Tuesday, January 20, 2009


In a new development, it appears I am going to be teaching Introduction to Language Analysis all by myself for the next two weeks.

Very sadly, my professor lost her elderly mother over the weekend and has to go out of state to take care of everything. Somehow, even though her eyes were swollen from crying, she made it through today's introductory lecture.

As her friend, I have to rise to this occasion even though deep inside I'm unsure of myself. I know the subject well, as long as I refresh myself by rereading the text. It's the teaching and presenting part that scares me some. But I don't want her to have to worry about this while she's away.

The class is in the bright, shiny, newly-remodeled building. It feels totally different there, than in Founder's Hall where nearly all my classes have taken place. Founder's, while beautiful in its own way, is a little funky and worse for wear.

There are 30 students and two on a waiting list. They are all very young, under 25, but otherwise they seem fairly diverse. A couple of them are seniors, even though this class is lower division. For at least three of them, English is a second language.

Most are English majors, but there are also reps from other (albeit humanities) disciplines, such as religious studies, anthropology, and art. Even among the English majors, there are reps from all three pathways: Literary Studies, Creative Writing, and Teaching Language Arts; these indicate pretty different personalities, believe it or not. I don't know if any of them are minoring in Linguistics, but probably so.

Usually the most challenging students to deal with in a Linguistics class are the budding prescriptive grammarians, the ones who are all about "should" and "supposed to," and who want to know the rules so they can wield them like weapons of oppression, usually on their own students someday. I hope there aren't any of those in the class, but you never know.

That attitude is always a barrier to their arrival at this understanding: Linguistics takes language as the subject of its study, like scientists study physics--not in order to demand that physics comply with science's rules, but to describe physics in order to understand it.

Their assignment tonight is to write a Linguistic Autobiography, a short narrative about their own relationship to language. I remember when I had to do this assignment, I wrote about moving from Texas to California at age 13 and having to ditch my Southern dialect in order to fit in. However, it meant I no longer fit in with my family. And now, you only hear my Southern dialect when I'm drinking alcohol, getting in an argument, comforting a child or talking to my mother.

Our textbook is How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction by Anne Curzan. Their reading for Thursday is chapter one, "What is Language?" And I have to engage them for 80 minutes about that Thursday. Wish me luck!


Kym said...

Good deeds are usually met with at least some success and your facility with language makes me believe that you'll do wonderfully!

I enjoyed your assertion that grammar nazi's fail to understand that grammar helps us comprehend communication--it does not permit us to bludgeon others into silence.

Indie said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kym!

Yes, that silence is the reason why prescriptive grammar is such a bad idea. Think of all the voices that have been/are/could be silenced if all we cared about was whether they were grammatically "correct."

Lucy said...

You will do great! I have the utmost faith in you.

Indie said...

Thanks, Lucy! I'm going to try.

Ernie Branscomb said...

I can seriously identify with your having to change your way of speaking after you moved from Texas. Most of the local folks, especially the ranchers loggers and old-timers that lived around here had to learn a new language when they got overrun by the newcomers in the late sixties. It was very stifling for those of us that still spoke in the old way of speaking. We used words like “fer”. There was no such word as “were” everything was “was”. Very few people had even heard of a word like “whom”. We were afraid to talk about a flower or a plant. No matter what our name for it was, it was laughed at, and we were corrected. Knowing that we were speaking wrong wasn’t too bad, we could handle that, but when the newcomers re-named all the places that we loved, it was overbearing and difficult to handle. It is one thing to move somewhere else and learn their vernacular, but to have people move in on you and demand change was disturbing to us.

It is hard to communicate anything to a person, if that person is making fun of the way you speak. No matter how you feel about politics, it was plain for me to see that people were making fun of Sara Palin’s colloquial way of speaking. It was a no-win situation for her, if she spoke in a language that city people would accept, her own people would have felt betrayed.

I finally made the choice, that when I was around my people, I would speak the way they spoke, no matter who else was around, because those were the most important people to me. Sadly, most of the people that spoke the old language are gone now, but they were my heroes. I often thought that the people that moved up here should have been more tolerant, and more accepting of the old language, they could have learned so much from the people that they laughed at because they talked funny.

Oh yeah, good luck on your class. You will do well, because you have a good heart!

beachcomber said...

Go with God(dess), we're with you.

Indie said...

Ah, Ernie, is that what it was like? I had no idea.

You could have been describing the linguistic experience of any conquered people throughout history. I have never, ever thought of the local old-timers as a conquered people before.

This is the dynamics of power, played out in language -- as they always are.

It is only as I get older and less concerned with what others expect me to be that I can reclaim my Southern roots. I realize I don't have to take it all on; I can continue to reject certain aspects. The truth is I am a mixture of these places, cultures, regions, like my dialect.

Indie said...

Beachcomber, thank you!

Kato said...

"Should" is a hindrance wherever it is found. A perceptive masseuse once told me that the word "shoulder" contains it, and that's just where a lot of us pack our stress over unmet responsibilities.. being accurate and articulate is helpful to being understood clearly, but nitpickers derail the flow of good communication. Anyway, language is an evolving, organic thing.

