Sunday, March 30, 2008

Isolated Idiomatic Interlocution

Language Log posted about a certain pedocide (made-up word; guess what it means) who spoke in a curious strain of French, the subjunctive imperfect. Apparently it's jarring to the French, and others find it very "weird" (for lack of a better linguistic term). And this first got me thinking about a few other friends of mine who speak in curious strains of English. If English were the realm of microbes, and dialects were specific diseases, then the one friend would speak in E.Coli.

But despite the grammatically correct forms of this Frenchman and two certain friends of mine, why is it that their speech sounds strange? Why do I convulse and cringe everytime I'm forced to edit one of their essays? And what is it that makes me have seisures every time I read a note or email from them?

I think, to a large extent, it all relates to the "norming" of speech, acquired through society and regular social contact. I'd think it's pretty fair to assume that a grown man who goes around baiting and gutting bambinas isn't in regular contact with a network for friends.

Similarly, the two friends of mine can be described as being relatively isolated, especially in a sociolinguistic context. Or maybe they're just dumb men who're deaf to the conventions of English that they're surrounded by everyday. Or maybe, they don't actively seek normal English speakers and instead isolate themselves to Korean Visa students to make themselves feel better for speaking English better than them.

But whatever the cause, the fact remains that the majority of their speech and speech patterns are drawn from written literature, without instruction or convention. "Since Shakespeare said it, it must therefore make my speech superior to the average English speaker" seems to be the sort of sentiment behind my friends' convoluted conversation.

Admittedly, I myself was such an individual when I was significantly younger. The books I read were childrens books from 1960 or earlier, and with strong British flavour. A particularly strong memory is one in which a Griffin was speaking to the protagonist, and used these strange words, like "eejit". It stuck with me for a very long time until I was linguistically mature enough to relate it to the North American "idiot", and further to understand that "eejit" was to reflect a Scottish pronunciation.

Still, I'd like to think that the amount of social contact I have now has normalised my personal vernacular enough to a point where I'm easily communicable to the general [well-educated] individual. It's usually pretty easy to tell whose language is saturated with meaning and education, and whose language is merely inflated with antiquated forms and pretentious phrases.

Speaking generally, everybody speaks a unique variant of English; their own personal dialect. And of course, these dialects can usually be fitted into certain cross-sections: by age, sex, geographical location, socio-economic background, etc. Thus, people from the west end of the city might speak differently from the east end; the elderly would speak differently from the teenagers; men speak differntly from women; the British peers would speak differently from the working class.

Naturally then, the closer one is to your personal cross-section of dialects, the more "normal" their speech would appear. And thus, by extension, if my friends were simply from a far-removed enough dialect region from mine, it would be understandable why I have trouble understanding them.

But even within the realm of dialects, there's a range or normalcy, and those who exist well beyond that range seem equally alien to all natural dialect speakers.

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