Language matters, and so do people

Following on from the last (first) post, here’s a piece that we wrote for the same newspaper earlier this year. Not long after this was published, one of the people to whom it was responding, Clive Borely, died.  Clive’s contribution to public debate, research and policy on language in the Caribbean, and above all in education, was clearly enormous. He played a vital role in compiling the Trinidad and Tobago entries for Allsopp’s dictionary, worked with other great Caribbean linguistic pioneers such as Lawrence Carrington and Ian Robertson, and co-wrote a text book, Mastering English for CXC, among other achievements. As this moving obituary by Clive’s son makes very clear, he was not only a great man, but a kind and loving one too.

Language Matters

Language pervades all our lives, from the wonder of our first babbles to our famous last words. Linguistics is the study of language and languages. Linguists investigate all the many facets of languages: from how it is that babies acquire their first language, to how languages vary and how they have changed over time, why languages are born and die, and why people have the attitudes they do to the accents, dialects, and languages around them (and much more besides).

Unsurprisingly, just about everyone has an opinion about matters of language. Whilst molecular biologists (we imagine) generally have their field largely to themselves, it is quite normal for non-linguists to express very forceful opinions about the topics that linguists spend their careers investigating. This is perfectly appropriate: language is something we all share; it is fundamental to who we are, and it is quite right that we should all care about it deeply.

Often the most vociferous opinions are expressed by those whose careers involve skilful use of language in its written and spoken forms, and who therefore appear to claim a special authority on the subject. But just as being a skilful driver doesn’t qualify someone as a mechanic, it is quite possible to be a highly skilled writer and speaker, without understanding the complex ways in which languages work.

In a recent article published in the Express, Winford James argued that certain Trinbagonian pronunciations should be accepted and not vilified. This provoked two forceful responses from Clive Borely and Dana Seetahal, who both railed against the dangers of accepting “incorrect” language use in formal situations such as in Parliament. Unfortunately, both responses, the online comments and other responses contained a number of errors and misunderstandings of the key terms of the discussion.

Borely contrasted “the dialect pronunciation of certain words” with the “Standard English version.” Seetahal was upset at hearing pronunciations in Parliament which she finds unacceptable in such a context, also referring to Standard English as one of the two (sic) languages spoken in T&T. Both are apparently unaware that Standard English is itself a dialect or variety of English. Seetahal wrote that “constant references, for example, to ‘tousands and tousands’ cannot be acceptable speech in what purports to be Standard English”, and bemoaned “the egregious ‘tirty tree'”. These comments reveal a misunderstanding of what Standard English is, and what it is not.

Standard English is not an accent, nor is it associated with any one particular accent. This column is written in Standard English. If the words written here were read aloud by an American, an Irish person and a Trinidadian, we would hear many differences in vowel and consonant quality, stress and intonation. All three would be speaking Standard English, but with different accents. The Irish and Trinidadian speakers may pronounce the “th”s with a “d” sound. Likewise, the American would probably make a sound close to “d” instead of the “t” in the word “quality”. Some speakers pronounce an “r” sound in “standard” and some do not. Which of these is the “correct” Standard English pronunciation? The answer is that the question is flawed. Standard English can be pronounced in different ways by different people, with none being more “correct” than the others. “Tousands” represents a perfectly normal pronunciation that you will often hear in many parts of the Caribbean and also in Ireland and some parts of the US. Just because it reflects regional pronunciation does not mean that it is incompatible with Standard English.

Similarly, differences between conventions for greetings are not a question of Standard English or of correctness. There is no single standard for greeting people in English. Australians and Trinbagonians often say “good day”, but in England “good day” tends to be viewed as rather old fashioned. “Good night” is used as a greeting in the Caribbean, but as a valediction elsewhere.

Is one convention more correct than another? Seetahal, recalling a conversation with the confused wife of a British diplomat, who wondered why everyone was leaving just as she had arrived, is clear that Trinbagonians ought to see the error of their ways and adopt “the correct ‘Good evening'”. But to argue that using “good night” as a greeting is incorrect on the grounds that it caused the wife of a British diplomat some (presumably fairly mild and short-lived) confusion seems bizarrely deferential.

While Seetahal argued for Trinbagonians changing their speech to ensure the linguistic comfort of visitors, Borely argued that “(o)nce a speaker moves out of his native speech community…he must adapt his speech to the standards of the new speech community if he wants to make maximum communication and to avoid being identified as an outsider”. Should a Trinidadian or Tobagonian adopt an English accent when travelling in England? If so, which one?

Should they switch accents as they travels between cities? Should they attempt to talk like Bajans as soon as they get off the plane in Barbados?

And, since Borely argues that James has no licence to speak Tobagonian in formal contexts in Trinidad, does he also accept that when Trinidadians go to Tobago they must speak (correct) Tobagonian? Would we expect Barack Obama or the Queen of England to adopt Trinbagonian accents when they visit here “in order to make maximum communication”? As amusing as the results would be, we think that this is neither remotely likely nor indeed particularly desirable.

As Borely and Seetahal make very clear, the speech community represented in the Parliament uses pronunciations like “tousands” and “dat” all the time. Such pronunciations are not at all egregious, nor do they threaten to disrupt successful communication. What, then, is the problem (beyond the fact that Borely and Seetahal and others don’t seem to like it)?

As linguists, we feel compelled to enter the debate, but not because we wish to claim sole right to pronounce on language; we know that language and linguistics are too important to be the preserve of a select few. The danger is that when people without any training in a specialist field such as linguistics nonetheless see fit to proclaim vehemently on the subject, they will make fundamental errors in their use of the technical terms of that field, as these commentators and others have done with the terms “Standard English” and “dialect” and “grammar”. Because language matters, it is important that those who write about it know what they’re talking about.

• Members of the Linguistics Section, Department of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI, St Augustine

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