Benji Wald on Language Equality

Benji Wald is a linguistics professor at UCLA. This is what he posted [Mon, 03 Jun, and Thursday, 13 Jun, 1996] to the LINGUIST List on the subject of Equality in linguistics. He asked me to provide this mail-link to ibenawj@mvs.oca.ucla.edu in case you want to respond to him personally.


The following is something which definitely needs list discussion, because it is so common (we've discussed it before), not simply a personal answer. I'll start:
AM Henry asks:

"It is a commonly held view among linguists that, linguistically, all language varieties are of equal value, and 'standard' languages are no 'better' than non-standard; however, I wonder if we really 'practise what we preach' in this regard. For example, does anyone encourage students to submit work in non-standard English, or non-standard varieties of other languages? Has anyone tried to get their institution to uphold the rights of speakers of non-standard varieties not to be penalised for submitting work including aspects of the grammar of these varieties? It seems to me that many students are penalised for using 'non-standard' grammar - an issue which often gets confused with being able to write in a clear style, produce good argumentation etc, which is of course quite different. Any views?"
This question recurs with predictable regularity as soon as thoughtful people learn about how linguistics is "descriptive", vs. "prescriptive". The wording of what linguists supposedly say varies, and it is tempting to make an issue of that for purposes of reply. However, Henry's version is fair, i.e., that "all language varieties are of equal value." "Value"? Yes, value, for who/m? Why, for linguists, of course. Absolutely and positively no one else shares that view (nor do linguists when they are not being linguists -- but that's what makes linguists so unique).

Do we practice what we preach? Yes, we consider any phenomenon in any variety of any language relevant data for research on language. We can also show that the basic tools and concepts we have available to analyse any particular variety are just as good (or as bad) for analysing any other variety. In fact, our tools are designed and constantly redesigned so that that will stay true. As an aside, armchair linguistics, which is the dominant form of "pure" linguistics does tend to take most of its data from (more or less) standard varieties of languages, for those that have clearly developed (or distinguishable) standards, but that's just a reflection of the most easily available sources to armchair linguists (plus the philological origins of linguistics), and not a reflection in any way of their professional evaluation of other varieties as sources of data.

There used to be blatant discrimination against second language varieties as objects of study, and that still occurs somewhat, but linguists have had an internally consistent rationale for that. That is, given the fundamental principle (open to question) that each language, or each variety, is a single "system", exploring the properties of that system is best developed in considering the "first" language of speakers, just in case multilingualism turns out to involve more than "one" system. The vision was/is that once we understand better how first languages work, we will have a better footing for approaching the problems of systematicity in individual (or group) multilingualism. I won't pursue here why this sounds reasonable or what is wrong with it, since it is not particularly relevant to the question motivating this message. (But remember how I asked last time this issue came up: are linguists prescriptive when they deal with second language acquisition, using terms like "error analysis", "negative transfer", and the like?)

What I have said above is what linguists think, and what they mean by saying "all languages have equal value", or something else for which that inference is justifiable. It is shocking to non-linguists, because non-linguists believe in good and bad languages/ varieties. Unlike linguists, they do not think a bad language would be one that nobody understands (not to imagine one which destroys all the sacred cows of linguistic theory -- a fear, unjustified, in considering second languages on a par with first languages), but one which "everyone" understands all too well, and produces a BAD impression on hearers under certain circumstances -- the circumstances in Henry's question being the academic milieu. After all, it is well known to sociolinguists that under some other circumstances use of a "standard" variety could also produce negative impressions among listeners -- but Henry is tweaking the academic with his(?) question.

So, does it follow from what linguists believe that they should - what? be tolerant of? encourage? the dismantlement of the standard language as practiced in academia (and wherever else it is relevant). That is a complicated question. The answer is something similar to the "principle" that all human lives are of equal value, so it doesn't matter if I or you die if that saves the life of someone we don't know. Should we make it "save TWO lives of someones we don't know"? Is that more persuasive to you sacrificing your own life? No? Does that mean you don't accept the principle? Or, to be less drastic, how about the principle that everybody should be equal as far as having sight, or whatever? You think so? So, how about contributing one of your eyes to someone -- anyone -- who can't see but would with an eye transplant operation? I know, you're saving it in case that happens to someone you love. That's a different principle, an even more compelling one: charity begins at home.

