Do you have a burning passion for learning? Join Dr. Valerie Fridland and Dr. Diane Hamilton as they delve into written and oral language and how people convey information effectively. Dr. Valerie Fridland is a Professor of Sociolinguistics and former Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Nevada in Reno. An expert on the relationship between language and society, her work has appeared in numerous academic journals and scholarly collections. She discusses standard speech for people, standard language market, formal spoken standard and much more. Tune in to this episode and learn more about language and speech in the most informative way!
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Dr. Valerie Fridland here. Dr. Fridland is a Professor of Sociolinguistics. She’s the author of the tentatively titled I Hate When You Say That! I love the title and I can’t wait to talk to her about this. This is going to be so much fun.
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Understanding Language And Speech With Dr. Valerie Fridland
I am here with Dr. Valerie Fridland who is the Professor of Sociolinguistics and the former Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Nevada in Reno. It’s so nice to have you here, Valerie. I hope you don’t mind if I call you that.
No, not at all. I’m so happy to be here.
I was looking forward to this. I’d love anything that’s word-related. My father was obsessed with grammar. He had a Degree in English Education. My sister has one as well. They’re constantly correcting me. I just think it’s fascinating what you work on and we’re going to get into that but I want to get a little backstory on you because I know you appear everywhere. You have CBS and everywhere else, I was looking at the list of things. I know you’re featured a lot in Psychology Today. I want to get to the story of what led to your interest in socio-phonetics and whatever that is.
It isn’t exactly like being a doctor or a lawyer. It’s not the thing most five-year-olds say, “I’ll be a socio-phonetician when I grow up,” much less pronounce it. I was no different. I didn’t have an idea that this field even existed when I was a kid. My parents are both non-native English speakers. They’re both French-speaking natively.
I grew up in the South without a lot of other people with parents like mine. Whenever my friends would come over, who were almost all Southern, they would remark on my parents’ accent, which I couldn’t hear. To me, my parents sounded like everybody else but to my friends, it was highly salient. Particularly the way my mother said my name was constantly foddered for jokes among my peer groups.
It all suddenly intrigued me about, why can’t I hear this? Why don’t I hear the sounds that they say differently? Why are people always so fascinated by what it seemed to mean to them about my parents? For example, it seemed like we were very exotic, unusual and side of the conversation. That’s what incited my interest in linguistics, to begin with.
I went to Georgetown University in Washington, DC to study languages because I was mainly interested in languages at that point. I took a linguistics course because it was required for my major. Many of my students who were sitting in my classes find themselves and I just had my world shaken because it turned on its head everything I thought I knew about language. It intrigued me so much that I started taking more and more linguistics classes.
The name of the class that I signed up for that day that I had to fulfill the requirement was Language and Gender. Sitting in that class and learning about all these things that I had noticed in the way that people spoke around me, the way that my friends and I spoke versus the boys that we were dating or that we knew, and the things that people called out about women’s speech. Learning that it wasn’t because women somehow said inferior things, use weaker statements, or had forms that were somehow deficient, it was because of a long socio-historical tendency to devalue the talk of women. We could point to things in the historical record where this was inculcated.
All the features that we talk about now that we associate with women’s speech or the idea that women talk too much, all of that goes back far into history, about specific times and places, and very specific features of women’s speech. There are reasons why women use those features and none of us knows these things. We just use language. When I started learning more and more, I found out it’s not just about gender. It’s about race, age, region and place. I became enamored with all things linguistic and I am still enamored even after all these years. I’m not going to tell you how many years it’s been but let’s just say a few.
My daughter would love to listen to this. She has a Degree in Portuguese Communications. She speaks all these languages, 5 at last count. She does help people to learn English as a second language in some of the things that she works on. She always sending me meanings behind things and asking me about different things. She finds things that her students will find funny. Apparently, it’s horrible to learn English because we have so many things that don’t make sense.
We do, and a lot of spelling is just crazy.
The same letters will mean something completely different like the ‘ough’ for example. You were saying that you couldn’t hear the way your parents said your name. Her husband’s name is Habib and I cannot say it no matter what it is, and so he lets me say it whatever way I want.
That’s a good rule for a son-in-law to follow.
He’s such a nice guy. I adored him so much but I can’t say his name. I think it’s funny how I don’t hear it because everybody will tell me how to say it properly but I don’t hear the difference.Writing isn’t always better than speech. Writing is not primary because we spoke for thousands of years before we wrote. Click To Tweet
It’s because you’re trained from the natural phonological system of your language. We don’t realize how much we are prisoners of the system that our language provides us. When you say you can’t hear it, it’s because your native phonological system, English, doesn’t have the sounds that his name involves. You adapt what you hear to the English system. You hear it in English terms whereas he says it in whatever terms of the language he speaks.
