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What means this "English"?:

Eugene and I think fairly similarly in matters of language, and I don't disagree with anything he's said so far. However, I want to make a more radical statement. Perhaps Eugene agrees with it, but I want to express it more nakedly. There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying, and the meaning he's trying to convey is more or less the meaning they get. It's just an empirical statement about the degree of overlap between each person's "language."

This is all well and good, and we can keep using the shorthand of talking about "speaking English" for most purposes. Where the shorthand reveals its sloppiness, though, is when we see different people using different forms, possibly mutually incomprehensible forms, and say that one of them is "right."

But whenever we say that something is "right," we have to know what it's right for. "Right" can be meant either (1) as "proper to achieve a particular goal" or (2) as "inherently good." Now (2) seems implausible to me. Because when different people are speaking mutually incomprehensibly, this is as if one were speaking German and the other were speaking Spanish. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If these different people are speaking differently than each other but they can still understand each other, it's like a German speaker and a Spanish speaker who each understand both German and Spanish -- like when my father talks to me in Russian and I answer back in English. Nothing inherently wrong with that either. So the only way I can understand "right," in matters of language, is in the functional sense -- "proper to achieve a particular goal."

So to say that a usage is "right" or "wrong," you have to specify what goal you want to achieve. If I'm living in the inner city and my goal is to blend in, talking like a college professor is incorrect. Speaking African American Vernacular English (as the kids are saying these days) may be correct, though perhaps not if I'm white, and perhaps not if I seem like an outsider. Likewise, if my goal is to persuade people in the inner city, talking like a college professor may be incorrect -- just as it's incorrect to use a libertarian argument in support of policy if you're talking to a Marxist. On the other hand, if I think talking like a college professor will give me an air of authority that will make people do what I say, then talking like a college professor may well be correct. If I'm trying to get a job at a prestigious New York law firm, speaking Southern American English may be incorrect; but it can be correct if I have a radio talk show in Alabama and want to get my ratings up.

These are all different languages -- not "correct" and "incorrect" versions of some mass of dialects we sloppily label "English" -- and any one of them might be appropriate to know for a particular social situation. To say that a particular usage is "right" -- without, at least implicitly, having a "right for what?" in mind -- is like saying that a particular government program is "effective" without specifying a criterion of effectiveness.

But ah, one may validly ask, what do you teach your kids? What should we teach in schools?

In the first place, our kids should learn that with language -- like with all other tasks -- you should use the tools appropriate for what you're trying to do. Just as people might learn Spanish if they want to communicate with (what we might sloppily call) "Spanish speakers," they might learn Cajun English if they need to do social work in the bayou.

In the second place, we should usually spend most of our time teaching our kids to talk like rich and educated people in the United States. Not because that dialect is better, but because our kids will tend to be more materially successful in life if they know how to speak that dialect, and that's part of what most of us want for our kids. This is classist and elitist, and we might as well admit it; our kids should learn the dialect of the elite class, no matter how irrational it is, so they, too, can someday join that elite class. (Even if you would like to overthrow that elite class, wouldn't it be more effective to have a mole working on the inside?)

Thus, we can say "ain't" is "incorrect" for the simple reason that it'll make people less likely to give you high-paying jobs and positions of power -- assuming that you want those high-paying jobs or positions of power. Nonetheless, someone who knows many different versions of (so-called) "English" for many different social situations -- even if he doesn't know any of the (so-called) "foreign" languages -- is a true polyglot.

Anon Y. Mous:

There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying, and the meaning he's trying to convey is more or less the meaning they get. It's just an empirical statement about the degree of overlap between each person's "language."


No, not at all. When we say that someone speaks English, it almost always means that they speak that language, as opposed to Spanish, French, German, etc. (all of which they may or may not speak).

One of the great things about language is that words have meaning. There is an English language, and you are using it, so to speak.
7.23.2007 10:40pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
"When we say that someone speaks English, it almost always means that they speak that language, as opposed to Spanish, French, German, etc."

Since the logic of that phrase is circular, I don't know what that means.

Or rather, I know one thing it means: If you take a group of so-called "English speakers" and a group of so-called "German speakers," -- to be simpler, take "English and non-German speakers" and "German and non-English speakers" -- people in each group will tend to be pretty much comprehensible to others in that group and pretty much incomprehensible to people in the other group.

This, I understand. That empirical overlap is what I mean when I use the shorthand "speaking English."
7.23.2007 10:52pm
charles vine:
Mr Volokh makes many salient points.

At the risk of boring most readers, I offer the following testimony:

In my senior year at an Ivy League college, I decided to apply to graduate business schools.

All of them, with the exception of Harvard, required competancy in the calculus.

I enrolled in a course taught by an Indian (not the Ugh! or casino variety), and could not understand >90% of what he was talking about.

