Sunday, October 31, 2010

Please Don't Make Me Read This Book!

A friend of mine, knowing that William Labov is the closest I come to having a hero, lent me this book, Language Is Power, which, he told me, includes a critique of Labov's work on Black English/African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics. I started looking over the book as soon as I boarded the subway home and by the time I'd gotten to my stop I had a bad feeling...

The book seems not to be available in the United States (and may never have been available in the U.S.) so you may have to take my word for the citations...

When I got home I wrote an email to my friend:

I haven't read the whole book (and I have the feeling that I'd find it painful to do so).  I have, however, read everything he has to say about William Labov and have dipped into other passages just to get a feel for what he's all about.  I also discovered an essay on "Sociophonology" on my own bookshelf, in The Handbook of Sociolinguistics.  I can't find any actual sociolinguistic research this guy has done (or citations of such);  all I find are reviews, critiques and arguments.  He addresses these to one issue: whether some forms of language are better than others.  He is attempting to find a scientific basis for language snobbery, to say that language snobbery isn't language snobbery but merely the proper recognition of an inherently superior form of language.  He takes exception to the linguists (who are virtually ALL the linguists doing respectable theoretical work over the past fifty years).  It is as if he is a biologist who wants to study corn by identifying the sweetest-tasting corn and declaring it to be the only true, fully-realized corn -- and classifying all corn in terms of its closeness to that variety.  You do not do good science that way.  As an aesthetic philosophy, it is like arguing that the music of Louis Armstrong simply can't "measure up" to "classical music" because it does not conform to the standards and conventions of European classical music. 

So, okay, I doubt he could convince me...but he could at least mount a respectable effort by following certain rules:  He would have to earnestly undertake to accurately represent the work he is critiquing.  He certainly does not do that with Labov's work in his book Language Is Power.  His entire argument is directed against ONE paper, The Logic of Nonstandard English, on the grounds that it does not present scientific proofs of the claims it makes.  This point is true...because the paper wasn't being presented as a contribution to the scientific literature.  As evidenced by the fact that Labov adapted it for publication in The Atlantic Monthly, it was intended as broad characterization of some of the findings in his two-volume work A Study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City which, itself, was merely an excerpt of a larger account of the speech of New York City (later released, in a distilled form, as The Social Stratification of English In New York City -- a 500-page work of its own).  Just to give you an idea of the extent of research Labov did, here is a link to his full bibliography (PDF).  Disregard everything since 1997, the year Honey published his book. 

Before Labov tackled it, the speech of New York City was regarded as an uncharacterizable hodgepodge, simply a mess.  Labov came up with brilliant measures (which are, however, too complicated to go into here) that brought order to the English speech of New York -- it demonstrated regular, systematic features...EXCEPT FOR BLACK AND PUERTO RICAN SPEAKERS.  So Labov studied these exceptions and found that their speech was ALSO regular and systematic -- but that it was a separate English system within the surrounding system of New York City speech.  Labov talked about "speech communities"...and he had found a separate speech community within the larger community of NYC speech.  The main reports contain statistics, charts, elaborate methodological discussions.  Labov conducted five-hour interviews with hundreds of New Yorkers and developed techniques to sample (less extensively) the speech of thousands more (my favorite is the department store study).  It is magnificent work. 

Labov could not rely on policy-makers and educators to plow through the hundreds of pages of data, technical analysis and methodological discussion in which he painstakingly made his case.  The Logic of Nonstandard English was fashioned to communicate the gist of that work for what amounted to a lay audience.

Honey could have read all or part of the actual research to understand what Labov was doing and why he had reached the conclusions he had reached.  Instead, he chose to ignore it and to, instead, mis-characterize a work that was NOT research as if it was the SOLE basis for judging Labov's claims.

If Honey had been a journalist this would have simply amounted to a case of bad reporting.  He was,however, a linguist (albeit one with a bug up his ass...there, I said it!) and his failure to look at the real work is either incompetence or disingenuousness.

When I sent this email to my friend, who had not read the book recently, asked if Honey " is actually claiming that some forms of language are 'superior' or merely that some forms are more suited for... access to power in a society like
ours, which requires language with certain characteristics."

By this time, I'd taken more of a look at the Honey book and I was, shall we say, bothered by his approach.  Since we were friends I decided I could throw caution (not to mention circumlocution) to the winds.  I responded:

In the sense of this definition of superior: "of higher rank, quality, or importance" I would say that Honey is, in fact, claiming inherent superiority for Received Pronunciation.

I confess that I am a little afraid of getting sucked into a timesink, here, so let me take some cheap shots. 