We can go on and on with such principles. You don't believe clothes are necessary in hot weather. So you're going to walk around naked to be faithful to your beliefs? (No, I can't act on all my beliefs, but I still believe.)

Maybe you don't accept the analogies. Then let's consider academic institutions. Are you doing somebody a favcr who hasn't learned to write "standard" prose by indulging their nonstandard prose? (How you mark the paper is a different issue; let's say you're not the English composition professor, just the linguistics professor. I won't pursue this here.) Next, you're actually going to defend them from criticism and ridicule (say in front of the English composition professor, and then the rest of academia, and then wherever they get a job, if they do)? You're going to commit academic suicide (you won't have time for anything more highly valued in academia -- or should that be the priority?) and bring your student down with you?

This is absurd. Cervantes dealt with this moral dilemma a long time ago, you know Don Quixote.

Henry's final sentence has a subtlety which should not go unappreciated:

"It seems to me that many students are penalised for using 'non-standard' grammar - an issue which often gets confused with being able to write in a clear style, produce good argumentation etc, which is of course quite different."
Does that get confused by linguists? Where's the evidence? (Recall those term papers! Ah, no worry. Each student complains independently. They don't get together, compare grades, and note that they were marked down for the way they expressed themselves, not for the quality of their ideas. Anyway, how do you prove that someone DID understand you, when they claim they didn't?)

No doubt unclarity, "etc" (what IS the rest?) is different from nonstandardness, assuming the reader understands the nonstandardness, a big assumption -- and one which had something to do with the development of standard languages (cf. Caxton on publishers' problems in maximising a market of readers in the absence of a standard language). Linguists themselves have enough trouble understanding each others' writings without encouraging additional problems. Remember the one that goes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? If you have to learn it in school, that don't mean it's broke. Otherwise, why don't we fix our spoken languages so that people who don't speak them could learn them more easily? (ANS: that's not what they're for; they're not for "everyone" -- that's what standard languages are for!). Would you know how to do that anyway? (By the way, there's nothing I can say that's so ridiculous that somebody hasn't proposed it -- but that's not the same issue as arbitrarily dismantling a standard koine -- by refusing to pass it on.)

As I already said, what linguists mean by what they say does not have to do with the social inequality of varieties, and what's best to do about that. The judicious thing to say is that we better understand the "standard/nonstandard" relation a lot better before we start getting sanctimonious about it, or propose some other kind of "academic" linguistic conduct. Choose your battles carefully, or you may not be around long enough to fight the one you can win.

For the sake of forestalling other faulty inferences from what linguists mean, the following doesn't go without saying. Under certain circumstances linguists are in a position, and should summon their expertise, to protest certain kinds of linguistic injustices, e.g., when someones who speak (or write) a nonstandard language are judged to be of subhuman intelligence or morally defective on that basis, that linguistic variety is necessarily a threat to sociopolitiical stability (now there's a topic...), "etc".

Borderline is linguistic engineering, where linguists may or not decide to take sides on the issue of whether some "variety" of a "language" should be withdrawn from that language and set up as an independent "language". Once that happens the criticism of the rebellious grammar on the basis of the language from which it "seceded" is much reduced, if not entirely eliminated, eg. no one condemns Spanish (French, Russian, etc) on the basis of its use of multiple negation (of those who stigmatise it in English -- or in Latin or Proto-Indo-European? Note the labels, I'm getting to that).

In the past we've talked about cases where linguists have even been called in to consult on where or how to cut an unwritten dialect continuum to develop written forms of a language or several languages in order to facilitate literacy. Many social considerations and sensitive judgments are involved. But let's talk about linguistic secession.