Thankfully, my other qualifications allowed HBS to accept me. Otherwise, I would have had a different life entirely, based solely on the notion that all English is the same.

To slightly misquote Henry Ford: relativism is bunkum.
7.23.2007 10:54pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
One of the great things about language is that words have meaning.


No, meanings have words. And if you find a meaning that doesn't have a word, you can make one up.
7.23.2007 10:55pm
Chicago:
There's something problematic in defining "speaking English" to mean "communicating in a way that other English speakers can understand." It is true that English speakers can generally understand each other. But why take that to define what English means rather than search for some other explanation for the empirical overlap? One that springs to mind is that there is some collection of rules about vocubulary, grammar, and so forth that one can define as English. The key to speaking English is then rough approximation. We English speakers might all have slightly different conceptions about what constitutes "true" English, but we are close enough to understand others who are attempting to speak the same language.
7.23.2007 11:10pm
Toby:
We often think in words - and if we have no precision in words, we may have no precision in speaking. There have been studies (no citations, sorry, they were in the early 80's) that suggested that creole languages, including what later came to be onown as Ebonics, handicap their speakers.

THe argument ran that creoles have fewer propositions, and that the relationships BETWEEN objects are expressed less preciely. This leads t oproblems understanding math beyond an elementary lever, say, starting with Geometry. Geometry is of course, the gaeway between arithmetic and higher math. Higher math is the gateway to the sciences, and to Economics, and...

SO poor choice of language, if encouraged in your children, can make math more difficult for them, and thereby limit their ability to have careers in science, engineering, or the numerate professions...
7.23.2007 11:11pm
Henry Schaffer (mail):
Walt Wolfram (in the Dept. of English at NCSU) has done many studies on the dialects of American English. He seems to generally agree with Sasha. See:

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation. Cambridge/Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Wolfram, Walt, Joy Peyton, Peg Griffin, and Ralph W. Fasold, eds. Language in Action: New Studies of Language in Society. Cresshill: Hampton Press, 2000.
7.23.2007 11:14pm
Bruce:
Sasha, you have a good point, but I wouldn't go so far as to say there is no English language. It's just squishy at the boundaries. It's not true that there are no chairs, even though there may be disputes over whether a bean bag is a chair in certain situations.
7.23.2007 11:16pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Chicago: The only part I think I disagree with in what you've said is that there is "some collection of rules about voc[a]bulary, grammar, and so forth that one can define as English."

Notice that you put that in the singular. If there were such a collection of rules, everything would be easy! But there is no single collection of rules that everyone agrees on. As a post on Language Log once put it, some people (mostly in the U.S.) say "The team is winning." Some people (mostly in Britain) say "The team are winning." Some people say "The team be winning." (No one says "The team am winning.") All three of these groups can understand each other, but we're not using the same rules.

Similarly, some people think you shouldn't use a preposition at the end of a sentence. I think you should use one whenever you want to! Different rules, but we can all understand each other.

On the other hand, some people say "L'équipe est en train de gagner," and the folks who say "The team is winning" might have no idea what's going on. But I might be able to understand, in context, someone who said "Team winning." So there's a continuum. At some point, we stop being able to understand each other.

Because I can't point to a single set of rules that everyone follows, I don't know how to define a language other than by looking at all the different rules used by a group of people who tend to understand each other.
7.23.2007 11:18pm
Portland:
What you are describing is known in linguistics as an idiolect:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiolect
7.23.2007 11:20pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Toby: I agree. Well, not on your specific assertions, I don't know whether creole languages or Ebonics handicap their speakers, but your basic idea is sound: People may do worse in life if they learn certain languages or dialects. This is precisely my point: Saying (and showing!) that certain ways of speaking lead to particular good results is what you should do if you want to convince me to speak that way.

