Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Where does "proper" speech come from?

Hi friends. Sorry I done been gone so long! I'm trying to write a manual for nurturers these days, and not doing so well, yet. So I won't be blogging so much for awhile.

I said I'd get back to my take on "proper speech". If you look at the planet, you'll find so many varieties of talking, some similar to one another (Tr√łndelag and Vestnorsk in Norway), some quite dissimilar (Warlpiri in Australia and Yanamamo in Venezuela and Brazil). Given the many thousands of ways of talking, what makes one way of talking superior to another, or as we say, "proper".

Well, everyone can agree that some ways of talking would be improper for relatively obviousl reasons (what is more often called inappropriate rather than improper) in certain contexts, both in terms of content and form. For example, meeting the Prime Minister, it would be improper to say, "Hello dearie. Whacha doin'? Are we getting enough resty westy to lead our little country wuntry?"

But most people, when they talk about "proper speech" are wondering about issues such as whether one "should" say "toward" or "towards". Where the "should" come from in such questions? How did the choice between "It is me" and "It is I" become a moral issue?

Well, I think it has to do with people claiming superiority over other people and having the wherewithal to impose that claim. Perhaps it was Joshua Fishman who spoke up to Max Weinreich from an audience and said something like "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" (see Wikipedia). Whoever first said that, it has a lot of wisdom.

Within a region where there may be lots of similar varieties of talking, and if there is a sub-region that is more economically/politically/militarily powerful, then they get to say that proper speech is the way that they speak. (There will be other issues related to the development of their written variety.) If there is a school system there, this means that their children get educated from the beginning in their native speech variety, while other people's children look dumb to the teacher for speaking improperly. So in fact, the children from the "proper speech" region get a better education, more respect, more opportunities, and their sense special merit (moral, intellectual, etc.) gets reinforced by their advantages, which in term makes their speech sound more "proper," etc. in an ongoing cycle.

This is one way that people come to possess "proper speech" and others aspire to it, if the latter aspire to rising socially. Others rebellious souls may reject the whole system of superior and inferior humans, and signal this by speaking "improperly," with relish, for example using words like "ain't".

Now there are other issues, but they probably never get too far from the fact that one particular region or group of people who spoke or wrote in particular ways, claimed personal, intellectual, moral and/or religous superiority, and had the power to impose their claimed status on others.

And so we have the situation where for you, a growing participator looking out on your neighbours, none of the people whose practices you are being nurtured into speaks fully "properly", but shucks, from a moral perspective, they still feel ought to try to teach you the right way to talk. In fact, even if nobody talks "properly" anywhere in the world, foreigners ought to, because, well, that's what is right.

Which brings us back to some basic GPA principles: 1) It's not a language to be learned, but a life to be lived. (Look at what life is being lived. Don't be excluded from by accepting that you should talk differently from everyone else because that is "proper".) 2) Don't choose a language (or dialect), choose a people group. Growing participation is about a "them" (concrete people) not an "it" (an inanimate object called a "language" or worse yet "proper language").

Now, way down the road, as you keep participating, you'll gradually conform to ways of altering your speech variety based on setting and purpose. For now, however, just be an everyday person in everyday settings, even if you are meeting the Prime Minister. He'll understand that you are a newcomer and won't be surprised that you still talk in an everyday life manner, and in fact, you won't know how to use the special register for demeaning elderly people like me by talking to us in "baby talk" (as in "our little country wuntry"). Doing that will be a very advanced practice, and once you can engage in it, you you'll have enough host sense that you won't risk doing so inappropriately.