Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Are What You Speak

Posted by Neal on March 8, 2011

You may recognize the name Robert Lane Greene if you read some of the blogs on the blogroll here. For almost a year, he has been writing the language blog Johnson (as in Samuel Johnson) for The Economist. Now he’s published a book, You Are What You Speak, a copy of which has come to me for review.

The press release that accompanied the book gives this summary: “The claims people make about language — and the superiority of one way of speaking and writing over another — are often really about nationalist and identity politics.” This theme unifies what on the surface would seem to be a loosely connected set of linguistic topics, covering on one end of the spectrum complaints about the decline of English grammar, and on the other, how language has affected geopolitical issues.

Before I get into the main part of the review, I just have to tell about something that spoke to me (if you will) in the preface. There, Greene writes about his father, who grew up in Macon, Georgia:

His grammar was nonstandard, his pronunciation southern, his vocabulary earthy and frequently not the type you want your three-year-old learning. He was also the best talker I knew. Dad could tell the same joke again and again and make it funny every time. And the stories he told of growing up, getting in trouble, and fighting his way through life got more outlandish every time I heard them. Yet I couldn’t wait to hear them again. He could spellbind any audience. (xx)

Change the hometown to Albany, Georgia, and this passage could be about my dad.

Now, back to the review. Much of the material Greene covers is stuff that has already been covered in other linguistics books for popular audiences. For example, Greene’s discussion of dialects and dialect continua reminded me of John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel. Chapter 2, which gives a history of English prescriptivist grammarians covers much the same facts as David Crystal does in five or six chapters in The Fight for English. His story of Nicaraguan Sign Language is the same story as can be found in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues. His sketch of the development of historical linguistics, with William Jones and Ferdinand de Saussure, is familiar from … what?

It was about here that I realized the problem was not with Greene, but with me. Jones and Saussure are in any book about historical linguistics, but the nonlinguist audience Greene is aiming for will not have read those books, and probably not the others I mentioned. Furthermore, all this material is necessary background before Greene can really make his points. For someone who hasn’t discovered linguistics yet, Greene’s introduction will be fascinating and entertaining; for those who have, it will be like watching a rerun of a show that you liked enough to watch again. And when you get to the stuff that’s not old hat, the book really takes off.

You Are What You Speak begins with a short chapter that gives an overview of the linguistic and political issues that will fill the rest of the book. Greene opens up with the Bible story about shibboleth, illustrating the sometimes life-and-death importance of language as a marker of identity people impute to language. That may be familiar territory for many readers, but then Greene makes an unexpected connection with a modern sociopolitical example:

Militant Protestants and Catholics distinguished one another in Northern Ireland in part by the modern-day equivalent of “shibboleth”: Protestants pronounce the eight letter of the alphabet “aitch,” while Catholics say “haitch.”

This is the kind of detail that makes what I think of as Greene’s “Tales of Language, Religion, and Politics” a worthwhile read.

After the “Brief History of Sticklers” in chapter two, Greene gives an overview of linguistics in chapter 3 (including the part about historical linguistics noted earlier). Here we also meet Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum of Language Log, and LL readers will recognize be quite familiar with Liberman’s challenges to modern linguistic mythology such as the idea that women speak more words per day than men, and Pullum’s rants about prescriptive grammar dogmatists (in particular Strunk and White). Also in the chapter, highlights three subfields of linguistics (syntax, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics) to show how linguists look at the same issues that are important to prescriptivists, but with the aid of actual data. It’s also in this chapter that Greene starts to delve into modern social and political consequences of language, talking about varieties of Greek, French in Haiti, and Arabic across the Islamic world, and the big-time consequences of being taught that the language you speak naturally is degraded, and the standard language that you can’t read or understand is the only true version.

Chapter 4 is the chapter about dialects and dialect continua. By now Greene is hitting his stride, and he opens the chapter with a great comparison. In an Internet video, a black journalist switches from standard English to angry African American English after an unpleasant surprise (a bug flying in his mouth); when Greene’s Danish wife stubs her toe, she curses in Danish. Both are instances of the same phenomenon: lapsing into your native language in an emotional moment. But AAVE is commonly considered bad English, while Danish is a respected standard language! In fact, these are the parts of the book I liked the most: when we get a glimpse of Greene’s personal experiences with language. A similar anecdote was in the previous chapter, when Greene recounted his experience speaking broken standard Arabic with two Egyptians in a South African bar.

It’s also in chapter 4 that Greene makes another unusual connection. You’ve undoubtedly read complaints that sloppy language is an indicator of sloppy thought. If you’ve read many popular linguistics books, you’ve also read refutations of Whorfianism. But this was the first time I saw the prescriptivist argument about loss of precision in language called out as nothing more than one more example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and debunked as such.

Chapter 5, “Welcome to X. Now speak Xish,” is, in my opinion, the best and most informative in the book. Near the beginning, he writes:

Modern-day maps like to show where speakers of this or that language live, perhaps with French-speakers colored red or German-speakers blue. But a map of medieval Europe with a dot for each speaker would show a mess, with a great deal of overlap. There would be no “red,” just reddish hues from brownish read to orange-red to hot pink, representing the different Romance dialects spoken in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. Our Germanic “blue” might be greenish in the area that became the Netherlands and purplish in the area that became Bavaria. … There were no “languages” as we think of them today, codified in dictionaries and grammar books. Everything was dialect.

How did we get from muddy continua to crisp borders? How did the hazy and shiftin gmess of dots get sorted into rigid containers, all the red dots in this one, all the blue dots in that one? What happened to change our thinking from “Everything is a dialect” to “There is one proper French (or English or German)”?

