Our language; is it worth preserving in schools?

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by Lucky_Jim, Sep 30, 2006.

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  1. ‘Would of’ instead of would have.

    Barbeque instead of barbecue.

    ‘Can I lend your..’ instead of can I borrow your...

    The list of blunders is ever growing.

    Apologies if this has done before but the question is, how can the government justlfy its claim that the level of literacy and numeracy of school leavers is rising, when all the workplace evidence is to the contrary?
  2. The English Language is dynamic.
    Spelling and Grammar are and alllways have been subjective.
    You snobby cnut
    The greatest thing about our shared language is its abitlity to borrow adapt and change.

    Languages come and languages go. We deplore it when they go, because the disappearance of a language is a loss for the richness of human experience. These days, linguists are devoting much energy to documenting expiring languages. That documentation itself may increase the use of the language, which may increase its chance of surviving in some form. For example, simply finding a written version of a language facilitates its use for new purposes and new uses lead the language to be spoken more widely. Adapting computer software to accommodate the language may bring further advantages. Ultimately, however, people cease to speak a language because they come to identify with a different group, perhaps encouraged by factors of economic interest, perhaps influenced by governmental policy favoring one language above others in schools and official discourse.

    Nettle & Romaine (2000: ⅸ) note that “the greatest linguistic diversity is found in some of the ecosystems richest in biodiversity inhabited by indigenous peoples, who represent around 4% of the world’s population, but speak at least 60% of its 6,000 or more languages.” Expiring languages tend to be spoken by small, underprivileged groups that lack resources. The disappearance of languages is a complicated matter that began to generate widespread concern in the 1990s, when funds were invested in investigating the death of languages and efforts were made to document endangered languages. Now the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have begun to fund work jointly on endangered languages.

    The Ethnologue, a website maintained by SIL International, reports that there were 6,912 languages spoken in the year 2005 – 239 in Europe, 2,092 in Africa. One can argue about how the languages were counted. English is listed as a single language, although it embraces varieties that are mutually incomprehensible, but the very similar Norwegian and Swedish are listed as distinct languages (Grimes & Grimes 2000). Conventionally, we often speak of Chinese and Arabic as single languages, although they include mutually incomprehensible varieties – “Chinese” seems to encompass eight very different languages. Whatever the best number is for the world’s languages, it will be smaller in a short time. A total of 497 languages are listed as “nearly extinct,” which means that “only a few elderly speakers are still living.” Some linguists, the Ethnologue reports, believe that over half of the world’s languages will not be passed on to the next generation.

    Meanwhile new languages are emerging and we often deplore that, too, on the grounds that new forms represent a kind of decay and degenerate speech that violates norms that we have been taught in school. Nonetheless, Latin became Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, and other languages, Dutch became Afrikaans in nineteenth-century South Africa, and early English developed into distinct forms of West Saxon and Mercian, into London, Scots, and Lancashire English, and later into Texan, Australian, Delhi, Jamaican, and many other forms. Within the last generation, we have even been privileged to witness the sudden emergence ex nihilo of some new signed languages in Nicaragua and Israel, as we shall discuss in chapter 7.

    The emergence of new languages is harder to track than the loss of languages. It is sometimes an identifiable event when the last native speaker of a language dies, e.g. Dolly Pentreath in 1777, allegedly the last speaker of Cornish, but there was no comparable discrete event when, say, Portuguese became a new language as opposed to just the form of Latin spoken around the River Tagus. We now think of Australian and Jamaican as particular forms of English, and they may one day become as distinct as Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, distinct languages with their own names, perhaps Strine and Jamenglish. If so, there will be no identifiable day or even year in which this happens, no matter how alert the recording linguists.

    We may wonder what might have happened if the Romans had lost the Second Punic War in 202 BCE and Hannibal’s descendants had brought to western Europe forms of Phoenician, which would have become as different from each other as modern French, Italian, and Sardinian. However, we could not provide a precise date for the emergence of a Semitic language spoken along the River Seine, any more than we can provide a date for the emergence of Latin-based French.

