Why Standard English Matters

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Drawing a linguistic parallel between Switzerland and the United States, American expatriate Suzanne Lucas argues that educating American children in standard English is as important as educating Swiss children in High German:

Image via Pixabay.
[W]hile I agree with [Michael] Hobbs that AAVE [aka "Ebonics" -- ed] needs to be respected and especially that educators need to understand that it is a legitimate language, I also agree with [Amy] Alkon that not requiring all children in the United States to learn standard English is dooming them to an insulated life without the possibility of greater success. The assumption needs to be that all children are capable of learning a standard language and that learning one does not mean anything negative about the language spoken at home. [bold added]
Lucas and Alkon are correct that failing to teach children standard English puts them at a disadvantage in communicating with others, with all the consequences that implies. But in America, that may not be the full extent of the harm. A book I read eons ago, Twice as Less, by Eleanor Wilson Orr, argued that certain grammatical and usage aspects of Ebonics, which she calls Black English Vernacular (BEV), actually impede understanding of quantitative subjects, such as science and math. It the case of American schools, it could well be that teaching standard English is even more important than teaching High German is in Switzerland.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I'm a Descriptivist--I think that language is made for people, and what people use determines what's valid and what isn't. English, at least, has no central authority to dictate what is "proper" (as opposed to French and Arabic, which do). The beauty of this is that the English language is nearly infinitely adaptable, and can rapidly adjust to changing technologies. We don't need to wait for some obscure board to rule that the small computers we use are called "tablets"; we simply call them that and leave it at that.

From that perspective, dialects are no more or less correct than "standard" English (in scare quotes because here really isn't one--see England, the USA, and Australia). It's all about proper use. A hammer isn't better than a saw in any intrinsic way, but if you need to pound a nail a saw won't work. Similarly, regional, cultural, or even racial dialects aren't bad in any intrinsic way--but if you want to talk to someone outside of your region, culture, or race, and you want to be understood, you need to have a common ground.

The issue is, we need to remember WHY having a national dialect is important. I'm no multiculturalist, but far too many advocates of standard English fall into the trap of Intrinsisism. From a conceptual standpoint this is deeply wrong, and from a practical standpoinit it creates a barrier to your message. No one wants to be told "The way you speak is wrong". The evidence against that statement is too readily apparent. "Speaking this way is more effective in certain situations", on the other hand, is merely common sense and adding additional tools to one's toolbox.

Gus Van Horn said...

Many advocates of Standard English also seem oblivious to the fact that language changes over time, even within a relatively homogeneous group.

What people generally agree on is correct, given the need to communicate with them. That said, it is possible to learn what those rues are, so they can be taught to those who might not know them from early childhood.

Snedcat said...

Part I:
As a professional linguist and a professional editor and a professional translator, I've gotten to the point that the descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate bores me to tears. The short answer, sort of a mantra to release upon the world in the hope it makes people think but with the usual result it just makes everybody mad, is that prescriptivism is for writing, descriptivism for speaking.

To expand on this a little, you learn to speak from your environment; learning to write is a process needing conscious training. There are basic cognitive differences between speaking and writing due to human mental capacities and the basic nature of the medium that mean that what works for speaking is not as effective in writing, and vice versa--with speech you have an at-the-moment decryption of the stream of speech that takes up a lot of your spare processing power, as a result of which limitations on short-term memory impose closer restrictions on how distantly you can expect reference to work in speech than in writing; also, the need to avoid monotony through repetition while simultaneously making allowance for the hearer missing something in the speech stream means that repetition is and should be substantially more common in speech than in writing. Similarly, the amount of readily coughed-up context you can expect from the person the content is directed to is different for speech and writing.

Writing, on the other hand, makes great use of the special strengths of the human visual faculty that make it possible to have much wider limits for reference and the like. In writing you can also go back and check earlier and later parts of a sentence very easily, and more than that visual processing doesn't restrict you to processing only the immediate point of focus in discourse. At least equally importantly, with writing you don't have to make special efforts to record the content so you can review it later; with writing, it's right there. In addition, with writing you can do deeper embedding of relative clauses and the like: It is a striking fact that as cultures become increasingly literate, there is a statistical increase in the proportion of relative clauses versus adjoined clauses; Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit texts all show this, apparently.

In short, writing takes special training and lengthy practice to achieve fluency because it relies on two cognitive faculties that independently are learned fairly automatically; their combination is not automatic and has special requirements following from the nature of the combination. At the same time, writing generally grows out of speech--there is usually very little in writing grammatically that is entirely alien to speech. (When they do occur, they usually involve the use of grammatical features of an entirely separate language that is culturally of great importance, such as certain features of Latin and Greek grammar imposed on English or the use of the relative pronoun ke of Persian, cognate with Latin qui in case you're curious, in Turkish, which natively exclusively uses participial phrases [this is common among strictly verb-final languages, such as the Turkic languages, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese], or features of a much older stage of the language--the different styles of Modern Greek writing, for example, or the abolition of Perso-Arabic elements from Hindi in favor of Sanskrit elements.)

Snedcat said...

