Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I was just reading a post on LinguLangu which discusses the “Grammar-Translation” method of language teaching. It’s an interesting methodology, and not all bad (from what I’ve seen), but a particular tenet of the method described jumped up and bit me. (Keep in mind that this isn’t the feelings of the author of the original post, just a description of a mindset)

Literary language is superior to the spoken language. Student’s studies are limited with target language’s fine arts and literature.

Now, you must realize that saying “language X is better than language Y” is a truly heinous offense to me, and every time somebody says something like it, an angel’s lexicon loses a word.

No languages are better, “more complete”, “less complex”, or otherwise elevated above any other languages. Hold on, I’ll say that again. No languages are better, “more complete”, “less complex”, or otherwise elevated above any other languages.

Seriously. For a language to be used by a native speaker, it literally MUST be complete, in such a way that anything which needs to be expressed, can be expressed through some means. Even in the case of a pidgin (a newly-formed language created from elements of two or more other languages), when the first group of children are raised speaking only that language, they will fill in any holes in the grammar and make the language so it’s able to express anything one would need to. When a person is raised speaking a language, dialect, or sociolect, you can nearly guarantee that they’re speaking a fully functional language/dialect/sociolect.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t differences between the languages, and that some languages might not be easier in some areas. For instance, Russian has a nice, simple writing system, which is nearly phonetic (every letter represents the same sound, every time), but it has a very complex system of marking aspect (completion of an action). Similarly, Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) has a very nice way of ordering words and particles (morphemes) in a sentence, but the sound system is, to this English speaker, incredibly difficult and complex. Similarly, a language of South America might have more efficient words for describing rain, whereas another language might be more adept at snow description. However, different doesn’t mean anything is necessarily any better or worse.

So, this brings me to my final point: When people say nasty things about a language or dialect, they’re really saying nasty things about the people who use it. Mind you, I’m not talking about “language X has a complex sound system”, I’m talking about “language X is inferior to language Y”. No linguist worth his or her salt will ever tell you that a given language or dialect is “better” or “worse” than any other. That’s a social judgment, and it has nothing to do with the actual language or dialect. It really only shows the feelings of the speaker about the language’s users, and generally, it’s pseudo-intellectual snobbery.

Remember, any time you hear somebody disrespecting a language or dialect, it’s one of two things. Either the person talking really doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re knocking the language because they’re not willing to knock the people who speak it. Sometimes it’s both. Either way, at that point, it’s best to drop the Linguistics knowledge, put away the reference grammar, and grab yourself a raincoat, because although it might sound like actual intellectual discussion, they’re really just throwing mud on the playground.

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