    Languages diversify, and not just languages that spread over large areas through conquest and other forms of social domination. The phenomenon, like language death, connects to the way that people identify themselves with groups, adopting modes of speech that characterize the group. People, teenagers from every generation, speak differently as they feel themselves to belong to a distinct group, just as they may dress differently or wear their hair differently. The tendency for languages to diversify reflects the fact that linguistic change is a constant of human experience.

    Like it or not, human languages are in constant flux. They flow around something that does not change, the human capacity for language, a biological property. That capacity is common to the species, is not found outside our species, and has not changed, as far as we know, over the period in which recorded human languages have been coming and going and changing in subtle and in bigger, more dramatic ways. That invariant capacity is one of the constants of human nature and helps us understand how brains deal with the shimmering world outside and impose an internal order, and how that interaction with the world outside yields the diversity of human languages.

    Indeed, from certain points of view, there is only one human language. If one asks how many human hearts there are, a reasonable answer is one. The human heart has distinctive properties and is uniform across the species. There are differences, but not of a kind to suggest that there are different types of heart, each genetically determined in the way that, say, eyes may differ in color. At the genetic level, there is one heart, and that is the crucial level for answering such a question. Similarly, if one asks how many languages there are, seen from a biological point of view and given the current state of biology, a plausible answer is ONE, the human language, Human. This is not a new idea: Wilhelm von Humboldt held that “the form of all languages must be fundamentally identical” (1836/1971: 193) and they differ as human physiognomies differ: “the individuality is undeniably there, yet similarities are evident” (1836/1971: 29).

    When human beings examine the communication systems of other species, herring gulls, honeybees, or dolphins, we establish the distinctive properties, showing how honeybees differ from herring gulls, and the differences are radical. Species differ in big ways that are genetically determined. Honeybees communicate the direction and distance to nectar sources through their “dance language,” by wiggling their rear ends at different rates (von Frisch 1967), herring gulls communicate fear and warning by various body movements and calls (Tinbergen 1957), geese mimic social behaviors through imprinting (Lorenz 1961), and, more controversially, dolphins communicate instructions for finding food through high-pitched tones (Lilly 1975) (von Frisch, Lorenz, and Tinbergen shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine).1 Only after establishing the major species properties are we able to detect differences within the species and rarely do we make much progress in that regard, although different “dialects” of honeybee communication and of passerine birdsongs have been identified.

    If colleagues from the Department of Biology, following their usual methods, were to examine the communication systems of life forms on this planet, putting humans alongside honeybees and dolphins, in the way that, say, Niko Tinbergen investigated herring gulls, they would find a number of properties shared by the human species and by no other species, the human language organ (Anderson & Lightfoot 2002). These properties constitute the biggest discovery of modern linguistics. For example, the human language system is not stimulus-bound (not limited to elements within the sensory field), but it is finite and ranges over infinity, it is compositional, algebraic, and involves distinctive computational operations, as we shall see in a few pages. The properties are general – everybody has them – and they facilitate the emergence of the system in young children. The way the system emerges in children also has distinctive properties. For example, the capacity of a mature individual goes far beyond his/her initial experience, unlike birds, for instance, who usually sing pretty much exactly what their models sing (Anderson & Lightfoot 2002: ch. 9; Marler 1999). These are big, distinguishing properties that are biologically based and define the species and its language, Human; Human is very different from any other communication system in the natural world.

    Whatever the biological perspective, people do speak differently in Tokyo and Toronto, in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. London is said to have over 300 languages spoken by its citizens, and people’s speech is as distinctive as their thumbprint – it often takes only a second or two to know who is on the other end of the telephone line. Why does human speech vary so much and change so readily, if the capacity for language is uniform and static? I shall argue that postulating an invariant CAPACITY for language enables us to understand how we communicate in the context of such rich diversity, where not even sisters speak identically and speech patterns differ in a lottery of linguistic influences. We can understand central aspects of language change and variation, and understand them better than in the past. In particular, we can understand how new systems and new languages emerge.