Bruce: I would say about chairs the same that I said about English. "Chair" is a sloppy shorthand that we use to indicate a certain amalgamation of characteristics. This shorthand is useful because there's use in dividing chairs from non-chairs in daily life. The shorthand becomes harmful -- that is, the sloppiness exceeds the usefulness -- when we start arguing about whether a beanbag is a chair in the abstract, rather than asking "Why do you want to know?": Is it because you want to buy something comfy to sit on? Or is it because you want to list it in a chair catalog where beanbag buyers might not be part of your clientele?
7.23.2007 11:22pm
Maniakes:
Saying there's no such thing as English because everyone's English is different is like saying there's no such thing as a bird because every bird is different. I understand what you're saying, and agree with it in part, but think you're pushing the concept too far. I'd say rather that "English" is a useful abstraction which can refer either to the entire fractal-like family of different flavors of English that are and have ever been spoken, or to an idealized model derived from the common features of various flavors of English. Prescriptivists and descriptivists both believe the latter definition has value, but differ in how they construct it (descriptivists by pure observation, and prescriptivists by also considering what "English" "should" be).
7.23.2007 11:24pm
Chicago:
But why isn't an existence proof enough? And why conclude from the fact that people speak English differently that none of them is right rather than that many of them are wrong?
7.23.2007 11:25pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Maniakes: You say "an idealized model derived from the common features of various flavors of English," I say "sloppy shorthand." I think we're saying the same thing.
7.23.2007 11:25pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Chicago: It's only because I don't know what "right" means unless you tell me "right for what?" I really really really don't know what "right" means! I'm fully willing to believe they're all wrong, or all but about ten of them, or whatever... but I still need to know what "right" means.
7.23.2007 11:27pm
Maniakes:
Reading back, I see that Bruce made a similar point, and by the time I posted Sasha had already addressed it.
7.23.2007 11:28pm
Maniakes:
Sasha, "sloppy shorthand" and "idealized model" may have almost the same denotation, but they have very different connotations.
7.23.2007 11:29pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
There is such a thing as proper English. How accepted, necessary, used, and useful it is and has become is a different question.
7.23.2007 11:30pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
If it's not accepted, necessary, used, or useful, in what sense is it "proper" -- aside from "claimed by some to be proper"?
7.23.2007 11:33pm
Ex parte McCardle:
At the end of "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," Donald Davidson goes Sasha one better, claiming "There is no such thing as language," although he qualifies this a bit by adding, "not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases."
7.23.2007 11:35pm
deweber (mail):
Yeah. These arguments are so much fun and never end.

Anyway, one point that has not been brought up yet is that dialect is very sticky(my judgement). That is the choice of phonems, words, grammar, and idiom that one uses tends to be set early in life and is very hard to change. Ask anyone who has attempted to learn a new language as an adult. There are sounds that cannot be heard. Listen to a BBC production with a character who is supposed to be American in it, this is for native Amerincan speakers. It is clear that the accent is faked. I cannot imagine what the British think of American plays where a British accent is tried.

I think there is a good chance that this stickyness is built into the brain's process and development. This makes it very hard to overcome. It would be reasonable for anything so indicitive of origin to be hard coded in the brain as a way to distinguish between in and out groups, a vital necessity when the people in the next valley could be hostile. This has, in my thinking, a good chance to explain the importance of accent to humans in grouping people and hence the vitrolic reactions to it.
7.23.2007 11:41pm
Pendulum (mail):
Sasha,

You are absolutely correct in your understanding of the relationship between language and objects.

What frustrated me most while doing my degree in philosophy was the seeming inability of the vast majority of my professors to grasp the seemingly self-evident truth that you've just expressed. Thus, endless debates about "whether we have free will", or "whether morality really exists".

I have found these ideas only expressed by Wittgenstein, and WV Quine. Can you suggest any authors, perhaps from linguistics, who express this idea elegantly?
7.23.2007 11:48pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Pendulum: I don't know linguistics. But I do read Language Log.
7.23.2007 11:55pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Sasha, you're one of them radical-types, ain't you... ;-)
7.24.2007 12:07am
Sameer Parekh (mail) (www):
"I enrolled in a course taught by an Indian (not the Ugh! or casino variety), and could not understand >90% of what he was talking about. "

I have heard repeated claims that people in India speak English. This I dispute. The oft-quoted definition for speaking the same language is mutual intelligibility. I recently tried to open a bank account in India, and I had absolutely no idea what the customer service people were saying. And this was by email, so it wasn't an accent issue.
7.24.2007 12:19am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
I think Sasha's right in a sense, but only in the anti-essentialist sense that there is no such thing as a species, or a car, or...
7.24.2007 12:21am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Q the Enchanter: Absolutely! And what other sense is there? :)
7.24.2007 12:22am
Bleepless (mail):
Deconstructionism. Ugh.
7.24.2007 12:23am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Bleepless: Note, though, that this theory of mine is highly objectivist, in its own way. There is a best way of speaking and writing: The way that will best accomplish the goals you have, whether that's communicating, persuading, blending in, or anything else. There is no One Best Way, because the best way is contextual -- it depends what your goal is. But this is most certainly not deconstruction.
7.24.2007 12:30am
Eugene Mondie (mail):
I'm sorry but I strongly disagree with your premise. Your linguist equivalency theory fails to mention the fundamental reason for language. One simply cannot convey the subtleties of art, music, science, religion, law or love using the more base dialects. For example, asking for more mustard on your sandwich requires very little from any language but trying to discuss the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism not only requires skill but also a highly complex and well developed language. If you carry your argument further you might as well say Shostakovich was no better or worse a composer than Higdon. After all, music is also just another form of communication.
7.24.2007 12:30am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Eugene Mondie: I agree with everything you've said, except for where you say we're disagreeing! If you want to speak in a highly complex and well developed way because that helps you convey the subtleties of art, music, science, religion, that's a great reason. You've articulated a goal, so you can say what ways of speaking are better and worse.