Let me here interrupt myself to say that If anyone who reads this ever feels the need to destroy my reputation you need only quote me in whole or in part from this post.  On with my response:

Here are the titles of  Honey's chapters, along with the epigraphs:

  1. Introduction - "Linguistics is a notoriously schismatic subject" -- Sir Kenneth Dover (no, I don't know who Sir Kenneth Dover is)
  2. The Language Myth - "What I tell you three times is true" -- Lewis Carroll
  3. The Dialect Trap - "There is no merit in equality, unless it be equality with the best" -- John Lancaster Spalding (no idea who he is, either)
  4. Some Enemies of Standard English -- "There is nothing so absurd or incredible that it has not been asserted by one philosopher or another" Descartes (I believe he was some French guy)
  5. Re-Writing History -- "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words...Don't you see that the whole aim of NewSpeak is to narrow the range of thought?" George Orwell (...wrote about pigs, didn't he?)
  6. Authority In Language: Anagogy and Prescription -- "Vigilance in language is worth preserving, lest, in slipping, others should think you careless in language matters" -- Lord Chesterfield (inventor of the cigarette)
  7. Safeguarding English -- "When the language in common use in an country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and their degradation"  -- John Milton (Inventor of the "Learn Latin by Reading English" method of language instruction)
  8. Language in School: The Lost Generation -- "No serious damage is done to national tradition if a boy is taught to say 'I'll hit him' instead of 'Us'll hit he" -- George Sampson (no idea...)
  9. The Language Trap Debate -- "If I have anything to boast of it is that I sincerely love and speak truth with indifferency whom it pleases and displeases" -- John Locke (THE John Locke, not the character from Lost)
  10. A National and International Language -- "The root function of language is to control the universe by describing it" James Baldwin (n.b., with this final quote, Honey means to demonstrate that some of his best friends are black people...)

From the introduction:

"The first defining characteristic of standard English, then, is its generality  or commonality -- the widespread nature of its use.  The second is its relative uniformity...the third defining characteristic [is] the fact that standard English is subject to standards of correctness which are, for the most part 'codified', i.e., embodied in dictionaries and in a set of rules taught in schools..."
...This book...maintains...that Standard English is not merely one variety among many, but instead is a specially important  and valuable variety which derives its value from a set of qualities which are not share by other, non-standard dialects...
It must be recognized squarely, however, that there exists an almost insuperable obstacle to my contention about the special qualities of Standard English.  This obstacle is the consensus that has ... existed among linguists...for at least three decades now, around the hypothesis that I will call 'linguistic equality', the notion that all languages, and all dialects of any language, are equally good."

Honey really, REALLY does not like "the notion that all languages, and all dialects of any language, are equally good."  He believes that standard English has prevailed because of it possesses a goodness that other dialects and other languages do not possess.  Conquest had nothing to do with it.  Imperialism had nothing to do with it.  Sending missionaries around the world to ram British ways of life down the throats of various peoples had nothing to do with it.  Nope, standard English prevailed because it is so damned good.

There is a reasoned, detailed argument to be made against this book.  That, however, would require that I read it and I really don't want to read this book.
I just opened the book to a random page and found this:

"Of the many strands involved in the process of language standardisation, it is this one which hard-nosed empirical linguists find it especially difficult to handle -- the set of values which are commonly and popularly attached to the standard dialect and are an important part of its prestige, and by which the sanctity of the rules of correctness in spoken or written language are treated as comparable  with a set of moral precepts: for a language user to break these rules is to be treated almost as 'immoral'.  This we have the American language maven John Simon: "There is, I believe, a morality of language: an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us."  To claim a connexion between correct language and morality is, of course, easy to ridicule -- as if it implies that the acquisition of correct grammar will cure a man of wife-beating or cheating on his income tax -- but [wait for it...- BS.] the persistence of this 'moral' element forces forces us to explore the whole notion more deeply.

Are you ready for a story about...coal miners?

"Around 1750, the coal -miers of Kingswood in gloucestershire were notorious for their barbarous and savag behaviour, especially when they invaded the nearby city of Bristol; and their dialect was described as "the roughest and rudest in the nation".  But, half a century later could comment that thanks to the effort of the Methodist pioneers George Whitefield and John Wesley in establishing among them a church, meetings houses, Sunday schools and days schools, they were "now much more civilised and improved in principles, morals and pronunciation [emphasis Honey's -- or whoever's he's quoting]

End of story.  In the next paragraph Honey talks about something else.  This is the man who wants to lecture William Labov on logic.  A little later he goes on to lament the abandonment of the Book of Common Prayer because it is more important to hear the majestic language of a previous era's translation of the Gospel than it is to, you know, understand  it. 

And that is page 136, to which I turned randomly.

Let me try turning to another page randomly.  Okay, here's page 142, where he discusses the importance of "a whole host of domestic activities  -- the rota of chores, laundry, personal cleanliness, eating, courtship, and even the position of items of furniture used by particular family members.."  His point is that these all promote "the sanctity of boundary and order" which are the "only hope" among the working classes of "creating human dignity and a modicum of self-determination against all odds"

On page 156 he complains about the rise of an "ignorant use" of the word 'cohort' to refer to a single person, more or less synonymously with "colleague", e.g. "Sir Geoffrey Howe, a Thatcherite cohort for eleven years...".   By page 157 he is saying: "The loss to the English language is very serious here, since an AIDS expert, for example, can no longer talk of ' the cohorts of infected people' and be sure of being understood the different groups of such people rather than the associates or colleagues of such people"  .  It's a big problem.  Tailors can no longer talk of three yards of cloth for fear of being taken to mean three backyards worth of cloth.  What is the world coming to?

Please don't make me read this whole book.

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