LINGUIST List 7.890

Thu Jun 13 1996

Disc: Equality among languages

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Patrick Ryan, Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages
  2. benji wald, ling equality/practicality
  3., re: 7.865 "equality" among languages
  4. Jeff MacSwan, Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages

Message 1: Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages

Date: Mon, 10 Jun 1996 19:51:16 PDT
From: Patrick Ryan <>
Subject: Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages
Regarding vol-7-865:

 Date: Monday, 10 Jun 1996 19:32 CDT
 From: (Pat Ryan)
 Subject: equality among languages

I think inequality among languages may have been a determining factor
in early civilization.

I believe that the language type which holds the greatest potential
(as of present) for enabling science and complex organization is the
nominative-type as defined by G. A. Klimov in a number of Russian
works which, unfortunately, have not been published in English.

It is so for this reason: nominative languages require an expression
of the transitive subject. It even needs to be expressed when it is
not really appropriate (e.g. "it rains").

Science (ancient, also) and complex organization relies on a clear 
perception of the relationship between cause and effect.

In addition, synthetic languages mask the origin of (the morphemes
used for )relationships in such a way that (in)direct and
prepositional objects can be fully integrated into the sentence and
the thought.

Languages like many African languages that can only express what we
would term sentence phrases as virtual separate sentences (to him =
give to him), or those for which the transitive subject can be
expressed but is felt as a non-essential adjunct to the sentence
(ergative-type) may very well have contributed in their way to
limiting the growth or competitiveness of the societies that employed

I am specifically not considering Chinese in this category. Although
grammatical morphemes are rare, word order, to a certain extent,
replaces them; and, for all we know, the language which initiated
China's civilization may have been analytic.

I know this is a sore point because many people will interpret what I 
have written as implying an ethnocentric view of language. 

Let me briefly digress; I do think analytic nominative-type languages
have an integral relationship with civilization but whether
civilization will be our salvation or our destruction remains yet to
be seen. I do not think of this in absolute terms only in relationship
to the ability to practice "civilization", a form of organized living
that may not be evolutionarily "superior" in the long run.

I apologize in advance whose sensibilities will be offended because
they believe civilization is an absolute positive value; and by
questioning some languages' ability to foster it, they will interpret
my remarks as questioning the value of the people who speak them. I
ask only that my remarks be read again before the vituperations start.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: ling equality/practicality

Date: Tue, 11 Jun 1996 16:17:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: ling equality/practicality

Alison Henry's last message clarifies some of the questions raised in
her(?) previous message. It changes my perception of what was behind
the original question from something more "academic" to something more
practical, and has a number of nuances that it did not occur to me
previously to respond to.

One practical issue is how to grade papers written nonstandardly. I
have actually encountered that problem, though not for a long time.
As a dialectologist I have not had difficulty myself distinguishing
nonstandard language from logic and argumentation, as far as I could
tell. That came up with some undergraduates in introductory courses.
My attitude was to overlook the nonstandardness and go for the quality
of the ideas, etc. But I did pause to consider what I was doing.
Like Henry, I didn't have faith that other professors would be as
tolerant as I, or that they would even be able to make the
distinctions I did -- and what about structure and ordering in
argumentation? There is a formalised, but probably still arbitrary,
order to presentation of an argument in academic writing.
Ethnographers inform us that different oral cultures organise various
genres of discourse in different ways -- this relates to the syntax of
discourse, among other things. This is not strictly a matter of
standard vs. nonstandard grammar in the sense of the examples Henry
gave -- she just gave morphology. But sometimes papers, even
"standardly" written, take liberties with the prescribed
order. However, the order can be reconstructed and the arguments make
sense. Does the uncoventional order detract from clarity, since the
academic reader is conditioned to expect an argument to occur in a
rather fixed order? Is that a "thinking" problem or "just" a formal
organisational problem? In such cases I commented on the order of
presentation, and tended to mark down as a warning because of the
extra effort it caused me to figure out the argument and whether it
was sound.