Now we can still argue whether prepositions at the ends of sentences, split infinitives, etc., further the goal of conveying the subtleties of art, but at least we can agree on a standard of value! Similarly, we can presumably also agree that the complexity and developedness may not help -- and may in fact be a hindrance -- when asking for more mustard on your sandwich.

Similarly, we can say Shostakovich is better than Higdon (don't know anything about Higdon, so I couldn't say) if we can articulate aesthetic standards that we can agree on. I suspect we'd agree on aesthetic standards sufficiently to agree on Shostakovich rather than Higdon (I'm giving this the benefit of the doubt!), so that gives us a basis for calling Shostakovich "better."

I reserve judgment on whether our aesthetic judgments are better than others', but at least we can make a sensible statement, which is that Shostakovich satisfies our aesthetic standards better than Higdon.

This is how everyone ought to talk about "correctness" in language, "quality" in music, etc. By reference to a particular goal that the language or music is meant to further.

Mr. Mondie, we are kindred souls.
7.24.2007 12:35am
Kovarsky (mail):
was it lily tomlin who said a language is a dialect with an army and a navy?

great article about this a few years back in harpers, by david foster wallace. i think it's included in the consider the lobster compilation, which i proudly admit i reread primarily for his essay on the AVN awards, which is in turn one of the best pieces of reporting i've ever read.
7.24.2007 12:46am
Steve2:
Sasha, I agree with your statements in their entirety.

Pendulum, I remember in my high school literature class writing a paper comparing manipulation of language by the Inner Party in 1984 and by Hell in The Screwtape Letters (and "Screwtape Proposes a Toast". I found some secondary sources advancing the point Sasha's making, but for what I hope are obvious reasons I can't begin to remember what they were. Field was... essays or books high school students would find while researching a lit-class paper.
7.24.2007 12:47am
Unregistered Guest:
With no disrespect meant to other contributors, I'd just like to acknowledge that, periodically, Sasha Volokh shows up and makes this blog a much, much more interesting place.
7.24.2007 12:55am
Kovarsky (mail):
i believe that a debate on the ontology of chairness breaks out.

i think it's fairly hard to dispute

(1) you can't say a language is "right" or "wrong" without saying what it is right or wrong for.

(2) it behooves everyone to learn to speak the dialect (i think this is a better term than "language" here) of the group necessary for some form of success

(3) the philosophy-english pidgin, complete with all the words ending in "ization," should be eradicated forever.
7.24.2007 12:56am
ras (mail):
What is the sound of one hand clapping? It's the sound of one hand clapping; like all things, it is unique, and any description of it would be at best an inaccurate aproximation compared to experiencing the real thing directly.

Same with English.

/all the Zen I know
7.24.2007 1:21am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Sasha, there's an extremely important element missing from your description: commonality. Sure, everyone's English is different--but some attributes are common to far more people's English than others. And given that most people (a) have difficulty learning many different versions of English and (b) don't know in advance whose version of English they may have to deal with, it's generally advantageous for them to learn the English that intersects most extensively with that of the most other English speakers--that is, "standard English".

Of course, wealthy and educated people are more likely to speak "standard English"--and vice versa. But it's democracy--not plutocracy--that makes it standard. And when people complain about "wrong" English, they usually mean that it's "non-standard"--i.e., not part of most English-speakers' English.

It's true that such non-standard English is often still comprehensible to other standard (or nearly-standard) English speakers. But then, so is English with the vowels removed, or encrypted with the "rot-13" rotation cipher. Like such transformed English, communication that's outside one's own form of English--even when comprehensible--takes a little effort to translate into one's familiar idiom. Hence standard English is preferable even over widely comprehensible alternatives.
7.24.2007 1:38am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Sasha-

This is classist and elitist, and we might as well admit it; our kids should learn the dialect of the elite class, no matter how irrational it is, so they, too, can someday join that elite class.

It's really only "classist" or "elitist" if you buy into Marx's emotionally manipulative and most of the time incorrect "class conflict" model. If one believes its beneficial to the economy and therefore everyone if the intelligent, skilled, hardworking, etc. people, regardless of socio-economic origin, get to become scientists, doctors, scholars, entrepeneurs, businesspeople, etc. it isn't very "classist" or "elitist" to equip them with the tools to effectively achieve that.
7.24.2007 1:40am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Well, heck. I don't care about changing my usage to "fit in" -- they can bloody well adapt to me.

