Quiz ethics

No, no student cheating, at least not yet. In fact, I’m taking a dialect quiz that seems to be making the rounds, but in some cases, I’m not sure how to answer the questions. There are a few questions where I’m not sure how to answer because I’ve heard several of the options, but I’ve never been in a position to use any of them in my own daily life, such as the various words for a groundhog or a roly poly. More interesting, though, are the questions where I’m not sure how to answer because the question makes me think of my childhood, where I was more exclusively surrounded by one usage than I’m aware of now.

For instance, the all-around athletic shoes that you might put on for, say, PE class – it was definitely not “gym class” where I grew up – would absolutely have been “tennis shoes.” In the last ten or fifteen years, my only use of such shoes has been for my own long-distance running, so I am more likely to say the words “running shoes” now, but I view that as a very specific usage, particularly since I don’t use my current running shoes for anything other than actual running. So, I felt relatively comfortable responding that the generalized term for athletic shoes was “tennis shoes.”

On the other hand, I felt more conflicted when faced with the question on electric-powered rail vehicles that run on city streets. After six years in a city whose transit system includes “streetcars,” I have used that word an awful lot, but it is a usage that I associate particularly, though not exclusively, with that city. I think that I would have used “cable car” when I was growing up, and, in a sense, that is my sort of “generic” word when there’s no city-specific usage in the discussion. (Though I suspect this comes from a certain city-specific usage, but for me, it would have been “the” term, growing up.) How to answer these sorts of questions?

Any time I take these kinds of quizzes, I find that one complicating factor is my (sometimes subconscious) wish to wave my Western flag, which often happens, whether I’m talking to people who live in the city where I live (and who are not usually from the same part of the country where I grew up) or whether I’m responding to a linguistic quiz.

And what should I do about those idioms that I consciously affected at one point in my life, in response to books I was reading or to people I knew? One example would be that I sometimes say, “A quarter to five,” not the “five-forty-five” that I grew up with and that I still think of as the more natural expression in my own variety of English. I’m not suggesting that people in England, for example, speak unnaturally; it’s just a different variety than the one I use, even though I have borrowed from that variety on occasion.

In any case, the full 140-question quiz (to which I tried to respond with what I think of as the most “natural” option in the list) places me eerily close to where I was born. Eerily close, as in, a far greater match with that region than with the region where I actually lived for more of my childhood, which was still very much in the West. I would have expected my speech to “look” more like the latter region than like my birth region. Old habits die hard? Of course, both of my parents were from the region where I have the greatest overlap, and we visited family and friends there fairly often, but I’d have expected to have picked up some usages that would place me slightly closer to where we lived for most of my childhood. I don’t think I gave any answers that would have skewed my results away from where I lived for most of my childhood; I was actually expecting to see a greater overlap where the part of the continent where I attended school. I’ve mentioned before that my students seem to think that I sound like I’m “not from around here,” so I didn’t expect any major overlap with this specific region, but I did expect to see more from the areas where I went to school. Was I suppressing any usages that would have shifted my results? I’ll have to give it some thought, but this sort of complexity and resistance to simplistic prediction is part of what fascinates me about language study.



In preparation for next spring’s course on English in the World, I finally sat down and read Robert McCrum’s Globish: How English Became the World’s Language this summer. Norton sent me this book as a freebie, of possible interest for my History of the English Language course, but it would have caught my eye in any case, dealing not only with the history of the language but also with sociolinguistics. In spite of that, I spent most of my time with this book feeling frustrated by it, and as a result, it took me far longer to finish this book than it should have done.

There are some serious inaccuracies, at least in the sections of the book dealing with the medieval period – I can’t be certain that I know enough about the later periods to be sure in those cases, though I was frequently skeptical of McCrum’s claims. I’ll give a brief example, from page 24: “Albion [an old, probably Celtic, name for Britain] was a place of chalky giants, primitive sorcery, sun worship and sea monsters.” The prose is a bit purple for my taste, but I have a more serious quarrel with this claim. I suppose sun worship is possible, and I’m not sure exactly what he has in mind when he refers to “primitive sorcery” and “sea monsters,” but the chalky giants simply aren’t there. In fairness, I hiked past what might be termed a chalky giant in Sussex last month, but it’s probably not even medieval, let alone pre-Roman. That particular “chalky giant,” the Wilmington Long Man, cannot be shown to have existed earlier than 1710. (I would like to have a look at the scholarship that suggests that these figures might have been Tudor or Stuart political satire!) The same thing goes for the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Westbury White Horse. Most other “white horses” in England are known to be modern, except for the Uffington White Horse, which is the one “chalky giant” that can be proven to have existed before the seventeenth century. One chalk horse hardly makes a prehistoric summer.