After reading that, I couldn’t wait to find out. His answer: the rise of nation-states. I’d read the term in high-school world history, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. This chapter, showing the development of nation-states through the lens of linguistics, did. I recommend it as history reading even for those who are more interested in the history than the languages. Greene starts with Spain, France, and England, to Italy and Germany, to others that followed and the outbreak of World War I. Again, I remembered the word “nationalism” coming up in my high-school history books in the chapter on WWI, but Greene’s language-focused overview gave me a better understanding than I ever got in school. After Europe, Greene gives capsule histories of Israel, South Africa, India/Pakistan, and the most recently created Balkan nation-states. Whether talking about events from the history books or stories I remember hearing about in the news not so many years ago, they all make more sense after reading about them here.

Chapter 6 turns to language and laws. Topics include the French Academy, spelling reform in German, truly radical spelling reform in Turkish, and why Japanese probably won’t and Chinese almost certainly won’t move to Romanization, which Greene sums up succinctly:

Writing Mandarin in pinyin would expose to all non-Mandarin speakers the fact that they are looking at a foreign language. This is a headache that China’s authorities, already fearful of non-Han separatist movements in Tibet and the Muslim, Uighur-speaking region of Xinjiang, can do without.

Chapter 7 has the title “The Microsoft and Apple of Languages,” a title I suspect will look ridiculously dated in a few decades. It refers to English and French, and the chapter is about English-only and French-only language movements. Personally I didn’t find this chapter as interesting as the others, but a book on language and politics wouldn’t be complete without it.

The last chapter revisits the idea of discrete languages all in their separate boxes (nations), and suggests shifting, fuzzy clouds as a better way to think about languages. Great, but how do we deal with such chaos in a practical way, especially since history has shown that people want and expect that

Only one variety of one language called German should be the language of exactly one country called Germany, which should include all and only German-speakers; and so on for Italians, French, and so forth.

Greene admits that it’s simply unrealistic to expect that there could be a way for every language to survive, and given the bloody propensity for same-language speakers to want to create nation-states for themselves, it might not even be a good thing. Even so, Greene ends with a call for multilingualism and for an attitude that your various dialects or languages serve different purposes.

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13 Responses to “You Are What You Speak

  1. Viola said

    The reference to writing Mandarin in pinyin reminds me of a nation’s way of keeping the populations ignorant in order to dissuade uprising or questioning–much like in the U.S. pre-Civil war era when it was illegal to teach slaves how to read.

  2. The Ridger said

    Sounds great. Think I’ll grab a copy for my father, too.

  3. Glen said

    “Change the hometown to Albany, Georgia, and this passage could be about my dad.” I agree, except for one part: wouldn’t you say that dad usually speaks with standard English grammar, albeit with a southern accent?

  4. The Ridger said

    Thanks! I picked up the Kindle edition and am three chapters in. I like it. My father will be getting the hardcover!

  5. Ran said

    That statement about pinyin seems odd to me, since pinyin has official status in the People’s Republic of China, where it is explicitly promoted as (among other things) a way to teach “proper” or “standard” pronunciations to speakers of “dialects”. And from what I’ve heard, it’s already pretty obvious to literate non-Mandarin-speaking Chinese that they’re writing in a different language from what they speak, due to the lexical and grammatical differences. So I’m curious to learn how he supports his view.

  6. Lane said

    That’s a good point, Ran. My point is that there remains a strong belief held in China that it’s “one language in writing even though it differs in speech”, and Chinese will insist that it’s true. The character system abets this especially – the “correct” writing involves thinking in Mandarin and using the syntactical and morphological rules and characters specific to it. How does pinyin play in? By teaching Cantonese speakers (et al.) that pinyin pronunciation is “putonghua”,common speech, or “baihua”, plain speech. “Speak the common/plain way” becomes code for “Speak Mandarin!” As a pedagogical tool pinhin teaches spoken Mandarin, just as the writing system teaches written “Chinese”/Mandarin. At some level, I’m sure you’re right that many Chinese think “but that’s not how I talk – in fact I speak totally differently.” But the support for Mandarin as normative/”normal” defines the fangyan/dialects as nonstandard and to be avoided.

    Wholesale adoption of Pinyin would take this to a whole new level. While writing in the Mandarin-derived hanzi system makes Chinese people think morphemically, and thus doesn’t require too many mental backflips for the Cantonese native (sure, the words aren’t in the order I use, and some of the compound words aren’t how I say them). But writing in pinyin all the time, if it were adopted as official, would crank that dissonance up to another level.

    Put simply, it would make even clearer than it *already* is that “putonghua” is what we call Mandarin – not just “common” Chinese but a specific dialect/fangyan. It would give those non-putonghua-speakers even more evidence than they already have that they’re being taught, and taught in, a foreign language.

  7. Lane said

    Sorry, edited that post and a couple of infelicities crept in…

  8. The Ridger said

    I do think it’s odd that, especially after mentioning in the bit about Turkish orthographic reform, the whole “China and Japan would lose their entire printed corpus or else create a privileged upper class that can read both romanized and character-based scripts” problem isn’t even mentioned. The mass transliteration of every books ever written would employ a bunch of people though…

  9. I think the point about “lapsing into your native language in an emotional moment” is an interesting one. I’ve felt for a while that, when you’re watching an actor (on TV or elsewhere) speak in an accent that is not their native one, you can separate the great from the good when they start yelling. It’s a fun game I play with myself.

    Also, what is this color “read” you speak so fondly of? (Or is it Greene? …Oh, no pun intended.)

  10. […] anche le parole stickler e grammar grouch, soprattutto grazie alla pubblicazione del libro You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity di Robert Lane […]

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