    The POSSIBILITY of variation is biologically based but the actual variation is not. For example, we know that there are distinct systems represented in the language most commonly used in Hamburg and in the most common language of Chicago: verb phrases (VP) are basically object–verb in Hamburg (Ich glaube, dass Gerda VP[Tee trinkt] ‘I think that Gerda drinks tea’) and verb–object in Chicago (I think that Gerda VP[drinks tea]); finite verbs raise to a high structural position in Hamburg (occurring to the left of the subject of the sentence) but not in Chicago (In Hamburg trinkt Gerda Tee ‘In Hamburg Gerda drinks tea,’ lit. in Hamburg drinks Gerda tea), and people speak differently. This kind of variation represents something interesting: the language capacity is a biological system that is open, consistent with a range of phenotypical shapes. This is not unique in the biological world – there are plants that grow differently above or below water and immune systems develop differently depending on what people are exposed to (Jerne 1985) – but it is unusual.

    One could think of this variation in the way that we think about differences between species. The biology of life is similar in all species, from yeasts to humans. Small differences in factors like the timing of cell mechanisms can produce large differences in the resulting organism, the difference, say, between a shark and a butterfly. Similarly the languages of the world are cast from the same mold, their essential properties being determined by fixed, universal prin- ciples. The differences are not due to biological properties but to environmental factors: if children hear different things, they may grow a different mature system. Linguists want to know how differences in experience entail different mature systems.

    Observed variations between languages are secondary to the general, universal properties, and they are not biologically based: anybody can become an object–verb speaker and there is nothing biological about it. Such differences amount to little compared to the distinctive properties that hold for all forms of Human, compositionality, structure dependence, and all the particular computational possibilities (see the next section). That is what distinguishes us from other species and constitutes Human, not the Hamburg–Chicago variation. What distinguishes us from other species must be represented in the human genome; what distinguishes a German speaker from an English speaker is not represented in the genetic material but is represented somehow in brain physiology, although not in ways that are detectable by the present techniques of biologists and neuroscientists. We have no significant knowledge yet of the biochemistry of acquired physiological properties. In fact, fundamental matters are quite open: neuroscientists have traditionally focused on neurons but brain cells of a different type, the glia, are now attracting more scrutiny and outnumber neurons nine-to-one. Glia “listen in” on nerve signals and commu- nicate chemically with other glia. Until we know more, a biologist or neuroscientist using currently available techniques will not detect the differences between German and English speakers and will conclude that there is just one human language, Human, which has the rich kinds of properties we have discussed.

    At this stage of the development of biochemistry and imaging techniques, biologists cannot determine physiological properties of the Hamburg–Chicago phenotypical variation. However, they are used to teasing out information that must be provided genetically and we are now beginning to learn about genes like FOXP2, which seem to be implicated in the human language capacity. This work is in its infancy but it has begun. Investigators have found families with mutant forms of the FOXP2 gene and mutant forms of language (Gopnik & Crago 1991). We should not expect a simple solution under which there is a small number of genes specifically controlling language organs. We know that the FOXP2 gene, for example, occurs in other species in somewhat different forms and controls aspects of respiratory and immune systems. Work on smell by Richard Axel and Linda Buck, honored in the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, showed a family of one thousand genes controlling a mammalian olfactory system that can recognize 10,000 different smells, and it is possible that many genes play a role in controlling the operation of language organs.

    We may identify more genes involved in the operation of language organs and that is in prospect, as we learn more about the functioning of genes quite generally. We can also imagine a day when we can examine a brain and deduce something about acquired characteristics, perhaps that it is the brain of a Japanese-speaking, cello-playing mother of two children, but that day seems to be much further off.

    In the first few years of life, children grow systems that characterize their particular, individual linguistic range; adapting traditional terminology for new, biological purposes, we call these systems GRAMMARS. Despite all the personal diversity, we know that individuals each have a system and that certain properties in a person’s speech entail other properties, systematically. A person’s system, his/her grammar, grows in the first few years of life and varies at the edges depending on a number of factors.

