Thursday, April 29, 2010


The most interesting thing I’ve ever read on the subject of linguistic diversity has nothing to do with immigration; it’s in the late historian Eugen Weber’s 1976 book “Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.” There, Weber (who died in 2007) cited France’s catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 as a key factor in its modernization. Weber sketches a nineteenth-century France where dozens of regional patois were spoken in lieu of French—as a result of which, soldiers in the same outfit couldn’t communicate with each other; in which illiteracy was rampant—as a result of which, soldiers couldn’t read maps or manuals; in which most general education was religion-centered—as a result of which, France’s military technology was vastly inferior to Germany’s. As a result, France’s new postwar regime, the Third Republic (which lasted until Germany’s 1940 invasion), instated a policy of free, mandatory, secular education in the French language, by means of a unified national educational bureaucracy that prevails to this day
Richard Brody at the New Yorker

While staying with my mother I watched all 5 seasons of The Wire: to begin with I got my mother a 3-DVD subscription, but she wasn't enjoying some of the things I ordered so I took out an extra subscription of my own. We watched the first few episodes of The Wire together, but she didn't like it much. She found the dialogue of some of the black characters hard to follow and was depressed by the poor ungrammatical English. I talked about the political history of standardization of languages/legitimacy of one form of a language following centralization of power / unification (with reference to Britain, France, Germany, Italy), the pedagogical enforcement of a particular form as legitimate obliterating the means by which the categories of standard and nonstandard have arisen.

(King Charles' Head. Yes.)

I've had people shrug at what they saw as trivial disagreements over the copy-editing of The Last Samurai. For better or worse, my approach to the text came after a lot of thought on purity of language. I think I can understand a wider range of Englishes than many people - I have British friends who find American regional dialects hard to follow, American friends who can't understand British regional dialects, I've never had a problem with any spoken English I can remember hearing. N. F. Blake, Non-Standard Language in English Literature makes an obvious point: the conventions of standard written English are not an accurate representation (phonetic, syntactic, other) of the way English-speakers of some approved category actually speak. That is, it's not the case that, as it might be, properly educated speakers generate spoken language of which this standard written English is simply a transcription. This is a fiction which literary representation of dialect encourages: nonstandard versions are spelled phonetically, standard English is spelled conventionally. Similarly, an acceptably nonstandard writer - a small child who can't be expected to have mastered the conventions - can be allowed to write unconventionally, while an educated adult, it seems, must have even scribbled notes cleaned up before they go into print. I don't like that convention, and I tried in writing the book to be closer to what felt right. (That is, you don't wait to make written language closer to speech or thought until you have need to mark a character as a nonstandard user of English.) I can see that to someone who hasn't thought about it details of commas, italics, capitalization and so on might look trivial, but that was roughly why it mattered.

(King Charles' Head.)


Andrew Gelman said...

My impression is that British English is more relaxed about commas, as compared to American English. Brits seem to use commas to indicate pauses, whereas Americans are taught that commas must follow a logical perspective. For example, a Brit might write: My dog, Rover jumped over the fence. Whereas an American would put commas before and after Rover or not at all.

The American rule is ingrained within me and I am uncomfortable with sentences that violate it. On the other hand, I have no problem beginning sentences with And or But, or other violations of the usual rule.

And, of course, remember that copy editors are subject to the pinch-hitter syndrome.

Unknown said...

Your mother might be interested to know that in fact African-American Vernacular English has its own grammatical rules.

Helen DeWitt said...

Andrew, I've seen the use of commas you describe, though I wouldn't use it myself - not sure it really follows the way one would speak, though.

tr, I pointed this out; it seemed to me, though, that simply showing that a variant was rule-governed would not in itself address the assumption that the standard form was preferable.