Monday, May 20, 2013

Real language

One of my frustrations during my 40-plus years in journalism was interviewing people who never seemed to finish their sentences. They would start saying something interesting, and I would already be thinking about what a great quote this was going to be, but then they would stop in the middle and move on to the next sentence, without finishing that one either. I always had to choose from among the following: 1) finish their sentences for them, 2) paraphrase their statements or 3) quote them accurately as speaking in incomplete sentences. I almost never picked Option 3. I thought it would make my sources sound stupid, even though they didn't sound stupid when you listened to them speak. They just seemed to be people who could think much faster than they could talk.

Listen to people  in conversation sometime, and you might be surprised by how many sentences are left unfinished. Yet somehow we always know what these people are saying.

This came to mind as I was meditating on something John McWhorter writes in What Language Is. McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, says that one of the things language is is oral. Language is more what we say than what we write. "You do not speak in letters," McWhorter says. "You speak in sounds."

Writing is more a representation of language than language itself, he argues. After all, human languages existed for thousands of years before writing was invented, and most languages still lack a written form. Yet they are still very much languages.

Even so, those of us who are literate tend to believe that writing, especially what we find in great literature, is the real deal, while our common, everyday speech is, in most cases, just a failed attempt to live up to the standard.

In Indonesia, McWhorter writes, this is taken to an extreme. Standard Indonesian used in writing is considered the nation's official language. Yet almost nobody, including intellectuals, actually speaks it. They speak a colloquial Indonesian that is among the easiest languages in the world to learn. In Indonesia, the language most residents speak is not even considered a language at all. It's just the way people talk.

We have not gone nearly that far in the English-speaking world, yet there are wide differences between how most of us talk and how we write. Our writing is usually more formal, more grammatically correct, less loaded with slang and profanity. When writing, we usually finish our sentences. Yet, to Professor McWhorter, real English is less what we write than what we say. Speech is how most of us communicate most of the time.

I find this a sobering idea. Could it possibly be true that in my efforts to clean up my sources' quotes, to put them into proper English, I was actually taking them out of "real English" and translating them into something else?

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