    We observe that from time to time children acquire systems that are significantly different from pre-existing systems – they speak differently from their parents, sometimes very differently, and they have new languages. New “Englishes” have emerged in postcolonial settings around the globe. Crystal (2004) argues that English has recently recovered from a few centuries of pedantry and snobbery on the part of elite groups who sought to impose their own norms on others, and literature in non-standard Englishes is flourishing again. Schneider (2003) claims that, for all the dissimilarities, a uniform developmental process has been at work, shaped by consistent sociolinguistic and language-contact conditions.

    Sometimes there are big changes, which take place quickly in ways that we shall examine carefully. Those big changes will be the focus of this book and we shall need to understand what the systems are, how children acquire their linguistic properties, and how languages change. We can understand certain kinds of change by understanding how acquisition happens, and, vice versa, we can learn much about acquisition by understanding how structural shifts take place.

    Understanding how new grammars emerge involves understanding many aspects of language; a modern historical linguist needs to be a generalist and to understand many different subfields – grammatical theory, variation, acquisition, the use of grammars and discourse analysis, parsing and speech comprehension, textual analysis, and the external history of languages. We shall consider diachronic changes in general, changes through time, but particularly syntactic changes in the history of English, treating them in terms of how chil- dren acquire their linguistic range.

    I shall ask for a three-way distinction between the language capacity, internal languages, and external language. That distinction, incorporating what we now call I-language and E-language (Chomsky 1986), has been revitalized in modern generative work but its origins go back a long way. For example, Humboldt wrote that language “is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers . . . While languages are . . . creations of nations, they still remain personal and independent creations of individuals” (1836/1971: 5, 22). E-language is to the nation as I-languages are to the citizens that constitute it.

    Internal languages are systems that emerge in children according to the dic- tates of the language capacity and to the demands of the external language to which they are exposed. Internal languages or grammars (I use the terms interchangeably) are properties of individual brains, while external language is a group phenomenon, the cumulative effects of a range of internal languages and their use. Individuals typically acquire some particular form of English, an I-language and not the external language of English as a whole.
  3. Ignoring your lengthy cut-and-paste, your general view is utterly deplorable.

    It is the case that language evolves. The language we use today is not the same as that written by Shakespeare, nor was his language that of Chaucer. The question is whether all evolution of language is beneficial.

    At its root, the point of language is communication. So the first question to be asked about the evolution of language is whether it is evolving into something that is better at communicating ideas, concepts and information.

    I contend that the English language is currently becoming less capable of communicating those. A general reduction in vocabulary removes nuance and emphasis, poor standards of grammar lead to a lack of clarity and an inability to construct complex sentences detracts further from one's capacity for communication.

    Furthermore, language must also be assessed on an aesthetic basis. There is a beauty in the way English can be used: from Shakespeare to Auden, from Austen to Wodehouse ("It is never difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine"), a beauty to which the debased form of English currently prevalent in our schools cannot even hope to aspire. One cannot write a sonnet when every sentence ends with 'innit,' nor can one write a novel if incapable of stringing together a complete sentence. And this works the other way as well - without a good grasp of the principles of English, most of our not inconsiderable literary heritage is denied to you. This then becomes recursive...

    So the maintenance of good language skills is important. Yes, language evolves, but not always in a good way. If it is becoming a tool which is less good at communicating, if it is becoming an uglier thing, then we do have good grounds for thinking it worth preserving as it is.

    How we do that, I have no idea. But you are fundamentally wrong to argue that we should allow language to go whither it will.
  4. I didn't read the whole of your tirade, but you're probably right about me being snobby (even though you know nothing of me; well done there, you must tell me how you do that).