That’s the inherent problem with second language speakers and that’s what your daughter helps them learn. It’s easier to try to solve those problems if you can understand a little bit about both systems because if I just tell you things you’re saying something wrong, it doesn’t help you fix it. If I say, “Here, your language has an ‘ah’ vowel, whereas my language has only an ‘oh’ vowel so you’re saying everything was ‘ah’ when it should be ‘oh.’ That does help us. It helps us aim for something. That’s probably the work that she does.
I’m curious why Schwarzenegger or somebody still can’t speak perfectly after all these years like it’s not a ‘tu-mah’ instead of a tumor.
It’s funny because my father has often been compared when he would speak in the South. At that time, one of the most well-known non-native speakers was Arnold Schwarzenegger and my father’s name is actually Arnold. People used to always joke when they met him. They’d be like, “Ah-nald.” That was how Arnold Schwarzenegger said his name.
The reality is we have brain lateralization that occurs around age twelve that fundamentally shifts how we are able to acquire second languages. If you’re exposed to a language as a young child, you could be exposed to ten and learn them natively as long as that’s something that’s in your environment. At eighteen in that French class, how many people actually learn to be fluent? Even if they are fluent, they don’t learn to loosen their originating language accent. That’s because there’s something called linguistic fossilization, which simply means that after the age of lateralization, it is cemented in your brain how your native language phonological system is structured. You’re having to learn something completely from scratch when you’re encountering a language that has sounds that your language doesn’t have.
Almost all languages have different vowels than English. English is a very promiscuous vowel language, which means we have 11 or 12 vowels depending on your dialect. The optimal vowel system, the most common in languages is the five vowel system. You can see how English is hard to learn for people that come from the five vowel system, and how you can’t invent new vowels for yourself. The same problem you’re having pronouncing your son-in-law’s name is due to the vowels. I will bet you. That’s because you are unable to learn a new vowel out of the blue as an adult. That’s why accents don’t go away. They’re with you forever.
Can you work on accent reduction? I have people ask me that all the time. Certainly, but that’s a very conscientious effort you have to make and it probably won’t translate 100% of the time into your daily encounters. You might be able to do it when you spend a lot of effort and time thinking about it. For example, if you’re giving a business presentation and you’ve worked with a dialect coach or an accent reduction coach to work on specific sounds, you can reduce it in those contexts, but then when you’re hanging out at the bar, having a glass of wine with a friend, it’s going to come back.
We cannot spend that much conscious effort on our speech. If we did, we’d be exhausted all the time. You don’t think about what you’re going to say when you’re seeing your daughter, you just say it. You’re not thinking about it. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be if every single time you said a vowel, you had to think, “How do I say this vowel?” This is why we have accents.
It’s going to be exhausting doing all those different things. It’s always fascinating to me because I listened to a lot of the Australian actors and you can hear it come and go as they’re trying to do the English versions. I go, “He missed it there.” You hear the little misses here and there but some of them are really good. You didn’t even know. Imagine when they start to speak like in House, for example, he was great. When you’d hear him speaking, you couldn’t believe the difference. What is interesting to me is when people sing. They all sound the same in some ways. What happens there?
That’s because of different articulations. You’re doing different things when you’re singing than when you’re talking. How you use your vocal apparatus is quite distinct and also much more focused. You have to look at the difference between things that are done with conscious effort, which is singing because we don’t walk around singing, at least not outside of movies because we’re not thinking, “I’m going to sing.”
When you plan to sing, you actually do warm-ups, you practice, you learn lines, and you over articulate because that’s what we do in singing. You also open your mouth a lot wider because the airflow needs to go in. You need to excite a lot more lung air for the force of singing than you do in casual conversation. It’s a much more concerted effort that you’re making and you can learn different vowels for singing for that one moment that you may not learn elsewhere.
You also don’t quite change your articulators in the same way when you’re singing as you do when you’re talking. If you sing, “Ahhh”, you notice your mouth is just wide open but if you say, “Ah” in regular speech, you’re going to have a much more closed mouth. You also are going to be moving your articulators much more rapidly from the sounds that preceded the vowel and the sounds that follow it, which will cause you not to be able to hyper-articulate the vowel.