I have a neighbor who says "liebary" to indicate a building that contains a bunch of books. I'll continue to use the word that I prefer when I speak with him, and perhaps someday he'll learn something.

By the way, Sasha, what's your attitude toward "The Law"? Is there any such thing? Would it be correct to say, "Golly, chums! We'd best get rid of these reefers -- I don't believe we're allowed to have them!" under all circumstances?

</silliness>
7.24.2007 1:41am
Bruce:
"Chair" is a sloppy shorthand that we use to indicate a certain amalgamation of characteristics.

I don't get the point of calling "chair" or "English" a "sloppy shorthand." That's all there is. Concepts don't get any better defined than that. That doesn't mean there are no disputes at the periphery. If "chair" and "English" are sloppy shorthands, then everything is a sloppy shorthand. And if everything is a sloppy shorthand, then it's not relatively sloppy, or short, is it?

Deweber: It's not just accent that can get mangled across the pond. I am a big fan of the Granada Television versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which are generally very good. But a couple of the stories have American characters, and they sound uniformly awful. Every sentence out of their mouths is a cliche from a dime novel. I went back and checked the originals, and it was Arthur Conan Doyle's fault; the television episodes were just faithful adaptations. Doyle had no ear for American speech patterns, and overcompensated.
7.24.2007 1:52am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
1. Naturally there are dialects. Once knew a speech prof who would often tell what part of the US or Britain you were from by your speech. (One point: do you pronounce "been" as "bin" or "ben" or "bun"). One limit was that a person often speaks their mother's dialect, since she played the major role in teaching them to speak ... hence I tended to have an Ohio dialect, even tho I spent almost all of my life in Arizona.

2. I'd agree that one must look at the target of the speech, and its purposes. But there is also a certain... aesthetic? Winston Churchill is magnificent, regardless of your dialect.

3, Once read an argument that English originates as a sort of pidgin, to allow Danes, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and later Normans, to communicate. One of its features is an economy of words, but each word having a great number of meanings depending upon context. (Interesting in that regard that the conquering Normans gave us most of our vocabulary for dealing with money matters and the law -- credit, debit, check, tortfeasor, plaintiff, estoppel, etc., etc.).
7.24.2007 2:17am
Christopher M (mail):
One simply cannot convey the subtleties of art, music, science, religion, law or love using the more base dialects.

It is certainly true that the Standard English spoken and written by academics, art critics, scientists, and lawyers has an extremely well-developed vocabulary for analytic discourse about these subjects. It is certainly not true with regard to "love," as speakers of what Eugene Mondie calls "base dialects" tend to have just as much to say to one another about love as speakers of Standard English. One need only look at the lyrics of popular music to find any number of statements regarding love whose expressive content -- with all its connotations and nuances -- would be difficult to put into Standard English. How do you say, in Standard English, "Is you is or is you ain't my baby?"
7.24.2007 2:36am
Kovarsky (mail):
Bruce,

I don't get the point of calling "chair" or "English" a "sloppy shorthand." That's all there is. Concepts don't get any better defined than that. That doesn't mean there are no disputes at the periphery. If "chair" and "English" are sloppy shorthands, then everything is a sloppy shorthand. And if everything is a sloppy shorthand, then it's not relatively sloppy, or short, is it?

The point is that we say chair rather than specify precisely the set of attributes (four legs, a back, a seat) that are part of the object we are identifying as possessed of "chairness." Just because the shorthand ("chair") is to some extent an abstraction of certain attributes of chairness does not mean that all such abstractions are equally useless. For example, the term "thing" is not a particularly useful abstraction, as it tells you very little about the referent. When we say "English" we know, for most purposes, what we mean. It's a sloppy shorthand for all the various dialects that comprise English. Standard written english is just a dialect.

American P. -

It's really only "classist" or "elitist" if you buy into Marx's emotionally manipulative and most of the time incorrect "class conflict" model. If one believes its beneficial to the economy and therefore everyone if the intelligent, skilled, hardworking, etc. people, regardless of socio-economic origin, get to become scientists, doctors, scholars, entrepeneurs, businesspeople, etc. it isn't very "classist" or "elitist" to equip them with the tools to effectively achieve that.

Actually, it's classist and elitist even if you don't believe in Marx's model. I believe Sasha's point is merely that it's unavoidably classist and elitist, in that the dialects in which "success" may be more readily achieved are not a product of some sort of natural selection - such that the best ones have survived - but are in large part historical accidents. It's just that you can't really do anything about it. I don't see how you need to buy into a tortured description of Marx to accept that proposition. Unless by "class struggle" you mean "any struggle," which is not a really swell way of thinking about it.
7.24.2007 2:40am
Obelisk18 (mail):
I'd suggest that your argument dismisses the possibility of the "inherently good" meaning of "right" too easily. Indeed, it's fairly odd for you to nearly immediately resolve what seems to me to be the principle distinction between the descriptivist and prescriptivist approaches. When a descriptivist says "right", they mean "proper to achieve a particular goal". When a presciptivist says "right, they often, though perhaps not always, mean "inherently good". So, at the very least, I think extra care is needed in dismissing "inherently good", if your goal is to prove the validity of the descriptivist approach.

