Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Managing Conflict (or You say To-ma-to, I say To-mah-to)

People love to fight about language. I don't know how many times I've heard people say things like this:
  • "That's not how MY grandfather said it."
  • "She might say that, but she went to boarding school and so hasn't heard it as much."
  • "He says that, but he's only 70."
  • "If we did it your way, we'd still be using kerosene lamps."
When communities start to document a language, they soon discover differences that they never noticed before: differences in pronunciation, in the particular words used for everyday items, or even in the endings that words take. These differences suddenly become apparent when people start writing a language for the first time. I've seen heated arguments erupt over lessons about what terms for colors to teach!

If these tensions are not dealt with directly and openly, they can quickly spiral out of control. People may refuse to write the language. They may go years without agreeing on the most basic teaching materials. People may divide into different groups. Or one person may decide to take over and force everyone to write and teach the language his or her way.

How can communities anticipate these conflicts and acknowledge differences without letting them divide them? Every community starting a language project should have a workshop at the beginning in which these sorts of conflicts are discussed. Here are the basic points that really have to be covered:

1. People speak differently (they ALWAYS have!). Every speech community has differences between individuals, differences between families, differences between old people and young people, and differences based on where the person grew up. These differences are INTERESTING and should be documented. In a word list, you can acknowledge these differences simply by putting someone's initials after a word.

2. When a language stops changing, it's dead. These sorts of disputes come up all the time in indigenous communities: Should we allow a drum to be played with that dance, even though they never used to do that? Should we give everyone Pendleton blankets, even though they aren't "traditional"? Each community needs to discuss these issues openly.

3. You don't have to standardize a language to write it down or teach it. People often assume when you start writing a language down and making a dictionary that you're deciding on what the "correct" form of the language is. Whoever is leading the workshop should show people that English speakers say things differently, too, and that there are ways to acknowledge those differences with notes about usage or labels like "OLDER FORM", etc. When someone is teaching a language, it's probably simplest to have the teacher teach it her way. She can point out differences, though, and she can encourage kids to ask their parents how they say it.

A language committee should be a warm, welcoming place where people are encouraged to share their own way of speaking. It is vitally important that whoever is leading the discussion create such a space by setting a respectful tone, by anticipating disagreements, and by dealing directly with differences as they emerge.

5 comments:

  1. This is excellent practical advice!

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  2. This is great, Jack, and I really like your suggestion that these topics be addressed in a workshop in the beginning of the project. This almost seems like cross-cultural awareness training...within a single speech community! In what way can the "laissez-faire" approach to orthography development be encouraged without it being to the detriment of standardization?

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