In singing, you’re hyper-articulating and you have the time to do it. You are extending the time at which you are pronouncing that vowel when you’re singing. That way, it’s easier to aim for a different kind of vowel sound. Also, because you’re not hyper-articulating the consonant sounds rapidly, you’re doing it further apart. When you say, “Ahh,” you’re not instantly trying to get to the next word because in singing, you extend it and you hold it. When we hold vowel sounds, they start to centralize towards similar sounds and that’s what brings us all together across languages.
To me, when people sing, it sounds much more like American English than any other. Are we enunciating better in the United States?
No, we wish. Generally, it’s because when people are aiming for a certain sound or style, it’s American style. There was an interesting article written by a famous sociolinguist, Peter Trudgill in the 1990s about British pop stars and how they all aim for American pronunciations because that’s where success lies. If you want to be successful in music, often you need to sound more American. It’s an economic issue and also a popularity issue. People want to make it big in America when they’re a singer and so you aim for that market or that genre. His study showed that it was vowel sounds that they most often tried to articulate more closely to American English singers.
That’s interesting. This is going to be all fascinating when it gets transcribed on my site, the singing and the sounds.
I know that’s the problem. I’m writing a book right now for a pop audience. Hopefully, that will come out in probably in 2022. It’s interesting because the sounds are so hard to represent when you’re writing them because we don’t spell as we speak. I’ve had that great adventure in trying to translate what I’m trying to get across into the vowels that English provides us in writing. It’s been a challenge, to say the least, but I think it’ll be successful, hopefully, in the end.
Will I be able to say my son-in-law’s name if I read your book?
You might be able to give yourself a little slack for not doing it when you read my book. I can’t promise that you can say it.
It’s tentatively titled I Hate When You Say That! and I love that. I hope you stick with that. That’s a great title. As I’ve mentioned, you are the co-author of Sociophonetics. I referred to Sociophonetics but I didn’t say you were the co-author. You were the lead editor of three volumes of Western US English. You have so much that you’ve done writing-wise but it’s been more technical. This is more for popular audiences as you said.
It’s 100% popular. My Psychology Today column is written in the same style as the book so that’s a general interest. Over the years, I would give talks and a lot of times, people are interested in language and it is fascinating. I’m also a speaker just like everybody else. I’m not only an academic but I lived through language and I experienced through language. That’s why I find language interesting. I have learned in many years that everybody else seems to share this fascination.
Over the years, I felt like I’m doing a lot of research but I’m not translating it to the very people that speak, and so I decided to write a book that took up all the questions that people ask me when I give talks. I’ll be talking about some of my research, but I almost always get the same questions afterwards about specific things that people hate when other people do. That’s why I called the book I Hate When You Say That! We all have these strong feelings about what people say. We don’t understand the history behind them, where they come from, or what the research shows us about why we say what we do and what it means about us. That’s what drove the book and I’m hopeful that people will find it very useful.
When I started doing this radio show, I started to listen to a couple of them. I used to listen to some and I did something I had no idea I even did because I wouldn’t write it that way but I would speak a certain way. It was mortifying to me as I go through and listen to some of the mistakes I made.
What was that?
One of them I do a lot is I would say ‘that’ instead of ‘who.’ I can’t even think of an example, “When she was working on that, she was the one that would have liked that,” instead of “who would have liked that.”
That’s very common in spoken language.
I would never write it that way. It’s interesting when you will say things correctly or write things correctly and then do it the opposite. I watch a lot of TV shows and I think, “Did their writer mean to say ‘me and her went somewhere’ to make the character or is the person just uneducated?” Do you do that when you’re watching television?Writing was born of the need to record history, religion and more. Click To Tweet
I do but I do in a different way because I understand what drives those features. One of the big mistakes we make is thinking that writing is better than speech and that writing is primary. We spoke for thousands of years before we wrote. Writing was born not a prescription. That didn’t come until about the 18th century. Writing was born of the need to record history and religion. Religious scribes did a lot of early writing before literacy was widespread, and the need to communicate over distance. That was the fundamental reason we wrote. It was to preserve the oral language and not to be the be-all, end-all of speech by which all else is judged.
The role that now we ascribed to writing as being this formal, authoritative type of thing is quite recent. If you look back on the history of English, it’s only in the early modern period that we find it to be an issue. In the Old English period, there were many dialects of English in England. There were seminal writings in all of them and similar in the Middle English period. It’s not until the early modern period where London became a very prestigious social, economic and political center, and then the people’s dialect of London became the one to know. It was a socio-historical, economic, political accident.
