Monday 27 September 2021

Reply to Simon Jenkins' article about accent, dialect and grammar.

The journalists' rule on 'grammar' is that they feel entitled to say something about it, even though the last time they ever studied it is nearly always when they're at school. This week the clever and thoughtful Simon Jenkins waded into the topic of accent, dialect and grammar. His article is here:

It would be handy if people made clear the difference between accent and dialect. A rough rule of thumb would be to say that 'accent' is a term to talk about how we sound (phonetics, phonology); 'dialect' is about vocabulary (lexis), grammar, morphology (how we construct words (eg happy-happiness)) and syntax - (how we construct sentences). I went to school with people who varied between saying 'I haven't got any' and 'I ain't got none'. They varied their dialects. 

The big issue in Simon's article though is 'grammar'. Apart from a quick list of 'parts of speech' (as we used to call them), it's not really clear what he means. Well, actually, I'll revise that:  it's quite clear what he means -  the grammar of standard written English sentences. It can be found in its simplified form in the primary school curricula and tests in England backed by a glossary that the Dept of Education hands out and in the proliferating books of worksheets that schools and parents buy. 

By simply referring to  this as 'grammar', people talking like this sell a pass: that this 'grammar'  is the only grammar. That is, it is the only or best descriptive system available to us to explain or describe how we construct language. Interestingly, so dominant is this view, that hardly anyone ever has to argue the case. This grammar just is 'grammar', 'the' grammar. 

In fact, there is a good deal to dispute about this 'grammar'. Here are some of the arguments against it:

1. This grammar is based on 'ideal' sentences, created specially for the purpose of showing (or proving) that these descriptions are good and right. In fact, vast amounts of our language output do not fit these 'ideal' sentences: a good deal of speech, (conversations); many written genres  other than formal standard prose eg film scripts, ads, packaging language, signs, slogans, a lot of poetry and drama, notices and the vast swathes of online language such as social media, websites and much more. This 'grammar' mostly ignores (or can't cope with)  this huge language output.  

2. Related to this:  this 'grammar' is not interested in (nor can explain) two key features of language: variation and change. It is locked into what I am referring to as 'ideal' sentences. In education, these can be found in the artificial composed sentences in the school tests. 

3. This grammar developed as a means of describing the formal prose of classic Roman writers. Latin is not English. The grammar was devised to describe the written form of language produced by highly educated people. We can see the strain in the descriptive apparatus of this 'grammar' when it tries to map descriptions of Latin on to English. One key example is 'tense'. The idea behind 'tense' is that a given verb form expresses a given time frame. So the verb  that everyone who did Latin remembers is 'amare' (to love) and is 'conjugated' like this: 'amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant'. This is the 'present' tense and so translates as 'I love, you love (addressed to one person), he/she/it loves, we love, you love, they love.' We were told that this is what it always is: the present. (I don't know (or don't remember) if Romans in real life used the present tense as flexibly as we do in English where we can use this form to help express both past events and even future ones.  We often use this form to tell stories that happened in the past. We can also use the 'present continuous' (or 'present progressive')  with the use of a word like 'tomorrow' to talk about the future:  'I'm going out tomorrow'. 

In the fact of this obvious situation with real language (as opposed to rule-bound 'ideal' sentences) honest grammarians and educators would dump the term 'tense' and talk of 'time aspect' which is created with a mix of flexible verb forms and time words like 'tomorrow', 'yesterday'.

4. A more fundamental criticism of this 'grammar' though is that it is deficient as a description of language. It largely ignores why and how we choose to say and write our language-in-use.  That is, we use language in various contexts. Broadly speaking, these are a) whatever is the subject in hand b) whatever 'genre' we are in or using and c) who are the participants in the language moment and what is the relationship between them. Let's apply this to this blog you're reading: a) the subject in hand is language, grammar; b) the genre is a blog that is in a genre of blogs on partly academic subjects including education c) the participants are i) me, with my history and education and class position and ii) readers who I imagine, as based on my experience of having given talks and written articles like this before. 

This method of looking at my language choices will deliver up various explanations why the language of this blog is the way it is. Some of the terminology of 'grammar' may be useful, but it won't explain why this blog is written in the way it is. It won't go much beyond the abstract 'rules'  of the blog's sentences. 

