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Notes: Radical Linguistics


It is perhaps not immediately obvious how there
could be a radical linguistics. After all, much
linguistics, particularly grammatical theory, has
no obvious political or social significance.

Chomsky was recognizing this when he wrote some
years ago that ‘I do not see any way to make my
work as a linguist relevant, in any serious sense,
to the problems of domestic or international
society ••. The only solution, I can see, in this
case, is a schizophrenic existence •.• ,l
It is
increasingly obvious, however, as the Chomskyan
paradigm loses its pre-eminence, that there is much
more to linguistics than grammar. Even grammarians,
furthermore, cannot wholly avoid political and
social issues.

A useful way in to these questions is provided
by Dell Hymes’ paper, ‘The Se ope of Sociolinguistics’ .2 Hymes here criticizes the Chomskyan paradigm and its identification of linguist~cs with
grammar both on linguis~ic grounds and on grounds
which are broadly political. He advocates a
‘socially constituted’ lingu~stics, founded on ‘the
/ view that social function gives form to the ways
in which linguistic features ~re encountered in
actual life’, and concern~d ‘with “social” as well
as referential meaning, and with language as part
of communicative conduct and social action’. He
goes on to argue that ‘ ..• if linguistics is to
realize its potential for the wellbeing of mankind,
i t must •• ~ consider speech communities as comprising not only rules, but also sometimes oppression,
sometimes freedom, in the relation between personal
abilities and their occasions for use’. Hymes is
somewhat vague as to how he sees such work developing, but a number of’other linguists have done work
‘which pOints the way.’

The context of much of this work is explored in
FrLtz Newmeyer and Joe Emonds’ paper, ‘The Linguist
in American Society,.3 In this paper, Newmeyer and
Emonds investigate the institutional framework of
american linguistics, in particular the pattern
of funding, and discuss its effects on the orientation of the discipline. They show how the main
sources of funds have been the armed forces and
bodies like the Ford Foundation. The rationale for
military funding was outlined by Mortimer Graves in
1951. Referring to ‘Ideological World War Ill’,
he commented that ‘In this war for men’s minds,
obviously the big guns of our armament is competence in languages and linguistics.’ Not surpris~
ingly, the Airforce and Navy have supported considerable re~earch on Southeast Asian languages.

They have also funded ‘pure~ grammatical research
in the (largely erroneous) belief that such research could lead to advances in military
computer systems.

Considering the impact of this pattern of funding, Newmeyer and Emends discuss two collections
of sociolinguistic papers. Of the first, ‘Explorations in Sociolinguistics’ edited by Stanley
Lieberson,4 they observe that ‘Totally absent are
papers on how language habits are a reflection of
and how they reinforce racist and sexist attitudes
in American culture ..• Even more clearly absent
are studies on language as a manipulative

device.’ On the second collection, ‘Language ~rob­
lems of Developing Nations’ edited by Fishman,
Ferguson, and Das Gupta,5 they note ‘that not one
single paper .•. considers the possibility that a
fundamental revolutionary change might lead to a
solution of that. country’s language problems.’

Commenting further, they write that ‘We do not feel
it would take a total cynic to reason that the
Ford and Rockefeller foundations are not interested
in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to be
told that what we need are more Third World revolutions •.. We feel that the source of funding
for most sociolinguistic projects is in large part
responsible for the directions taken in these projects and the conclusions arrived at.’ After discussing a variety 6f ways in which American linguistics shows the effects of the prevailing funding pattern, Newmeyer and Emonds conclude by urging linguists to work ‘to replace our dependence
on funding agencies whose survival and raison
d’etre are rooted in the current arrangement of
political and economic power.’

‘Verbal Deprivation’

A particularly notable example of radical linguistics is William Labov’s critique of verbal deprivation theories, ‘The Logic of Non-standard
English,.6 Prominent among the psychologists who
have developed the notion of verbal deprivation
are Arthur Jensen, who has claimed that ‘much of
lower class language consists of a kind of incidental “emotional” accompaniment to action her~ and
now’, and Carl Bereiter, who claims that ‘the
language of culturally deprived children .•. is not
merely an underdeveloped version of English, but is
a basically non:-logical form of express’ive behavi.our.’ From such premises, Bereiter and others
argue the need for pre-school programmes to provide
culturally deprived children with sufficient language to benefit from schooling. Labov argues
that Bereiter and his associates ‘know very little
about language and even less about Negro children.’

