December 01, 2006

English has no dialects????

"Italian has a lot of dialects." "Swiss German is almost a different language from Standard German." "The Moroccan speaker of Arabic can barely converse with an Iraqi."

Never mind that statements like these are rather like saying "Golly, there's more than one kind of elephant."

William Grimes' review of Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow's "The Story of French" in the Times on Wednesday dismayed me slightly, in its perpetuation of the misconception that when a language consists of several divergent dialects, it is an unusual circumstance rather than the norm.

The crucial passage in Grimes' review was:

"English speakers ... take a much more casual attitude towards their own language, perhaps because English spread through the British Isles much more rapidly than French did through France, a country where regional dialects persisted until the mid-twentieth century."

Not having gotten to the book yet, I cannot know whether this surmise is from Grimes or the authors of the book. However, it implies that one kind of English was brought to Britain by the fabled Angles, Saxons and Jutes and by itself "took over," while over in France, for some reason when Latin speakers settled there, the result was a sprouting of several "dialects," such that what we know as French has had to be defended as the "proper" variety in comparison to all of its bastard relatives.

But this neglects that the language brought to Britain "took over" as several distinct dialects. Old English documents are mostly West Saxon. But especially by Middle English, we see that the language of southwest England was vastly different (in Cornwall YOU was EE, and HE was AW!). Then in the east there was Kentish (where, famously, a woman asked by a traveller for EGGS thought he was speaking French since she was used to the local term EYREN). And never mind Scots up north, an "English" fitfully comprehensible to standard speakers (remember TRAINSPOTTING?), even today argued by some of its speakers to be a separate tongue.

The Standard English we know emerged only by the 1300's, almost a millennium after English was brought to Britain. And even after that, regional dialects lived on, in a society where reading and writing in standard English were marginal activities to all but a few until several centuries later.

In this light, Grimes continues:

"On the eve of the French Revolution only about 3 million French citizens out of a population of 28 million spoke French well, and as late as 1940 about half of the people spoke a regional dialect as their mother tongue."

But this is not as different from the equivalent situations in Britain as Grimes implies. In the late 1700s, certainly many people in France were more comfortable in regional dialects like that of Picardy, but then over in England vast numbers of people were raised speaking the English dialects of Cornwall or Yorkshire. The same was true in 1940.

And to the extent that in reference to France, dialectal diversity encompasses the likes of Occitan in the south, which is by all metrics a separate language from French, then Scots comes into the equation again, even if it is not entirely as divergent from standard English as Occitan is from Parisian French.

English in Britain, then, has always been a patchwork of dialects just as French has been. And while it is true that French speakers are less tolerant of "mistakes" than English speakers (as will be attested by any Anglophone traveller who has had a Parisian waiter switch to English the second you make a gender mistake, with the exception of attractive young women who they often serenade by pretending to suppose that they are simply from some exotic Francophone location...), Grimes' review suggests that English speakers have been much more laissez-faire about "proper English" than reality indicates.

Right around when France was Revolutioning, various self-appointed grammarian martinets were delineating what "good" English was, such that today, the use of "I" in BILLY AND I WENT TO THE STORE, produced spontaneously by no child, qualifies as a unique example of a grammatical construction that has become effortless to countless millions of adults via prescriptive psychological abuse.

The idea that English speakers are less vigilant about what "good" usage is also fails when we consider things like the highly cosseted register that actors in old movies in America were coached in. The "anything goes" orientation to English sprouted only a few decades ago, amidst the countercultural revolution in the sixties.

With all due respect to William Grimes and the authors of "The Story of French," this had nothing to do with a purported, and erroneous, vision of one kind of English taking Britain by storm in the fifth century. It is TYPICAL for languages to consist of a bundle of dialects, and English, spoken by so many for so long, has hardly been an exception.

Posted by John McWhorter at December 1, 2006 03:42 AM