PS: Language judgments and prejudices

A PS to the previous post:

We judge people by the way they speak, by which I mean we apply to them the generalizations we have gleaned from past associations with people who speak that way. I caution against being too hasty with these snap judgments. There are very good reasons why a non-stupid person would not be able to keep the homonyms straight. Maybe the writer is a bright, well-educated foreigner who is still learning English. Maybe there’s some kind of language disorder in an otherwise intelligent person. You can think of others – and you should, in order to avoid pre-judging people.

Not only do we judge people by the way they speak…we judge their speech itself — broken English, bad grammar, lazy speech – and impart to it qualities we see in the speakers. I’ve heard German described as “businesslike,” Hawaiian as “lilting,” and several dialects as “lazy.”

But someone who says “I didn’t do nothing” is not lazy. The person is showing you a perfectly grammatical bit of the dialect they speak in a social context. There may be totally compelling motives for not saying “I didn’t do anything.” Someone who uses multiple negatives probably says “ain’t,” “done seen that,” maybe even “I be going…” However much others may disapprove, people speak in terms of fully functional language systems.

Only two phenomena can be characterized as “bad grammar”: (i) incomplete languages, such as the kinds of pidgins that develop between groups coming into contact (the pidgin is modeled after the dominant group, if there is one); (ii) violations of syntactic rules, usually by language learners. No native speaker would write “House the saw I.” But a second-language learner might write “He asked what am I doing.”

There’s no connection between linguistic and technological complexity. Countless native cultures that Westerners regard as primitive are equipped with languages that serve their needs and enable them to communicate via grammatical devices that are just as complex as those we find in more familiar languages.

The difference is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” And that affects the language itself. Once English became a world language, the vocabulary exploded with loan words, and the grammatical possibilities were greatly expanded by mass use. Try translating the Constitution into Zulu.

I’ll close with a note of gratitude that I’m a native speaker of English. If we have to learn Chinese, the good news is that the grammar is similar in many ways — but the writing system is a bitch.