That's Not English!

Last night, I was saying some sentence involving "Imma" for some reason. (E.g., "Imma have to hit you if you keep on doing that!") A woman sitting near me remarked "That's not English!"

I bit my tongue and smiled. But her remark is nonsense: English is what English speakers say. Languages are created and transformed by their users, not by a committee declaring what is and isn't "English." And varieties of English, like Black-American English (BAE), are "inferior" only in the sense that many people look down their nose at those who speak that variety of English.

I was making this point online once, and someone objected: no, the person claimed, a "simple" dialect like BAE cannot express "great thoughts" such as contained in Hamlet or the Declaration of Independence. But this is just piling rubbish on the garbage heap: modern English is a very, very simplified language! Here is John McWhorter describing what the ancestor of our language was like:

"Vikings, for example, invaded England starting in the eighth century and married into the society. Children in England, hearing their fathers’ 'broken' Old English in a time when schooling was limited to elites and there was no media, grew up speaking that kind of English, and the result was what I am writing now. Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects."

 That's right: if this "complexity = ability to express profound thoughts" theory were true, the great works of English philosophy and literature ought to have been produced before 1000 A. D. Modern English should be way too simple to do anything but write grocery lists and corporate memos.

7 comments:

  1. All this is quite true.

    I would add additionally that languages naturally go through cycles of simplification and complexification, with some elements becoming simpler at any given time and others becoming more complex. However, when there are differences between a low-status or innovative form, we tend to notice the simplifications and fail to notice the new complexities. As an example, back when I was in high school, I called a friend who is black. His mother answered, and when I asked for him, she advised me "he sleep." Now, I suppose she probably hit the first syllable of "asleep" enough that it would have been audible if we weren't on the phone, so I guess what she really said was "he asleep". She definitely left out the is or 's (I would have said "he's asleep"), and that stuck out like a sore thumb to me. However, the fact that I always merge "he is" into one word when speaking seems totally normal to me. Moroever, per the Wikipedia article, BAE actually uses to auxiliary verbs to express additional subtleties of aspect, so, in this respect, its grammar is more complex than the dialect I speak. However, that usually goes right over my head.

    Another example is that French has apparently simplified the Latin system of person agreement on verbs. That is quite true if you look at written French. However, many linguists have argued that, the way French is spoken, it makes more sense to treat the pronouns as prefixes that become part of the verb. From this perspective, French verbs decline for subject and object, while Latin verbs decline only for subject, and, in this respect, French is more complex than Latin. However, almost nobody thinks of that as an "official" trait of the French language, so we ignore that increased complexity.

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    1. Yes, "He be sleeping" has a different connotation than "He asleep."

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  2. And varieties of English, like Black-American English (BAE), are "inferior" only in the sense that many people look down their nose at those who speak that variety of English.

    In practice, this is a pretty durn important sense! Ignore it at your own peril.

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    1. Absolutely! I think the right way to handle this, say with a student, though, is to tell them, "There is nothing wrong with your native dialect. But it is not accepted in certain contexts, so you should learn this other dialect as well."

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  3. Suppose many speakers like to use the term "English" in reference to a thicker (more specific) set of rules. Do your own principles—which I think are sound—not authorize them to do so?

    As for the last point: Inasmuch as you're just pointing out that so-called black English is not "simple" in the relevant sense, I get what you're saying. But if you really mean that simplifying a language doesn't have any dangers in terms of curtailing its expressive power, that seems a little naïve on the face of it. For what purpose do fields invent technical vocabularies? Are thesauruses really pointless?

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    1. Of course technical vocabularies are important, and a black computer scientist should not be able to get away with disdaining the term "minimal spanning tree" because "It's not black English"!

      But as McWhorter notes, it is the great, dominant languages that get simplified (precisely because of their wide use): Persian, Mandarin, English, etc. and they have all been pretty good at generating important works of literature!

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  4. Words cannot describe how stupid that woman's comment is.

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