Linguistic secession has been tried on various occasions, sometimes succesfully, sometimes not. Isn't that a favorite topic in the "history of linguistics" in the Renaissance period? The case of various creole languages also comes to mind, of which Sranan is a good example. In the 20th century Sranan intellectuals insisted that Sranan is not a mishmosh of English and Portuguese (and some Dutch) but an independent language which should not be criticised in terms of its deviations from English, Port, etc, and it should be accepted as the independent language that it is. It should be called Sranan, not "talky talky" (TakiTaki). Of course, following socially acknowledged forms of demonstration acceptable to those who needed such persuasion, they also developed a thriving literature in that language, poetry, prose, what have you. The argument was successful. Admittedly it was helped by its social context, where Dutch, the language it least resembles, was the elite language. In contrast, the idea of recognising African American English (or Black English Vernacular in the relevant time period) as an independent language was not successful. Development of a literature in that language was not really tried, the closest thing to that being the development of readers for primary school children. This was criticised as a somewhat stereotyped parody of the actual spoken varieties of the language, valueless or at least retarding for the purposes for which it was designed, and those members of the community who were most active perceived the idea as yet another attempt to maintain social barriers between African American people in the US and the "mainstream", to the detriment of the African American people. Essentially the argument was that it would perpetuate rather than resolve inequality in the US context. There is still disagreement about that, though not much. (We'll explore early controversy over Zora Neale Hurston's writings and the reaction of the "Harlem Renaissance" movement some other time.) "Look! our language is as good as any other. Here's the proof. There are BOOKs in it! (Hardcover at that!)" That kind of argument would shut a lot of people up. Of course, there are others who rail against introducing into writing such things as "hopefully" (that was a 70s one causing Edwin Newman to froth at the mouth, trying to keep his journalistic flock in line), or whatever comes up. ("hopefully" is here to stay, until the pattern whose hole it fills goes away.) Generally, the more powerful the authority the "pettier" the examples they pick to criticise/feel threatened by. (Strangely, the arguments against them are extremely persuasive and beautifully expressed -- except for the examples. The arguments would be much better without the examples that the arguments are about -- discipline, moral fibre, basic values, civilisation, bla bla bla.)

The above examples, which differ in many ways, illustrate how complex the overall problem of the "equality" of languages across social contexts is. In contrast, what linguists say about "equality of languages" is very simple if you try to understand what they actually mean, why they say it, and how they use that principle. I think I covered that well enough right at the outset of this message. Various other shades of opinion and projecting of consequences can and should be debated, but I, for one, am puzzled that linguists have not been able to get across what they mean so that questions like Henry's do not keep recurring in perpetuity. But I'm glad that they do come up rather than leave the incredulous smiling wryly in disbelief and thinking "what a bunch of hypocrites linguists are". Uhm, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

-- Benji

Alison Henry's last message clarifies some of the questions raised in her(?) previous message. It changes my perception of what was behind the original question from something more "academic" to something more practical, and has a number of nuances that it did not occur to me previously to respond to.

One practical issue is how to grade papers written nonstandardly. I have actually encountered that problem, though not for a long time. As a dialectologist I have not had difficulty myself distinguishing nonstandard language from logic and argumentation, as far as I could tell. That came up with some undergraduates in introductory courses. My attitude was to overlook the nonstandardness and go for the quality of the ideas, etc. But I did pause to consider what I was doing. Like Henry, I didn't have faith that other professors would be as tolerant as I, or that they would even be able to make the distinctions I did -- and what about structure and ordering in argumentation? There is a formalised, but probably still arbitrary, order to presentation of an argument in academic writing. Ethnographers inform us that different oral cultures organise various genres of discourse in different ways -- this relates to the syntax of discourse, among other things. This is not strictly a matter of standard vs. nonstandard grammar in the sense of the examples Henry gave -- she just gave morphology. But sometimes papers, even "standardly" written, take liberties with the prescribed order. However, the order can be reconstructed and the arguments make sense. Does the unconventional order detract from clarity, since the academic reader is conditioned to expect an argument to occur in a rather fixed order? Is that a "thinking" problem or "just" a formal organisational problem? In such cases I commented on the order of presentation, and tended to mark down as a warning because of the extra effort it caused me to figure out the argument and whether it was sound.

