Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Arrogant Language

Yesterday I had a discussion with several undergraduates about language and I guess I was pretty appalled by their lack of social responsibility around the subject. Let me explain. The conversation starts:

"We were listing off the languages that we speak"

"I would have listed Tex-Mex"

"That's a dialect not a language"

" 'Dialect' is a pejorative word for language. Give me a definition of a language such that dialect would not fit."

"I bet your one of those people who want to list ebonics as a language"

There is this fuzzy social definition around what a language really is, and has proved throughout history to be one of the arbitrary factors that separates cultures. Language can be used as a political tool, for evidence of this I point to Franco's policy on only allowing Castilian being spoke in Spain or the new Dutch policy of requiring immigrants to speak Dutch. The tendency is to turn what could be its own viable natural language into a 'dialect' of another language then marginalize the people who speak said dialect. Ebonics is a bit of a special case of this mostly because it seems to be arbitrary in its composition. But it most certainly fits that if a child grew up in a community where only ebonics is spoken and goes out in the world, Americans will challenge the reasoning power of said child.

Then there is the way a linguist would look at the logical structure of a language to actually study it and compare it to other languages, but this post is intended to point out the arbitrariness of the social construct of language.


Cheryl said...

I think had you made it clear that you wanted to discuss societal views of language, the conversation would have been much different.

It seemed instead that you were arguing that there was no "academic" definition of language.

Andy R. Terrel said...

I'm not sure how much clearer that could have been.