It is similarly inaccurate to claim the following: “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought” (p. 31). Yes, it is true that Old English got lots of new words from Latin after Augustine’s mission arrived in 597 (and probably earlier, in some areas, from Irish Christians), but are we now to believe that people who are not Christian are also not capable of abstract thought? Or that people who do not have access to Latin (since most Anglo-Saxons would not have read or spoken Latin, after all) are not capable of abstract thought? McCrum does acknowledge that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons had “cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus [sic]” at their disposal, but he doesn’t seem to accept that this could be an equally valid way of expressing complex ideas. Apparently, he has not read much Old English literature.

Having mentioned purple prose, I will also note something I see as a frequently correlated phenomenon, namely, the tendency of many people to attribute character qualities to languages. On page 230, McCrum declares that, “as we have seen, English has always had this subversive capacity to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to articulate the ideas of both government and opposition, to be the language of ordinary people as well as the language of power and authority, rock ‘n’ roll and royal decree.” Earlier on that page, he refers to English as a language that remains “contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” This phenomenon makes no sense to me. Why is this true of English and not of other languages? Could you actually show me a language where it is not possible for speakers or writers to use the language in subversive ways? Certainly, Latin, that standard of rectitude for so many schoolchildren, had its share of subversive writings. Or, just as we use different registers of formality in English when we speak about, say, pop music or the Constitution, why is it so hard to believe that other languages might also have multiple registers in which speakers can take on both “rock ‘n’ roll and royal decree”? Even the remarkably “book” Stephen Fry falls into this sort of romanticized rhetoric about the English language (though most of what he tries to communicate in this clip is spot-on), but it always perplexes me when anyone wants to make this kind of claim that English is uniquely capable of wondrous things. It is true that a number of historical conditions and events have shaped English in a way that is highly unusual, but the idea that this comes from some sort of life force within the language itself is one that I find incomprehensible.

In spite of these inaccuracies and vagaries (and my indignation about them!), there is a lot of useful and intriguing material under discussion in Globish, but I’m uncertain about some of the large-scale ideas that drive the book. Most importantly, it’s not clear to me just how McCrum is defining “Globish,” since he sometimes seems to use the term to refer simply to English as spoken by someone from a non-Anglophone country. If “Globish” is defined in terms of the sociolinguistic situation in which it is being used, then perhaps that is an example of Globish, but if “Globish” is defined in terms of the actual linguistic units coming out of the person’s mouth (or pen or computer), in the way that we normally define different varieties of a language, then what if that person actually speaks English much as a native speaker would? (Someone who studied in the States or in Britain, say.) It’s not that “Globish” can’t be defined rigorously or that the concept isn’t productive and useful, but McCrum doesn’t offer a rigorous, nuanced discussion of his use of the term to answer questions like the one I’ve raised here.

In several spots, McCrum appears to be conflating the fall of Soviet Communism with a shift in the sociolinguistic matrix for Globish. I don’t doubt that these phenomena are related in some way, but I am skeptical that it can be captured accurately and fully in a glib statement that after 1989, “this new global culture would morph into the worldwide cultural revolution that would become Globish” (p. 225). I suspect that the connections are complex and perhaps not always what we would expect.

So, my quarrels with this book are mostly to do with execution and with the examination (or not) of the fascinating and pressing linguistic and sociopolitical ideas that it raises, rather than with the value of the material itself. This is a hugely important topic, not just for our understanding of history, but also for our sense of where our cultures, our economies, and our political systems will move in the coming decades. What is needed is a book that treats the topics, questions, and possibilities raised in Globish with more rigor. I always enjoy reading about the history of the English language, but I wonder if perhaps it would have been wise to have trimmed down some of the very lengthy history recounted in this book, in favor of a more detailed and rigorous discussion of the current sociopolitical and sociolinguistic situations and questions that McCrum discusses fairly swiftly in the final section of the book.

