Friday, April 4, 2008

Standard Languages and the View From Outside

There has been some back and forth over at Language Log on standard varieties of languages, their value, and this piece by James J Kilpatrick. In particular, this post by Mark Liberman got me thinking about how standard varieties of a language are actually used in relation to "nonstandard" varieties.

The degree to which standard forms are shared cultural norms could be debated. Certainly by imposing themselves in the mainstream media, standard varieties are at least accessible by nearly all of us, but the value that is attached to the variety isn't as universal. When a variety is not used locally, there's a tendency for it to become the subject of parody and ridicule at the local level. Sometimes the ridicule is directed at the speakers, sometimes at the perceived pompousness of the standard variety. Being able to express oneself eloquently is not the same thing as having something to say, and in communities where nonstandard varieties are spoken, standard varieties often bear an association with hot air.

When someone insists that using standard varieties leads to greater comprehensibility, I'm always reminded of the way British English is used in Irish literature from early in the last century and, in particular, the great, late Flann O'Brien, who had an amazing gift at parodying different registers. His books are littered with language that could have been lifted directly from academic papers from the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Here's a footnote from his novel The Third Policeman concerning a theory of the fictional philosopher De Selby.
Not excepting even the credulous Kraus (see his Do Selby's Leben), all the commentators have treated de Selby's disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of 'black air', i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain 'regrettable' industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a). Hatchjaw brings forward his rather facile and ever-ready theory of forgery, pointing to certain unfamiliar syntactical constructions in the first part of the third so called 'prosecanto' in Golden Hours. He does not, however, suggest that there is anything spurious in de Selby's equally damaging rhodomontade in the Layman's Atlas where he inveighs savagely against 'the insanitary conditions prevailing everywhere after six o'clock' and makes the famous gaffe that death is merely 'the collapse of the heart from the strain of a lifetime of fits and fainting'. (more here)
O'Brien's work contains parodies of rural Irish culture as well (notably in The Poor Mouth, whose title alludes to adopting a lower class's speech), but it's hard to imagine his flights into De Selby's pseudoscientific fancies working in any variety of English other than a standard one. I don't have references at hand, but one can find examples of language varities being used to in some of the writings of Joyce, Donleavy, and, while not Irish, even Wodehouse, thinking in particular of the various moralizing aunts and uncles.

Standard varieties can also be incredibly inappropriate for many situations. Could you imagine if Mark Twain had written the following?
Those readers who are not acquainted with the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be no more acquainted with this author. However, no prior knowledge will be necessary for enjoying the volume you now read. The forenamed book was authored by Mr. Mark Twain, who endeavored and succeeded in narrating those events with veracity but was no less tempted by embellishment than all men are at one time or another.
The point is also illustrated in this old Budweiser commercial. An epilogue to their "Whazup!" series (my apologies if this stirs up memories better left unstirred).

Like any other choice in language use, works in standard varieties are not always interpretted as "straighforward" or "universal" by all audiences. That's what good writers need to understand more than the peculiarities of any single variety.

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