Saturday, March 3, 2012

On correct "grammars"

An interesting article in the Guardian slamming proscriptivists who make out that "grammar" is important to learn for some reason.

Rosen clearly has some understanding of linguistics but muddies the water a little bit. The sub didn't do him any favours because the head is plain wrong. It's not that there's no correct grammar; it's that there are as many correct grammars as there are fluent speakers of a language.

In the common parlance, "grammar" is just "correct English", which encompasses grammar, punctuation and spelling. It largely concerns itself with written English, where it does make some sense to talk about "correct English" because there is a written standard. Of course, it also makes sense to talk about correct punctuation because "eats, shoots and leaves" really does mean something different from "eats shoots and leaves" (add the Oxford comma, which does not matter but is correct in US English, if you are an American).

Rosen is implying that there are as many grammars as there are speakers, which is to some extent true, but rather unhelpful because clearly there are a group of rules that we all follow. Most utterances are well formed for all fluent speakers, and certainly in the case of English, most if not all native speakers share a more restricted and formalised grammar. That you don't possess your gerunds doesn't really mean much in speech (sounds the same either way), and even if I do say "I en't doing it", I do know that the "correct" way to say it is "I am not doing it".

A speaker's understanding of the shared underlying rules of English is called their competence. Generally, speakers cannot express, and do not consciously know, what this competence consists of. But you don't need to know what the word "pluperfect" means to use the tense correctly. All native speakers who do not have some pathology are about equally competent in their language, although those competences can differ. What I'm saying here is that no one walks around with a deficient set of rules unless they have a damaged brain.

You acquire competence when you learn a language, and you acquire it from the people closest to you first. So your competence in the language you speak is patterned on the competence implied in your carers' and then your peers' language. I say implied, because we do not express our competence directly. It is the underlying set of rules that shape our performance: the utterances that we deliver to others who then understand us or do not. Naturally, the closer our competences, the closer our understanding. We are hardwired to determine and internalise the competence of those nearest to us.

So people who have a lot of contact with each other have very similar "grammars". After all, we want others to understand what we say, so we're motivated to play by the same rules they do.

Complicating matters is that you can have more than one grammar that you've internalised. Obviously, if you speak French fluently, you have internalised French grammar, but less obviously, you may, and in most communities that are connected even relatively strongly to a broader community, people do have two grammars internalised for the same language: their dialect and the standard version of that language.

So when we say that Cockneys have "bad grammar", what we are saying is that they are using their common, local grammar and not the broader, standard grammar. They are clearly not incorrect to do so, and their grammar is not "bad".

However, people who are not well exposed to the standard may well have a faulty standard grammar, simply because their exposure to it has not been sufficient for them to infer its rules correctly. Also, there can be a mismatch between standards: standard English and standard Australian English are very close, but standard Indian English is in some ways quite different. The Indian speakers are not "wrong" in any real sense. They are simply not speaking the same language as we are.

This is one source of the problems we have with call-centre operators, although another is much more important. Alongside the rules used to construct sentences are other rules that define the sounds that are allowed in a language. Whereas standard English grammar is widely shared among us, it's hard to say there is a standard English phonology or prosody. (Prosody is the rhythm, stress and intonation of languages: in other words, how the sounds are deployed in varying utterances, rather than what they are, which is phonology.) The same principles do apply: we have accents like those of the people around us because we try to emulate the sounds they are using because we know they are meaningful. However, whereas using the "wrong" grammar can quickly make sentences poorly formed and unintelligible, using the "wrong" sounds does not.

For instance, in standard English, we aspirate "t", "p" and "k" before a vowel when they are word initial, but it doesn't change the meaning of a word if you do not. We do not aspirate them after an "s", but it would not make any difference if you did. These two sounds are allophones of the phoneme "t" and the difference between them is not "phonemic". In many languages, the difference is phonemic and using the wrong sound does change the meaning. Using the "wrong" allophone will sometimes make you sound "wrong": it's distinctive of the English accent in French that we wrongly aspirate word-initial stops -- the sound at the beginning of English "party" is different from the sound at the beginning of French "parti". The difference does not affect meaning: Frenchies will still know you mean to say the word for party (or gone, depending which of those homophones you are using).

In the foregoing, it's important to realise that English speakers are attempting to replicate the phonological competence of French speakers (those from Paris, because we are taught the Paris accent that is standard in French at school) and in fact we do, even though we use a "wrong" allophone. Our performance of "parti" is correctly interpreted by native listeners as representing underlying /p/.

However, our tolerance for allophones is stretched by incorrect prosody. Semi-fluent French speakers can misuse stress quite badly without affecting comprehension, simply because they are not speaking too quickly. Fluent speakers make fewer mistakes in prosody because the prosody competence they are attempting to reconstruct is the one we use. Part of becoming fluent in English for French people is learning the correct stress patterns in English, which are very different from those in French. Part of our learning French is the opposite: learning how to make our sentences have the "contours" of French, not English.

Here is the big problem with call-centre workers and other fluent Indian English speakers. They are not making a mistake. In their home environment, their English is entirely comprehensible. But it is not always to us. Why? The reason is that they have not in fact tried to internalise our prosody, but have internalised the prosody of a different standard: that of English speakers in their region. When I listen to J, an Indian in our office who has excellent English and understands everything said to him, I find him hard to understand, not because his English is not good but because his prosody mimics that of his home language, Malayalam, and not mine.

There's a premium in India on learning American English. Consequently, higher-class Indians who have had a high-quality education are perfectly understandable to us. They have been taught by people who have internalised American prosody (which is very similar to English prosody even if phonetics causes our accents to differ), either because they are Americans or because they are Indians who have been taught by Americans. (Or by English, Canadians or Australians, all of whom share a common prosody, but probably not by South Africans, who do not -- their prosody is strongly influenced by that of Dutch, which is different.)

So when you cannot understand the Indian guy in the office, it's not because his "grammar" is bad. It's because his prosody is! We could probably tolerate the different phonology (we do when Americans talk to us) but when it is coupled with wrong rhythm and stress, it's hard for us even to pick out words from the sounds (that's what prosody is for). That prosody is important in language use is beyond question: the reason that we struggle to learn languages like French, and that we complain that we can't pick words out of rapid speech is that French has a different prosody from English: if Frenchies spoke with English prosody we'd easily recognise the words.


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