Bad Linguistics: purist fallacies

Linguistics is often misunderstood. It’s not a subject that gets taught in eighth grade, so the only people with much experience in it are specialists who pursue it in post-secondary education. As such, a number of fallacies persist among the general population around language and linguistics studies. I may make this a semi-regular series deconstructing and attempting to correct these false or problematic notions.

A language group is not an ethnic group

We’re used to thinking of languages in terms of families and trees. Even non-linguists are probably familiar with terms like “Germanic languages” and “Romance languages.” The analogue to the family structure is so strong that relations in language families are said to be genetic.

This confusion gets embarrassingly bad, though, with the kind of casual, unwitting racism that crops up when people assume that, say, a Mexican and an Argentinian are best buds because they both happen to be Spanish-speakers.

Languages are not ethnic groups. They are not transmitted in DNA. The Germanic language family, for instance, is not an in-group marking of Northern Europeans. If this were the case, no black people would be speaking English.

This sort of confusion unfortunately gave rise to one of the worst instances of racist pseudo-science in the history of mankind.

Back in the 19th century, people in Europe were getting all worked up over comparative linguistics (fairly enough; it is pretty awesome). But they were also still pretty racist, having very paternalistic notions of the superiority of the European race–White Man’s Burden and all that. Having solidified a fairly accurate picture of the Indo-European language family based on similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and their modern descendants and relatives, they coupled this with romanticized notions of their ancestors and came up with the idea of a bronze-age “master race” who spread their language from Ireland to India.

This idea was seized upon by Hitler, who insisted these “Aryans” (Skt. arya, well-formed) were Nordic, and the rest is, as they say, history.

In reality, the original Indo-European speakers owed their rapid expansion not to anything genetic, but to a handle on equine technology. Some of them migrated, interbred with the locals, and took their language with them (which also became similarly mixed). The idea of a “pure” language spoken by a “pure” race or ethnicity is a misunderstanding of population dynamics at best, and racist fantasy at worst.

Languages spread like memes, not hair color. At best, there is a weak correlation between genetic markers and theoretical dispersion of language families in ancient times, such as the potential association of the R1a1 (M17) Y-Chromosomal DNA haplogroup with the initial stages of the spread of Indo-European languages after the Late Glacial Maximum. They, like every other group of migrants, picked up and dropped off words from the people they met, borrowed stray bits of grammar and twisted them around to make them fit in their brains, and broke down and rebuilt languages over time on substrates their grandparents had never heard of.

If you meet someone and you have to communicate with them, you will learn something of their language and they, something of yours, and both your speech patterns will be changed as a result. If you, a Visigothic soldier in the 4th century CE, speaking Gothic, a Germanic language, went looking for work, you were apt to wind up in Rome, where you learned to speak Latin, an Italic language, in order to, you know, survive. Your children would pick up your Latin habit, and may never have learned Gothic. It wouldn’t have made them any less Gothic ethnically.

Fortunately, the only people who claim that language equals ethnicity these days are Neo-Nazis, but the idea that “wrong” ways of speaking are the provenance of minority groups is a little more mainstream.

“Debased” language isn’t

English prescriptivists used to predictably howl with rage if you split an infinitive. And if you began a sentence with a conjunction, or decided it really needed a preposition to end on.

Maybe we’re a little less sticky about that now, but every so often someone still harps on about bad grammar. And they’re wrong. If they were able to understand you well enough to bitch about how improperly you spoke, you weren’t using bad grammar.

Let’s look at some non-standard varieties of English (I don’t have any direct experience with any of these, so I’m relying on Wikipedia).

First, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE): He finna go to work. With “proper” English grammar, this would “translate” to “He is fixing to go to work,” where “fixing to” means “about to” or “will, in the near future.” In AAVE, this has become grammaticalized as finna, to the point that finna actually introduces an entirely new temporal aspect of “irrealis, near future,” which in Standard English is marked modally (“about to”). In this respect, AAVE is no less complex than Standard English, and actually distinguishes temporal aspect constructions that Standard English does not.

Next, Irish English. Apart from an accent, Irish English isn’t particularly non-standard in sound or spelling, though it has some unusual grammatical features that come off as “incorrect” to Standard English speakers, such as: “John asked me would I buy a loaf of bread” for “John asked me to buy a loaf of bread.” This comes from an Irish Gaelic tendency to use the conditional “would” instead of a simple present tense, which persisted when the Irish started speaking English. In other words, it’s worked that way in Ireland for a thousand years, so why should they change just because English purists get snippy?

Lastly, Tok Pisin, an English-based creole of Papua New Guinea. On the surface, it seems like a completely different language, but some examination reveals what many people would consider to be “debased” English, as in Yu pinisim stori nau. This means “Finish your story now,” and the English sources of each word renders it “You finish-him story now.” This seems like a pretty grammar-less pidgin (indeed “Tok Pisin” comes from “talk pidgin”), but the inclusion of the marker -im (<< "him") is actually a transitivity marker, required by the inclusion of a direct object. Without the inclusion of this "him" particle, the sentence becomes ungrammatical. The "debased" grammar is actually crucial to understanding. It's one thing to have speech patterns that you dislike or that grate on your nerves, it's one thing to prefer that people speak a certain way, but if a style is used and understood by any speech community, it is in no way “bad” grammar.

Languages are never “pure.” They’re constructs we messy humans use to navigate our messy world. They change every day, and every day purists complain they’re going to the dogs. But today’s beautiful iambic pentameter was yesterday’s unsophisticated jibber-jabber.

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4 Responses to Bad Linguistics: purist fallacies

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