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Monday, December 9, 2013

What are people interested in when they are interested in language

Since I am a language teacher (at least in part of my professional role) and an academic specialist in the artistic use of language (i.e. poetry), and a poet and translator myself, I have thought about what it means for someone to be interested in language, and what people mean by this.

One of the main areas of interest is in stigma. People love stigmatizing others for how they talk or use language. Whether it be those interested in the enforcement of "zombie rules" (non rules) of grammar like split infinitives, or in stigmatizing accents, regional dialects, or vernacular habits of speech as ignorant or lower class. At its least offensive, an interest in stigma becomes an interest in mere sociolinguistic difference, without a negative value attached, or an admiration for prestige dialects.

(Disfluency is supposed to be a sign of moral or political corruption. I never understood that. I might hate the linguistic habits of people I agree with politically, for example. Wouldn't that be more my problem than theirs? Or if right-wing people are poor spellers, well, that means that they are poor spellers, and nothing more than that.)

Another category of interest is in words and etymologies. Some people who like language just like word origins. That's fine. I happen to know some etymologies, though I can't say that's the source of my interest in language. I like words, but I like sentences more than words per se.

Some people are interested in the process of language learning. I have some interest in that in my role as teacher.

People are interested in Whorfian ideas about language shaping thought.

But most of my interest in language is in the area of linguistic prosody: rhythm and intonation, pretty much. I think syntax could be pretty interesting, but I don't follow technical discussions of it, lacking formal training. Cognitive linguistics, related to the study of metaphor, is also worth my time, as is the study of idiomatic expressions and proverbs.


Anonymous said...

This conversation fascinates me, Jonathan. As I grow as a thinker/person, I find myself more and more interested in language as a lens. I want to think in ways other than those that are woven into the fabric of my identity by American English, and one way to think toward expanding that perspective is by trying to understand languages other than "my own."

Jonathan said...

Ok, so "identity" is a big factor in people being interested in language. To assume language is a lens is already Whorfian, in a way. I don't see language as a lens in that way, but more of a code in which things make sense. In other words, you could translate and have the results not make sense because the codes are different.

Thomas said...

A light went on as I read this post. Many people come to me with an "interest" in academic writing, the language of scholarship. In a sense they want that stigma. A lot of bad academic writing is begging for stigmatization, we might say. There must be some basic relationship between stigma and fetish that explains this.

But I find I sometimes disappoint them because I'm not interested in the stigma of a particular kind of expression. I just try to get them to think about what their reader knows, and what they themselves know. The problem is not language "as such", but communication in an ordinary way, albeit for a specialized audience. Don't worry so much about "language", I try to tell scholars, just try to say what you mean to your knowledgeable peers.

Of course, it's different with poetry. One does not want prosody "like a window pane". One wants the language to do something.

Jonathan said...

That is funny, because we want the stigma of the academic, which involves slaking off other stigmata: that stigma of the too-straightforward, the colloquial, the unsophisticated.

Then we find a mentor or advisor who makes it ok to write the plain style, or the classic style.

Some people should not be allowed the plain style because they haven't earned it yet. Sometimes the ideas themselves are not sophisticated enough yet, so an unsophisticated style really is the mark of unprofessionalism.

Jonathan said...

By the way, my post was inspired in part by responses to this one http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=8850

A commenter says you shouldn't investigate "uptalk" because to do so dignifies what should be stigmatized.

Thomas said...

You don't mean that people who have unsophisticated ideas should be encouraged to use a sophisticated style?

Jonathan said...

I almost mean that. I would say to such a student: "your lack of sophistication is showing up in the way you express your ideas."

Thomas said...

But could we not say: "Reading what you've written, it looks like you think… But that's kinda dumb, isn't it? (I.e., only someone who is very ignorant about his issue would find that interesting or informative.) So what do you really want to say here? I.e., what can say about this to someone who knows something about the topic?"

We then might let student save face by saying "Maybe I'm not saying it right." But we're not going to let the take-home message be that they should be better at concealing their dumb ideas with clever language. It's very difficult, of course, to avoid inadvertently teaching them this. Sometimes they might think their ideas are exactly the same, only this time expressed in more "academic" language. And when they get a higher grade they think they've gained an insight into the fundamental fraudulence of academese.

There was an op-ed in a Danish newspaper that had let this be the take-home message of her PhD education: I have learn how to write a bunch of nonsense. But her examples merely proved that she just didn't understand the words she thought she was faking like everyone else.

Jonathan said...

Ok. Real life example. Grad student wrote in his paper about "incorrect" views of certain indigenous cultures, just that baldly. He just took certain things for granted, like that there was a correct view of things. Or the same student used, an example of a very sophisticated theoretical idea of the scapegoat, a very simplistic and straight-forward kind of discrimination. Not asking the student to mask these ideas in jargon, but rather to consider that slipping into more simplistic prose at those points also masked a lack of understanding.

Thomas said...

Maybe I need the example to be even more concrete, but I would think the plain prose exposed--not masked--the lack of understanding. I sometimes find people "describing" empirical situations in language that is so sophisticated that's it's really just a theoretical gloss, an not actually descriptive language. You don't get the sense that the student can actually imagine an example of, say, a scapegoat in the sophisticated sense that is needed. But they know what all the relevant words are.

Jonathan said...

Certainly the plainness of the language revealed a lack of understanding. I wouldn't have wanted him to conceal it, either. I just think he should have noticed that his language was simplistic and then made the jump to the fact that something was amiss.

Anonymous said...

Language. I was originally interested in foreign languages because they reorganized the world. Before that I was fascinated with language acquisition itself, as I was doing this for my first language, because it was clear I was gaining a powerful intellectual system but also losing an immediacy with things that I would not regain. I came up with this before I could read, so it is pretty much a direct report from experience.

So it's not just a lens. It's more like an operating system. So I am probably Lacanian, or something like that, avant la lettre.