In the case of nonstandard morphology/syntax and spelling -- the last not mentioned by Henry -- I "corrected" it but did not mark down for it. It was not a big inconvenience to correct that, as compared with giving advice on order of argumentation. I did not consider teaching standard morphology or spelling as part of my job (as opposed to discussing it with reference to nonstandard spoken language). Besides, as a dialectologist I was too aware of the prejudicial nature of marking down for such "trivial" things. But I figured the student was going to have problems with other teachers. Fleetingly, I also considered that what I was doing, though I could justify it in terms of my own specialty, could be perceived by unfriendly eyes (if they bothered to notice) as similar to what teachers in public schools do when they pass a student with "minimal skills" on to the next grade, "passing the buck" to some other teacher. Educational research shook the nation a while ago with the revelation that many high school graduates were "functional illiterates". Down went all the great previous elation over the rising percentage of HS graduates. Maybe that was covertly shrugged off as indicative of the adjusted value of a HS diploma, or at least one with a C- average (US system) behind it, not overtly shrugged off, of course. The measure of HS graduates is easier to obtain than the national grade average (whatever that would mean, given grading and standards variation across locales). Meanwhile, an appropriate national system of measuring scholastic achievement in the US remains problematic, not to mention the state's rights domain of education in the US, and degree of autonomy given to local districts, which is probably a good thing, given the overall mess education is in. Other nations have other educational problems or inequities, e.g., the traditional British system of deciding on the basis of an exam at the age of 12 whether a student will go on to an academic career or into a vocational training program. That was very effective in keeping the working and middle classes "stable" and separate. (Well, maybe it amounts to the same thing as in the US, but it's done in a different way.)

In any case, beyond the elementary college level nonstandard morphology became less of a problem (maybe because those who had not mastered standard morphology in writing by that time had become so discouraged or disillusioned that they dropped out of school). Within linguistics at least, I got the impression that those who could read the required linguistic literature and understand it were able to imitate the style in their own writing pretty well. Of course, organisation of argument remains a problem throughout life, so I won't say more about that issue. So the real problem is that those who are a problem get eliminated. Everyone in the business of education knows that. What to do about it is as much subject to debate as anything else.

Henry's following statement is overly simplistic:

"It might be argued that it is easier to learn a new dialect than to change race/religion/sexual orientation, but it seems to me that research in linguistics shows that this means in fact abandoning one's identity with a particular group, and is also not very easy to do consistently for most people."
There are two issues here, 1) abandoning identity 2) consistency. About 1): The learner is not abandoning an old identity any more than someone who gets a professional job and moves to a new (classier) neighborhood is abandoning friends who remain "non-professional" (or whatever) or stay in the old neighborhood. That such things happen is undeniable, but that they must happen is false. It depends on the learners and how seriously they take the messages they get. Linguists will tell them that they are adding to their repertoire, not giving up anything. That is a possibility, not something that necessarily happens.

The "research in linguistics" referred to must have to do with "in its social context". It sounds like social psychology (as a field overlapping with linguistics) to me. Academia and the professional world is not interested in people's personal sense of identity, only with the partial identity which the institutions promote. A person who gives up all prior "identity" to make it in that world is "possessed" (stereotyped as "nerdy"), and no less narrow-minded than one who refuses to keep learning or growing socially at an early age.

It gets more complicated when we start examining the social forces that pull people in different directions, as if to entirely possess their whole being, but I'm trying to stay brief here. Still, from what I've seen, early teenagers think they have to totally commit to one role or another, clothes, etc. Later teenagers get pleasure out of being different things at different times, getting dressed differently for different occasions, etc. In sum, I know the premise above is false because I know people whose lives contradict it. Everybody's does to one extent or another, but that's not something we usually talk about in public. Standard languages give us the option of functioning in that basically anonymous society, that society of strangers. But if that's all of you've got, where do you go when they turn the lights out and lock the doors? You ain't got no home. That's like eating nothing but fast food for the rest of your life. ("standard" food?)

