This is clearly a problem that isn't going to go away soon. Every semester for the last 20+ years I have faced a new group of students in my introductions to linguistics, and every semester these students bring with them the very same nonsense about the nature of language, and the nature of English. Some of that nonsense: English has five vowels (because there are five or six, depending on how you count, vowel letters); the articles (the, a/an) are adjectives that modify their nouns; sentences containing "double negatives" actually are affirmative; dialects that deviate from "standard English" are inferior, stupid, illogical, etc.; and so on, and on.
Because I work on "non-standard" languages, I may have heard all this more than most. In 1979, while gathering data for a description of the English Creole spoken in Carriacou, Grenada, I had one person, a visitor from Canada, tell me that Carriacou people had no right to their own words for things (mug for pitcher, for example), and that their children should be taken away and placed in standard-speaking homes because if they spoke Creole all their lives, their brain cells would deteriorate. During the same fieldwork, a Grenadian physician told me that if I were successful in showing that Creole speakers followed grammar rules, that would show that they were human beings worthy of better treatment than that usually dealt out to them. And that same year, in the National Geographic Magazine, Ethel Starbird wrote that people of St. Vincent, Grenada, and the Grenadines speak English "with a certain free-form style."
So, over the years I have developed a way of approaching the problem. It involves some linguistic sophistication, so I usually do it toward the end of an introductory linguistics course. Now and then, though, I do it as a Lone Ranger exercise (ride in, fire a few silver bullets, ride out). This might be, for example, a literature course in which students are reading a lot of AAVE. The target language is most often AAVE or Appalachian, but sometimes I'm asked to do the exercise for Gullah in a course on the peoples and cultures of the Sea Island, and every couple of years I do it for Caribbean Creole in my own course on the West Indies. The language can change, but the method and many of the details remain much the same. For this iteration, I am using the English Creole spoken in Carriacou.
The strategy is to begin with examples of things people notice that make Creole seem unlike English. Usually, this involves features that are "missing," features that may be attributed to a lack of education although in fact they are simply features of the language in question. Here are a couple of things that might be perceived as "missing" in Creole:
The plural suffix (-s)
The possessive suffix (-'s)
Dental fricatives (the "th" sounds)
The trick is to show that these features are not necessary for something to be a human language. For example, many languages do not overtly mark number on nouns. Two that come quickly to mind are Bambara, a West African language, and.... wait for it..... French! Here's how this looks (note that in Bambara, the number follows the noun):
English: one cow... three cowsOkay, I know what you're thinking: the French plural vaches has an -s on the end, so it's not an example. But here's the thing: both vache and vaches are pronounced [vaʃ], roughly the first syllable in the name "Vashti."
Creole: wan kow... tri kow
Bambara: mishi kele... mishi saba
French: une vache... trois vaches
Let's take the possessive suffix. Note the following.
English: Anansi's shoulderIt's pretty easy to find languages that do not require marking on nouns for possessive.
Creole: Anansi shōlda
Bhasa Indonesian: kuda Ali (Ali's horse)So, neither a plural affix nor a possessive is required for something to be a human language. But what about those dental fricatives?
Urhobo Isoko: emete ose (daughter [of] father; father's daughter)
English: thin, thenIt turns out that the sounds [θ], as in thin, and [ð] as in then, are quite rare among the world's languages. And furthermore, we can say that Creole speakers use [t] and [d] as substitutes for them, much as English speakers substitute an aspirated alveolar [tʰ] for unaspirated dental [t̪] in Spanish words like taco. This process of sound substitution happens whenever languages collide, so it's ton be expected in creole languages.
Creole: tin, den
So, something doesn't need possessive or plural affixes, or "th" sounds, to be considered an example of human language. But what does it need? We'll tackle that issue in the next installment.
Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156 (September 1979), pages 399-425.