I’ve noticed that people who are aware of language and care deeply about the way it’s used have archetypes that serve as models for all speakers and writers of a given language. I think it’s natural for people to view a familiar or idealised form of a language as a mental default; however, acting as though one’s own linguistic archetype is actually universal can lead to thoughtless or downright racist, disablist, classist or xenophobic conclusions.
For example, the archetypical form of English for me is standard British English. This is less a case of American cultural cringe as much as it is a reflection of my own life experiences. Between the ages of 4 and 7, I lived in the UK, and consequently never really developed the sense that the American dialect was the default mode for speaking and writing English. Generally speaking, my personal language archetypes are associated with the country or countries in which a language originated. The exception is Portuguese. I live in an area with a high concentration of Brazilian immigrants, so I tend to think of a Brazilian accent as the default Portuguese-speaking accent. I don’t know enough about the differences between Brazilian and Portuguese spelling for me to have a sense of what’s archetypical and what isn’t.
I feel similarly about language families, too. When I think of an archetypical Germanic language, I think of Standard High German. I think this is in part because I lived in Germany as a teenager; if I based these archetypes on the historical changes that the Germanic languages underwent, I would be more likely to treat Dutch or the other Low German languages as archetypical. High German underwent some sound changes (the ‘High German consonant shift’) that didn’t affect other Germanic languages like English, Dutch and Swedish. For example, ‘time’ is Zeit in German, but tijd in Dutch and tid in Swedish; in the High German consonant shift, /t/ became /ts/ in some words. Something similar happened with English/Dutch water and German Wasser. Italian and Spanish are my archetypical Romance languages, though that connection makes more sense linguistically than my viewing High German as the archetypical Germanic language.
People’s archetypical languages are shaped by their cultural experiences, relationships and education. People create categories by nature. The archetypes in and of themselves aren’t a problem. Actually, I think that admitting the existence of an archetype can actually help people recognise their own biases. If, say, an American views their accent, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation standards as the default and recognises that they are influenced by their education and upbringing, they’re more likely to be sensitive to other English-speakers with different backgrounds.
People treat their own languages in general, regardless of dialect, as archetypical languages. This can lead to mistakes when learning languages or creating new ones, as the syntax, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of natural languages can vary wildly. If a Chinese-speaker creates a constructed language and isn’t aware of how Chinese differs from the thousands of other languages people speak on this planet, then their conlang is likely to just be Chinese with the serial number filed off. Through their ignorance, their brain has encoded Chinese as the way language works, rather than simply being the way Chinese works. There are countless languages that refer to their speakers as ‘The People’, or their language as ‘The Language’ or ‘The People’s Language’. German is one of them; the word Deutsch comes from an Indo-European root meaning ‘the people’, related to túath in Irish. The Diné, or Navajo, do the same, though their language is completely unrelated to German.
Things get dangerous, though, when personal archetypes become Platonic ideals of what languages should be, especially when those personal archetypes become models that are shared by a culture at large. The Académie Française falls into this trap. Strict prescriptivists have an idea of correct standards existing outside the confines of time and space; if people deviate from those standards, they are allowing a language to degenerate. This, of course, is patent nonsense; all languages change over time. People who believe that there is a single true way to use a particular language, or language generally, are likely to discriminate against people for not speaking ‘properly’. This has very real consequences: linguistic and cultural minorities, like the Ainu in Japan or indigenous peoples in the Americas, have experienced oppression and violence because the dominant culture devalues their languages. Speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are often wrongly stereotyped as being less intelligent or articulate because of racial and linguistic prejudice, even though AAVE is consistently different from standardised American speech. It’s not just a ‘corrupt’ version of standard English; it’s a distinct dialect that combines traits of working-class British dialects, West African languages and southern American features. Speakers of signed languages, non-speaking people who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and other disabled people encounter ostracism because they’re somehow not using language properly because they need to use different methods to communicate.
I disagree with the notion that language is neutral and should be treated as such, but there’s a difference between recognising that language is non-neutral and acting as though some languages or language variants are better than others. Yes, I have language archetypes in my head, but that doesn’t mean that I think that non-archetypal forms are wrong. I don’t think that there’s an external language validator who hands down rules, and am vehemently against the idea that there is a One True Way to speak.
- I’m currently reading George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, which deals specifically with how people classify concepts within languages. He’s also talked about categorisation in some of his political books like The Political Mind and Don’t Think of an Elephant.
- Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander discuss analogical thinking and categorisation extensively in Surfaces and Essences, which I finished several months ago.
- Mark Rosenfelder warns conlang creators not to fall into the trap of treating their own languages as defaults in The Language Construction Kit.