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  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: diglossia, email, , , , grammar b, , , , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.


    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

    • Lane 10:58 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In my book I argued that really successful prescriptivism, which enforces the rules of “Grammar A” religiously in writing and encourages them sternly in “proper” speech, leads inevitably to diglossia in the long run. My exhibits are Arabic, with its early, successful prescriptive grammar tradition freezing Classical Arabic while spoken Arabic changed normally over the centuries; and French, where nearly 400 years of a French Academy has also frozen a formal version of the language that no one speaks. (An alien linguist would give the French verb paradigm as “je parl, tu parl, il parl, on parl, vous parlé, il parl.” Our alien would conclude that one negative particle, “pas”, is sufficient in nearly all cases. Etc.)

      So I think even those who value stability in formal language must either let Grammar A (I’d just say “writing”) change gradually in line with natural change in Grammar B (“speech”), or watch diglossia take root, with its inevitable plaints that “nobody speaks real Arabic anymore.”

      • The Diacritics 3:35 pm on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Fantastic. Is that “You Are What You Speak”? Can’t wait to read it over winter break.

  • The Diacritics 7:01 pm on September 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: classy, diglossia,   

    I like the word “indolence.” It makes my laziness seem classy.

    Bern Williams
  • The Diacritics 5:16 am on September 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: diglossia, , mayda del valle, metaphor, , spanish   

    Work and play hard: English as metaphor 

    posted by Sandeep

    Slam poet Mayda Del Valle minced no words when she took Duke University by storm last year:

    And I’m speaking in tongues
    blending proper with street talk
    everyday meets academic
    bastardizing one language
    creating new ones.

    Her first piece that night, the frenetically melodious “Tongue Tactics,” was a send-up of the social dichotomy between “high-class” and “low-class” Spanish. Others can have their haughty tongues, she spat, but leave her the passionate, earthy, real street talk.

    Although the poem was about Spanish, the English she used was “street” as well. And it was mesmerizing. The passion, simplicity and attitude of her language made it fantastically engaging. It just wouldn’t have been the same if it were delivered as a staid speech.

    And yet, almost 300 miles north of Durham, North Carolina, President Obama and his speech writers were collaborating to enchant audiences, too. Although Obama is no slam poet, with his refined and multisyllabic English, his words are poetic in a totally different way.

    Do their different styles resonate with different aspects of our identity?

    English-speaking societies delineate high- and low-class speech in many ways. For example, your accent, especially in Britain and the U.S., can give others information about your socioeconomic background. Non-standard grammar might lead others to stereotyped conclusions about your education or neighborhood.

    Vocabulary choice, too, has been a marker of socioeconomic status in English for at least the last millennium. When the Normans invaded the British Isles in 1066, they brought their language, a Latin-derived Romance tongue related to French. For well over a century, Norman-speaking people formed most of the ruling class in Britain. Their language, and all of the Latinate words it carried, became known as high-class speech. Later, as the Normans assimilated into the local Briton culture, the English language that emerged was stratified between Latinate vocabulary (high-class) and native Germanic vocabulary (neutral or low-class).

    The distinction persists today. Latin-derived vocabulary is perceived to be more intelligent and eloquent, whereas Germanic words are seen as earthier, simpler and unpretentious.

    It’s incredible how the social atmosphere of southern Britain nearly 1,000 years ago is still determining our performance of language and identity today.

    Think about the dichotomous connotations of these pairs: ask/inquire; do/execute; begin/commence; drink/imbibe; speak/converse; lie/repose; small/diminutive. Which would you use in daily conversation, and which might you use in an essay or a speech? Would you feel comfortable crossing them over to the opposite situation? (The first word in each pair is Germanic and the second is Latinate.)

    The deliberate choice of certain derived vocabulary is informed by our social surroundings. We speak in certain ways to impress certain people. Most socially aware native English speakers can suss out when to use different vocabulary.

    What identity are we attempting to embody? Are we Del Valle or Obama? Is it possible to be both?

    The unofficial motto of my alma mater, Duke University, is “Work hard, play hard.” It speaks to our dual identity as a university: academic strength coupled with social acumen. We bust our brains during the week in class, and on the weekends, we let our pent-up stress out in uniquely vigorous ways.

    But in a linguistically metaphorical way… suppose we can describe our academic life, mostly confined to classrooms and professors’ offices, as our “Latinate” identity, and our social life, passionate and street, as “Germanic.” We use different social “vocabularies” throughout our day, with different people and in different locations. When we cross over these vocabularies—acting informal in a presentation, or speaking stiltedly at a section party—the effect is jarring: not necessarily always bad, but always noticeable.

    It’s not that we owe a particular allegiance to either vocabulary: After all, we do work hard (Latinate) and play hard (Germanic). But for many of us, the “work hard, play hard” mantra implies a strict dichotomy.

    The truth is that even though Latinate and Germanic vocabularies share a complex, stratified and sometimes dichotomous history, modern English wouldn’t work without constant interplay between the two. We cross over our lexicons constantly. Just look at this column, for example—I oscillate between “big” and “small” words, between Latinate and Germanic vocabularies.

    English, because it has absorbed the ideas and mannerisms of so many different social strata and geographic variations, is one of the most expressive languages in the world. Both Del Valle and Obama can exist in the same linguistic sphere. English’s heritage and character gives it power.

    I wonder what would happen if we saw more crossovers between work and play. What if we brought the same vigor we apply to our co-curricular activities and weekend parties into the classroom? And what if we brought more intellectual dialogues onto the quad at our colleges?

    If Latinate and Germanic English words don’t have to be used separately, maybe we can bring the best of both worlds together—“work and play hard.” Maybe it doesn’t have to be a separated proposition. It already seems to have worked in the English language. I wonder if it can work in our lives, too.

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