First of all, that’s not me in the picture. That’s a Norwegian comedy duo. Okay. Moving on.
Linguistics is undervalued. I am a linguist – of course I’d say that. Can’t get a job, though. I think linguistics should be taught from the very beginning of secondary school. Then again, most people who have a fervent interest in something tend to think so.
Part of the problem here is that people don’t really know what linguistics is. One of the first questions a linguist is asked is this: “So how many languages can you speak?” Yep. We’re good at languages. Most linguistics degrees in British universities are a joint-honours affair, the second part often being a language. Most linguists usually also have a pet language – one which fascinates them, one about which they’re fanatical, and probably spend too long espousing whilst drunk at a dinner party. (Mine is Icelandic.) But this isn’t what we spend most of our time doing.
Linguists are seen – from my experience, anyway – as pedants. Ooh, I bet you get annoyed at the ten-items-or-less signs at the supermarket! Ten items or fewer, isn’t it? Yes, yes, well done. Well, you’re half-right. We spend a lot of time dissecting the grammar of various languages, and genuinely treat it as fun. Think of the appeal of unpicking a clue in cryptic crosswords. But Karlsson, that’s boring, too. Okay; we’re probably not going to get on very well. But yes. Bad grammar can be irksome. It’s hard not to look at one’s cousin’s most recent indecipherable Facebook status and start to cry.
(The use of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun is because I don’t want them to know I’m badmouthing them. But – on the off chance she’s reading this – she knows who she is).
Let’s also get one thing straight. I’m terrified as I write this piece, confident that if I make a grammatical error or several typo, everyone’ll lambast me for it endlessly. Go, go, Grammar Nazis!
Linguistics is undervalued. I genuinely believe this. The linguistic mechanisms behind a ridiculous amount of the human condition are so little discussed, in comparison to other facets of what makes us us. We worry about what we eat, and how it’ll affect our bodies – biology. No banal morning chat-show is complete with its resident psychologist. Every discussion over class is part of sociology. But linguistics? Nah. Not discussed. Yet language – and how we use it – crops up so frequently. It’s wrapped up in everything. Let’s take the word Birmingham. How many people do you know who can’t hear the word without mocking the accent? “Beeeermingum”, they croak. Oop North. I’m from the Valleys, I am. Oirish.
We judge people by how they speak. Tarquin goes on gap yahs now. What does the phrase “gap yah” conjure up? Cue the preconceptions of some feckless, monied, Sloane-y stereotype. (If you want to read a little more on Tarquin, I hear this incredibly engaging chap named R.E.J. Karlsson has a fascinating article about names, right here.) It’s not just pronunciation, either. Think of how many YouTube videos have a flame war going on underneath them, with the petty little participants leaving an endless string of *you’re or *whom or whatever. We can all name a major psychologist – Freud, probably – but who can name a famous linguist? Hint: there aren’t any. Even the most well-known, Chomsky – yeah, Noam Chomsky, that left-wing essay writer – is known for other things, not his linguistic achievements. I’m not known for my mastery of Old Norse declensions; I am, instead, the go-to guy when people want to know how to make the best nachos. (I’m fine with this.)
This leads us to the phenomenon this article intends to untangle. And here, I’m going to try to limit the article’s scope to English – whatever that is. People do, I’m afraid, make pronouncements about something as heterogeneous and intangible about the first language of 400-million-plus speakers. An out-and-out judgment on each and every speaker’s capability and character. English is going to the dogs. Young people have absolutely no respect for their mother tongue. Nobody speaks English properly any more.
Friends – let me tell you. This. Is. Pure. Bull.
What people mean by this is something pretty simple: I don’t see people speaking and writing the way I think they ought. This is essentially (as in, in its essence), a preconception. Plenty of languages (and their speakers) fall foul of this. It is suggested that there is a standard for a language. And, usually, there is. We know it as BBC English, or the Queen’s English. Linguists call it received pronunciation (RP). This is the form of a language you’ll find in more official-type media. Things like government-issued writing. Newspapers. Radio bulletins. Anything that is designed to appear formal. People make a mistake; they confuse this with being inherently the right language. This is so far from the case, it would be laughable were it not such a pervasive notion. It’s a great example of how linguistics and society intersect, actually. RP is what the rich, posh people all use, goes much logic, therefore it is the best and everyone else should try to emulate that. Elocution lessons used to be a thing, for God’s sake. This logic is very deeply ingrained.
And it need not be. I’m not arguing against a standard language. People need an official yardstick, a rigid, right-or-wrong medium of communication. This can be one variety that is given prestige – RP English, or Mandarin Chinese (don’t forget that a mandarin was a bureaucrat in Imperial China). It can be another language: in India, RP English is the national standard, largely because it has no regional or caste-based connotations attached to it (again, language and society being inherently linked).
But this idea of absolutes – it’s RP or it’s a bastardisation – is wrong. RP English has never been the majority dialect, merely the most prestigious. Not every RP-speaker is rich and successful, if anyone even speaks it. “Siralan” Sugar sounds like he’s from Hackney, because he damn well is.