    But my original question was how can the government say that standards are rising when they clearly aren't?
  5. Don't even think about indulging into a linguistic argument with me. I have spent more time involved in the philological aspects of English to know the difference between tacit arguments such as yours based on entirely empirical assumptions as opposed to the deeper introspective study of our own mother tongue.
    Anyone who is remotely involved in linguistic study will know that English is the Lingua Franca of the world and has achieved this high linguistic status by its ability to adapt, change and absorb other languages.
    There is no longer’standard’ English that is universally accepted as the one and only 'true' English
    Because of its very nature the English language has always changed and adapted to its circumstances.
    It is a dynamic language. Grammatical snobbery is scorned by linguistic scholars...
    So have some....!
  6. Dnt vn thnk bt lngstc rgmnt wth me.

    Oh, I'm scared.
  7. Smithie
    when you can prove to me some degree of liguistical expertise then I will sit down and listen.Until then......
  8. Smithie?

    Edited to add that Smithie had contributed to this thread before, whilst I was away. He at least was sensible.
  9. I'll bite.

    Grammatical snobbery may well be scorned by linguistic scholars, but one thing that all the philologists I know have in common is the ability (sic: it isn't "abitlity", as in your first post) to use their language (and frequently several others) extremely well.

    Your sentences, on the other hand, betray a startling lack of basic syntax.

    "I have spent more time involved in the philological aspects of English to know the difference between tacit arguments such as yours based on entirely empirical assumptions as opposed to the deeper introspective study of our own mother tongue."

    Surely "enough", not "more"; "subjective" not "empirical" (empirical means "based on facts," a solid basis for any argument, and one which virtually precludes that argument being tacit); "introspective" when I suspect you mean "intrinsic".

    Much as I dislike being a grammar Klansman, I'm only doing it because your post illustrates my point perfectly. You've managed to use the English language in such a way that it ceases to be a useful communicative medium, and in doing so, have created a remarkably ugly piece of prose ("indulging into" is the least of your crimes).

    I don't deny that language changes and adapts - it has to. The language of Shakespeare is not capable of discussing the Internet, so we have adopted new words that encompass that phenomenon. As for foreign words entering the language, I'm not decrying that either. Instead, I'm saying that the impoverishment of English by our schools is a Bad Thing, because it makes the language less use for communicating and less attractive to read and hear.

    Lucky_Jim, the reason standards keep going up is because Ignorance is Truth and it's in the Government's interest for test results to keep getting better, so they make the tests easier.

    edit: as regards linguistic experience, I've been speaking English since I was around a year old, so have considerable familiarity with it.

    Perhaps more what you're looking for is the fact that my degree, from a very good university, has left me a fluent reader of Latin, Greek and (transliterated, unfortunately) Linear B, included papers on Elements of Comparative Linguistics and the Making of the Greek Language, and also provided me with a good grounding in PIE. So yes, I know whereof I speak.

    edit 2: Intellectual snobbery is even more scorned than grammatical by, well, pretty much everyone. Having a degree in philology and linguistics (well, Classics actually, but incorporating those) isn't a requirement for posting on any thread on Arrse.
  10. For the same reason as they can claim:-

    "The NHS has had its best year ever"

    "Crime is so low, some Londoners don't bother to lock their doors"

    "We'll be in and out of Afghanistan without firing a shot"

    "There is no long term unemployment in the UK"

    The bigger the lie and the more often it is repeated, the more people are likely to believe what you are saying.
  11. Thank you Smithie.
  12. Nehustan

    Nehustan On ROPs

    Well with a bit of luck the Hispanic population may boom in the US, English quickly becoming a second language, whereupon all our youth will stop wearing basball caps, chewing gum, listening to elvis (whoops 50 years too late there), I mean Tu-pac, turning to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tennyson. The sun will rise on a brighter day as we all report for church parade, popping around to the vicarage for refreshments...


    [align=center]'More Tea Vicar?'[/align]
  13. I doubt it. English is probably doomed. Still, I don't plan to go gentle into that good night.

    And I bet that you could now get an A* at GCSE English Literature without ever having heard of Dylan Thomas, let alone read any of his work.
  14. Nehustan

    Nehustan On ROPs

    Ahh I know Dylan, he's the guy that sang 'knocking on heaven's door', right?
  15. I think he might mean Dylan the rabbit in Magic Roundabout.