Wednesday, 19 January 2011

language and politics in Tunisia and elsewhere

we all know what has been happening in Tunisia, and we should welcome it.  No matter (almost) what happens next.  I read with interest this blogpost which referred to the use of language by Tunisia's new (temporary) leaders.  Most of them are of an age where most if not all of their education would have been through the medium of French, but some use the two forms of Arabic in use in Tunisia (the formal and the demotic - most languages other than, to my knowledge, English and Japanese, have two forms in this kind of way) more fluently than others do.  This may say something about their cultural background, their switched-on-ness, or it may say something else altogether, or nothing.  I do not understand or speak Arabic, so cannot assess their language use in that tongue, but I was struck by the immediate seizing upon language use as an indicator of what kind of politician we have.  English of course barely has a demotic form, although there are many kinds of English in use in the world.  In England itself class is the main informer of language.  "Patois" is a French word, without English equivalent.  Of the many kinds of English, one I have to tussle with on a daily basis is what might be called ELF, or English as a Lingua Franca, which is often to be found in international organisations.  Debate is ongoing as to whether such English ought to be corrected if there is no risk of misunderstanding.  "I proposed him to participate to the meeting" will not be misunderstood.   But should I, as a native speaker of English, correct it when I know the response will be "Always we are saying this way since long time, why you change?"

Well, should I?  And what is your favourite kind of English, native or not?  My personal favourite is the English spoken by educated people in India, closely followed by that spoken among themselves by elderly ladies from Barbados who no longer live there.


Anonymous said...

The English spoken by northside Dubliners is hard to beat.

Augustus Carp said...

Jane, have you read “Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor” by John Honey? It’s well worth dipping in to for a variety of reasons. With regard to educated Indians, he reckons that although their grammar, vocabulary and written work is exceptionally good, their main failing is that they put the wrong stresses on too many words – in his opinion, about 20% are mis-stressed. Consequently, they sound more “ignorant” or “uneducated” than they really are.

In Oxford Road at the moment there is a sign in a shop window advertising West Indian “Tek Wey” food. Pointless, silly and irritating as far as I am concerned, and trying to take multiculturalism just that little bit too far.

Yes, I think that other people’s English should be corrected if circumstances allow. In the modern world, one of the few international strengths we have in Britain is being at the centre (for the moment, anyway) of the English speaking world. We should act as guardians of the language, to prevent it moving in so many directions at the same time that we end up with English speakers in South America and China not being able to understand each other.

One of the laziest and most pig-ignorant abrogations of responsibility (frequently spouted by lefties and primary school teachers) is to say, “But of course, English is a changing language, and it is always changing, and we mustn’t stop it!” This is usually followed up by observations about vocabulary from foreign languages, or the words invented by Shakespeare. Fair enough – but the people implementing or allowing these changes today are not scholars like Shakespeare, Lancelot Andrewes or Dr Johnson: they frequently do not speak foreign languages, and have no sense of poetry, never mind a grasp of basic grammar. So, pick up your Grammar Hammer and set to with gusto, if the circumstances allow – anyone who has taken the trouble to learn English as a foreign language wil usually be very happy to have their knowledge of it increased.

Anonymous said...

Well,English as she is spoke on the Nordsighd has much to commend it..but youse can't beat Norn Irish...

Anonymous said...

Why the slur on primary school teachers?
Both my parents were primary school teahcers and they would never have dreamed of making such a comment.

Why lefties?

They were also lefties, so they are now double damned.

Unfortunately, they are both now dead and can't refute this careless and easy slur.

Next time, no doubt, Augustus Carp will be opining on the qaulity of English teachers.

Well - go on, Augustus, don't let me spoil your fun.

As I am one of those, you will then have achieved the wondrous feat of insulting my entire family at one go.

And - hey - Augustus !!
I don't have a degree in Media Studies and have never taught the politics of the X Factor or soap operas.
Care to chance your arm in a debate on The Dream of The Rood?

Thought not.

Sauti Ndogo said...

