LINGUIST List 7.844

Fri Jun 7 1996

Disc: Equality in linguistics

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. benji wald, Equality in linguistics

Message 1: Equality in linguistics

Date: Mon, 03 Jun 1996 02:26:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Equality in linguistics

The following is something which definitely needs list
discussion, because it is so common (we've discussed it before),
not simply a personal answer. I'll start:

AM Henry asks:

"It is a commonly held view among linguists that, linguistically,
all language varieties are of equal value, and 'standard'
languages are no 'better' than non-standard; however, I wonder if
we really 'practise what we preach' in this regard. For example,
does anyone encourage students to submit work in non-standard
English, or non-standard varieties of other languages? Has
anyone tried to get their institution to uphold the rights of
speakers of non-standard varieties not to be penalised for
submitting work including aspects of the grammar of these
varieties? It seems to me that many students are penalised for
using 'non-standard' grammar - an issue which often gets confused
with being able to write in a clear style, produce good
argumentation etc, which is of course quite different. Any

This question recurs with predictable regularity as soon as
thoughtful people learn about how linguistics is "descriptive",
vs. "prescriptive". The wording of what linguists supposedly say
varies, and it is tempting to make an issue of that for purposes
of reply. However, Henry's version is fair, i.e., that "all
language varieties are of *equal value*." "Value"? Yes, value,
for who/m? Why, for linguists, of course. Absolutely and
positively no one else shares that view (nor do linguists when
they are not being linguists -- but that's what makes linguists
so unique).

Do we practice what we preach? Yes, we consider any phenomenon
in any variety of any language relevant data for research on
language. We can also show that the basic tools and concepts we
have available to analyse any particular variety are just as good
(or as bad) for analysing any other variety. In fact, our tools
are designed and constantly redesigned so that that will stay
true. As an aside, armchair linguistics, which is the dominant
form of "pure" linguistics does tend to take most of its data
from (more or less) standard varieties of languages, for those
that have clearly developed (or distinguishable) standards, but
that's just a reflection of the most easily available sources to
armchair linguists (plus the philological origins of
linguistics), and not a reflection in any way of their
professional evaluation of other varieties as sources of data.

There used to be blatant discrimination against second language
varieties as objects of study, and that still occurs somewhat,
but linguists have had an internally consistent rationale for
that. That is, given the fundamental principle (open to
question) that each language, or each variety, is a single
"system", exploring the properties of that system is best
developed in considering the "first" language of speakers, just
in case multilingualism turns out to involve more than "one"
system. The vision was/is that once we understand better how
first languages work, we will have a better footing for
approaching the problems of systematicity in individual (or
group) multilingualism. I won't pursue here why this sounds
reasonable or what is wrong with it, since it is not particularly
relevant to the question motivating this message. (But remember
how I asked last time this issue came up: are linguists
prescriptive when they deal with second language acquisition,
using terms like "error analysis", "negative transfer", and the

What I have said above is what linguists think, and what they
mean by saying "all languages have equal value", or something
else for which that inference is justifiable. It is shocking to
non-linguists, because non-linguists believe in good and bad
languages/ varieties. Unlike linguists, they do not think a bad
language would be one that nobody understands (not to imagine one
which destroys all the sacred cows of linguistic theory -- a
fear, unjustified, in considering second languages on a par with
first languages), but one which "everyone" understands all too
well, and produces a BAD impression on hearers under certain
circumstances -- the circumstances in Henry's question being the
academic milieu. After all, it is well known to sociolinguists
that under some other circumstances use of a "standard" variety
could also produce negative impressions among listeners -- but
Henry is tweaking the academic with his(?) question.

So, does it follow from what linguists believe that they should
- what? be tolerant? encourage? the dismantlement of the
standard language as practiced in academia (and wherever else it
is relevant). That is a complicated question. The answer is
something similar to the "principle" that all human lives are of
equal value, so it doesn't matter if I or you die if that saves
the life of someone we don't know. Should we make it "save TWO
lives of someones we don't know"? Is that more persuasive to you
sacrificing your own life? No? Does that mean you don't accept
the principle? Or, to be less drastic, how about the principle
that everybody *should* be equal as far as having sight, or
whatever? You think so? So, how about contributing one of your
eyes to someone -- anyone -- who can't see but would with an eye
transplant operation? I know, you're saving it in case that
happens to someone you love. That's a different principle, an
even more compelling one: charity begins at home.

We can go on and on with such principles. You don't believe
clothes are necessary in hot weather. So you're going to walk
around naked to be faithful to your beliefs? (No, I can't act on
all my beliefs, but I still believe.)

Maybe you don't accept the analogies. Then let's consider
academic institutions. Are you doing somebody a favcr who hasn't
learned to write "standard" prose by indulging their nonstandard
prose? (How you mark the paper is a different issue; let's say
you're not the English composition professor, just the
linguistics professor. I won't pursue this here.) Next, you're
actually going to defend them from criticism and ridicule (say in
front of the English composition professor, and then the rest of
academia, and then wherever they get a job, if they do)? You're
going to commit academic suicide (you won't have time for
anything more highly valued in academia -- or should that be the
priority?) and bring your student down with you?

This is absurd. Cervantes dealt with this moral dilemma a long
time ago, you know Don Quixote (Quijote?).

Henry's final sentence has a subtlety which should not go

"It seems to me that many students are penalised for using
'non-standard' grammar - an issue which often gets confused with
being able to write in a clear style, produce good argumentation
etc, which is of course quite different."

Does that get confused by linguists? Where's the evidence?
(Recall those term papers! Ah, no worry. Each student complains
independently. They don't get together, compare grades, and note
that they were marked down for the way they expressed themselves,
not for the quality of their ideas. Anyway, how do you prove
that someone DID understand you, when they claim they didn't?)