As it happens, the sentences in this blog overlap enough with the 'ideal' sentences for 'grammar' to be able to describe a lot of this blog's sentences. We only have to switch to a phrase like 'No smoking' as we see it posted up in public places and we find that 'grammar' can't do the job. Let's try. I'm going to assume that most people reading this blog know that if they see 'No smoking' in a public place that it is a command to the effect that we must not smoke, more or less synonymous with 'Don't smoke.'  But 'grammar''s rule of a command is precisely that it should include a structure like 'Don't' (known as a 'negative imperative'). So how does 'No smoking' command us so successfully? Because of its context. A mix of the matter of theme, genre and participants has told us over many years that this phrase tells us to not smoke. All that the 'grammar' can tell us is that 'no smoking' is a description as in 'I walked into the room and there was no smoking going on'. It can tell us that 'smoking' is a 'gerund' - that is a 'present participle' being used as a 'noun'. But this description is useless for telling us what is going on with 'no smoking' as a piece of very successful, very common communication. Grammar fail. 

What I've done here can be multiplied a millionfold with the examples I've given of language-use other than that of the sentences of formal prose. 

5. There is another issue. We structure language in passages, sequences, forms of interchange. These last over time and/or space. The key thing grammatically here is that what I am saying or writing at any given moment will be linked in many different subtle ways to other parts of the passage. Words like 'the','a', 'I', 'me', 'my', 'mine', 'you', 'your', 'yours', 'he', 'him', 'his', 'she', 'her', 'hers', 'it', 'its, 'we', 'our', 'ours', 'they', 'them', 'their', 'theirs', 'this', 'that', 'these', 'those' are crucial to linking one part of what we say and write to another part. There are also words like 'later', 'further', 'earlier' that are useful. All these come under the heading of 'cohesion' which 'grammar' as taught in primary schools in England does notice in quite a brief way but are crucial to how we speak and write passages of language. 

What's missing from this though are other ways in which we create passages in speech or writing. Here are some: 

a) we tend to create 'lexical fields' where we use several words which are in a similar 'zone' of meaning. In poetry and fiction, this is often  a deliberate way for writers to keep their writing fresh and surprising: chewing over eg the idea of dappled light but using different words to do this. 

b) we make musical patterns when we speak and write. These are rhythms, assonance, alliteration, lengths of sentences, phrases or clause - all of which are lumped together with the term 'prosody'. Our choice of words may well be partly determined by the wish to make a particular prosody. Some swearing is like this, for example. 

c) we 'echo' in our speech and writing. That is, we say or write something early in the passage and then deliberately echo it. Or in conversation the other person does. 

d) we do the opposite of echoing: we contrast. 

e) conversations have their own 'secret' grammar - how we take turns, how we interrupt, how we hesitate, how we pick up from each other etc etc. These conventions are full of matters to do with status, class and a whole subtle array of considerations to do with relationships past and present. 

f) the language we use is full of what we might call 'frozen' phrases and utterances. Some of these are proverbs, idioms, jokes, quotes and rhetorical devices. Many of these defy conventional grammatical descriptions. Their use is often determined by the 'genre' of the passage or who the participants are.

g) there are some key motors for change in language: migration, war and conquest; technical innovation; new forms of communication; new political forms; social change to do with eg emancipation; the need for a social group to self-define and so on.  At a more 'micro' level language change can happen through eg  'analogy', where we imitate to create new forms or even new words. (When I was a teenager in the 50s/60s sticking 'wise' on the end of words became very voguish. Suddenly we heard a lot of people saying things like  'Food-wise, I'm fussy'.)  

h) the big genres of different kinds of eg drama, fiction, film, non-fiction etc, have structural grammars. The most famous in literary terms are things like 'tragedy' or 'comedy' but there are many more now as with 'sci-fi', 'rom-com' and genres of song like 'rap', 'ballad' and so on. Each of these has an effect on determining what kind of language is used, right down to phrases and words at which particular points in the arc of the story or narrative and what a particular character or narrator is likely to 'say' (ie to be written for them). 

It would be a great relief if one day popular and clever journalists like Simon Jenkins could let go of their Latin exercise books (or their equivalent) and allow themselves a bit of immersion in the glorious variety of the ever-changing behaviour that we call language. Look out for new and interesting ways to describe what we do when we speak and write to each other. Enjoy the fact that formal written prose is what it is but that there are 100s of other ways to speak and write. Think about how we make meaning out of these many different ways and not just  purely from formal, written prose.