And I think a carefully considered case yields a more complex answer. For instance, it’s plausible that one of two dialects, both of which are posing as “English”, ought to be preferred (or thought “inherently good”), because it’s closer, in various ways, to what was originally meant by the word “English”. Assuming of course that we can date the word “english”, in relation to language, historically, and assuming that there was a general agreement on it’s meaning (i.e, a common usage). These are by no means easy assumptions, and based on what I know of history, the latter at least seems especially bold. But, I don’t think either is, on it’s face, unreasonable. After all, the word "English" did come into usage at some point, and the person, or persons, who first employed it, meant something by it. I’d contest that this is a plausible way of defining “inherently good”.

Language is created as a means of expressing ideas. But, not just expressing ideas; expressing ideas to someone other then yourself. Therefore, commonality is an inherent and essential function of language. If my way of expressing myself, has nothing in common with your way of receiving what I’m attempting to express to you, then we can’t communicate. Which is fine of course when you’re only discussing two individuals. I don’t necessarily need to communicate with you. But, it doesn’t work so well, when we’re talking about language more generally. If language doesn’t strive to create some level of commonality, or at least the potential for commonality, then it simply has no function.

And of course, a central feature of commonality is stability. If the common features which allow us to communicate, are arbitrarily changing from day to day, then we can’t communicate either. If a particulate word means something similar to each of us today, and something wildly different tomorrow, then language has no function. So adhering more closely to the original meaning of a word (or in this case, the original conception of the language known as “English”) might reasonably be an “inherent good” because it’s more likely to lead to a higher level of commonality and stability both short term and across generations. In short, it’s more likely to allow us to understand each other (surely a primary, if not the primary, function of language) if applied consistently. This is just one way of defining an “inherent good”, in preferring one dialect to another.
7.24.2007 2:59am
Cornellian (mail):
There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying

This makes about as much sense as saying there is no such thing as the color pink because everyone has a slightly different idea of where the border lies between pink and red.

Of course there's an English language, and the fact that different people have different accents and vocabularies doesn't make it otherwise. Would we say that people in the same office who have been communicating without any difficulty for a decade nevertheless do not speak the same language because they don't have 100% matching vocabularies? Would we say that no two people in history have ever spoken the same language because no two people have exactly 100% matching vocabularies and ways of pronouncing words? One can say there is no such thing as the English language only by distorting the term "language" beyond any recognized meaning.

English is a collection of words and grammatical structures and anyone who can employ them to communicate is capable of speaking English. Of course, some people are better at it than others and there's a certain latitude with pronounciation depending on where one travels but it's absurd to say that differing degrees of proficiency means that there's no such thing as the English language.

At most one can say there is no such thing as a Platonic Universal English but no one outside a philosophy class would use the term "English" in that fashion.
7.24.2007 3:46am
Fub:
Sasha Volokh wrote:
...Just as people might learn Spanish if they want to communicate with (what we might sloppily call) "Spanish speakers," they might learn Cajun English if they need to do social work in the bayou.
Just a minor nit from one who has spent considerable time on bayous, and even some time in them (but as little as possible without waders). Learning Cajun creole is probably useful to avoid winding up in the bayou if one sets out to do social work on the bayou.

Maybe using "in" for "on" was just a typo.

However, I would not be surprised if the choice of preposition was driven by a not unreasonable misunderstanding, that "in the bayou" characterizes a general or collective place or area, somewhat like one might say "in the lowlands". But a bayou is a singular specific thing, usually with a proper name as well, like a river or a canal. "In the bayou" means getting wet. "On the bayou" would mean being in an area or place near a bayou.

Remember what Hank sang: "Me gotta go pole the piro down the bayou..."
7.24.2007 7:59am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Fub: Yours has been the most useful comment so far! Thanks for the tip!
7.24.2007 8:43am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Following up on Fub's comment, which is 100% accurate, I'm not sure that I've ever heard the phrase "Cajun English" used in my many years living in Louisiana and socializing with folks from "down the bayou." Cajun French is much more often used if referring to their own language. When they speak English, they speak fairly standard English (varying on their level of education), albeit often with a very thick accent. Their daily discourse contains relatively few borrowed words, such as "mais cher." But Cajun French is certainly a unique dialect unto itself, a creole of 1700s French and English, though predominantly French. I once walked into an old general store in the middle of Cajun country with a friend of my mothers from the south of France. He was able to converse with the old-timers in the store quite well in French.
7.24.2007 9:26am
springchickennot (mail):
you guys are wonderful. i have some back-breaking housework to do to prepare for house guests who are driving a long way from TX to WA (howdy Corvallis) soooo, when my alarm went off at 3 am, i didn't want to get out of bed and so i didn't. instead, i read all about English. Thank you all for making me realize that i must sound more like a dummy than i look like. tee hee.