In the case of nonstandard morphology/syntax and *spelling* -- the
last not mentioned by Henry -- I "corrected" it but did not mark down
for it. It was not a big inconvenience to correct that, as compared
with giving advice on order of argumentation. I did not consider
teaching standard morphology or spelling as part of my job (as opposed
to discussing it with reference to nonstandard spoken language).
Besides, as a dialectologist I was too aware of the prejudicial nature
of marking down for such "trivial" things. But I figured the student
was going to have problems with other teachers. Fleetingly, I also
considered that what I was doing, though I could justify it in terms
of my own specialty, could be perceived by unfriendly eyes (if they
bothered to notice) as similar to what teachers in public schools do
when they pass a student with "minimal skills" on to the next grade,
"passing the buck" to some other teacher. Educational research shook
the nation a while ago with the revelation that many high school
graduates were "functional illiterates". Down went all the great
previous elation over the rising percentage of HS graduates. Maybe
that was covertly shrugged off as indicative of the adjusted value of
a HS diploma, or at least one with a C- average (US system) behind it,
not overtly shrugged off, of course. The measure of HS graduates is
easier to obtain than the national grade average (whatever that would
mean, given grading and standards variation across locales).
Meanwhile, an appropriate national system of measuring scholastic
achievement in the US remains problematic, not to mention the state's
rights domain of education in the US, and degree of autonomy given to
local districts, which is probably a good thing, given the overall
mess education is in. Other nations have other educational problems
or inequities, e.g., the traditional British system of deciding on the
basis of an exam at the age of 12 whether a student will go on to an
academic career or into a vocational training program. That was very
effective in keeping the working and middle classes "stable" and
separate. (Well, maybe it amounts to the same thing as in the US, but
it's done in a different way.)

In any case, beyond the elementary college level nonstandard
morphology became less of a problem (maybe because those who had not
mastered standard morphology in writing by that time had become so
discouraged or disillusioned that they dropped out of school). Within
linguistics at least, I got the impression that those who could read
the required linguistic literature and understand it were able to
imitate the style in their own writing pretty well. Of course,
organisation of argument remains a problem throughout life, so I won't
say more about that issue. So the real problem is that those who are
a problem get eliminated. Everyone in the business of education knows
that. What to do about it is as much subject to debate as anything

Henry's following statement is overly simplistic:

"It might be argued that it is easier to learn a new dialect than to
change race/religion/sexual orientation, but it seems to me that
research in linguistics shows that this means in fact abandoning one's
identity with a particular group, and is also not very easy to do
consistently for most people."

There are two issues here, 1) abandoning identity 2) consistency.
About 1): The learner is not abandoning an old identity any more than
someone who gets a professional job and moves to a new (classier)
neighborhood is abandoning friends who remain "non-professional" (or
whatever) or stay in the old neighborhood. That such things happen is
undeniable, but that they must happen is false. It depends on the
learners and how seriously they take the messages they get. Linguists
will tell them that they are adding to their repertoire, not giving up
anything. That is a possibility, not something that necessarily

The "research in linguistics" referred to must have to do with "in its
social context". It sounds like social psychology (as a field
overlapping with linguistics) to me. Academia and the professional
world is not interested in people's personal sense of identity, only
with the partial identity which the institutions promote. A person
who gives up all prior "identity" to make it in that world is
"possessed" (stereotyped as "nerdy"), and no less narrow-minded than
one who refuses to keep learning or growing socially at an early age.

It gets more complicated when we start examining the social forces
that pull people in different directions, as if to entirely possess
their whole being, but I'm trying to stay brief here. Still, from
what I've seen, early teenagers think they have to totally commit to
one role or another, clothes, etc. Later teenagers get pleasure out of
being different things at different times, getting dressed differently
for different occasions, etc. In sum, I know the premise above is
false because I know people whose lives contradict it. Everybody's
does to one extent or another, but that's not something we usually
talk about in public. Standard languages give us the option of
functioning in that basically anonymous society, that society of
strangers. But if that's all of you've got, where do you go when they
turn the lights out and lock the doors? You ain't got no home. That's
like eating nothing but fast food for the rest of your life.
("standard" food?)

