Saturday, December 09, 2006

Higher standards

There is a related proposition to the one dismissed below by Tony Blair and it regards language. It dismisses the idea of a Standard English (or French, or Chinese) on the grounds that these so-called superior versions are nothing more than the dialects of the powerful, dialects with an army and a navy, as someone put it. Its proponents point out that what we call Standard English was merely the demotic of a small social group in London and environs, which, because of the concentration of political and economic power in the capital and of cultural power in its two universities, became regarded as the language of prestige. But it is absurd to think of it as superior in any other way. The language of a Glasgow steel-worker is the equal to that of Tony Blair because it is born and grown in the same human cognitive juice and enlived by the same human symaptic fire.

You might think that all this was just another silly academic tantrum against the grown-up world, but it matters. Evidently, until last June, the following was on the website of the school district of Seattle:

"cultural racism'' includes "emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology,'' "having a future time orientation'' (planning ahead) and "defining one form of English as standard.'' The site also asserted that only whites can be racists, and disparaged assimilation as the "giving up'' of one's culture.
There has been a lot of fuss in American schools over the advisability of 'forcing' especially black or hispanic pupils to learn Standard English. This should be resisted, say some teachers and academics, for reasons of ethnic identity and resistence to racial oppression. Never mind that the practical result was the condemnation of these victims of PC education to the economic and cultural ghetto. The point about the equality of all dialects is the same as that I have made about the putative equality of all cultures: the world demonstrates that it just ain't so.

The argument I am about to make is a circular one. In a nutshell it is that one dialect is superior to another if enough of the right people for long enough consider it so. The qualities of the language spoken by the emerging burghers of London in the fifteenth century would have been more or less those of several other dialects in the country, not least some in the Midlands that had already produced considerable poetry. But with its power base established and consolidated in national institutions, within a short period, laws, thought and literature would come to be expressed in that dialect. And the dialect would therefore have to develop and grow at a much greater rate than its fellows just because of the pressure put on it by so many demands. It would need to be able to manage abstraction, sophisticated narrative and conceptual precision, qualities not at a premium in the other dialects, which would remain mostly spoken. The longer this continued, the greater the difference.

The important distinction between the dialects really rests on that between spoken and written language. In a culture that relies on the written word for all official and cultural transmission, the language of the printed word is ipso facto the language of power and will influence greatly the spoken word so that it too can take on those qualities of abstraction and precision at need. This is a huge change. You may not remember the struggle of learning to write well and yet it is one of the most difficult skills we have to master (if ever we do). It does not come naturally. It has to be learnt by the sweat of the brow usually before we have anything worth reading to write. Once learnt, however, it changes and enlarges forever our capacity to express ourselves and much else both orally and in writing. Aside from social prestige, that is the great benefit of acquiring the Standard dialect. With it, you may take part in the discourse of the best that people do and have done. Without it, you are confined to the ghetto. The Standard Language is superior because we have made it so.

I wrote the above because of this article by Theodore Dalrymple, which, though making the same point, takes a different tack.


wodge said...


NoolaBeulah said...