May 11, 2004

Status and fluency

When Geoff Pullum describes U.S. Senators stumbling over General Taguba's name during the Armed Services Committee hearings today, it reminds me of a long-ago colloqium where I heard about how how upwardly-mobile men among the Wolof nobility cultivate inarticulateness as a sign of status. They make morphological errors -- for example simplifying the Wolof system of noun-class indicators by moving nouns into the default category, as a child or a beginning adult learner might do -- and they may even develop a speech impediment. If I remember right, men who rise in traditional Wolof society show these changes over the period of their life from youth to middle age, while less successful members of their cohort stay as glib and morphologically correct as ever.

Though I don't have access to a copy at the moment, I believe that this pattern is discussed in Judith Irvine, "Wolof Noun Classification: The Social Setting of Divergent Change". Language in Society, 7: 37-64 (1978).

One way to understand this development is suggested by the description of social stratification among the Senegalese Wolof from the CSAC Ethnographic Atlas:

Wolof society is characterized by a relatively rigid, complex system of social stratification. This system consists of a series of hierarchically ranked strata in which membership is ascribed by patri-filiation. Although these strata are usually called "castes" (and less commonly, "social classes") in the literature, here they will be referred to as status groups. The status groups are organized into three major hierarchical levels. The first of these is an upper or dominant level called geer, which is pre-conquest times was divided into several status groups including the garmi or royal lineages, the dom-i-bur or nobility, and the jaambur or free-born commoners, the majority of whom were small-scale cultivators called baadolo; these distinctions may still be alluded to on special occasions, but essentially the different strata have fused into a single status group which retains the label geer. Second is a lower or artisan level called nyenyoo, consisting of several occupationally-defined status groups. These groups include the metalsmiths (teug), the leatherworkers (wude), the weavers (rab), and the griots (gewel), who are the lineage genealogists, musicians, and general carriers of gossip. The lowest level is composed of the descendants of slaves (jaam), who are still called by that term. The jaam are differentiated into subgroups which are named and ranked according to the status of their former masters.

As I recall, the griots also serve as spokesmen for important members of the high-status group. So one of the symbols of high status is hiring someone to speak on your behalf; and skill in speaking comes to have low status, rather like skill in typing once had, back when it was something that only secretaries and journalists did.

However, I think that something a bit more general may be going on. After all, male members of the British aristocracy are also stereotypically disfluent, at least according to P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python.

Those of us who are professionally wordy -- griots of our own society -- should ask ourselves whether Lord Emsworth and the current members of the U.S. Senate, like the traditional Wolof upper crust, may be on to something. Perhaps what Lao Tse said is true (Tao Te Ching 45):

The straightest, yet it seems
To deviate, to bend;
The highest skill and yet
It looks like clumsiness.
The utmost eloquence,
It sounds like stammering.

As movement overcomes
The cold, and stillness, heat,
The Wise Man, pure and still,
Will rectify the world.

[Note: the "facts" presented in this post should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are based on my memory from a long time ago in an area that isn't a speciality of mine. And as the CSAC Ethnographic Atlas says:

The Wolof manifest a broad range of cultural variation and also share many cultural features with neighboring peoples such as the Lebu, Serer, and Tukulor. As Gamble (1957: vii) has clearly pointed out: "The variability in Wolof culture means that almost every statement made about them needs to be accompanied by a label as to time and place."

I'd recommend that you check out Irvine's 1978 article, and perhaps other sources, before trusting that my description of Wolof attitudes towards fluency and morphological accuracy is accurate.]

[Update 5/12/2004: Kerim Friedman suggests that the right Judith Irvine reference might be
Irvine, Judith T. " When Talk Isn't Cheap: Language And Political Economy." American Ethnologist 16 (1989): 248-67.
Here's a quote:

Among rural Wolof, skills in discourse management are essential to the role of the griot (bard), whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron's behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messages to the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing. ... High-ranking political leaders do not engage in these griot-linked forms of discourse themselves; to do so would be incompatible with their "nobility' and qualifications for office. But their ability to recruit and pay a skillful, reputable griot to speak on their behalf is essential, both to hold high position and to gain access to it in the first place.

I didn't find anything in Irvine's 1989 article about acquired disfluency and morphological ineptness among Wolof nobles. I'll continue to surmise that this is discussed in the 1978 article, at least until I have a chance to get to the library and read it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2004 10:06 PM