Labov demonstrates in detail just how standard
interview techniques fail to come to grips with the
linguistic capacities of Negro children. He shows
how the interview situation is seen as a threatening one by the child, and just how difficult it
is to elicit the kind of speech that is characteristic of the street culture. The ghetto child, he
sugge,sts, far being verbally deprived, is
‘bathed in,verbal stimulation from morning to

He goes on to demonstrate the highly developed debating skills 0:::: many ghetto children,
and the pretentious verbosity of, much middle class
speech •. He concludes that ‘in many ways working
class speakers are more effective narrators, reason’ers and debators than many middle class speakers
who temporize, qualify, and lose their argument in
a masS of irrelevant detail.’ That verbal deprivation theories seriously misrepresent ~he speech
(1) ‘Philosophers and Public Policy·, in V. Held,
K. Nielsen, C. Parsons (eds.), Philosophy and

Political Action.

(2) In Georgetown University Monograph Series on
Languages and Linguistics, no.2S, 1972.

(3) In Papers from the Seventh Regional Meeting of
the Chicago Linguistic Society, 1971.

(4) Indiana University Research Centre in Anthropology, Folklore and Linguistics, 1967.

(5) John Wiley and Sons, 1968.

(6) In P. Giglioli (ed.), Language and Social

Context, Penguin, 1972.

of Negro children is fairly clear. It is fairly
clear also that such theories contribu~ to the
educational oppression of these children. As
Labov puts it, they ‘are giving teachers a readymade, theoretical basis for the prejudict they
already feel against the lower class Negro child
and hts language.

likelihood thaT they have had a most damaging
impdct on the educational prospects of working
class childr.en.

QUestions about the linguistic problems of the
Third World are a natural concern for radical
‘iinguists. A notable article here is Talmy Givon’s
‘Linguistic Colonialism and De-Colonization,.9
Givon identifies the impact of linguistic colonialism clearly: ‘When you have succeeded in instilling
in a person a deprecating attitude towards his own
language, you have succeeded .in instilling in him
Somewhat similar to the work of the verbal depriva deprecating attitude towards himself.’ In this
ation theorists, although more sophisticated in its
article, he is concerned with the persistence of
formulations, is Basil Bernstein’s work on ‘elaborlinguistic colonialism in Zambia.

ated’ and ‘restricted’ codes. Surprisingly,
Although Zambia received political independence
Bernstein’s work drew little criticism from the
in 1964, English remains the dominant language.

Left until recently. Two years ago, however,
Thus the Zambian child entering school finds there
Harold Rosen published an excellent critique of
is no one who can teach him properly about his own
Bernstein in his pamphlet, Language and Class: A
language. He finds his own tongue is persistently
Critical Look at the Theories of Basil Bernstein. 7
deprecated. In contrast, all sorts of superlatives
A crucial question which Rosen considers is
are conferred on English. Givon identifies three
just why Bernstein’s ideas have enjoyed such proarguments used to justify the adoption of the colominence. He notes here that Bernstein’s early
nial language as a national medium. He argues that
papers appeared just as the ideology of IQ testing
none of them carries real weight~ Furthermore, the
which had played an important role in justifying
price of retaining the. colonial culture is an ‘

selective practices in education was beginning to
appalling one. Its result is ‘the systematic bomcollapse. Crucial to the acceptance of Bernstein’s
bardment of the psyche with the message: “You are
ideas, he suggests, was the fact that they ‘seemed
no good; your colour is no good; your language (and
to offer theoretical respectability to the wide..J
thus thought pattern) is no good; your Gods are
spread notion among teachers and others that ~n
false; your music primitive; your dance barbaric,
intrinsic feature of working class language, rooted
your customs outrageous”.’ All this ‘has inevitin their way of life, disqualified working class
ably produced in the white-educated African a
children educationally and, by the same token,
pattern of de-cultured, insecure, frustrated and
justified the notion ~f the superior educational
alienated personality.’

potential of the middle-class.’,
Questions about language and sexism are another
Rosen develops a systematic critique of
Bernstein’s work, stressing, in particular, the
natural concern for radical linguists. Here a
inadequate concept of class on which it is based,
crucial paper is Robin Lakoff’s ‘Language and
and the stereotyped view of working class life
Woman’s Place’.

