Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Language and its Organic Use. . . . . .

Listening to a professor of "language" on CBC this morning complain about the "gradual extinction" of French, I was struck by a number of things. First of all I was quite offended by her use of the word "literate." In reference to the shocking decline of French in Manitoba over the last century, the professor said that a hundred years ago approximately 60% of Manitobans were French speakers and now she would be surprised if 2% of the population were "literate French speakers." Now, besides the obvious elitism of a professor making reference to who is "literate" or not, I must ask - when will people (even well educated people) understand that literacy is not a fixed state to be achieved but a sliding scale of challenges and abilities that all people face in language as well as other parts of our daily life?? To bracket certain people off as "illiterate" is socially and politically offensive because it is a powerful process of exclusion and elitism. However, the fact that a professor of language was able to pass off such a remark with, apparently, little thought or understanding of the real implications is quite typical of "educated" people in general in every language. But this phenomenon seems particularly pronounced in French. This brings us to what I believe is one of the unrecognized reasons for the decline of French not just in North America but worldwide. It is not, I think, controversial to suggest that French is a particularly "brittle" language, and its brittleness continues to be promoted by the culture and the establishment. The very existence of the so-called Académie française is a three-hundred year old testament to the brittleness of the French language. And the "enforcement" of "proper" French at every level of French society has helped to foster the very elitism of which that professor was so blatantly guilty. If there exists a body that officially defines what is "proper" and "improper" in language, then one can "test" for the notion of "illiteracy" and as a result one cannot avoid the social exclusion that comes with fixed ideas about literacy. The effect of such practices can be seen easily in French Language education. I have seen three kids through French primary education, two through French high-school education and my youngest daughter currently attends French immersion in the English school board here in Ottawa. Instead of being a positive experience for my kids in what is a wonderful and important language, the entire process of blind, rule-oriented enforcement surrounding French has done nothing to encourage the continued use and cultivation of the language. Ironically, my oldest daughter who left primary French education for an English Arts high school, is the one of the children who has displayed a continued interest in French and her language skills continue to improve in at least three languages. However, one of the reasons she left French education was the harsh and punitive ways in which it was being taught and enforced.

Let me say it point-blank - one of the primary reasons that French is declining is that when you create official rules and enforcement around language in a context in which people have access to a flexible and non-rule oriented language, the former is going to suffer and decline. It is as simple as that. Roland Barthes, one of the greatest of all French linguists, famously argued in the 1980s that all 'official' rule of French, particularly those of spelling, should be dispensed with in order to let French grow in an organic and positive way. Predictably, Barthes endured a lot of flack for that position. However, because no one could question his credentials as an important French philosopher, he was able to make such statements in a large public forum. My partner and her family are Francophones, and many in her family are teachers. Ironically, even though they are Francophones, they all teach in English schools. In fact my sister-in-law is a principle at a English primary school. Despite her official position, her English really isn't that great. Though she functions ok, her English vocabulary is fairly poor and the depth of her cultural understanding in English is minimal at best. Let's make it clear, if someone had commensurate skills in French they would barely be able to get a job let alone be a principle of a school. But the flexibility of the English language (and the relative cultural tolerance that this flexibility has fostered) allow for a very large spectrum of English speakers to function in a wide variety of cultural ways. I believe that this, more than any other factor, has promoted the use and expansion of English. People who come from a different linguistic base have surprisingly few fears about using and functioning in English because, relative to French, they don't face the kind of elitist alienation that comes from making grammatical errors.

I have never had a grammar lesson in English in my whole life. Though my teachers in primary school occasionally corrected some usage that was thought to be an error, the notion of "proper" grammar in English barely existed for me growing up. My parent's generation surely got more exposure to official grammar instruction. But more and more as time passed people abandoned such strictness. And they abandoned it largely because it is simply nonsensical most of the time. Take a rule that was once thought to be sacrosanct in English - the split infinitive rule. There was a time when students were severely taken to task for splitting an infinite. You were not supposed to use a phrase like, for example,  "to boldly go were no one has gone before." But the reason that this usage was frowned upon was simply because in the 18th century the protectors of English usage were generally well-educated British men who had all been forced to learn Latin in school. And of course in a so-called Romance language the infinitive generally cannot be split because it is one word not two as it is in English. The Latin infinitive for "to go" is simply "ire" and you cannot, therefore create a split infinitive because there is nothing to split. And because this was true in Latin (as well as in Spanish, French, etc.) grammarians thought that it was something that should be a "rule" in English. But today English speakers generally scoff at such absurd and arbitrary rules. Now, while there is no doubt that over time a person like myself begins to conform to certain generally accepted habits of usage, the flexibility of these habits of usage are everywhere to seen. I have had native English speaking professors attempt "incorrectly" to "correct" my grammar, demonstrating in the process that their own understanding of "proper" grammar was flawed at best. And I have taken classes from professors whose command of English was surprisingly minimal. But that didn't stop them from contributing to the educational process.

The conclusion is, I believe, fairly simple. If you want to keep a language growing, promote its beauty, don't enforce its rules. And if you want to promote equality, linguistic elitism will always stand in your way.


Owen Gray said...

I will defend the teaching of grammar in any language, Kirby, simply because I have seen so much bad writing.

However, I will be the first to acknowledge that language is organic and dynamic.

There may be rules. But those rules are going to change. Truly literate people know this.

kirbycairo said...

I understand what you are saying Owen. However, I have seen as much poor writing by those who know the rules as I have seen by people who don't. Chaucer had no rules to follow and nor did Shakespeare, yet they didn't do to bad. And actually reading a great deal of well written material is much more effective than teaching grammar could ever be.

Either way, what should be taught is not grammar but effective writing.

To close, I share an excellent and pertinent quote with you.

-Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.

Dee Hock