren Squires posted on her blog a useful summary of issues important to most language scientists (including linguistic anthropologists): polyglot conspiracy � The social life of prescriptivism
Also posted on Language Log.

A few comments, with quotes from Squires's blog entry.

Then there’s the language ideologies work, which goes beyond what people think about language to ask what social processes are underlying the attitudes, often by appealing to political systems, historical influences, socioeconomic structure, and semiotic processes that turn language into a carrier of social meaning in various ways. Language ideologies are often defined as sets of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how people use language (by imposing some sort of schema about what is “right,” “appropriate,” or whatever), and they also serve as speakers’ means of rationalizing or otherwise explaining the language that they or someone else uses.
Neat explanation! This could be useful in some teaching situations. On occasion, students have difficulty understanding some of the work we do.
My personal experience as a French-speaker frequently living in English-speaking contexts (Indiana, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, Quebec, and Internet) has impressed me with the differences between Francophone and English-speaking language ideologies. I tend to use these observations a bit too frequently but the differences do strike me. For instance, the positive attitude toward «langage touffu» in French ("obfuscated language," but without the negative connotations) vs. the Orwellian tendency to value "plain speech" in English. These differences are used in academic, social, and even political contexts to great effect.

Why do Michiganders think they speak the most “correct” form of English in the United States?
This one sounds quite close to a comment made by a Midwesterner (probably a Michigander, actually) in the movie American Tongues. Can't remember the exact quote (maybe it's YouTubed) but the gist of it was that "In the Midwest, the way we speak is pretty boring." Yes, something close to Standard American English. But not as an elevated dialect of the language. More as an umarked variety with nothing fun to it.

In order to make a usage gripe, you have to be aware of the linguistic feature you’re griping about.
Important point. As descriptivists, we often gripe about those gripes when the linguistic feature is not, in fact, incompatible with "normative language." In other words, we wouldn't complain about a prescriptivist who points out that "Furiously sleep ideas green colorless" is ungrammatical. But we might become somewhat snarky when a prescriptivist argues that split infinitives are incorrect when the splitless alternative would, in fact, be ungrammatical.
Yet, as observers of speakers (and signers), we need to assess the process of linguistic awareness. What makes something a "language pet peeve?" Some people can't stand the unbelievably common confusion between "its" and "it's" (even among language scientists). I react when I see "complimentary" in place of "complementary." We probably all have some similar "peeves," even in a language of which we're non-native speakers. These "pet peeves" and all the language forms which make people react seem to have important social implications. Given social stratification, it might well be that stigma may only be associated to features which are saliently "incorrect" to prestigious speakers. In fact, non-native speakers who are afforded great prestige can "get away with" uncommon forms, at least in English. For instance, on a recent Open Source episode, film theorist Slavoj Zizek's two-syllable pronunciation of "film" was almost revered by the status-conscious host.

While I agree that it would be nice to get some teachable moments out of the gripes, I’m not certain that it would ultimately change anything until some deeper cultural issues were addressed.
While that comment seems to refer to a specific context, I quite like this idea of "getting some teachable moments out of the gripes." Many of our students come to us with a prescriptivist tendency. Even if they don't, they may gripe when some forms appear to them to be incorrectly used. As students of culture, we can (should?) try to understand the cultural implications and "social life" of prescriptivism.