As for point 2) consistency, either that's covered by 1) or it has to do with the point Henry wants to make of the class system that I'll react to next. First, however, it occurs to me that a good case of what Henry may have in mind is the way Richard Rodriguez portrays how his education resulted in his self-alienation from his family in his autobiographical "Hunger of Memory". I was particulatly struck by the passage where Rodriguez describes, without any indication of recognising the irony of what he was saying, how he felt the alienation when his working class mother asked him about what he was working on at Harvard, and he asks the reader something like: how could I expect her to understand that I was working on a paper on the universal appeal of Shakespeare? (He didn't seem to mean that the education he was getting would disappoint her naive respect for education because it was about learning how to bullshit -- but more simply that he didn't know how to explain it to her, or want to be bothered trying, and from elsewhere it is clear that he didn't think she was really interested in what he was studying, only in being in touch with him. The whole thing was very pathetic. Must I repeat? The institutions do not care about such problems. Should they? If so, what could possibly be beyond their reach?)

To get to the point, Henry notes:

"The fact is that, although no one 'speaks' standard written English, it is much closer to the dialect of some, largely middle class, speakers, than it is to that of others. Are we giving non-standard speakers the message that, while their grammars are all right for some informal purposes, they aren't good enough for serious uses?"
Now we can see that this connects to the last passage I quoted. I suppose the point is that "middle class" students will "have to" give up less of their "identity" than the working class students -- and that's not fair. Well, I questioned that above. And, besides, is it any surprise the educational system works that way, since it is designed to keep the middle class stocked. It is not designed to replenish either lower or upper classes.

In any case, the answer to the last question is "yes". And it can easily be shown that being "taken seriously" is a function of conforming to "appropriate" behavior. Again, the linguist, or sociolinguist, among other scholars, is concerned with the notion of "appropriateness" and how that varies and shapes speech behavior according to variation in social situations. There's no point denying injustice. It exists. Where linguists can do something about it, like anybody else who knows something that can help alleviate an injustice, they should try. At least linguists realise what part of the problem is. Language prejudice. Nobody else does. So that's a start. But linguists can't finish by themselves. So far, it seems that the best they can do is propagate the view, with proper and CLEAR support, that in most respects (and they better get this right by going into details) standards in language are arbitrary in terms of the way that linguists, and in fact most people, see language. It's worth emphasising that standard languages are nobody's first language, just as people learn to speak before they learn to read, but it can't be denied that they're closer to the middle-class than to lower classes for historically and structurally obvious reasons, if you know them. And there's probably no way to change that without changing the structure of society. But this is what we don't really know, and linguists are certainly in no privileged position to understand this any better than anybody else. Even sociologists debate the "nature of society" the way we debate the "nature of grammar". So their input is useful, but also limited.

The dimensions of the problem are revealed when we consider more recently and apparently rationally devised standard languages. The idea is to compromise on any local variety, so as not to provoke jealousies. Class doesn't really enter into the creation process. The "middle" class will receive the product first, because it's their function to maintain and disseminate it. That's one of the meaning of "middle", cf. "middleman -- uh person". Nobody's satisfied, but ideally all should be equally dissatisfied, not one more than another. Even so, somebody's always left out of consideration, lots of somebodies. A different solution, also effective, was the creation of Standard Swahili. A lot of people already knew Swahili, but they didn't really know the people who spoke it as a first language, and did not associate the language with such people. The latter people, esp those whose dialect was standardised, isolated by sea on the island of Zanzibar, did not profit from standardisation. In fact, people whose first language was not Swahili could more easily learn the quirks in the standard, especially in writing -- which is what standards are about, that extra measure of anonymity, you don't even know what the writer looks like -- than the first language speakers. This might have some implications for other standards, if properly taught, which might even give the edge to lower classes over the "middle class". It is problematic whether the educational system is set up to give the edge to lower classes over the middle class under any circumstances. Probably the best it could do without a complete overhaul of a society is change the lower class into the middle class, and in so doing change the middle class into the lower class. That's a lot of effort to change nothing. So this entire problem and its implications has to be thought out more clearly. What's it all about?

In a way, standard languages are like money, paper money. Useless (i.e., arbitrary) when people look at it objectively, but of unimaginable uses as long as people BELIEVE in it/them. Now you wouldn't tell someone, that $100 bill, it's only paper. Everybody can see that, but nobody believes it. "Same" thing with standard languages. Arguing about the "unfairness" of standard languages is probably like arguing about changing the tires on a car to make it go, when it's the battery that's dead.

-- Benji
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