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#3692: The language discussion: Is there are REAL difference or just a miscommunication? Puzzles about language
>From Bob Corbett:
In the discussions I've read lately about Haitian Creole there seems to
be a phenomenal miscommunication going on.
Some are speaking about what "ought" to be -- a set of rules for Haitian
spelling and pronunciation -- (Michel DeGraff has led this position).
Others are talking about how the language is actually used in various circles
in Haiti at this time. (Poincy is the most recent to approach
the langauge from this point.)
There is a sense in which both arguments are correct and simply don't
speak to one another.
Consider them as hypothetical claims:
If correct language is a description of how people actually use the
language, then one claims: here is a description of language as it is
used in THIS (name the particular) circle.
If correct language is a following a correct rule (and there is, indeed,
a rule on Haitian orthography established by Haitian Creole language
scholars and affirmed by the Haitian government), then here is
the correct version (now just cite the rule).
I've always tended to think of language as not having rules in the sense
that nations do, (even if nations choose to write such rules) but rather,
that linguists describe how people actually use living languages, and we
use such descriptors as "standard" if a certain usage is dominant in a
particular language or area. (Note that "dominant is a matter of fact
determined by numbers of users and not by some ideal.) The "standard"
spelling in the U.S. even differs from the "standard" spelling in England
in some few places (colour, labour vs. color and labor).
I broached this subject with Michel DeGraff and he argues that
orthographic systems are not like grammatical rules or pronunciation
rules. He allowed that grammatical and pronunciation rules may well be
descriptive, but that orthographic rules are "different." I am not a
linguist and haven't read a page about this topic of orthographies, but
at the level of philosophy of language, I must admit I find myself most
puzzled and highly suspicious of the notion of a "right" and a "wrong" in
orthography rather than a standard and non-standard or less standard.
Whatever the situation is with that issue of the status of the
orthography, I do think that the linguistically sophisticated (Michel
DeGraff and others) are speaking at one level: the ideal or the rule;
and some of the others (Grey and Poincy) are speaking at the level of
actual observed practice in different linguistic communities in Haiti (at
least they claim such communities do these things -- that's a testable
matter of face.
Even with pronunciation, I'm not convinced there is a difference between
Michel DeGraff's position and Kathy Grey's position on the pronunciation
of the general term for the female religious official of Haitian Voodoo.
Rather, where they seem to differ is how that pronunciation is
represented in print; how it is SPELLED.
In a recent post I thought Michel DeGraff did a very clear job of
describing the situation in Creole (as in French) of the nasal vowels.
There is a confusion in some people's minds.
n and m have a certain sound when they are used as consonants.
But in the combinations an, on, en in Haitian Creole's approved
orthography, these are vowels and the "n" is NOT a consonant and doesn't
carry the consonant sound. Thus PRONOUNCED, what Kathy Grey chooses to spell
as mambo, might well sound exactly like what Michel DeGraff, using the 20
year old "approved" orthography would write manbo. It may well not be the
pronunciation that is at stake, but how one SPELLS that pronunciation.
There would be a distinct pronunciation were one to really hit the M
sound such that there is a sound that rhymes with the English sound in
bomb, as opposed to a pronunciation that is softer on the m sound, or in
which the m doesn't really sound, but one gets more of the nasal sound
represented in the official orthography as "an." What is the standard
and common actual pronunciation in Haiti? Are their regional or
particular differences in the pronunciation itself? I have no idea. It
doesn't seem impossible that there may be. But that is a question of
FACT and not a question of representation in print, or a question of
My point is not to decide the case between the "modern" school and the
"older" school. Rather, it is to suggest that the two sides aren't
really taking to each other at all, but past one another without facing
the presuppositions that lead them not to communicate.
If the arguments were to clearly express what the fundamental assumptions
behind their pronunciations and spelling are -- WHERE do they come from?
What must one believe to speak or write this way as opposed to that way
about the language? Then I suspect there would be much less disagreement.
Both sides may well be correct given a clearly stated set of
presuppositions. The REAL disagreement may well be at the level of the
presuppositions and not at the level of either spelling or
pronunciation. Which set of presuppositions should be preferred, if
either, or is it a matter of choice? That's a whole different set of
I'm just not convinced the two sides are talking TO one another, but
simply talking within their own paradigm and not wanting a different one
to exist. Yet there seem to be two different paradigms being used. This
suggests to this logician's mind a miscommunication, not a difference in
matters of fact.
I've looked at this purely from the logic of systems of language implied
by each side. I haven't included a thought about the practicality or
practical desirablity of one or the other. I have a habit of purposely
tending to ignore those sorts of questions. Not that they aren't important,
but that they are just a totally DIFFERENT set of arguments. I suspect
that they impact this discussion, but that neither side announces that.
As a philosophy who like crystal clear and open communication, I like to
see every argument expressed and not smuggled in the back door when no one
is looking. This doesn't usually happen PURPOSELY and I don't think is
done by either side in this discussion on purpose. But the so-called
"practical" consideration often are behind other arguments which we make,
which went isolated are not as strong as they are claimed to be. I worry
about this here, and what keep argument from focusing the issues is that
the two sides don't acknowledge the paradigm difference, but only argue
from inside their own paradigm of langauge.