Jane, on your comment about Japanese not having the two registers: histories of WWII frequently say that when Hirohito spoke on the radio - the first time he had ever done so - to announce that Japan would seek terms, he did so using the antiquated language spoken at court and was barely intelligible to most of his listeners. Is that true, or a myth?

I enjoy pedantry, but it should only be practised on those who should know better; otherwise it's intellectual bullying.

So, I try to avoid being upset by greengrocers' apostrophes. Instead, I get irritated by engineers' commas. You don't have to pay to use full stops and we won't mind if you're brave and use a semi-colon. But, all those sentences strung together and separated only by commas are tiresome.

With you on pukka English from Indians! But I'm happy to have English worked imaginatively to the limit (or beyond) by others, so I love Kenyans telling me that the chickens are coming home "to roast" or Ghanaians exhorting "more grease to your elbow!".

Augustus Carp said...

Sorry, Anon 16:16, I really didn’t intend to slur primary school teachers, or lefties, or you! Let me try to explain.

I think we can agree that when it comes to most matters of language (spelling, vocabulary, grammar, forms of address etc) it is the Right that tends to be most punctilious in insisting on absolute “accuracy”. Language is a form of control, after all, and social control is what the Right does best. Although I am willing to be persuaded otherwise I somehow doubt if the Academie Francaise or its Spanish equivalent are usually aligned with the political Left. The Lefties, on the other hand (think of GB Shaw) are usually quite keen to allow changes and “improvements” in the language. They are certainly more welcoming of foreign vocabulary, tolerant of “rude words” etc. To be fair, I suppose George Orwell was a lefty who did not share that view, but I think my thesis still stands. I don’t think it’s that controversial a view, is it?

I mentioned primary school teachers because, more than most, they are in the front line in trying to decide whether or not to correct poor English. They don’t do it all the time, of course, because they are dealing with primary school children, who need to be encouraged, despite their occasional lapses from perceived good standards of written or spoken English. I will maintain, though, that some primary school teachers veer too much towards the libertarian on this matter – and this is based on my observation of them in action. I hadn’t thought specifically of English teachers per se, but I expect that they face the same problems, particularly in the TEFL and TESL fields.

And as for The Song of the Rood … well, sorry, but I am more of an Agatha Christie man myself, but if it comes out in paperback please let me know.

Jane Griffiths said...

Sauti Ndogo, a bit different in Japanese. Either there is no demotic Japanese or all of it is. But Japanese uses respect language, so the vocabulary changes depending on the relevant status of the interlocuteurs - men and women use a different word for "I", Respect language plays a little the same role that class factors and accent do in British English. The reason the emperor was incomprehensible to his subjects when he broadcast was that he was actually speaking a different language. All Japanese is predicated on to whom you show respect. And the emperor needs show respect to nobody, so his vocabulary is unique. If people had heard him before they would have realised and got used to it, but they never had - and still to this day very rarely do.

Anonymous said...

Its been out in Faber since the early 70s.

Don't know anything about TEFL or TESL.

Anonymous said...

I had an issue with our primary school, which was asking children to give a recount of their activities.
I pointed out that recount was a verb, and the only noun form was as used in elections etc.
The OED agreed with me but the school wouldn't budge.
Nor would the education authority who more or less said that languages move on.

Anonymous said...

Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Teaching English as a Second Language. They concentrate on different vocabularies in the early stages: an Italian housewife learning EFL might spend more time on booking hotels, asking directions etc, whereas a UK resident doing ESL might spend more time learning about visiting the doctor, dealing with the council, geting a job etc.

Jonny said...

I love the Times of India reference to a car crash as a "vehicular concatenation".
When it comes to language change/conservatism the process is dialectical. Even the French don't kowtow to the Academie.
(PS,@Augustus Carp, if Shakespeare was a scholar then I am Marie of Rumania.)

Augustus Carp said...

Come on, Jonny, be fair - Shakespeare knew several languages, including Latin and Italian. Surely in this context that counts for something?

Marie of Rumania said...

We know there is French, Italian and Latin in his play-scripts, but then again plenty of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have picked up Arabic and Pashtu.
I'll go with his contemporary Robert Greene, who said Shakey had "small Latin and less Greek".