Lak6ff argues that ”’woman’s
and language which it presents. As for its impact
language” has as a foundation the attitude that
on the education of working class children,
women are marginal to. the serious concerns of life,
Bernstein himself has observed that such terms as
which are pre-empted by men. The marginality and
‘cultural deprivation’ and ‘linguistic deprivation’

powerlessness of women is reflected in both the
ways women are expected to speak, and the ways in
‘do their own sad work’. Equally, however, one
which women are spoken of. In appropriate women’s
would e~pect his own terms ‘restricted’ and
speech strong expression of feeling is avoided,
‘elaborated’ to ‘do their own sad work’. In
various places, Bernstein stresses the great potenexpression of uncertainty is favoured, and means
tial of the restricted code, but, as Rosen notes,
of expression in regard to subject matter deemed
‘trivial’ to the ‘real’ world are elaborated.

such remarks are always parenthetic. Furthermore,
although Bernstein seeks .to differentiate his views
Speech about women implies an object, whose sexual
from those C!! _the verbal deprivation theorists, he
nature requires euphemism, and whose social roles
also writes that ‘the normal linguistic environment
are derivative and dependent in relation to men. ‘

of the working class is one of relative deprivation.:

Lakoff develops this picture at length with a
One question touched on by Newmeyer and Emonds
variety of subtle observations. She notes, for
is .he attitude of linguists to non-standard Engexample, the frequency of tag questions in women’s
lish. This question is taken up again by Newmeyer .

speech (only a woman would naturally say ‘The war
in ‘Prescriptive Grammar: A Reappraisal,.8 His
in Vietnam is terrible, isn’t it?’), the contrasttarget here is the conventional dogma according to
ing connotations of superficially parallel words
which modern grammarians are solely descriptive,
like ‘master’ and ‘mistress’, and ‘bachelor’ and
simply describing how people speak, in .contrast to
‘spinster’, and the fact that one can speak of
the prescriptive grammarians of earlier times,
‘John’s widow’ but not of ‘Mary’s widower’. On
insisted on telling people how to speak. Newmeyer
the latter point, she comments that ‘Like
argues that prescription and description cannot
“mistress”, “widow” commonly occurs with a
wholly be separated, and that the majority of linpossessive preceding it, the name of the woman’s
guists in the past and present ~ve in effect funolate husband. Though he is dead, she is still
tioned as prescriptivists, consciously or uncondefined by her relationship to him. But the
sciously prescribing the dialect of the socially
bereaved husband is no longer defined in terms
dominant class. Developing this view, he quotes a
of his wife ••• once she is gone, her function for
variety of linguists who have urged non-standard
him. is ovei, linguistically speaking anyway.’

speakers to try to adopt standard forms and proI have outlined here the ways in ‘which a number
nunciation. No doubt they did so from the best of
of linguists have taken up radical themes. There
intentions, but there is no reason to believe that
is nothing in linguistics quite like the radical
such prescriptions ·have had socially beneficial
philosophy movement. There is, however, as I have
consequences. an the contrary, there is every
tried to indicate, some important radical work
being done. Given the increasing emphasis in
(7) Falling Wall Press
linguistics on the social dimension of language,
(8) Forthcoming in Bruce Mannheim (ed.), The Polithere is considerable potential for further work
tics of Anthropology.

‘of this kind.

(9) In Ufahamu, Vol.l, No.3, 1971

Language and Class


(10) In Language in Society, Vol.2, 1973

Bob Borsley


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