What happened is as usage guides and dictionaries became prominent in the 18th century. Guess whose dialect they wrote down? The upper crust. That is the only reason that the things we think are right are right now. It’s interesting that you talked about relative clauses, so using a ‘who’ instead of a ‘that,’ because both of those would have been wrong in the early Middle English period.
How would you say it? Do you know?
It would have been quite different but it was used as a quadword from Latin. You used more of the Latin form and that it was ‘from the who’, ‘from the which,’ and then it became which and who. What you think is proper now was not proper 500 years ago. We get very strongly tied to these ideas of which we’ve learned growing up.
My father was into this stuff. It was a big part of growing up. He made it sound you’re going to sound like a moron if you’re not right.
People think that. We do judge people by the way they speak which is why it can be so detrimental. I’m not trying to say that the prescription is wrong. There are reasons that we standardize things. A lot of them have to do with symbolic unity. When you’re nation-building, one of the key ways to do this is to establish a language and dialect. Americans did that very strongly with Noah Webster after the Revolutionary War. There are good reasons to have rules as long as we don’t confuse social rules, which is what prescription is, with linguistic ones.
There’s no inherent linguistic goodness to using a ‘who’ instead of a ‘that’. It’s just a convention that we follow. We’re judging people on how well they learn conventions, not how intellectual they are but then we confuse that and we say, “They’re stupid because they do it”, when actually they’re just not educated in the conventions as we are.
That’s the big takeaway from a lot of the work I do that looks at language and society. First of all, there are fascinating reasons and stories behind everything we say that we tend to not realize. Second, that while it’s okay to have prescriptive rules, it’s not okay to use them as a basis to devalue other people’s intelligence because that is not what they’re telling you. It might mean they’re not highly educated in the system of education that we have in the United States or whatever place there is, but it certainly doesn’t reflect on their level of intelligence, their cognitive skills, which is a problem that we actually have.
I worked in an office where there was just a guy, his girlfriend and me. When she answered the phone, she would always answer this. When she’s asked, “Is she there?” She would say, “This is her,” instead of “This is she.” I used to think that would make my dad go crazy. I’m also thinking isn’t that the face of the company? If other people are raised around my father, that type of thing, what does that do for the face of the company?
That is the biggest issue in the professional context that the norms and expectations that we have are based on a certain variety of English. A lot of times this is a variety associated with the people that are empowered in those organizations. Most of the time, historically speaking, they have been white, upper-class men. It’s not just in using maybe non-standard features, which is what you’re talking about where the case of the pronoun mess-up issue, which is something that in the last 50 years has been very unstable in English. If someone said, “Who was that?” You’d probably say, “It’s me.” You should be saying, “It is I.”
Do you say it incorrectly like that on purpose just to sound normal? I know I do that all the time.
You do because it’s not incorrect anymore. It’s so widespread that it’s become the new norm. If you walk around saying, “It is I,” it’s not like they’re going to start bowing to you or not be your friend. If you said, “It is her,” people still notice that. It’s just a change that is occurring in English that hasn’t gone through all the way, but in 100 years, that may be very common. That’s how change happens. It happens in some contexts where we don’t even realize it’s happened because it happened long ago and we don’t recognize it, which is what happened with “It’s me.” When it’s not gone all the way through yet, which it hasn’t in English with pronouns, then we notice it in those contexts to which it hasn’t extended yet, which is, “It is her.”
With companies, the problem is the professional language is often based on white upper-class educated norms. If you say something like that, then it is highly noticeable. The pressure on standard speech for people that are in gatekeeping positions, clerks or hotel front office staff is very strongly on standard language norms. This is a problem that we see when people interview for those jobs that don’t have access to those norms or that’s not their native dialect. They are kept out of those positions because of the way they speak. That’s what we call a standard language market.
Interestingly, the standard language market has long been much stronger for women than for men. This is why we find women’s speeches often closer to standard norms. The ones we learned in school than men’s speech because the types of employment historically that women have had has been in those front office positions, frontline positions, teachers, nurses, and people that interact with the public, whereas men have often had work that has not put them in front and center with other people the same way.
A lot of times, they’d been factory workers, working with lumber or working at fish mongering. Things like that that don’t require standard language. We find that that has translated now into an expectation for women more generally to speak more standardly than men, which means that when women use language that’s not standard, they get judged more harshly than men. It all feeds into this interesting pattern of implicit bias that gets established because of these habits that we’ve established over time.
Is it okay to say ‘between you and I’ instead of ‘between you and me,’ and all that stuff we pay attention to? For people who’ve been raised the way I have, you’d be careful not to say this and that. Is it all going to eventually just be in the dictionary or the Grammar Girl or wherever we learn this stuff?
