Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Readings: A Dialect With an Army and a Navy

I finally purchased Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Pinker is by no means light reading; a professor at Harvard, he has the ability to write about almost any subject with a sophistication that puts me in way over my head. But in over my head is a place I love to be, and I've always enjoyed digging through Pinker's books.

At the beginning of The Language Instinct, Pinker is making his case that humans' ability to use language arises not out of experience but from the complex and intricate machinery of our brains. I was reminded of my urban public school students when he began to discuss the perception by some that the language of others is cruder or less complex:

"Actually, the people whose linguistic abilities are most badly underestimated are right here in our society. Linguists repeatedly run up against the myth that working-class people and the less educated members of the middle class speak a simpler or coarser language. This is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation. Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engineering excellence -- a technology that works so well that the user takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hidden behind the panels. Behind such "simple" sentences as Where did he go? and or [sic] The guy I met just killed himself, used automatically by any English speaker, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding.

"But though the language engine is invisible to the human user, the trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Trifling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groups, like isn't any versus ain't no, those books versus them books, and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as badges of "proper grammar." but they have no more to do with grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people in other regions refer to it as a darning needle, or that English speakers call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even a bit misleading to call standard English a "language" and these variations "dialects," as if there were some meaningful difference between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." (emphasis added)

Those of us who were privileged enough to acquire the style of speaking that happens to have the most value in our society often fall into the trap of interpreting differences in language as differences in intelligence. As anyone who has truly listened to a non-"standard" English speaker knows, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pinker continues with a discussion of the Black English Vernacular, or BEV. I won't quote the entire chapter for you, but if this is a subject that gets your motor running, you will definitely want to read The Language Instinct.

Bonus: You know I love TED.com. Here's a link to Pinkers's TED talk dispelling the myth of the "blank slate."

1 comment:

  1. Hey Brian,

    This is the blog I mentioned last night in class
    Jonah Lehrer reviews a book about how we read (from a neurological perspective).

    I had to laugh at Weinreich's quote--I definintely encountered that bias while living in Switzerland, which is *not* accorded the title of "language" because it has no navy!

    Andrea Grant