A word on discrimination

by Irina Slav

I came across this the other day and after the initial spark of irritation at yet another baseless whine about discrimination, I skimmed the text until I got to the “conclusive case” against Chomsky. That did it, I burst out laughing. Take a minute to read that enthusiastic piece of, well, written language before you go on with this one.

Ready? Okay. Let’s first get the Chomsky part out of the way. I must say I can fully empathise with the author; I had a very similar feeling of revelation after a two-year psychology course in college. I thought I knew everything and how could everyone else in this great science be so stupid as to not be able to see the things I saw! By the way, I was 18 then, so I’ve put it down to youth. A layman half-turned pro is a dangerous thing in all sciences, linguistics is no exception. It must feel exhilarating to say “Chomsky is wrong!”, forgetting while you say it that to attribute the whole modern-day course of development of a discipline such as linguistics to one single person and blame all its shortcomings on this person alone is, well, it’s a bit amateurish, let’s put it that way.

I majored in English at university, linguistics and literature, and my memories are still quite clear. Chomsky’s transformational grammar was the only part of the modern linguistics curriculum that I actually found easy to understand. I repeat: part of the curriculum, if you get my drift. Still, this is a personal thing, I had friends who hated Chomsky’s guts because of transformational grammar. I’m in no position to discuss the modern discoveries of neuroscience and genetics but I’m fairly certain that very few things in science are conclusive; just look at the case against butter  and for margarine. My take on the issue is extremely simple. We have the hardware to articulate speech, so it’s only logical that there’s some software to go with it, no? The complexities I’ll leave to the experts, such as a friend of mine who works in computer linguistics and who says Chomsky is crap. I’m willing to believe him because I know he knows what he’s talking about. I admit I discriminate between professionals and laymen in any given field and I discriminate against laymen who believe themselves to know better than the professionals, which brings us nicely to the issue of alleged discrimination against non-standard speakers of English.

Ritchie’s allegation is in fact so utterly ridiculous that it’s only my good nature that makes me discuss it. What he says, basically, is that everyone should speak as they like, ignoring rules and standards. Yep, what a great idea. It will help so much with the level of understanding between any two or more speakers of one language. There is a very simple reason why there are rules and, based on them, standards regarding any language: it is a means of communication and if the participants in a communication process are using this means in different ways there is a very good chance that the process will be unsuccessful. language is also a means of expressing thoughts and ideas. Using it in a non-standard way is often bound to make this expression unsuccessful. This is not to say that we must all use complex grammar and syntax to convey complex messages and only reserve simple sentences and slang for “simple” things. Choice of register depends on my all-time favourite, King Context. You don’t use broken grammar at a job interview (unless it’s for a manual job, I guess) because you’re likely to leave an impression that your thoughts are broken, too, it’s as simple as that. Dialects reveal the richness of any language, they nourish it like nothing else but you can’t count on everyone you speak to being familiar with your particular dialect. Context.

PS There’s a brilliant programme about language, by the way, it’s called Fry’s Planet Word. I doubt it’s the only one.

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