Not necessarily. What’s interesting is people have this belief that language is just going to hell. This is called something that linguists studied as the Complaint Culture. The idea that language is going downhill has been around for about 200 years. If you look at the language available, I doubt many of us think that was the best time of English. Change is something inherent in language, but not all changes manifest over time as something that will be normal to the language.
A lot of times when language changes, it hit up against serious norming, people that remember like your father how it was when they were a kid or what they learned. When people are very strongly against certain types of forms, then those butt up against some serious social regulation and they don’t proceed. Certain things get our goat and those things probably won’t continue to change. Some who get our goat have only gotten our goat because they’ve now become so widespread we realized the train can’t be stopped. A good example of this is ‘like’ use. The way that we use ‘like,’ which interestingly enough, it’s a belief we have that it’s a valley girl thing.
It actually started in Britain, probably in the early 1900s, if not earlier. We find it among octogenarian speakers in rural villages in New Zealand and Britain. It’s not really a valley girl feature. It’s an old, rural, British feature that has now taken up more steam, but that’s what I mean. It was around for hundreds of years. We just didn’t notice it until it became so widespread, we couldn’t stop the train.
Now, ‘like’ use will be with us indefinitely. There is no stopping that train. It’s probably the most widespread new form coming into English this century. Therefore in a hundred years, ‘like’ use will be something we don’t even comment on because it will be so natural and normal that your children will not be telling their children not to do it because it’s bad form.
However, ‘between you and I’ and ‘between you and me’ probably has more of a linguistic regulation and notice. It will not be changed because it’s such a written language norm that’s being pressed onto a spoken language that it may not ever be replaced. Sometimes things co-exist for hundreds of years or one of them gradually just gets beaten to death and doesn’t come back.
it’s not the case that all changes will go through. It’s only the changes that become so widespread and popular that the children that start them, because language change most often occurs with younger speakers, don’t even remember it was ever a change by the time they’re old and gray. Their children do it so regularly that no one notices it anymore. It’s surprising to most people but a lot of the things that we do today are changes that started hundreds of years ago and now have not even being noticed anymore.
Will we see a change with ‘children that started it’ or ‘children who started it’ because we say ‘that’ more than we say ‘who,’ I’ve noticed?
Yes, in spoken language, particularly. Written language tends to stay less changed over time because you put conscious effort into writing. There’s a formal written standard. A lot of times we confuse the fact that there’s a formal written standard with a formal spoken standard. Those two are quite different. Probably those of us that say ‘that’ in spoken language, we’ll still write ‘who’ in written language when we’re writing formally because that is what our formal written norms that we learned suggest we do. I don’t see those changing in terms of how we are taught in school which is where those are taught. I do see it being replaced much like the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ has been replaced by ‘they.’ Most of us don’t realize that that was happening in Chaucer’s day. That had started in Chaucer’s day. It’s 1,000 years old.
One is a singular form for somebody that’s an individual. That’s hard for me because it’s plural.
How about ‘you’? Do you use ‘you’?The fundamental reason we wrote was to preserve oral language. Click To Tweet
I guess yeah. That could be both.
‘You’ was a plural form in Old and Middle English so ‘you’ was not a singular form. It was never a singular form in Old English. It was always a plural form, and yet none of us has a problem using that one today as plural and singular. The basic message is ‘they’ is no different. The funny thing is when ‘you’ was going through that change, the Quakers found it very upsetting and immoral. The grammarians also commented on how it was illogical. All the same, arguments we see with singular ‘they’ now, we could look 400 years ago and find the exact same arguments with ‘you’ shifting from singular to plural usage.
Maybe that explains a lot of my dad’s obsession. They used to be Quakers.
George Fox, who was the Kingpin of the Quakers wrote a treatise on how using ‘you’ instead of ‘thou’ was immoral. It was related also to status back at that day just like French, ‘pour vous’ was related not only to singular-plural but also to treating someone with respect. If you used ‘you’ were you should use ‘thou’, it changed this respect relationship. It was immoral for that reason from a perspective of who we were showing respect to. If you use ‘you’ for everyone, you no longer called God something different and that’s why it was considered immoral at that time. You look at how our beliefs or cultural beliefs get tied up in what we dislike in language. It’s funny when you look back hundreds of years and see that the same issues back then come up today.
Going through my doctoral program made me think of a different way of writing. They will rip you up when you go over editing. When you said ‘therefore’ before, I remember thinking I wasn’t allowed to use ‘therefore’ when I wrote my dissertation and anything they thought of as superfluous. I had to go through and get rid of a lot of those kinds of words. You think of all the things that you had to learn to write in the scholarly tone messes you up. Was it hard to write this book?
