Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reading about reading and how we use language

42. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal.

 This is a well-balanced and coherent look at all the elements that are included in the concept of language. Crystal discusses these language elements in short chapters, more to give an idea what the issues are about rather than to take an in-depth look at them. For a language teacher the sections about physiological elements such as where sounds are formed in our mouths is always intriguing and a good reminder that although our letters look the same, we might produce them differently. This is something I learned while trying to teach American English speakers to roll an R by telling them to first keep on repeating meaningless babble with /d/ in it, such as "dadadadaaa dididiii," just to train their tongue to go to the right place in the mouth for a rolled r. Soon I realized, though, that the Finnish /d/ is produced somewhere else than the English one although it sounds very similar. Unfortunately, you need the Finnish /d/ to know how to roll an R if you are having problems with it... So we had to go back to learn a Finnish /d/ although the learners had already been producing wonderful sounding Finnish words with /d/ in them.

As this book works as a handy guide to what language really is, I admit to just skimming the parts where there is nothing to be disputed anymore, really: how words are formed, how we hear sounds, and what kind of language groups there are in the world and what their histories are. I found the chapters on more debatable issues more intriguing, such as the status of sign language and how non-signing people often have misconceptions about it; how and why was language born; how we give meaning to words and how we mean something else than what we say; and of course my favorite, the issue of what is "good" language, which is of course largely dictated by prestige and not any universal value of the language. Although I did enjoy Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves and I'm a grammar nerd, I had to nod in agreement when Crystal points out that such demonization as shown by Truss of people who do not follow an arbitrarily constructed model chosen by a prestigious class would not fly if it was applied to gender or race, but apparently it's fine in the realm of language.

Yes, Crystal takes prescriptivist to task. There is nothing wrong in writing or speaking good, understandable language, and we all should strive for making ourselves understood--which is where grammar and punctuation comes in to help us. The problem with prescriptivists is, however, that they apply their very strict rules even to situations where everyone understands the message. As a descriptivist, I agree with Crystal--which is not a surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog. Clarity in communication is important, but when someone begins to moan about how people collectively use a word wrong*, it makes me wonder whether these people ever heard of such a phenomenon as constant changes in language and vocabulary. Nobody is up in arms about the word "hilarious" now being used to describe something knee-slappingly funny and saying that we should go back to the old, Latin-based meaning of simply someone being "cheerful." But I'm sure at the point where people began to use the word differently the Trusses of the time were predicting the downfall of civilization.

Another issue that is closely related to "good" language is how we view dialects, and how one dialect always rises above others to be used as the standard (and we promptly forget that it's a dialect, too, and start mocking people who speak in another dialect or with another accent...)

The other sections I enjoyed were focused on bi- and multilingualism and how to protect or revive languages.

All in all, the book is a wonderful guide to all the issues you might encounter when you think about language: the way speech is produced, the way language is heard, the way we give meanings to words and phrases, and what we do with language in general.

A special Tut-tut to the editor: the book refers to African American English Vernacular (AAEV) for two pages, and then later on the correct usage, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), pops up. How did this error manage to slip through the cracks?

(*I may moan about this, too, when I am editing a text that is supposed to follow certain writing conventions or a style sheet. Or worse, when the person thinks that the non-standard way is the only right way to do it...)

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