Reading in Authority In Language, I noticed that pages 80 to 90 had so many excellent points, I needed to select the juiciest passages and copy them into my blog. This book is authored by James and Lesley Milroy, published by in
p. 80 reference is made to h-dropping being less common in one city, Norwich, perhaps because it does not occur in the surrounding rural dialect of East Anglia, while it is more common in Yorkshire, where the rural speech does show h-dropping. I would see this as a substratum phenomenon, similar to the attribution of certain features in Spanish to a Celtic substratum, and other examples. Just how much the varieties of Arabic, for instance, so distinct from one another, are due to the differing substrata would be interesting to investigate.
On p. 81, we find a mention of relevance to anyone trying to modify a speaker’s language. The topic is the in vs the ing pronunciation of the present participle/gerund of verbs like running, jumping. Data shows that persons who routinely use in are quite sensitive to its variance with ing and adjust their speech according to the social situation, yet retain the in pronunciation to a high degree. The question for teachers those trying to modify a speaker’s language is why does the stigmatized pronunciation persist? Adverse comments on the in usage have no effect. This was the point I made over and over on flteach …… to no effect.
On p. 82 we see a possible reason for the maintenance of stigmatized forms: “This intimate and extremely consistent connection between social and linguistic structure appears to have the effect of making speakers very resistant to attempts to change their language patterns.”
In addition, the authors do what I often have done: they show historically how stigmatization has come about, often revealing quite unexpected results, as when the in’ pronunciation turns out to have been high-status in just the early 20th century. And in the U.S., the presence of post-vocalic r, as in car and cart, has moved from high-status (FDR) to low-status (Joe Pesci) while in Scotland and Ireland the opposite holds true! The attempts by shamans, mavens, scolds and guardians to ascribe “bad English” to working-class people are upended by evidence that h-dropping, much stigmatized in England, does not occur among working-class speakers in Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast because it is not a feature characteristic of that region. No, not because the English teachers of that region are better.
On pp. 82-3, the implications of prescriptive comments are laid out, showing the reason their comments lack linguistic foundation. They amount to a rejection of the social values of the speakers. Many teachers are aware of this and uncomfortable with it, though every teachers’ lounge has at least one representative of the “better sort of people” who assure us that the speech reflects the morals of the speaker use ain’t and you’re a hoodlum or a slut. The counter-productive nature of prescriptive attitudes has been studied and the Milroys cite those. For me, the great quote is, “Since many critics of prescriptivism are keenly aware of the need for good English teaching, an awareness of the social implications of prescriptivism does not amount, as is sometimes assumed, to the abandonment of any attempt to teach Standard English.” Wow! Exactly what I ran into on flteach.
Further on that page: On the contrary, as Cheshire’s study of teachers’ strategies for correcting the â€˜mistakes’ of non-standard speakers makes clear, SE cannot be taught efficiently unless the teacher has a clear understnading of the small, but systematic, diffeerences between SE and the non-standard dialect of his pupils. If every expression which does not correspond to SE is counted as a ;mistake’, and if non-standard constructions are not diffferentiated from â€˜genuine’ mistakes, pupils become unneccsarily confused. Cheshire has demonstrated in detail how this confusion affects the written work of pupils, and has aruged that an important prerequisite to effective teaching is an awareness of the grammatical structure of the local dialect (which differs in only a small number of relatively superficail ways from SE).” Man! That sums up what I stumbled around for 2 decades trying to say.
Now these implications of prescriptive comments have another problem, problem #2: they encourage criticism of a person’s speech by people who would not criticize the person in other ways, such as their identity or culture. This results from a lack of linguistic realism mentioned above. Quoting Halliday: “A speaker who is made ashamed of his own language habits suffers a basic injury as a human being: to make anyone, especially a child, feel so ashamed is as indefensible as to make him feel ashamed of the colour of his skin.”
In a discussion “proper grammar” on a listserv, I received the following responses, the first reflecting perfectly the tie-in between language and society:
Thanks for posting this, Pat. It’s a good example of someone who is okay
with the dumbing down of America and encourages mediocrity.
The second one, very long but even then cut down…….. and I tried to be fair to the poster in doing so, displays the level of frustration and contempt for those who see a problem with the way we teach SE to our students: the classic put-down of the language we are trying to modify toward the standard, the exasperation with the colleague who is supposed to be “on our side” against the slovenly, lazy, feckless students who reuse to speak correctly, the subtle (?) injection of race and class with the cover of “we’re just trying to help then bless their hearts”, the evocation of man-made (Nebrija) rules as responsible for good language, and the dismissal of any notion that does not conform to their idealized version of language and teaching language. Here â€˜tis enjoy.
I stopped engaging Pat years ago when I realized he wears blinders about
learning any language outside of the ghetto, [mentions personal tragedies], I just don’t give a
flying rat’s patooty anymore…)
What’s wrong with rules put in place in the 18th century, Pat? Hell, most of
the rules we live by every day in dozens of domains were created about that
time. Are you sure you want to toss them all out just because you’re a self
appointed defender of rural, black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois?
I’m fine with trying to standardize language. Nebrija wrote a bunch of
rules in 1492 for “Spanish” and quite frankly, those rules are why the
spanish language is mutually intelligible around the world in the 21st
I communicate just fine with my brother (a factory worker in Arkansas) and
my neighbor (a Vermonter born in the house he still occupies 50+ years
later). Neither of them is ever going to get a job outside of a factory or
the local McDonald’s. If you’re so proud of the rural, black, inner-city,
blah blah blah patois you seem to promote constantly, are you also
suggesting that no one should ever rise above their socio-economic birth
right and be able to navigate different registers in different situations?
I can ignore you most of the time, Pat. But when you set up your rural,
black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois straw man and then knock him down
when anyone on the list ever suggests that knowing “PROPER” language for the
particular situation in question is appropriate, it really chaps my
backside. I’ve seen you accuse people left handedly of all kinds of racism
and classism over the years for the work that they do. I teach in a rural
Vermont school where 80% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. These
kids CAN become more than the next generation of occupants of the rented
trailers in which they were born, but they cannot do so if they are never
taught register and how to navigate it.
I apologize to everyone on the list I may have offended by the above (except
for Pat–I don’t care if he’s offended or if his blood pressure is high–I
have much more important things on my plate than worrying about him).
The vitriol and distortions and outright misrepresentations are the stock-in-trade of the shamans, mavens, scolds and guardians. Personal attacks, demeaning non-standard language, a refusal to look at linguistic facts re dialect and how we learn register, all are present to one degree or another in such exchanges, but they all came together here. I am grateful.
Hoo Boy! I just found another one, on p. 84:
“For these two reasons [that the underlying logic of prescriptivism is social rather than linguistic and that judgmental comments are an indirect expression of social prejudice], it is valuable to recognise and discuss openly not only the social (as opposed to linguistic) motives underlying prescriptivism,but also its positive social function as a mechanism for maintaining the standard norm. If these important functional aspects of prescriptivism arerecognised as such, rather than expressed as moral judgments concerning the ’carelessness’ and ’sloppiness’ of speakers,…..”
“What we are attempting is a more balanced discussion of linguistic prescrptivism within a broader social and political context than has been usual. Until such a discussion does take place, it is unlikely that related practical problems such as tthose of teaching non-standard speakers to write SE can be adequately tackled.”