Some of the languages are so interesting like passive voice use and different participles. We don’t speak like that and if you did, you’d have no friends. We do have different rules and it’s also genre-specific. If you’re writing in a certain kind of style, it’s okay but if you’re writing in an academic formal style, it’s not okay. There’re all these different rules and it also depends on which field you’re in. In linguistics, people don’t tend to be as difficult on those things because the whole premise of linguistics is that language is innately ruled and not socially ruled. If you want to throw a ‘therefore,’ no one is going to call you out on it. If you’re in Education or English, you absolutely will have that called out. I think that’s even changing now. You see greater use of discourse markers, which is what ‘therefore’ is. It’s marking discourse and stance. You see that more readily in academic work than you did previously. Time changes everything.
You brought up passive voice and Grammarly loves to catch me on passive voice. I’d love to put stuff through Grammarly. I don’t have any kind of a relationship with them. I do use that site because it helps me point things. Sometimes you think you have everything caught in Word and it doesn’t catch everything. It’s always catching passive voice on me. Why is a passive voice so problematic? Explain what that is for people who don’t understand.
Active voice versus passive voice is simply what’s the subject. When you have a subject that is doing the activity described by the verb, that’s called active voice so something like, “I ran, I went, I danced.” It is the subject that is doing the action described by the verb. In a passive voice construction, the object becomes the subject. The subject is sometimes completely deleted or put into a by phrase and it changes the doer of the verbal action away from the subject position to a secondary position. “The cat was chased by the dog.” “The door was closed by the woman.” That’s a passive voice construction.
From a cognitive processing perspective, passive voice sentences are not as readily processed as active voice. When you look at language deficit, people that have Aphasias, Alzheimer’s, age-related issues, or children with learning disabilities, what’s interesting is they lose passive voice understanding much more often than passive voice or they never acquire it. All of that suggests that we are wired cognitively for active voice constructions as a primary form of how we structure sentences and less so for passive voice. None of this probably factors into why they’re not good in writing but it’s considered less direct. That’s not as effective in stating what you mean directly, which is why people don’t like it prescriptively in academic or scholarly writing. That’s the only reason. There’s nothing wrong with passive voice.
English has relatively few passive voice construction as a spoken language. That’s a funny situation where we tend to use passive more in writing than we do in speaking, but then we get damned for it in writing as well. There are languages, for example, Hausa, an African language that uses it much more prevalently in spoken language. They would have different norms for what’s appropriate there. In general, we disliked passive voice because it’s not a direct form of describing the image or the context in the way that active voice is.
The other interesting thing with passive voice, just from a historical perspective, is we use the -ing participle form like a progressive participle, “The cat was being chased.” “The house was being built.” That’s a type of passive construction. That was considered highly vulgar and uncouth up to the 19th century. We now say those things and no one strikes us down for it. That’s another perfect example of 100 years ago, you would have been considered very vulgar with saying that. You would instead say, “The house is building.” That’s how you would have said the house is being built. If you said that now, people would think you were weird. Again, it’s the evolution of language.
Is the point of your book to make us feel better about how we speak or to be more open to understanding?
Part of the point is just telling the story behind the language because almost every feature that we talk about has such a fascinating history. Some of it is mind-blowing. The history of how these features came to be and what they mean and why they’ve happened. It’s hysterical to look back at how people reacted to things that we would consider normal now, 500 years ago or 1,000 years ago. Part of it is telling that interesting story about how features like ‘they’ and ‘like’ use, and intensifiers like, ‘so, totally, really.’ How kids always say things like ‘dude’ and how we use participial endings. All of those things that we noticed, I just want to tell the story.
The bigger goal is to make us understand that language is a cultural moment. We judge people by the cultural moment we live in without looking at the cultural moments that have passed in which we would have been judged. It’s to remind people that all these ideas we have about language are social conventions. That doesn’t mean they’re not okay to have in certain contexts like professional places perhaps in educational institutions but judging the people the way that we do, where we can’t downgrade them and consider them stupid, lazy or have horrible personal attributes because of the way we speak. That’s based on incorrect knowledge of what these language forms are.
It’s a two-fold goal. One, here’s an entertaining story about how these language systems came to be. Second, here’s why we should be more careful when we judge people or when we use them ourselves and feel bad about it. As you were saying how you judge yourself when you heard. You probably still judge yourself but at least you might understand more about why it’s not such a bad thing that you do it. It just means you’re human.
