Monday, August 11, 2008

Speaking in Tongues

Thanks to our English-speaking cousins the Brits and the BBC, their version of our public radio, there is a descriptor for the English usage to be heard on BBC it is called Received Standard English. To be sure, there are variations of RSE spoken throughout the UK and into the outreaches such as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Speakers of RSE may not understand some of the regional argot or pronunciations, but most of these outliers can understand every word spoken by users of RSE.

Although the US is considerably larger in volume, and there are numerous regional accents, Received Standard American, as spoken by NPR is not as necessary to America as Received Standard English is to the UK, although--and this is where the amusement comes in--American English conventions are reminiscent of American attitudes toward immigration. Written American has taken a number of hits from texting language, CUL8tr sorts of things. It has also been pinned to the mat where distinctions between like and as have been allowed to blur. (I am old enough to recall when Winston began to taste good like a cigarette should. In recent years, I've given up trying to get students to exercise the former distinction between the like and the as.)

English has been somewhat flexible in allowing some words--bungalow, khaki, seersucker come quickly to mind--past the border without too much of a struggle. Shortly after the Japanese occupation began, ichi ban (number one)got at least as far as California, scosch for a bit or a tad made it into Levis ads as a scosch more room in the thighs. But as millions are spent on huge walls and barriers to keep them, which is to say those of Mexican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, and Salvadorian descent from anything resembling a green card, the focus has been more on the side of making English the legal language of the US as opposed to a serious attempt to help immigrants and visitors to learn American English.

I am in yet another way a minority in California although I must say that every Anglo kid of my generation knew how to say Go be fruitful and multiply yourself in Spanish by the time he was ten and more to the point, my choices of Latin or Spanish were available to me as far back as the eighth grade. And oh, the joys of sophistication and urbanity: I know how to call someone a pubic hair in Spanish and I know how to inquire after an individual's grandmother in Spanish but know the consequences of merely using the words Your grandmother, as an epithet.

Everything around us is evolving; so too must language, and I am all for it. I do not wish to see barriers of maliciousness or suspicion or racism erected around it any more than I want to see the persistent rancor that accompanies immigration applied to American, whatever it may become. Some of my favorite moments involve being in the midst of a group of individuals who become so engaged in the topic of their conversation that their language shifts from English to Spanish to French with an occasional di jobu or emphatic All right! emerging in Japanese, all barriers down, communication moving back and forth like a leisurely rally before a volleyball match. Im da velt arihne, out in the world for all to see.

Some American writers whose politics shade considerably to the right of center seem to have become the usage mavens, speaking to us about nuance and shading, which is good, but also about rules and restrictions, which begins to grow shaky.
Chomsky, and before him Whorf, and before him Sapir extend the agreement that all languages are of equal complexity, an amazingly simple and direct path that could lead us to the community of understanding that the languages and societies may be complex, but empathy and understanding don't have to be.


Querulous Squirrel said...

Whorf posited that the limits of language shapes perception, which is why language expansion should be left loose and flexible: we are constantly creating new words to meet our needs for expression and as long as they convey our meaning to others, there's no reason not to use them. I make up words all the time and the meanings are unmistakable.

Anonymous said...

I teach English as a second language. My students are adults. They amaze me all the time--they way they play with English, fall in and out of it, use it incorrectly in brilliant ways, and make me think about what I am saying.

lowenkopf said...

For me, that's the key--to be caused to think about what I'm saying and, I hope, to be able to say it with some humor.

lowenkopf said...
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