As for point 2) consistency, either that's covered by 1) or it has to
do with the point Henry wants to make of the class system that I'll
react to next. First, however, it occurs to me that a good case of
what Henry may have in mind is the way Richard Rodriguez portrays how
his education resulted in his self-alienation from his family in his
autobiographical "Hunger of Memory". I was particulatly struck by the
passage where Rodriguez describes, without any indication of
recognising the irony of what he was saying, how he felt the
alienation when his working class mother asked him about what he was
working on at Harvard, and he asks the reader something like: how
could I expect her to understand that I was working on a paper on the
*universal appeal* of Shakespeare? (He didn't seem to mean that the
education he was getting would disappoint her naive respect for
education because it was about learning how to bullshit -- but more
simply that he didn't know how to explain it to her, or want to be
bothered trying, and from elsewhere it is clear that he didn't think
she was really interested in what he was studying, only in being in
touch with him. The whole thing was very pathetic. Must I repeat?
The institutions do not care about such problems. Should they? If
so, what could possibly be beyond their reach?)

To get to the point, Henry notes:

"The fact is that, although no one 'speaks' standard written English,
it is much closer to the dialect of some, largely middle class,
speakers, than it is to that of others. Are we giving non-standard
speakers the message that, while their grammars are all right for some
informal purposes, they aren't good enough for serious uses?"

Now we can see that this connects to the last passage I quoted. I
suppose the point is that "middle class" students will "have to" give
up less of their "identity" than the working class students -- and
that's not fair. Well, I questioned that above. And, besides, is it
any surprise the educational system works that way, since it is
designed to keep the middle class stocked. It is not designed to
replenish either lower or upper classes.

In any case, the answer to the last question is "yes". And it can
easily be shown that being "taken seriously" is a function of
conforming to "appropriate" behavior, even on this List. (Hmm, you
should see the stuff I write that doesn't get through the censors --
no fair, they see it. Actually sometimes I'm glad. Sometimes I click
on "send" and then "oops, too late", I agonise.) Again, the linguist,
or sociolinguist, among other scholars, is concerned with the notion
of "appropriateness" and how that varies and shapes speech behavior
according to variation in social situations. There's no point denying
injustice. It exists. Where linguists can do something about it,
like anybody else who knows something that can help alleviate an
injustice, they should try. At least linguists realise what part of
the problem is. Language prejudice. Nobody else does. So that's a
start. But linguists can't finish by themselves. So far, it seems
that the best they can do is propagate the view, with proper and CLEAR
support, that in most respects (and they better get this right by
going into details) standards in language are arbitrary in terms of
the way that linguists, and in fact most people, see language. It's
worth emphasising that standard languages are nobody's first language,
just as people learn to speak before they learn to read, but it can't
be denied that they're closer to the middle-class than to lower
classes for historically and structurally obvious reasons, if you know
them. And there's probably no way to change that without changing the
structure of society. But this is what we don't really know, and
linguists are certainly in no privileged position to understand this
any better than anybody else. Even sociologists debate the "nature of
society" the way we debate the "nature of grammar". So their input is
useful, but also limited.

The dimensions of the problem are revealed when we consider more
recently and apparently rationally devised standard languages. The
idea is to compromise on any local variety, so as not to provoke
jealousies. Class doesn't really enter into the creation process.
The "middle" class will receive the product first, because it's their
function to maintain and disseminate it. That's one of the meaning of
"middle", cf. "middleman -- uh person". Nobody's satisfied, but
ideally all should be equally dissatisfied, not one more than another.
Even so, somebody's always left out of consideration, lots of
somebodies. A different solution, also effective, was the creation of
Standard Swahili. A lot of people already knew Swahili, but they
didn't really know the people who spoke it as a first language, and
did not associate the language with such people. The latter people,
esp those whose dialect was standardised, isolated by sea on the
island of Zanzibar, did not profit from standardisation. In fact,
people whose first language was not Swahili could more easily learn
the quirks in the standard, especially in writing -- which is what
standards are about, that extra measure of anonymity, you don't even
know what the writer looks like -- than the first language speakers.
This might have some implications for other standards, if properly
taught, which might even give the edge to lower classes over the
"middle class". It is problematic whether the educational system is
set up to give the edge to lower classes over the middle class under
any circumstances. Probably the best it could do without a complete
overhaul of a society is change the lower class into the middle class,
and in so doing change the middle class into the lower class. That's
a lot of effort to change nothing. So this entire problem and its
implications has to be thought out more clearly. What's it all about?

