Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does the English Language Foster Elitism?

A little while back I read an interesting blog post arguing that part of the success of Finland’s public school system (as measured in the PISA study) may have to do with the Finnish language itself—in particular, the highly regular pronunciation and spelling, as well as the simple, logical morphology.

So I was thinking that conversely, perhaps the English language fosters elitism:

- The grammatical rules are confusing and complex enough that a large percentage of the population makes errors all the time (e.g. using “I” instead of “me,” confusing its/it’s, who’s/whose, to/too, less/fewer, forgetting the predicate nominative, etc.).

- The pronunciation of English is not just irregular in terms of spelling, but is the result of many languages mixing together, which makes it very unmelodious (as opposed to, say, the romance languages)—and I would imagine this makes “foreign” accents particularly pronounced.

- English has a lot of words, and knowing a lot of words not only facilitates communication, it facilitates complex conceptual analysis—because the subtleties in meaning between similar but distinct words help the mind to distinguish between similar, but different concepts.

So anyway, although people often say English is easy to learn, I presume they mean it’s easy to learn enough to be able to converse with people—but even after a person has become fluent, there are many, many more words and rules to commit to memory.

The vast complexity of English makes it easier for people who grew up in more “educated” households to look down on people either who didn’t or whose parents spoke English as a second language, etc.--and not just to look down on them for their mistakes, but actually to disdain their lesser facility with the language.

And then of course, you can throw in the differences between the English of dominant white culture and the English of African-American sub-culture and you have a whole new layer of language-based elitism to consider …


Peter said...

I like to look at it from the other side of the same coin: anyone who is good at English is intelligent (although of course there are intelligent people who are not good at English, it is a perfect indicator in my experience).

Remigius said...

I was going to write a big long comment about how this makes no sense when you look at comparative linguistics, but then I reread the post (and the linked one) and figured it wasn't worth it. Suffice to say that it looks like the only thing Finnish has going for it appears to be regularity - certain not simplicity in grammar.

In fact, John McWhorter's book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" makes the argument that English is the creole language par excellence - and hence much *easier* to learn than most others. I'm sure plenty of linguists disagree with that claim, but his thesis that languages of small people groups in linguistic isolation get more complex, not less, seems quite reasonable.

I do think that your point about the spelling/vocabulary issue making it harder to achieve perfection (if such a thing has meaning) is interesting, though I don't know if the situation would be any different for someone speaking (say) Chinese as a second-generation person. Think of the fight over Korea adopting its alphabet over against Chinese characters, because it was such a leveller. Old Russian novels are full of people who are signified as less educated because their French is bad... I would think is a pretty universal experience, not particular to English. (He said provocatively.)