Fub—does bayou rhyme with "pir-oh" and "micherime-oh"? in TX it does, across the border it bayou rhymes with "blue". there once was a crazy musician from houston who would get drunk and skinny dip in buffalo bayoh (rest his soul). as you say, not a good specific place to be in (end with preposition—why not?)

my real reason for posting is to ask if anyone else has heard of this:
(background)forty or so years ago i became friends with a Palestinian immigrant. she could speak arabic, french, spanish and english — but as young women often do, we argued about "what did you mean by that". Anyway, (or as they say in the great NW: anyways) she told me that she was taught that "words are meant to conceal the truth—not reveal it." huh?
I googled the arabic language and found this to be an interesting explanation of how "literary" arabic is taught in schools and how it is spoken on the street. perhaps we should all learn to understand some arabic?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language

when wikipedia first came online i thought the content could not be trusted as it was published by witches.
7.24.2007 10:51am
Jam:
Language is nothing but a dialect with a navy.
7.24.2007 11:18am
David Starr (mail):
I see an English language with many accents, dialects, and even creoles. In the US there is one standard accent and dialect used by radio and TV people, businessman, professionals and the upper establishment. In the UK the standard is a bit different but close enough to US standard that it's use merely marks the speaker as a Brit rather than a Yankee.
The standard used to be called "proper English" or "the King's English", and usages that did not confirm to the standard were marked "wrong" on school papers. In this age of moral relativism the words "right", "wrong", and "proper" have become judgmental and teachers certainly don't want to be seen as non PC by using judgmental language.
Be that as it may, children need to be taught to speak and write standard English because employers, cops, and the rest of the establishment are very judgmental about language skills. Anyone unable to speak and write standard English is judged as uneducated, or worse.
So call it what you will, there is a "proper" English and we ought to be teaching it to the young. By the way, you can fit in anywhere with standard English. Trying to fake an accent and/or a dialect marks you as a turkey to native users of the accent/dialect.
7.24.2007 11:29am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
David Starr: I agree with what you've said. Instead of calling it "proper English," I'd do as you do and say "'proper' English," with "proper" in scare quotes to indicate that it's merely a label others have attached to it, without normative force.

The reason to use it is not because it's right, but because it's used, and expected of you, by people who you want to do good things for you (give you jobs or money, etc.). This leaves open that other forms of English are proper when speaking with recent immigrants, inner-city teens, etc.

And note that using different forms of English doesn't necessarily mean trying to fake an accent or dialect. The most obvious example is where I would avoid putting prepositions at the ends of sentences and splitting infinitives, not because I think doing so is wrong, but if I'm in a context where I want to impress people who would frown on me for doing those things -- and where I'd turn around and do the opposite with my friends or my students -- and then say "should i get sumthg 4 u" when text-messaging someone. These are all "correct" in their own contexts.
7.24.2007 11:54am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
A digression: I've read that in doing Bible translations, translators were puzzled that the sources weren't particularly good Greek. In fact, they read like quite bad Greek, and they wondered if it wasn't written in a particular biblical dialect.

In the 20th century the puzzle was answered when they discovered a lot of Roman soldiers' letters home, preserved by dry climate in Egypt. Biblical Greek was just the way most first century Romans spoke and wrote the language. We were judging it by the classical works that have survived the centuries, the very best writings in the language. It was as if a scholar had read only W. Churchill, and judged everyone else by that standard.
7.24.2007 1:01pm
abb3w:
In the second place, we should usually spend most of our time teaching our kids to talk like rich and educated people in the United States. Not because that dialect is better, but because our kids will tend to be more materially successful in life if they know how to speak that dialect, and that's part of what most of us want for our kids. This is classist and elitist, and we might as well admit it; our kids should learn the dialect of the elite class, no matter how irrational it is, so they, too, can someday join that elite class. (Even if you would like to overthrow that elite class, wouldn't it be more effective to have a mole working on the inside?)

Y'know, I suspect this candid remark could put a blunt point on the US "English as an official language" debate positions, both pro- and anti-. Mandating that people learn English makes sense from that standpoint... but also points out that efforts to legally mandate it as THE Official Language may well be motivated by a desire for those in power to secure their position there.
7.24.2007 1:31pm
K Parker (mail):

David Hardy,
One of its features is an economy of words
Hardly! English is, in fact, noted for the large size of its lexicon compared to most other languages.