When you have students or had students, would you allow them to have end sentences in prepositions and do that or did you point out something on their paper that they did and explain why? I’m curious how you handle that.
At the beginning of my class, I always have students tell me their favorite thing or worst thing about language. We just talked about what are our pet peeves about language. Most of the time, their pet peeves that they know they do. A lot of it is ‘like’ use or saying ‘you know’ or using tag questions at the end of sentences, and then we will have papers due. I’m not a prescriptivist in the sense of an English professor.
Unlike my colleagues that are English professors who red-pen things, I often will circle them and say, “This is not considered standard use in writing because formal written language is something that’s very different from spoken language.” I teach about spoken language, so that doesn’t mean I don’t have rules for written language. I would say that I do red-ink some things, not like my colleagues do, but mainly to call attention to them in terms of how those students will be judged.
There are times when the way that students write makes it harder to understand what they’re trying to say. That is what I pull out. When they’re writing in such a way that it’s not clear to a reader, the points they’re getting across, which rarely has to do with having a ‘therefore’ in there. It more often has to do with them not filling out their ideas or using vague language. That’s a big problem for people where they use an ‘it’ without describing what that’s supposed to be. That’s not a problem of grammar. That’s a problem of imparting information and communication. Those are the types of things I do pull out and grade students on.
Grammarly hates that as well.
Grammarly and I do sometimes agree.
Do you disagree with it ever?
I do actually. I disagree with it often. When I put things into some of the articles I write for journals, a lot of times they come back and their system auto-correct with Grammarly. Sometimes, I override it when I disagree with my book writing. In general, on certain things, it does catch things. I am also a writer and I do use prescriptive notions in my writing. I’m not a linguistic anarchist. I don’t believe that written language can have no rules because then we wouldn’t understand each other. I just understand that those rules are conventional rather than anything about our intellect. That’s the key difference but I do follow prescriptive rules to some degree in my writing. I’m friends with Grammar Girl and we agree on many things.
They’re both great sites. I try to send students to those sites because they are helpful. Do you think that the English language has more of these rules and harder things than other languages, or are they all tough?
Some languages are less tied to literacy than most of the big languages are that have a long history of standardization and codification. English is certainly one of those languages. Compared to a language like Latin, we have less. Compared to a language like Hausa that has a lot of oral speakers but not much literacy, we have more. It’s relative but I would say we’re on par with the top five languages that are things like Russian, Chinese, French and English.
What’s interesting is in the early period of English, English was considered an uncouth and vulgar language. It was a common tongue. Latin was considered the language of the educated then once the Norman French took over, French was also considered closer to God and a divine language. At that time, English didn’t have many prescribed rules. This is the time when there were multiple dialects in Britain and many different forms of writing that co-existed peacefully. There were not many prescriptions at that point.
In the last 200 years, English has gotten a lot more prescriptions and therefore, has become somewhat similar to other languages that have formal academic bodies like French that are highly prescribed. French is probably a little more prescribed so is Icelandic because both of those have regulating bodies that English doesn’t have that set aside certain kinds of usages as the proper ones. English has never had that. We’ve never had an institutional authority that has been specifically formed for prescriptions. We do it ourselves pretty well so I would say we’re fairly on par with those languages.Respect people regardless of their native dialects. Click To Tweet
I listened to some languages and I know I could never figure that out. It’s just so hard. Do you remember the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy? It was all popping sounds. How do you even make that?
Some languages are certainly harder for English speakers to learn because they’re not as closely related and they have a very different sound inventory. Languages that are in the Indo-European family, which is the same family English was in which are things like Spanish and French. Those are romance languages with English or not, but they all date back to the same Indo-European roots of three proto-languages. Therefore, their sound systems are not that disparate. They are different to some degree but not as different.
You then go to Afroasiatic languages and it’s a completely different sound system. It’s hard to learn those languages and also for them to learn ours because it’s much more radically different. That’s the fundamental difference in learning languages. All languages are learnable but some are farther away from your natural system. Therefore, you’ll have to be more accented in speaking it and it’s harder to learn those things because they’re so foreign to you.
My daughter had no problem picking up Spanish and she speaks Portuguese fluently. Italian was a little harder for her but when she tried to do Arabic to speak to Habib, she had a tough time with that.
Arabic is very different. If you want to be fancy, it has an autosegmental phonological system which English does not have. That means they have things like vowel harmony where one vowel can be one thing in one word, but it’s going to be a completely different vowel in another word because that changes the meaning. We don’t have anything like that in English. If you know a word, you know a word but it doesn’t change but in Arabic, it will. It’s really hard to learn.