Part II:
Moreover, given the nature of our current hyper-literate age compared to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the rhetoric they developed primarily to shape spoken delivery (though applying just as well to writing when writing became more important after the Golden Age of Greece and the Republican era of Rome, when the growth of a more or less established bureaucracy made writing crucially important for advancement) applies among us much more to writing. This is another difference involved in teaching writing that is closely associated with prescriptivism in our culture (the best estimates from the actual evidence are that in both Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, the cultural powerhouses managed around 10% adult male literacy) but in a long view derives more from our historical circumstances than the nature of the two media. (In a bastardized version in our culture, there’s the idea that in speaking you let it “all hang out,” which to the Greeks and Romans would have been a sign of disrespect to the audience and an utter lack of mental hygiene, basic failure of education, and appalling lapse of personal standards—one did not “let it all hang out” when addressing one’s fellow citizens in those cultures!) And of course besides that there’s the scope of the intended audience. Speech by its nature rarely goes beyond the present and the speaker’s listeners; writing can be directed to generations in the future and speakers of the same language on different continents.

That’s in a nutshell why you have prescriptivism of a sort in writing and descriptivism of a sort in speech (especially among linguists, who focus on the spoken language when describing languages). It doesn’t speak to the actual shape of either trend in contemporary society, of course. Linguists when writing books and papers follow standard English rules usually quite impeccably (I’ve been an editor at enough linguistics journals and presses to say that without any qualms), and usually the linguists who have been saturated enough with the literary standards of the language they work in will include extensive valuable analyses of the particular linguistic features of the literary language—though given the time commitment and the needs of the discipline, this is rare (working as a translator with a native-language editor and poet as a wife, I can see from a mile away the massive lapses in even the best books on the language when linguists describing it come up against formal writing). Among linguists involved in second-language education, of course, the matter is quite different—but then you have the fact that there’s no general linguistic audience for such works, so they make no impact on the field at large.

And of course if you work in historical linguistics, you recognize early on that the accepted written standards themselves change from generation to generation. (For some examples Gus is familiar with, you can date Latin documents in part by how much they have regularized the declension of domus or, in a longer view, whether they use foca or foci for the plural of focus.) This makes blanket statements about written practice common here and now historically contingent, which is no problem if you recognize that “conventional” is not the same as “arbitrary”—conventional means that it is used by a community and expected of its members, basically. Indeed, there’s a whole influential book of philosophical analysis on just that topic that is worth reading. However, it is true that many (certainly not all) self-described prescriptivists don’t like the idea of these simply being conventional but often rely on the differences between writing and speech to insist that the particular details they tout themselves are more logical or cognitively based, often with implications that speech is just a chaos of untrained blathering.

Snedcat said...

Part III:
Sometimes it’s embarrassing, like the pronouncements of Strunk and White they then turn around and violate on the same page. Sometimes it’s dialectally based. (The statement that shall is first person and will second and third person derives from John Wallis, the mathematician who discovered Wallis’ Rule; it was actually true of his native dialect, Kentish, at least at that time, almost four hundred years ago, but is not true of other dialects of English.) Sometimes there’s simply a failure to recognize variation even within the period they set as the basis for “good English”—for example, the use of the English passive in a wide variety of tenses expanded greatly between about 1700 and 1750; at the beginning of the period one would say, “My carriage is repairing,” and “My carriage is being repaired” was grammatically unacceptable in the extreme; the few people who said it were very uneducated and lower class. (Even today the passive is used in a somewhat narrower range of forms than the active: “they expect him to be being beaten right now,” that is, the present passive progressive infinitive, is very rare—it does occur, extremely marginally, in speech—and heaven help the writer who perpetrates it in print.)

One even finds people equating Shakespeare’s English with the King’s English, in which the late 19th century and early 20th century British stage tradition is projected centuries into the past, which the historical record does not support. (An entertaining ten-minute video on Shakespeare’s actual pronunciation is available here. It mentions the recreation of Shakespeare’s original costumes, pronunciation, and so on, but since I’m familiar with the English linguistics involved, I actually find the use of the original pronunciation less interesting just for my own personal coolness factor than the reconstruction of the original music for the performances.)

And you even find false logical rigor, perhaps deriving from foreign languages, imposed on English. The example I remember is John Simon stating that you have to say “different to” because you say “similar to,” since that’s simple logic. (Why? Not sure, really.) You have to keep in mind that English was I think Simon’s third language, and his love for English didn’t make up for his not being a native speaker; I wonder if this pronouncement was due to the fact that in German, an earlier language for him, one uses much the same word, wie “like” and als “as,” with “similar” and “different” ( ähnlich and anderes). For that matter, one even finds opportunist prescriptivism applied simply to insult people, such as a rabidly anti-Objectivist pseudo-intellectual who slammed Peikoff or Binswanger for writing, “Does any of them have a trace of momentary plausibility to you?”, saying that as a pronoun “any” is inherently plural and concluding [typical insult]. Actually, throughout the history of English “any” as a pronoun has been singular or plural as its referent requires all the way from the Old English period to modern grammar guides for foreign learners, just like its German cognate einig, as any native speaker actually confused on this point could discover by actually checking the dang OED. (In other words, it was a drive-by shooting of his own foot thoroughly typical of the guy.) It is true that in speech the plural is more common, and the singular is considered more formal and written. That is different indeed from saying someone learned his English on Uranus (crass pun definitely intended by said loser).