English in the World

I am very excited because, after putting in a last-minute application for a course development grant, I learned on Friday that I have been awarded that grant and will be teaching a new course as part of a major, multi-year grant that JCU is using to increase global learning on campus, particularly through faculty learning groups and undergraduate courses in various aspects of globalization studies.

So, in Spring 2014, I will teach EN 299 English in the World, in which the students and I will “examine the close connections between language and identity, as they play out in economic, political, and cultural exchange,” as I phrased it in the application. As is probably clear, we’ll be dealing with quite a lot of sociolinguistic material (“Seeking out both the global within English and the signs of English around the globe, we will necessarily tackle concerns over language survival or revival, as well as the types and mechanisms of language contact”), and I am really looking forward to that!

I’m hoping that this course will get a healthy enrollment, boosted by some of our education-track English majors. I am fortunate enough to be able to teach a course on the history of English every fall because the education-track majors are required to take a course on language (either HEL or a contemporary grammar course), and this “English in the World” course will be designated as another option for satisfying that requirement.

I still need to work out precisely what readings I will assign to the students, but I am very much looking forward to the preparatory reading I’ll be doing this summer: David Crystal’s Language Death, Robert McCrum’s Globish, Lawrence Rosenwald’s Multilingual America, Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy, assorted sociolinguistics textbooks, Lawrence Venuti on translation and “an ethics of difference,” sections from The Empire Writes Back, and various other books. While I’m at it, I will probably revisit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which launched my first forays into more sustained academic thought, after my wonderful ninth-grade history teacher recommended it to me. I’m also planning to assign a few literary and autobiographical texts, perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Francisco Jiménez’s Breaking Through, although I’d love to hear other suggestions, if you have any, especially anything related to East Asia (Peter Hessler?), since I know we’ll have South Asia, Europe, and Africa represented, one way or another. It would also be nice to get something specifically South American on the list, too.

I know that we are going to discuss some analogous theories and situations from earlier periods of history (e.g., Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century argument that nations arise out of languages, rather than languages out of nations), but aside from demonstrating that the Middle Ages are actually au courant, my hope is that we will come to a greater appreciation of the fundamental importance in human societies of these questions of language and identity and of the larger patterns of language flux, rather than falling into the trap of viewing this “global English” phenomenon as a uniquely modern phenomenon.

Throughout the course, students will maintain logs of current news items or other items of interest, probably through the Evernote app. (I am still thinking about using blogs or a single course blog, but one advantage of using Evernote would be that I would have distinct submissions to a single folder from each student, rather than having to go and count entries.) The items in these logs will form the basis for much of the group work that students will do during our class sessions, but they will also be the basis for the students’ work towards their final projects. I’m still deciding what those final projects will look like. I know that there will be a significant writing component, but I would also like students to think creatively and rigorously about multimedia possibilities, and I’m open to interviews or other experiential projects, and to proposals for collaborative work.

As you can see, this course is still taking shape, but I’m very, very pleased that I will be able to pursue it, even though I’m likely to have a very harried semester in Spring 2014, trying to stay on top of this course and another course that I’m very excited (though also very nervous) about developing. More on that second new course soon!

Not from around here

I occasionally conduct what I refer to as a scratch evaluation in the middle of my courses. I pass out slips of scratch paper and ask students to respond to a question or two and give me some feedback. Sometimes, this is related to a particular idea I’m thinking of trying or have just tried out, but at other times, I simply ask students to tell me both the most interesting or enjoyable thing learned up to that point and one unanswered question or unresolved concern that they’d like to see addressed in the course. Last week, many students had substantive and helpful comments about their respective courses, but I was utterly disarmed by one slip where the unanswered question was simply, “Are you from the United States? Not that it matters. I’m just curious.”

People in Cleveland periodically comment on my accent (more than I recall in Toronto, oddly enough), but it seems to be an especially noticeable feature of my teaching for students in this particular class. Early in the semester, one student somewhat apologetically approached me after class and, after a bit of hemming and hawing, finally asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” After I explained that I had grown up in California and Arizona, before spending several years in Southern Ontario for graduate school, the student went away satisfied, but I have found myself wondering if there are situations where we are more prone to hear accents. Are we psychologically more likely to think we are hearing them when the subject matter (as with that particular class, a British literature survey) is from another region? Or is my accent just that much more foreign to people in this part of the Great Lakes? Maybe so. After all, I definitely have not picked up the Great Lakes nasal a, and I do not intend to.