The feminine masculine thing in Spanish gets me sometimes. I’ve never tried to learn any other language other than a little bit of Spanish. How about you? Can you speak any other languages?
I like to joke that I speak universal grammar, which is the structure that underlies all language, at least what linguists propose. I speak a little French and a little Chinese, although I haven’t spoken them conversationally in many years so I’m quite rusty and weak. Because both of my parents were French-speaking natives when I was young, I did speak some French. Now my French is very weak. I also had problems with the vowels of French because some of them are very different from English vowels. For example, you have rounded front vowels in French that you don’t have in English. My mother still jokes about how I pronounce certain words like, “Put a little.” It drives her nuts. It’s like nails on the chalkboard when I say it. Even though I know better, I still can’t help myself.
I don’t know what it’s going to take for me to say the ‘Ha’ sound in Habib. I would love for somebody to get me to hear the difference because I hear breath. I don’t hear a sound so much as ‘Ha’ like you’re breathing out. I think it’s interesting to look at the different languages. I wish I had taken more when I was young, but it’s hard enough to know English. All of this has been helpful for so many people. Do you know when your book is going to be published?
I’ve about finished it in the draft. It’s being published by Viking Penguin. They have a lot of cycling that they do but we’re aiming for a Fall 2022 or Spring 2023 publication date. I’ll be doing a lot of articles for it. Hopefully, people won’t miss it when it comes out or they can also subscribe on my website.
What’s your website?
It’s ValerieFridland.com. It should come out and it will be a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed writing it, so hopefully, people will enjoy reading it.
I’m looking forward to it. It’s fascinating to learn all this stuff. My daughter would love to read that. Many people need to understand some of this stuff, why we say what we do and enlighten up a little bit. My students would probably appreciate hearing this. Maybe I’ll enlight them up with the red pen a little bit.
The trick is it’s okay to mark it but less harsh in judging it.
I’m pretty easy. I don’t like the ending in prepositions but if you look at Grammarly, she says it’s okay.
Preposition stranding, which is what that is called, is one of the big no-noes that we learned in grammar school. It wasn’t until John Dryden started getting on the case a couple of hundred years ago that it was a problem. For example, Shakespeare strands his prepositions quite often. If you want to be like Shakespeare, maybe it’s okay. It’s all relative.
Far be it from me to argue with Shakespeare.
Exactly. Any of us will have that problem.
You don’t even know if it’s the right way of saying it now. I’m all confused.
The trick is there’s no wrong way of saying it.
That’s what I got the most. That’s the most important thing. This was fun and fascinating. I love this, Valerie. I hope people take some time to look at your site. Is there any other site or any way to follow you?
I write monthly for Psychology Today. My blog there is called Language in the Wild. You’re welcome to check that out. I try to do a variety of different topics so everybody should find something there that they like.
This was so much fun. I enjoyed this. I knew I would. Thank you so much for being on the show.
I was happy to be here.
I’d like to thank Valerie for being my guest. I love that conversation. It’s so much fun to talk about language, why things are annoying to some of us and not to others, and why we should say things in certain ways. It’s a fascinating thing to look at the English language. I enjoyed what she’s working on. I hope she keeps that title for the book because I thought it was a great title. Check out her website to find out more. All the stuff that she writes is fascinating.
We get so many great guests on this show. If you’ve missed any past guests, please go to DrDianeHamilton.com. If you go to the blog, you can listen to the show and read the show there because we transcribe it. I’m very interested to see how this show’s going to transcribe though from all the sounds and things that we were making. Be a little bit open-minded as far as transcription sometimes isn’t perfect. That’s what we’ve learned now is that we can be accepting of those kinds of things. It’s a fascinating look at the different shows. You can take a look at some of the tweetable moments we have there. If you find something you found interesting, please tweet it out. We’d love to hear from you. I enjoyed this episode. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
About Dr. Valerie Fridland
Dr. Valerie Fridland is a Professor of Sociolinguistics and former Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Nevada in Reno. An expert on the relationship between language and society, her work has appeared in numerous academic journals and scholarly collections.
She is co-author of the book Sociophonetics and lead editor of three volumes on Western U.S. English.
Her language blog, Language in the Wild, is featured on Psychology Today, and her lecture series, Language and Society, is available from The Great Courses. She is also working on her first book for a popular audience, coming out with Viking/Penguin.
She regularly appears on podcasts and news programs such as The Elegant Warrior, The Mentor Project, The Lisa Show, CBS news, and Newsy’s The Why.
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