There is no absolute standard for English. Well, yes there is, but it’s RP – an artificial dialect, a BBC construct, even. This doesn’t mean that any other dialect that exists are not English. I’m not writing in RP now. And yet you can (hopefully) understand each sentence I type; we’d say I’m typing in English. A better way of looking at “English” is to see it as a collection of speakers who are able to, for the most part, understand exactly what any other one of those speakers is saying. This is a loose-weaved net of speakers. A while back, I introduced some friends of mine to a New Zealand comedy, The Almighty Johnsons. Each of the people to whom I showed one episode (three Brits, one American) misheard “netball chick” as “nipple check”, without fail. Yet all of the viewers would call themselves English speakers, as would all the Kiwi actors.
The Almighty Johnsons has been cancelled after three series. If you’re not familiar (who is?), there’s a quick rundown here.
English is exciting, too, because of the great mass of people who are learning it. I’d wager that we all know someone whose first language, whose mother tongue, isn’t English. Perhaps they get stuck on a certain words now and again; perhaps they say a certain word “funny”. But you can understand them. What you’re hearing is English. If you can understand it, then it can’t be wrong.
What sets RP apart, then, can’t be considered a linguistic factor. All it has is a social, cultural level-up on another dialect, which sucks (some) people into giving it more worth. We can see this on the macro level; English is fast becoming the RP for the world. Well, not quite; many learners in Asia are learning from Australians, whereas British RP is what is taught in Europe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against a standard for English, or for a global auxiliary language, be it English or Setswana or whatever. There’s a place for both. But arguing that RP English is more beautiful, better-pronounced, or clearer than any other dialect because of its current prestige is nothing but dialectal bigotry, really.
Ah, but the Queen’s English is historically the most popular dialect! People learnt it! Prove it, then. You can’t. Because: languages change. All of them.
I’m going to have a pet language side note (it’s relevant in the long run). Icelanders will claim that their language doesn’t change, that it’s been static since the time of the Vikings. Nope. Not true. It’s fair to say that Icelandic has changed far less radically than other languages, and that it has extremely little in the way of dialectal differences. But to say that pronunciation and usage have been unchanged for over a millennium is empirically incorrect. This is linguistic arrogance. (Sorry, Icelanders.)
We are lucky in the West. We have, for well over the past two thousand years, used writing systems which are designed correspond to how a word is pronounced. How well that works is another matter entirely. We can see a language’s trajectory; how words and grammar have changed. In Pompeii’s graffiti, for instance, we can see how people spelt (and therefore spoke) on an exact day centuries back. This is something that many languages cannot replicate. Mayan or Chinese writing, by contrast, records a meaning of a symbol, rather than its far more mutable pronunciation – making speech hard to reconstruct. Some languages have no form of writing at all.
This pertains to a certain branch of linguistics: historical linguistics. It attempts to recreate, as best it can, how people used to speak. Since sound recordings are still new in the scope of things, historical linguists turn to more oblique, yet completely relevant, evidence. One example is statistics. How much is this word or grammatical construction used, compared to another? Is this proportion changing over time? If so, then we can see a change in grammar and lexicon. Spelling, too, is similar. I’ll write it that way, because it’s what looks right. It best reflects the sounds I’d say. Linguists genuinely love spelling errors, or inconsistencies in writing (what was that about pedantry?). In terms of phonetics and phonology – the linguistic branch which deals with speech-sounds themselves, with what the vocal tract is doing – they are a gold mine. In the case of historical linguistics, or in the grim field of dead languages, they’re often all we’ve got to work on.
And they incontrovertibly demonstrate that languages undergo great change. French, Spanish, Romanian. They’re all part of an unbroken and ongoing line of speakers, descended from Latin. None of them are Latin, though. We have today an exciting tool at our disposal: sound and video recording. And archive footage shows that the Queen’s pronunciation is no more fixed than anyone else’s. Her pronunciation has demonstrably morphed over her eighty-seven years. The Queen’s English isn’t a benchmark for the rest of us, because even that isn’t set in stone.
We can’t read Beowulf, or Chaucer, or even Shakespeare without a glossary. Reading Beowulf requires a full-blown translation (I like Seamus Heaney’s best). But we still classify it under the amorphous moniker of English (moniker, incidentally, comes from Irish Gaelic). What we can draw from this, then, is that what counts as a standard – RP, say – is not a standard. It doesn’t stay true to itself.
The major thrust of linguistics is that we don’t have the slightest clue what’s going on. (Please don’t cut our funding.)
So – for the most part – proclaiming one dialect, one style, to be the right one: it’s futile and myopic.
In the meantime, I’m going to distract you with a mesmerising gif. … well, one that mesmerised me, in any case.
Right - I’m aware that this article is getting pretty long. This is why I’ve chosen to split it into two. We’ll be investigating why RP is still around, why people haven’t adopted it, and we’ll split some infinitives. Take that, Grammar Nazis! The second part is UP NOW.