No doubt unclarity, "etc" (what IS the rest?) is different from
nonstandardness, assuming the reader understands the
nonstandardness, a big assumption -- and one which had something
to do with the development of standard languages (cf. Caxton on
publishers' problems in maximising a market of readers in the
absence of a standard language). Linguists themselves have
enough trouble understanding each others' writings without
encouraging additional problems. Remember the one that goes "if
it ain't broke, don't fix it"? If you have to learn it in
school, that don't mean it's broke. Otherwise, why don't we fix
our spoken languages so that people who don't speak them could
learn them more easily? (ANS: that's not what they're for;
they're not for "everyone" -- that's what standard languages are
for!). Would you know how to do that anyway? (By the way,
there's nothing I can say that's so ridiculous that somebody
hasn't proposed it -- but that's not the same issue as
arbitrarily dismantling a standard koine -- by refusing to pass
it on.)

As I already said, what linguists mean by what they say does not
have to do with the social inequality of varieties, and what's
best to do about that. The judicious thing to say is that we
better understand the "standard/nonstandard" relation a lot
better before we start getting sanctimonious about it, or propose
some other kind of "academic" linguistic conduct. Choose your
battles carefully, or you may not be around long enough to fight
the one you can win.

For the sake of forestalling other faulty inferences from what
linguists mean, the following doesn't go without saying. Under
certain circumstances linguists are in a position, and should
summon their expertise, to protest certain kinds of linguistic
injustices, e.g., when someones who speak (or write) a
nonstandard language is judged to be of subhuman intelligence or
morally defective on that basis, that linguistic variety is
necessarily a threat to sociopolitiical stability (now there's a
topic...), "etc".

Borderline is linguistic engineering, where linguists may or not
decide to take sides on the issue of whether some "variety" of a
"language" should be withdrawn from that language and set up as
an independent "language". Once that happens the criticism of
the rebellious grammar on the basis of the language from which it
"seceded" is much reduced, if not entirely eliminated, cf. no one
condemns Spanish, French, Russian, etc on the basis of its use of
multiple negation (of those who stigmatise it in English -- or in
Latin or Proto-Indo-European? Note the labels, I'm getting to

In the past we've talked about cases where linguists have even
been called in to consult on where or how to cut an unwritten
dialect continuum to develop written forms of a language or
several languages in order to facilitate literacy. Many social
considerations and sensitive judgments are involved. But let's
talk about linguistic secession.

Linguistic secession has been tried on various occasions,
sometimes succesfully, sometimes not. Isn't that a favorite
topic in the "history of linguistics" in the Renaissance period?
(Hmm, the List didn't "trust" me to be one of the reviewers of a
book on the history of linguistics -- so maybe you should
discount this.) The case of various creole languages also comes
to mind, of which Sranan is a good example. In the 20th century
Sranan intellectuals insisted that Sranan is not a mishmosh of
English and Portuguese (and some Dutch) but an independent
language which should not be criticised in terms of its
deviations from English, Port, etc, and it should be accepted as
the independent language that it is. It should be called Sranan,
not "talky talky" (TakiTaki). Of course, following socially
acknowledged forms of demonstration acceptable to those who
needed such persuasion, they also developed a thriving literature
in that language, poetry, prose, what have you. The argument was
successful. Admittedly it was helped by its social context,
where Dutch, the language it least resembles, was the elite
language. In contrast, the idea of recognising African American
English (or Black English Vernacular in the relevant time period)
as an independent language was not successful. Development of a
literature in that language was not really tried, the closest
thing to that being the development of readers for primary school
children. This was criticised as a somewhat stereotyped parody
of the actual spoken varieties of the language, valueless or at
least retarding for the purposes for which it was designed, and
those members of the community who were most active perceived the
idea as yet another attempt to maintain social barriers between
African American people in the US and the "mainstream", to the
detriment of the African American people. Essentially the
argument was that it would perpetuate rather than resolve
inequality in the US context. There is still disagreement about
that, though not much. (We'll explore early controversy over
Zora Neale Hurston's writings and the reaction of the "Harlem
Renaissance" movement some other time.) "Look! our language is
as good as any other. Here's the proof. There are BOOKs in it!
(Hardcover at that!)" That kind of argument would shut a lot of
people up. Of course, there are others who rail against
introducing into writing such things as "hopefully" (that was a
70s one causing Edwin Newman to froth at the mouth, trying to
keep his journalistic flock in line), or whatever comes up.
("hopefully" is here to stay, until the pattern whose hole it
fills goes away.) Generally, the more powerful the authority the
"pettier" the examples they pick to criticise/feel threatened by.
(Strangely, the arguments against them are extremely persuasive
and beautifully expressed -- except for the examples. The
arguments would be much better without the examples that the
arguments are about -- discipline, moral fibre, basic values,
civilisation, bla bla bla.)

The above examples, which differ in many ways, illustrate how
complex the overall problem of the "equality" of languages across
social contexts is. In contrast, what linguists say about
"equality of languages" is very simple if you try to understand
what they actually mean, why they say it, and how they use that
principle. I think I covered that well enough right at the
outset of this message. Various other shades of opinion and
projecting of consequences can and should be debated, but I, for
one, am puzzled that linguists have not been able to get across
what they mean so that questions like Henry's do not keep
recurring in perpetuity. But I'm glad that they do come up rather
than leave the incredulous smiling wryly in disbelief and
thinking "what a bunch of hypocrites linguists are". Uhm, what we
have here is a failure to communicate. -- Benji
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