As far as your New Testament digression goes, what you describe is a big part of it, but I would add that Shakespeare would be a better analogy than Churchill, as there was also several centuries distance in time between, e.g., Aristotle and the NT writers.
7.24.2007 2:13pm
Fub:
Thanks, Sasah! And I'm glad I could help.

springchickennot wrote:
Fub—does bayou rhyme with "pir-oh" and "micherime-oh"? in TX it does, across the border it bayou rhymes with "blue". there once was a crazy musician from houston who would get drunk and skinny dip in buffalo bayoh (rest his soul). as you say, not a good specific place to be in (end with preposition—why not?)
Pronunciation of "bayou" (as bye-oh or bye-you) depends on where you are. In TX, it's "BYE-oh". What I recall of Cajun speakers and even some nearby English-only speakers, it's "bye-YOU", with emphasis on "YOU" more prominent among Cajun speakers. Also, syllabic emphasis may depend on how the word is used in a sentence.

But my direct experience is long ago and far away, and mostly not with Cajun speakers, though I've encountered enough to recall their way of speaking. There are bayous other places than LA. I just spend a lot time as a child near non-LA bayous. Where I was, "BYE-oh" was the commonplace, and "bye-YOU" was a pretty good indication of Cajun background.

Another language trivia point, it was more common to postfix a bayou's proper name to the word (eg: "the Bayou Bartholemew", as with "the River Jordan") than to prefix as with other bodies of water (eg: "the Red River"). I'd guess this construction practice evolved from the Acadian French roots, but I'm not a linguist.
7.24.2007 2:52pm
quaker:
Sasha: "There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently."

Fine. What we call "English" (or any language) is a cloud of points in some many-dimensional feature space, with 6B members and with proximity defined as some measure of mutual comprehensibility. Cluster boundaries are not firm; some English speakers have a hard time understanding each other, and with effort, some English-speakers can communicate with some non-English speakers. But clusters can be defined, and their number presumably ranges from 1 to 6,000,000,000, depending on the proximity threshold.

Given that, to me the real question then becomes, What cluster-mates do you choose?

And given that people shape their language and language shapes people, What sort of person do you want to shape? (Speculation: Dialect X is a device for creating more speakers of Dialect X. Ghetto-talk creates more Ghetto-talkers, Ivy-talk creates more Ivy-talkers, etc.)
7.24.2007 8:24pm
quaker:
Corollary on cluster boundaries: I observe that education (and general social class) can be more relevant to comprehensibility than language. I've had better communications, more pleasurably, and on more valuable subjects, with highly educated non-English speakers, than with highly uneducated native English speakers. I suspect it's for several reasons, including (1) availability of other means of expression, e.g. math, visual thinking, (2) availability of highly compressed but meaningful symbols and allusions, e.g. the Darmok Effect, and (3) general habits of mind and manners, e.g. patience, acceptance of human limits and fallibility, and openness to viewpoints other than one's own.
7.24.2007 8:40pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
"And what other sense is there?"

Indeed, Sasha.
7.25.2007 1:45pm
David Starr (mail):
>The reason to use it is not because it's right, but because >it's used, and expected of you, by people who you want to >do good things for you (give you jobs or money, etc.).

And I use standard English to show my membership in and solidarity with the great mass of standard English speakers, aka my fellow Americans. Using a non standard version of English is making a statement that I "have some issues" with my society or my fellow citizens, or something.

> This leaves open that other forms of English are proper >when speaking with recent immigrants, inner-city teens, >etc.

I'd always speak standard English when talking to such groups lest they think I was mocking them. I'm not a recent immigrant, nor a teen (inner or outer city) and trying to talk like I was such isn't a good way to cement relations with them.

>And note that using different forms of English doesn't >necessarily mean trying to fake an accent or dialect. The >most obvious example is where I would avoid putting >prepositions at the ends of sentences and splitting >infinitives, not because I think doing so is wrong, but if >I'm in a context where I want to impress people who would >frown on me for doing those things -- and where I'd turn >around and do the opposite with my friends or my students

Funny, I never worry about such things when speaking, I just speak the way I always speak. I may have a few trailing prepositions or split infinitives, but that's life. When writing, Word-for-Windows does the fussing over spelling and grammar. I usually go along with the software although I flatter myself that I would accept something as good as Star Trek's "to boldly go" and ignore Word's whining.


>-- and then say "should i get sumthg 4 u" when >text-messaging someone. These are all "correct" in their >own contexts.

That's just tad of abbreviation to overcome the severe bandwidth limits in Blackberries. Heck, you ought to see what radio amateurs used to do to save keystrokes when transmitting in Morse code.
7.25.2007 5:33pm