Unfortunate circumstances, but you "should" be fine! If students are asked to talk about themselves and their own relationship to language, that will always help fill eighty minutes. That part sounds fascinating, and I hope you'll write about it. In a pinch, ask open questions.

Have you read "Grammar Snobs are Great, Big Meanies"? Not as fun as "Eats Shoots and Leaves" but a good title to recommend for the purists in the bunch. Try to enjoy this opportunity (and relax your shoulders)!

Ernie Branscomb said...

“Ah, Ernie, is that what it was like? I had no idea.”

Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I made it sound, but it was a tangible annoyance to be “corrected” on your own turf. “A conquered people” is an apt description. Look around, do you see any ranchers, loggers, fishermen, or the multitude of generational natives? Percentage-wise they have diminished considerably.

Indie said...
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Indie said...

Kato wrote: "being accurate and articulate is helpful to being understood clearly, but nitpickers derail the flow of good communication."

Yep, you sound like a linguist! I will check out the book you recommend. Thanks!

Ernie,yes, I see them, but then I live in on the outskirts of McKinleyville.

This sort of explains the unbelievable hostility we experienced in Eureka, as "newcomers," and the tenacious nepotism in county government and other institutions. Now I understand how certain people came to feel so threatened in the first place (and with kids it's a legacy of attitude; I doubt they even know why the "hicks" are supposed to hate and abuse the "skaters," for example). It doesn't excuse it though.

Kato said...

I'm serious about being interested in follow-up posts about "your" class; language is fascinating, especially in an area like this with so much recent influx of different cultures. There are languages that were spoken here for hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of years that died within a single generation and are now considered "dead", with a collection of words and their rough translations archived somewhere like specimens of an extinct species. (Ernie, have you considered writing a dictionary of old-timerisms?)

Certainly, language has been used as a weapon as readily as a tool. Sometimes that has meant being physically punished for speaking your native tongue, socially ostracized, or just having what you say devalued because of the way it comes out.

I'm currently studying a process called non-violent communication, and it's amazing to me how entrenched certain phrases and responses can be in our communications-- words that are proven and obvious hindrances to true connections with each other. Since I've started listening for these habitual expressions, I've been more and more appreciative of people who can just say what they mean, mean what they say and-say- aren't mean!
The bigger part of "NVC" is listening. I'm also watching how we all tend to make assumptions about people based on their accents, vocabulary, volume, cliches, etc. It gets in the way of hearing their underlying message much of the time.

Indie, I wish I had a job that let me play and work with words like you do. I just have to settle for being the chief story-teller and proof-reader in my own home. My perks are overflowing bookshelves, great correspondences, and a kid with a vocabulary that comes back to bite me...

Indie said...

Kato, yes, I'm pretty sure you are a linguist at heart. And I know what you mean about your kids' vocabulary coming back to bite you!

I will indeed write more about all this. I am studying up even as we write-- well, taking a quick break.

I love that saying but I know it this way: "Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you're going to do." I can't remember where I heard it originally, but I've been saying it for years.

And I agree with you completely, Ernie should compile these old-timerisms. Don't you know how fun and colorful his definitions would be?

Ernie Branscomb said...

To be honest I'm not sure that I could still remember the differences. I would be like trying to explain, in writing, the difference between a Texan and a California accent. On paper they are much the same. Except for the ya’ll.

The difference had a lot to do with cadence and inflection. The language was kind of a cross of Irish, Okie and illiterate. It had a lot of hand sign and swearing amongst the men folk, but never around the ladies. In some respects I’m glad that the language is gone. It was a hard language to use to explain anything to a new person. I think the thing that I do miss the most, is the people that spoke the old language. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to talk to someone that was very intelligent, and had to learn everything that they knew the hard way. The words came out slowly, but surely, and I was always struck by how smart that some of those people had to be to learn the things that they did.

Indie, I can’t believe that you would have much trouble getting along with people. Just remain warm and open, and don’t be to critical or questioning, you will find that people will open up to you. But, you can’t demand that they accept you.

Indie said...

Ernie said, "don’t be too critical or questioning." That was easier to do before my child became its victim. All bets are off when it comes to the kid.

I am always trying, still, to figure out what is at the heart of Eureka's problems, trying to deconstruct it for our own present sanity. My family was torn apart literally by what we experienced there.

We aren't Humboldt newcomers. My son was born in Redwood Memorial. But we were newcomers in Eureka.

Ernie, it is the Dustbowl dialect we're talking about. You're right about the Irish you were hearing.

Imagine a migratory pattern that began in Ireland, went through the Appalachias, then through Oklahoma, then wound up in the Sacramento River Delta and in every other California working class enclave. Wherever there was work in those desperate times, that's where the migrant people wound up. Agricultural, logging, etc.

Check out American Exodus: The Dustbowl Migration and Okie Culture in California by James Gregory.

Anyway, that's why bluegrass and Irish reels have so much in common.