In a way, standard languages are like money, paper money. Useless
(i.e., arbitrary) when people look at it objectively, but of
unimaginable uses as long as people BELIEVE in it/them. Now you
wouldn't tell someone, that $100 bill, it's only paper. Everybody can
see that, but nobody believes it. "Same" thing with standard
languages. Arguing about the "unfairness" of standard languages is
probably like arguing about changing the tires on a car to make it go,
when it's the battery that's dead. -- Benji
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: re: 7.865 "equality" among languages

Date: Wed, 12 Jun 1996 13:01:59 -0000
From: <>
Subject: re: 7.865 "equality" among languages
to D.Harris' observations:

Language's potential for adlexification and further codification is
something that has been recognized by linguists for quite some
time. The standardization potential that may follow is another matter

The observations by D.Harris adequately identify the transformation of
a jargon or a simple pidgin to a stable pidgin: as the functional
demands of a variety are extended to a wider range of domains, its
lexis (and other components) expand accordingly to meet certain, new
communicative needs.

So, I do not believe that the ongoing discussions on language
"equality" and standardization have disregarded these facts. Rather,
I think that the principles and processes involved in pidgin-formation
are simply not--in their strictest sense--applicable to the question
of domain restriction of certain varieties or, as M.Newman perhaps
more accurately pointed out, registers.

Certainly the restriction of certain registers and varieties to
specific and definable domains is in most cases a naturally-occurring
and essentially unavoidable phenomenon. It is important to bear in
mind that even dialects, creoles and even registers generally expand
into acrolectal, mesolectal and basilectal type varieties for
sociological as well as functional reasons.

Charlie Rowe
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages

Date: Tue, 11 Jun 1996 21:22:05 PDT
From: Jeff MacSwan <macswanUCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.865, Disc: Equality Among Languages
Many thanks to Dave Harris for his comments. It's certainly true that
non-standard dialects are not as good for talking about "standard"
school topics as standard dialects are, but that is to be expected.
There are lots of things which children in the inner-city might talk
about which would be completely incomprehensible to us. We would have
no appropriate vocabulary, and we would be at a loss for relevant
concepts. It MIGHT be true that topics in physics are richer than
topics concerning, say, nomadic herding techniques among the Masai in
Kenya, but there is no compelling evidence of this. Much of what
academicians do is clerical and mechanical, and considerably less rich
than what is to be discovered among "primitive" peoples who speak
unprivileged languages and dialects. In any case, WHAT people talk
about is to be distinguished from the language used to discuss it. To
say that Masai cannot readily talk about the theory of computation
without heavily borrowing from English or other European languages
says nothing about the internal syntactic, morphological, and semantic
complexity of their language. Hope this helps.

> I enjoyed reading Benji Wald's comments on this topic, although I
>have to admit I had to skim through parts because it was a little on
>the long side. What I want to say is probably very obvious to all and
>yet I haven't actually heard anyone say it here so I'll say it
>anyway. It seems to me that equality among languages does not mean
>exisiting equality but rather potential equality. Any language is
>automatically as good as it needs to be for whatever environment it is
>used in. And any language or language variant could be adapted (I
>believe) for any situation. However, as a general rule, non-standard
>varieties of language are generally not, in their present state, as
>good as standard varieties for discussing philosophy, logic, science,
>engineering, etc. That does not mean that they could not serve just as
>well or even better than standard varieties, it simply means that they
>have not (yet) been applied to those topics and, therefore, are not
>fine-tuned to deal with the vocabulary needed.
> This situation where a standard variety is pitted against
>non-standards is directly analogous to another situation where a
>language spoken in one area of the world, say Tahitian in the South
>Pacific, might be difficult to use in a different geographic region,
>say Lappland, where all kinds of words for 'snow' and 'reindeer' and
>whatnot would have to be invented or codeswitched into the language.
> I have experienced this situation myself very often between German
>and English or between Arabic and English. Certain expressions native
>to one language simply don't express what you wish to say in another
>so you code-switch. If your speech partner doesn't know the other
>language, you make the attempt to stretch the functionality of the
>language s/he does understand in order to say as precisely as you can
>what it is you want to say. David Harris
>LINGUIST List: Vol-7-865.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue