Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English," part 2

Before I move on to what a language needs in order to be a human language, let me take care of one other thing that people sometimes see as "missing" from African American English, the English-lexicon creoles, etc. I am speaking of the copula.

The copula is a "linking verb" (Crystal 1991: 84). The most frequently used one in English is probably be and its conjugated forms: am, is, are; was, were; being; been.  The function of the copula is to link phrasal constituents of sentences, especially a subject and its predicate. Predicates in English that can be linked to a subject by the copula include:

(1) Noun Phrase:   This is a book.
      Prepositional Phrase:   They are at school.
      Verb Phrase:   I am walking home.
      Adjective Phrase:   She is tall.

In the English Creole that I am using for this exercise, only the first two would have a copula, and only one of those uses something that sounds like English is- but more about that in a later installment.  The other two would look like this:

(2)  Verb Phrase:  A wakin hom.
       Adjective phrase:  Shi tal.

In some varieties of African-American, the first two would also usually not have a linking verb. Note the following from AAVE:

(3)  Noun Phrase:     This a book.
       Prepositional Phrase:     They at school.

At some times and places in the past (and sometimes even now) children, especially African American children, who produced sentences like those in (2) and (3) were labeled as cognitively deficient or language-impaired, because the sentences don't contain an identifiable "verb," a thing we deem necessary for complete sentences in English, as in (1) above. Such children have even been placed in Special Education classes, and in fact the Head Start Program was in its earliest years designed to get African American children out of their supposedly language-deficient homes.

But there's a problem, and it's not a minor one. The languages of the world are not all in agreement about what needs or doesn't need to appear in the predicate of a sentence. All languages have predicates, but they can be interestingly and even surprisingly different in terms of what they demand. To give an extreme example, Aymara, a language found mainly in the Andes in the region where Perú, Bolivia, and Chile intersect, demands an accounting of the source of the information presented in the predicate. The source might be personal knowledge (I was a witness), knowledge through language (a witness told me), evidence of some kind that I or someone else saw, a legend or myth about which nobody alive has personal knowledge, or even an admission that no source is forthcoming (I'm just talking for the sake of talking). In English we can say, with impunity, she ate the cheese, without any source of evidence or validity whatsoever. Aymara requires more:

(4)  Jupax kis manq'iwa  (she ate the cheese, and I saw her do it).
       Jupax kis manq'iwa siwa  (someone who saw her says that she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'pachawa  (I saw evidence-maybe cheese crumbs- that she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'itayna   (the old stories say she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'chïxa   (maybe she ate the cheese, maybe she didn't, whatever...)

The point is that you have to do something, otherwise the sentence is not grammatical, but this is not required for English except in very special contexts (scientific papers, for example, but certainly not in political discourse!). The further point is that there are plenty of languages around that don't require "verbs" in places where Accepted English requires them. Take the Russian translations of the sentences in (2) and (3):

(5)  Eto knyiga   (this is a book).
       Oni v shkole  (they are at school).
       Ona vysokaya  (she is tall).

There are other, unrelated languages I could ppoint to. For example, here are a couple in Malay-Indonesian:

(6)  Ini kuda   (this is a horse).
       Kuda ini bagus   (this horse is good).

And so on. The point, which I may or may not have taken too long to make, is that languages, including African American ones, differ in what they demand of the predicates of their sentences, and yet they all work as human languages.

No child is "cognitively deficient" just because they might say something like she my teacher. To insist otherwise is simply to be racist.

Monday, September 6, 2010

May Day in September

Today is "Labor Day" in the United States, a day that is supposed to commemorate the Workers of our fair land. Most countries do this on May 1. The May 1 holiday was declared in 1891 by international labor organizations in remembrance, ironically, of the Chicago Haymarket Riots of 1886, in which workers demonstrated for among other things the eight-hour day. President Cleveland thought that having Labor Day on that day might promote further worker unrest, so he set it for the first Monday in September.

Anyway, history aside, it is deeply ironic that we even have a "Labor Day," since we are, arguably, the country of the world that least values or respects labor. A couple of points that should make you cranky:
  • In the US, the average CEO of a major corporation "earns" in one day what the average worker earns in a year.
  • Last year, the CEO of my health insurance klepto- corporation "earned" my annual salary every hour.
  • Exact figures vary, but it's safe to say that roughly 10% of the US population controls at least 80% of the nation's wealth, while the other 90% of the population shares about 20% of the total wealth.
  • Many workers who have a full-time (40 hours a week) job, and many who work at more than one job, are still around or below the poverty line and cannot afford to live in a house or apartment.
  • Increasingly, even workers who have a full-time job do not have health care and cannot afford to help their children attend colleges and universities.
  • Workers who attempt to unionize in the US are frequently prevented from doing so, a violation of Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Until we have at least a federally mandated living minimum wage and unhindered access to unions, I do not think that we can say that we "value" or "respect" labor.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Walter Goldschmidt (1913-2010)

We have lost a remarkable anthropologist who, among many other things, was president of the American Anthropological Association in 1976. His way of looking at humanity comes up every time I discuss ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. I don't have a link to an official obituary yet, but when one appears I'll post it here. Meanwhile, explore his blog and be impressed by his command of the anthropological enterprise.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I have the ears of a teenager!

This afternoon on NPR's Talk of the Nation, host Neil Conan interviewed Howard Stapleton, the inventor of a thing called the Mosquito:
The device emits a high-pitched sound that drives teens crazy but can't be heard by most adults over 25. Inventor Howard Stapleton explains how it works.
The idea is that those pesky teenagers, who are usually up to no good anyway, are mentally jangled by the high buzzing sound and move on. But here's the thing: when they played the sound on the radio, I heard it perfectly, but Neal said he couldn't hear it at all!

And I'm 65!  But I feel 19...