The Trinidad Express recently published another piece on language by Professor of Materials and Manufacturing, Clément Imbert. My initial reaction was one of (disproportionate) rage. How dare a Professor of Materials and Manufacturing pronounce on language! Yet more prescriptivist poppycock, trying to pass for informed linguistic discussion! In righteous indignation, I began:
Writing on language with all the authority one might expect from a Professor of Materials and Manufacturing, Imbert lays down the law on how Trinbagonians should greet each other.
He reprimands those who use “pleasant good morning”:
“The expression is used by persons of all ranks and levels of education, or rather qualifications, as the truly educated person would eschew such a salutation.”
He admonishes those who misuse “good evening’:
“…’good evening’ should not be used as a greeting for the afternoon period as is commonly done locally where the afternoon is erroneously referred to as evening.”
He even appears to argue that “the dictionary” is wrong to include “brand new,” which he doesn’t like because…well, I’m not sure why he doesn’t like it.
“Why therefore is “brand new” in the dictionary but “personal friend” is not? It just goes to show that not everything that makes it into the good book (the dictionary, not the Bible) is correct.”
Indeed, the Professor of Materials and Manufacturing doesn’t seem to have much time for lexicographers and dictionaries. Had he consulted Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, he would have found the following for “Evening”:
“Any time between noon and sunset, but esp the period between about 2 and 5p.m.”
Lise Winer’s Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago has the following in the entry for “Good evening”, along with citations going back to 1939:
“A greeting of entrance, meeting, and departure; Used from approximately mid-afternoon until dark, around 6pm.”
These works were based on many years of painstaking research, meticulously tracking down citations and usage across time and space. Yet it seems that when one is Professor of Materials and Manufacturing, one can disregard the decades of research into Caribbean languages and linguistics.
Aware that things were getting a little too personal, I tried to explain why I felt so strongly, and why I think it matters:
There are few things more likely to rouse the fury of a linguist than pronouncing on grammar without a reasonable familiarity with the field of Linguistics (though you could try asking how many languages they speak). And the hubris of declaring unilaterally who does and does not constitute a “truly educated person” surely invites indignation.
Such matters have special significance in the Caribbean. Allsopp himself expressed the following hope for his dictionary:
“The weight of evidence supplied in this work should provide sufficient ground to build Caribbean pride to replace the earlier colonial shamefacedness and inhibitions bedeviling this region” (p. xxxi)
The repeated call for “local” usage to be abandoned in favour of “truly educated” norms, which inevitably originate outside the Caribbean, smacks of exactly that shamefacedness.
I finished with an adapted quote from that most trenchant opponent of linguistic fascism, Geoffrey Pullum:
“When you set yourself up as a grammar expert it’s better than being an expert on [materials and manufacturing]. To be an expert on [materials and manufacturing] you actually have to know something about [materials and manufacturing]. With grammar the analogous thing doesn’t hold. Nobody asks, nobody checks, nobody knows enough to get suspicious. You are free as a bird to publish any garbage you might want to type out.”
Full of righteous fury, I was ready to publish this as the first post on a new blog, which would be dedicated to defending the world from the likes of Imbert. Fortunately I showed it to some friends first, who persuaded me to sleep on it. A night’s sleep and a three doubles breakfast later, I realise they were right. It is not fair or useful to target an individual like this.
I still think that Allsopp is right, and that the repeated (yet so obviously futile) calls for censoring of “local” ways of speaking is a mark of shamefacedness, which should be resisted and debunked. But Imbert is not really the problem. Indeed, he is one of the few people who try to write about language regularly in the national press. He may not know enough about Linguistics for my liking, and he does misuse some of the terms from my field in his article, but it is important to have public discussion about language, and if the quality of the discussion is not good enough, then we linguists must take responsibility for that.
Unless we make it our business to talk and write about language in a way which engages people and makes our findings relevant and comprehensible, then we can hardly blame others for overlooking our work. The fact (at least this is my experience) that most people still don’t know what linguists actually do, is surely something for which we must bear responsibility.
Instead of attacking people who do their best to write about language, we should be trying harder to shift the discussion by making people more aware of the positive, important research that is currently being done by linguists in (and on) the Caribbean. Recently completed UWI Linguistics PhD theses have included groundbreaking work on the way in which courts in St Lucia provide interpreting for French Lexicon Creole speakers, on the way in which curriculum development in Trinidad and Tobago has approached language issues, and the first ever linguistic description of Jamaican Sign Language.
These are important topics with direct significance to the lives of ordinary people. And this is just a tiny sample of the work that is being done. There is so much more to say about language in the Caribbean than the usual debates about what the correct way is of greeting your neighbour.
I hope that this blog will provide one outlet for us to try to explain ourselves better, at least until someone asks us to write a regular column on Materials and Manufacturing.