Snedcat said...

And Part IV:
However, while all that is entertaining in one way or another and useful to ponder, it doesn’t condemn prescriptivism per se. Writing is shaped consciously more than speech is due to the nature of the medium, as said above. There are numerous examples of prescriptivists tripping over their own shoelaces, but the regimentation of usage (that’s actually an accepted value-neutral term in linguistics and philosophy for regularizing usage in particular fields) is unavoidable once writing diverges from speech, and the issue is not whether it is right or wrong but whether it is done carefully or carelessly, with due consideration for the actual functions of different forms and ranges of meaning in speech and a recognition of what is elegant to speakers and what sounds artificial. For instance, the rule of thumb about not ending sentences with a preposition (which, if memory serves, in the original form did not apply to prepositions used adverbially in set constructions with verbs, though this is often ignored in contemporary discussion), the rule or rule of thumb not to split infinitives (which is sensible if you apply it rather as a test to see which position is better), and the shall/will distinction of Wallis were all part of the efforts of the English Enlightenment associated, interesting enough, especially with the Royal Society, as part of their efforts to regiment scientific English prose to avoid certain of the fallacies Francis Bacon went on about in the Aristotelians he inveighed against, and if you read the English writings of some of those fellows (Newton was actually a demmed fine prose stylist in The Optics, for example), you can see it was in part an attempt to move away from the artificial style followed by the over-Latinate Scholastics. (You can find good discussions along these lines in both linguistic histories of English and in the Norton Anthology, for example, so it’s another example of how descriptivism and prescriptivism is often a bogus airtight distinction set up by amateurs on both sides.) It’s a most interesting historical topic, but the important things are that (1) their context was not ours, and (2) for the most part they were sensible reforms and style conventions that improve readability, clarity, and logical flow. Even now there’s a maked stylistic divide between the physical sciences and the woollier of the humanities.

This is especially important in developing nations, where foreign institutions, technology, and ideas are translated into a language that never had need to express them before. (For example, after the opening of Japan to the West, there was a massive informal translation project driven by the demand of Japanese intellectuals and thoughtful regular people to get hold in Japanese of all the important works in contemporary western thought. There was a massive expansion of the vocabulary in which most of the terms needed for systematic translations were coined from Chinese characters. A few decades later, the Chinese then borrowed the new Japanese coinages character for character. This vocabulary had a rather different texture in Chinese than it did in Japanese, as you might expect.) This can be done well or badly, but it does have to be done.

Snedcat said...

And Part V, separate from the others since it's actually directly related to these posts:
I do think it's important for English educators to learn about AAVE [*] on all but the most hidebound stereotypical prescriptivist grounds because if you're teaching a language or dialect, you have to know how the target language differs from the language of the students to know how best to teach the parts of the target language that vary. In the case of AAVE, some differences will have to be taught by rote memorization, some by comparative analysis: For example, deletion of is can be corrected in writing by having students compare whether you'd need a past form there, for example--and then once they have that, you can easily teach contractions like "it's" (not as important for formal writing, which disallows contractions) if they don't recognize them by the simple fact that where AAVE deletes is, standard spoken American English contracts it.

[*] Black English, roughly; usually the acronym is read AH-veh. However, Black English is much broader, since it extends from the most colloquial forms all the way to the highest levels of English spoken in black churches and used in essays and formal talks for a black audience by black intellectuals; that latter as a distinct type of formal English, if I may be permitted a comparison that might make some people spit in distaste, has some of the same vivid feel as North African Latin did in the 300s and 400s, Augustine and all those chaps. But as to whether Black English or Irish English or whichever variety is better there, I'll let their respective proponents fight over. I'm just being provocative.

That's not the same as some kumbayaish "appreciation" of AAVE. I went to a largely black high school and enjoy the sound of AAVE, but that's different from recognizing the importance of learning standard English as a written language. Of course, I also enjoy the sounds of pretty much any variety of English I've heard, so no doubt there are people out there who'd say someone so promiscuous in the ears is too tainted to have anything worth saying about the language. Heh.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks. Very interesting as always.

But your comment regarding our "hyper-literate age" reminded me of an incident on a recent trip.

I needed to stow my luggage in the boat of an SUV the rental company disgorged at the airport. It was a seven-seater, and loaded with electronics. (The good: an inductive charger for my phone. The bad: it was unable to read my mind to turn on the hazard lights, whose controller was hidden in a wall of other controls. Even my wife, who can generally look at something like that and immediately know what to do was flummoxed.) But the read three seats were up and I had to basically push shiny buttons like a moron because the pictograms conveyed nothing. My first attempt lowered middle seats. I eventually did figure things out, but "middle" or "rear" next to the buttons could have helped.

I hate icons, but maybe I am behind the times. Could you please summarize your two comments as a single icon for the benefit of ... savants ... of the kind who designed that car?