Six Conservative Propositions

I thought it might be of some interest if I posted here a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere. It consists of the six following propositions, which I believe to represent, more or less, current linguistic orthodoxy.

1. A language is a set of dialects having certain common features.

2. Grammar describes the way in which a dialect allows units of meaning to be put together to make words (morphology), and the way it allows words to be put together to make sentences (syntax).

3. The only admissible evidence for determining a dialect’s morphology and syntax is that obtained from NANS (normal adult native speakers).

4. A construction that a NANS would never use is by that fact alone ungrammatical, but the opposite is not necessarily the case.

5. The standard variety of a language is one dialect among many. It may be of great political, economic and social importance, but it is not linguistically superior to any other. The grammar of nonstandard dialects, like the grammar of the standard, is internally consistent.

6. The grammatical features of a standard dialect, like the grammatical features of all dialects, are matters of objective fact. Personal opinions and tastes are irrelevant.



Filed under Language

4 responses to “Six Conservative Propositions

  1. While I possess no formal training in linguistics (my linguistic credentials consists of being an interested lay person with varying degrees of competence in four modern spoken languages and three classical languages), I must admit to having always been confused by propositions 3 and 4. I come from a language contact area (Ottawa-Gatineau, the capital region of Canada), where being a native speaker of either English or French but a fluent, daily speaker of the other is a fairly common phenomenon. I am technically an anglophone (native English-speaker) but speak French more or less fluently (I must on ocassion grope for words but, like many people who learned French in immersive French education, my grasp of French’s tenses is often better than a native speaker’s). Like many people like me, when I speak French on a daily basis (which I no longer do, having since moved to Britain), I often employ constructions that no NANS would ever use, which could be described charitably as ‘speaking English in French.’ The reverse situation is even more common, with francophones (native French speakers) who speak fluent English, as they outnumber anglophones fluent in French. These constructions are not original, though: they are used, daily, by the thousands of fluent, non-native speakers of both languages who populate the Ottawa valley. They are readily understood by native and non-native speakers of each. Only pedants ever feel the need to correct (this is considered extremely rude, though less so in the case of the written languages, even in informal contexts).

    Examples include confusing the French verbs ‘faire’ and ‘rendre,’ whose uses are extremely nuanced, or the similarly nuanced ‘etre’ and ‘avoir;’ misapplication of the English verb ‘do’ or preposition ‘to;’ overuse of French’s T-V distinction by anglophones; the systemic mis-gendering of French nouns; and the misuse of definite articles to indicate abstract concepts in English. Technically these are all ‘errors’ but, if I can say ‘le table me fait heureux,’ and be universally understood, or a francophone can tell me that she ‘studies the philosophy’ and her meaning is perfectly clear, in a context where these are fairly standard constructions understood (though not used) by native and non-native speakers, why are they necessarily ungrammatical?

    While attitudes towards these technically erroneous uses vary wildly in Ottawa and Gatineau (I am certainly in a minority for being wholly unperturbed by them), do they not speak to the development of distinct regional dialects among non-native speakers?


    • Thank you, Matthew. You raise a number of pertinent points which merit more discussion than perhaps might be possible here. I was aware when I was writing the post that I had not addressed the very important question of the fluent English spoken by many non-NANS.

      On the question of not getting something quite right, in the examples you give, it is true that a native speaker will have no difficulty in understanding what is being said. But language does more than convey meaning. Those addressed will also draw conclusions about the speaker as well, and most of us when we speak will want to create a certain impression in addition to transmitting our thoughts. Indeed, we will create an impression whether we do so consciously or not.

      In talking about the source of evidence I was careful to refer to evidence for determining the grammar of dialects, and I had in mind dialects spoken by NANS, both standard and nonstandard. However, it may now be necessary to consider the varieties of the language spoken by non-NANS, and ask whether they too can be said to have their own grammar, differing in significant ways from native dialects.


  2. I don’t know what you mean by “the opposite”. Do you mean that something can be grammatical even if a NANS would never say it?


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