Monday, 5 February 2018

Two Principles of Sociolinguistics

I attended many conferences during my career as a linguist. For the last ten years in particular, I attended conferences where the issue of the valorisation of linguistic variation was discussed, in particular the legitimisation of non-standard varieties and the recognition of national varieties of French.

The politically correct reasoning is always the same: all languages are equal, all linguistic varieties are equal to each other. From a theoretical point of view, all languages are equal, of course. But that does not mean that they enjoy equality of status or that they have the same value on the language market:

The analysis of the world linguistic situations shows that languages are profoundly unequal. At first they are unequal from a statistical point of view: some are widely spoken, others not [...]. They are unequal from a social point of view: some are dominated [...] while others dominate and perform official, literary, cultural, international, or vehicular functions.
– Louis-Jean Calvet, Le marché aux langues : les effets linguistiques de la mondialisation, Paris, Plon, 2002, p. 102-103.

This inequality does not exist only between languages, but also between varieties within the same language.

I propose to explain the paradox of equality and inequality of languages and language varieties through two principles inspired by English science fiction writers.

First principle

All languages are equal. What one language allows to convey, another allows to convey it just as well.

The fact is well known and hardly needs demonstration. The English possessive, e.g. Peter’s book, is not superior to its Latin equivalent, liber Petri, nor its Hungarian counterpart, Péternek a könyve [= Peter-to + the + book + possessive suffix ]. And the same holds for dialect variation within a language: me father is equivalent (in terms of denotation) to my father (leaving aside the issue of connotation).

I propose to call this first principle the principle of Huxley, because it is reminiscent of equality between human beings as is presented in the novel The Brave New World:

"All men are physico-chemically equal," said Henry sententiously. "Besides, even Epsilons perform indispensable services."
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, chap. 5

At the level of phonemes and morphemes, all languages and all varieties of a language are of equal value: All languages are phonetico-morphogically equal. Besides, even substandard varieties perform indispensable services.

Second principle

But as everyone knows, some languages are more equal than others. How many parents in Sept-Îles (on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River) would ask for their children to be taught the language of their Montagnais (Innu) neighbours? If further proof were needed, one need only have to have a look at the second and foreign language education market, where the value of English far overrides that of other languages. This inequality is based on what I propose to call the Orwell principle:

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
– George Orwell, Animal Farm

In my original post in French I exemplifed the working of these two principles from the point of view of the French linguistic market.

In the media world interpreters know very well on which side their bread is buttered and adjust according to the audience they target. Take the example of two very popular Quebec film actors in recent years: François Arnaud and Marc-André Grondin.

On the Quebec language market, François Arnaud uses the Quebec standard variety of French. On the international language market, he has a brilliant career in English (he was Cesare in the drama television series The Borgias).

On the Quebec language market, Marc-André Grondin uses the Quebec standard variety of French in a film like C.R.A.Z.Y. But in order to break into the European French language market, he needed a language coach (by the way a current practice among opera singers): on this market, Marc-André Grondin speaks like a Frenchman of his generation.

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