Monday, March 14, 2011

Sitting in airport lounges

American businessmen are really bored. They do not enjoy waiting without talking. They must be the talking type. Sitting at the lounge at my computer waiting for my flight, I am surrounded by American businessmen. They sit constantly looking at their telephones. They talk about nothing with friends and relatives. They talk about the fact that they're waiting at the airport. They check multiple times to see if their flight is delayed or not. They talk about the fact that their flight is leaving in 40 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever. They are really, really boring.

American businessmen are really boring.

They are also really loud. One thing I think that I enjoy about France is the fact that people have volume control. It is considered rude if anyone further than 5 feet away from you can hear your conversation. To speak louder is considered yelling. Mothers quickly hush their children when they start to make noise. Cell phone conversations are muted and restaurants, oases of peaceful bliss. I generally don't think that it is appropriate that I hear a conversation when I am sitting more than 30 feet away.

So, anyways, they should learn to shut up or read a book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Under the spell of the written word

In his recent post, Robert Lane Greene discusses how generations of "language sticklers" have been on the wrong track. His article is an advertisement of sorts for his new book You are what you speak: grammar grouches, language laws, and the politics of identity.

Greene argues against the idea that history represents decay with respect to language. The assumption of historical decay is one that many journalists writing about language consistently fail to observe. It's not simply the journalists who assume that language is under decay, but many academics. Theoretically speaking, they might understand that history isn't decaying, but surely this must have nothing to do with the loss of whom or use of like in different varieties of English, right? So, the argument goes. Any experience with historical linguistics or with language contact is bound to convince one that this assumption is false, as many a linguist would be quick to observe.

My point here is not to talk about the idea that language change is not decay, but to discuss a different subtext that is a bit dirtier - the importance of literacy to this debate. While it is delightful to see a popular writer on language talk about the myth of language decay, the topic of Greene's article quickly changes to literacy and the stylistics of English writing. Implicit in his review is the idea that changes in English writing reflect language change at some larger level. But does writing UR 2 KEWL [jɹ tʰu kʰul̴] really reflect a drastic change from writing You're too cool. [jɹ tʰu kʰul̴]? Greene argues that we shouldn't be concerned with these changes in writing because so many people are now literate and we are bound to observe what he calls "bad grammar and mechanics" in a pluralistic society. In other words, Greene withholds condemning those who write UR 2 KEWL (after all, they're writing), but then proceeds to judge them based on their stylistic choices. It's "Love the sinner, but not the sin" or something like that.

Greene's tone is judgmental because, like many, he only can speak about language from the perspective of literacy. He has no other way to discuss real language differences. Thus, all orthographic differences appear to be more important than they really are. This isn't, of course, the natural state of things. In 90% of the world's languages, there is no literacy and no writing system (Harrison, 2007). In these languages, the written form of words is often seen as a barrier to communication rather than as a river through which linguistic thoughts may flow.

Literacy learning among Itunyoso Trique speakers. It is hard to read 9 tones.

In my work developing an orthography for Itunyoso Trique, reading and writing are considered excessively difficult skills. The language has 9 tones. This means that different pitch patterns change the meanings of words. There are four level tones: numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 (where 4 is highest), three falling tones, numbered 43, 32, and 31, and two rising tones, numbered 13 and 45. Working with speakers, I have developed a system for writing the language, but it hasn't been thoroughly tested. Chances are, the system will change based on the needs (and concerns) of Trique speakers. What really isn't a concern among Trique speakers is slight variation in writing a word. I have seen the word [joʔoh 4.5] 'land' written as 'yohó', 'yohoo', 'yoó', and 'yo'óho'. Since the glottal stop /ʔ/ is often so elided (as creaky voice), it is difficult for speakers to identify it as a consonant in the word.

I would consider it wonderfully clear (for me at least) if Trique speakers would be motivated enough to read and write in one particular way, but it would also be presumptuous for me to expect them to converge on one system. Besides, inflexible writing systems are often created by external forces like governments, the aristocracy, or the Academia Real de Español - and Trique people have no reason to respect or even like impositions of this kind.

From this perspective, Greene's judgment just starts to look silly. Yes, it is a wonderful thing that most English speakers in the United States can read and write now, but why assume that they should converge on a single system that everyone can understand. Perhaps it would be better to ask if English can allow public spheres for different variants of written language? Real pluralism permits this for spoken language. Why should written language be a sphere for more stricter judgment?